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4 DAYS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD: Divine Descent   1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:6

We are in a series that we’ve entitled “4 Days that Changed the World.”  That’s not some sort of spiritual hyperbole, this is the most talked about week, most written about week, most debated week, in the history of the cosmos.  On Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered into the streets of Jerusalem, you start a clock ticking from there. One week.  It’s about .06% of Jesus’s life and it’s roughly 33% of the gospel narratives.   Do you think they thought this was important?  Just a little bit.

Two weeks ago we talked about what happened on Thursday.  On Thursday, Jesus reimagined for us and taught us what love really looks like.  He shed his outer garment and got down on his hands and knees and he washed his disciples’ feet.  It’s this picture of what you do when you have power.  You don’t use it to oppress people and keep people down.  You actually leverage your power to lift others up.  Last week, we saw that on the cross, on Friday, Jesus offers us forgiveness.  He takes on our forsakenness and that he says it’s finished. . . .you’re reunited with the King of kings and the Lord of lords, God Almighty.  If you weren’t here last week, I’d encourage you to hop online and watch that video, if you can.

Today. . . . .Saturday.  What happened on that in between day?  That day, in between when Jesus gives his life on the cross for atonement for sin, and that day on Sunday, which we’ll celebrate next week—spoiler alert: He walks out of the grave.  But is Saturday just some sort of weird intermission?  Is this the halftime show where Bruno Mars, or Justin Timberlake, or Janet or Michael Jackson, pop out and do a little ditty?  What actually happens on Saturday?  Luckily for you, this has been debated for roughly 2000 years, but I’m going to solve all of our problems this morning.

We went to Mexico (last week) and there was one day when it was really, really windy.  We were walking on the beach and getting buffeted by the wind.  But when you dive into the water, what happens?  It just goes silent, right?  The waves that are rolling up top, and the wind that’s blowing. . . . .you go underneath and it’s just silent.  I think the best way to picture what happened on Saturday is to flip that image.  On earth, it’s silent.  Jesus has died.  His life is over.  He’s been carried to a borrowed tomb.  His followers mourn and assume that this following of Jesus, discipleship, this way of life is over.  But underneath, something else is going on.  The waves are rolling, the wind is blowing, and I propose to you that there’s a battle that’s waging.

What happened on Saturday?  Where was Jesus on Saturday?  {Admittedly, this is going to be a little bit more teaching than preaching this morning.}  Let me answer first where he wasn’t.  He was NOT in heaven.  In John 20:17, Jesus says to Mary:  Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.  My ascension hasn’t happened yet.  Where wasn’t Jesus?  Jesus was not in heaven.  Where wasn’t Jesus?  Jesus was not in hell.  Because no one’s in hell yet. . . . .even today, no one’s in hell yet.  Revelation 20:14, towards the end of the story — Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.  The lake of fire is the second death.   This is where we start to learn more about what happens when people go to hell, but it hasn’t happened yet.

So where was Jesus?  Open your Bible to Luke 16:19-24.  We typically think in terms, when we talk about the afterlife, of heaven and hell.  I’d like to propose to you that that’s an incomplete way of thinking about what happens when people die.  I’d like to propose to you that it wasn’t the way that Jesus talked about what happened when people die.  {Admittedly, this is going to mess with us a little bit, but would you just go on Mr. Paulson’s Wild Ride for this morning, then step back and see if it’s right and if it’s what the Bible says.}  So, we typically think ‘heaven’ and ‘hell.’  Luke 16:19-24.  Jesus is going to tell a story and the story’s going to illustrate what happens when people die.  There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.  At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.  Even the dogs came and licked his sores.  The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side.  {Some Bibles say Abraham’s bosom.  Side note: It’s not heaven.  How do we know that?  If it were, Jesus would have said that.}  The rich man also died and was buried.  In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.  So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”   

Let’s just stop right there.  Here’s the picture that Jesus paints.  There are two people and they both die.  One of them goes to Abraham’s side.  The other goes to Hades.  Unfortunately, some translations will translate ‘Hades’ as Hell.  It’s a bad translation, in my opinion.  They should have just left it, because Hades is different than hell. He goes to Hades.  And what do they do?  They’re able to communicate back and forth.  So, there’s something else going on than just heaven and hell.  There’s actually this other place, this third place, that we would call ‘Sheol’ or ‘Hades.’  The Scriptures use this term a number of times.  Sheol is the Hebrew word for the Greek word Hades.  It’s the “underworld.”  It’s the place of the dead.  In Hades, or Sheol, it appears (specifically from Luke 16) that there’s two sections or compartments within the same general place.  One section is for the righteous.  This is where Lazarus is.  There’s other terminology that Scriptures use to describe this place.  It’s Sheol, where the righteous go, or Abraham’s bosom, or paradise.  {File that away, keep that in mind, that’s real important.}  Or, where the unrighteous go.  This is where the rich man was.  But they’re both in Hades.  This was a very generic term for the place of the dead that they used all throughout the Old Testament to talk about where people go when they die.

So, where was Jesus on Saturday?  He was not in hell and he was not in heaven.  He was actually, I think, in Hades.  But is that what the Bible says?  Listen to the words of Jesus.  He’s telling this parable to people who want a sign from him.  We want to know that you’re God, we want a sign.  He goes, listen, no sign is going to be given to you except that of the sign of the prophet Jonah.  (This is Matthew 12:39-40).  For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.   That doesn’t help us a whole lot just yet.  What does he mean by that?  Well, Peter, in the sermon that he gives after Pentecost, is going to unpack this idea a little bit more.  Flip over to Acts 2:31, this is in a much longer section, where Peter is actually referencing Psalm 16 — Seeing what was to come, he {He here is David writing in Psalm 16.} spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned  {He does not say he didn’t GO, he just says he didn’t STAY there.} to the realm of the dead.   {If you were to go to Psalm 16:10 and look at it, what does it say?  For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol.   In the Greek, in the New Testament, he was not abandoned to. . . . .Hades.  He was there, he just didn’t stay there.}  nor did his body see decay.  I see Acts 2:25-31 is probably the clearest picture of what we see happening on Saturday.

But to muddy the waters a little bit, you can throw in 1 Peter 3:18-20, some of the most debated and talked about passages in all of Scripture.  For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.  {Raise your hand if you think that’s good news?  He BRINGS you to God.  Reference to last week, he doesn’t bring God to you, he brings YOU to God.  Because the offense is in us, not in God.}  He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.  After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits.   WHAT?!?!  Flip over to 1 Peter 4:6 —  For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.  

Now, we’d have to go on a completely other tangent in order to say what exactly happened here and I would need a lot more time to study.  So, here’s what we’re going to say about it this morning.  I think what these passages suggest is that on Saturday not only does Jesus descend into Hades (as it said in Psalm 16 and Acts 2) but that he went there with an explicit purpose:  to proclaim or announce good news.  In the Greek it’s kerygma.  It’s a proclamation of that which is true.  Not necessarily to elicit any sort of response, but just to declare it.

The question you might be asking is why didn’t he go to heaven?  Why didn’t he go to hell?  Or you might be asking, when in the world did people start going to heaven?  If before we had these two different compartments of Sheol or Hades, one for the righteous, one for the unrighteous, when did people start going to heaven? Jesus will say in John 3:13 — No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—-the Son of Man.   When did people start going to heaven?  Ephesians 4:8 would say it like this, quoting from Psalm 68.  Paul writing to the church of Ephesus says:  This is why it says:  When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.   When Jesus ascends, what does he do?  I think what the Scriptures are teaching is that when he ascends to heaven. . . . .after he’s resurrected and lives on earth and ascends to heaven, I think Ephesians 4:8-9 says that, at that point in time, the righteous portion of Sheol or Hades or Abraham’s bosom or paradise is reunited with heaven.  It’s why the picture of heaven in Isaiah 6 doesn’t include people, but in Revelation 4, 5, and 6 it does.  Because it’s post-ascension.  Paul could right to the church at Corinth that when we’re absent from the body we’re present with the Lord. (2 Cor. 5:8)  He wouldn’t have said that before the ascension.  He would have said that we were in paradise, or we’re in Abraham’s bosom, or we’re in the righteous part of Sheol.

What’s the current reality?   {This is a little bit side note, little bit tangental, but I think it’s important.}  What’s the current reality?  If it’s not heaven and hell, what is the current reality of people who have died?  Well, there’s two options:  heaven and Hades.  Both of these places are temporary.  They’re both temporary.  They will not last forever.  In this sense.  They’re both awaiting resurrection.  Those in heaven, the righteous, those who have followed Jesus, who have surrendered to his love, who are disciples walking with him, longing for him, they will  be resurrected to new heaven and new earth.  Spoiler alert — Jesus walks out of the grave.   Another spoiler alert — You will one day too.  That’s the hope of every early follower of Christ.  It’s not heaven.  Heaven wasn’t their hope, resurrection was their hope.  And, people in Hades are also waiting for resurrection, but not to new heaven and new earth, but to hell, or a second death (is what the Scriptures would technically call this), or separation from God.

When Jesus says to the thief on the cross, today you will be with me in paradise, (Luke 23:43) it’s entirely possible, isn’t it?  Not, today you will be with me in heaven, because Jesus didn’t go there yet.  He said that in John 20.  But today you will be with me in paradise. . . . .you will be with me in the section of Hades that’s for the righteous, Abraham’s bosom, paradise.  And even there, I will be able to preach, to proclaim, to enter into the darkest regions of, what some would call, the netherworld.  If you don’t do that with that verse, what do you do with it?  Does that make sense?

So, we looked at what Scriptures said, what does history say?   Followers of Christ, how did they wrestle with this throughout the 2000 years that we’ve been around as a people?  It was unanimously undisputed amongst the early church that Christ descended.  It wasn’t in the earliest creed that he “descended into hell.”  They did not say that in 180 or 200 when they originally wrote the creed.  That popped in around 320, when somebody was looking at the Latin and looked at the word for death and looked at the word for hell, and they were so similar that they chose hell instead of death.  That happened in AD 390, wasn’t solidified until AD 650 that the creed said “he descended into hell.”  The earlier creed said he “descended to the dead.”  I think that’s, technically, more accurate.  If you look at the Westminster Catechism, question 50 says this:  “Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death until the third day; what hath been otherwise expressed in these words, ‘He descended into hell.'”  But they’re talking about the dead.  They’re talking about Hades.  They’re talking about Sheol.

If you look through the ages, there’s some fascinating, artistic renditions of this event.  As you can imagine, it needs some picture, needs some illusion, in order to talk adequately about it.  This is the most famous piece.  It’s called the “Anastasis Icon.”  Anastasis, in Greek, means ‘resurrection,’ but really, this is the descent into the dead.  What you see here is Jesus reaching for Adam and Eve to bring them out of Sheol and is going to take them into heaven.  Underneath him, you see death or Satan depicted and defeated with a chain around his neck and around his hands.  You see all sorts of keys and locks floating around in this netherworld.  Keep that in mind, that will be important at the end.  But it’s a really interesting picture of what they thought happened on Holy Saturday.

Nearly all of the reformers would say, yeah, Christ descended.  We don’t want to say what happened when he did, but they would have agreed that he did descend.  John Calvin said it maybe most succinctly:  “If Holy Saturday is left out, much of the benefit of Christ’s death will be lost.”

The question is WHY?  Okay, so maybe you agree Christ descended to the dead, to Hades, to Sheol.  But why does it matter for our lives?  Who cares?  I think you should care and I should care, because here’s the reality, friends:  Jesus’s descent to the dead gives you and I and humanity confidence for life.  His descent to the dead is intended to stir up a confidence in us.  WHY?  Whether you picture it as hell or whether you picture it as Hades. . . .I think Hades is probably more accurate, but we have more pictures in our mind that go along with hell, thanks to the Catholic church trying to raise money in order to fund their basilicas, okay?  So we have all this imagery that goes along with hell, but when we think about Hades, we don’t have a whole lot of imagery that goes along.  We could look at the rich man in the Lazarus and rich man story and know that the unrighteous place in Hades is not exactly a place that we’d want to go to.  Agreed?

So what does Jesus do when he enters into THAT place?  Well, he says to you and to me, “Your life is dark.”  If you’ve walked through pain, if you’ve seen suffering, if you’ve felt abandonment, if you’ve been abused. . . . .the darkest things you’ve seen. . . .he looks you in the eye and he says, “I’ve been there.”  I don’t know about you, but I get the chance to talk to a lot of people and most of the people who wrestle with belief in God have this question that underlines every other question.  WHERE IS GOD WHEN….?   Where is God in suffering?  Where was God during the holocaust?  Where was God when absolute atrocities took place?  It seems like he’s just silent.  What the doctrine of the descent into the dead says to you and to me is listen, we don’t have all of the answers to the questions of why? but we do know this, that Christianity’s answer to that question is God enters into that with us.  He is not distant from it.  He’s not ambivalent to it.  When he descends to the dead, to hell, to Hades—however you want to look at it—he looks death in the eye and he speaks gospel truth over it.  He looks evil in the eye and he speaks the Word of God into it.  The reality is that our world feels and seems broken, and it is! If you haven’t wrestled with that, you aren’t watching the news or paying attention to anything going around us.  It’s unhelpful when followers of Jesus offer glib, distant answers to deep and destructive issues going on in our world.  Here’s the thing:  You don’t need to answer that way.  Your answer can be:  I don’t know why it happens, but I know my God is in it.

Ellie Wiesel, the great author and survivor of the holocaust, wrote in one of his books.  He said he was walking passed the area where the Nazi guards used to hang prisoners from the gallows.  They would typically choose two men.  And then, in order to flex their muscles and to prove they were powerful, they would also choose one child.  They would march them pass.  He said one time as he walked passed, he looked and the two grown men were hanging and they were dead.  But the child’s rope was still swinging and he was gasping for air.  He was too light to hang himself.  He recounts that he heard a voice behind him whisper, “Where is God?”  Here’s what he says:  “From within I heard a voice answer: ‘Where is He?  He’s hanging there from the gallows with him.'”  He’s entered in.  He’s descended to the darkest, most horrific, most evil, the thing in your head you wish you could take back and never have to experience again, Jesus is in it with you and weeps alongside of you.

In 1994, there was a genocide in Rwanda.  The cover of Time Magazine was a quote from a missionary that said, “There are no devils left in hell.  They’re all in Rwanda.”  Where was God in Rwanda?  Where’s God today?  The UN just announced last week that the situation in Syria today is “hell on earth.”  Where’s God?  He enters in.  He enters into the pain, he doesn’t distance himself from it.  He enters into it.  God does not offer Christians a rational, logical ordered explanation as to why everything in our world happens, he says, “I’m entering into the pain and the brokenness WITH you.”

I love the way that Fleming Rutledge put it when she said this: “In all of religion, only the story of the Crucified God can stand up to the challenge of the long history of human wickedness.  Jesus is the loving savior who redemptively enters into our suffering.”  So we don’t need to try to explain away evils.  We don’t need to try to come up with a “reason” for it.  Have you ever heard somebody do that?  Here’s the reason that this INSANE, EVIL thing happened. . . .and behind it they’re going, “God must have wanted it to happen.”  GARBAGE!!!  We don’t have to answer like that.  We can say no, no, no, no, our God enters into the suffering with us, and from the inside out, he redeems it, he renews it, he restores it, because he’s making all things new.

What do we learn from the descent?  Who cares?  Well, we should.  Because it says to us that Jesus has solidarity in human suffering.  He goes to the deepest, darkest places.  The Bible’s answer to evil and suffering isn’t always alleviation of it, it’s God’s presence in it.  Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me. (Psalm 23:4)  But we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death, yes? There’s no “Keep Out” signs that keep God out.  Nothing that’s too dark, nothing that’s too painful that He doesn’t enter into.

So, we may not be able to answer the question: Why do all these evil things happen?  But, {Look up at me for just a moment.} we CAN answer definitively why we know that one of the reasons they happen is NOT.  We know it’s NOT because God doesn’t love us.  We know that!  Why?  Because He took the nails on Calvary and he descended to the dead on our behalf.  So nothing can separate us from the love of God.  “What shall separate us?” Paul says.  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? (Rom. 8:35) He’s like, I could go on but I’m running out of paper.  His point is. . . . .NOTHING!   For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38-39)   NOTHING!  We can know that because he descends even to the dead.

Which begs the question: Who does God have solidarity with today?  You look around the world. . . . .certainly, with those who are suffering.  Certainly with those in Syria, who the UN says this is hell on earth.  Certainly with the 8.4 million people in Yemen who are on the verge of starvation.  Certainly with the 13 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who the UN says that this is a situation we need to step into.  God’s not distant from that, friends, he steps right into it.

Secondly, what does Jesus do when he enters into the dead?  Here’s what we need to understand real quick.  Our understanding of the world, our cosmology, if you will, is typically pretty flat.  We think, “What you see is what you get.”  We have a very Western, materialistic view of the world.  The Scriptures DO NOT paint that picture of the world that we live in.  This is a spiritual world that we live in.  There is Good and there is Bad.  Yes?  There’s good and there’s evil, and we live in a time and a place where those two ideas are eroding beneath our feet, but we all intrinsically know it.  Some things are good and some things are bad.  Some things allow for human flourishing and some things allow for the flourishing for a few at the expense of many.  What the Scriptures teach is not only that there’s good and that there’s bad, but there are Powers behind the goodness and the badness of the world that we live in.  We would call these cosmic Powers — Cosmic Powers of Evil.  Cosmic Powers of Sin.  Cosmic Powers of Death.  So what does Jesus do when he enters into the dead?  He’s not only conquering the event of death, but he is going to conquer the power of death.  So in Hebrews 2:14-15, here’s what it says:  Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—-that is, the devil.  What does Jesus do when he descends to the dead?  According to 1 John 3:8 — The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.  In Colossians 2:15, after forgiving us, it says:  Having disarmed the powers and authorities, {These are the cosmic Powers of Sin, and Death, and all of his friends.} he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.   

What’s going on in the descent to the dead?  NT Wright would say it like this: “The real enemy after all was not Rome, but the powers of evil that stood behind human arrogance and violence, powers of evil with which Israel’s leaders had fatally colluded.”  Cyril of Alexandria, in the 4th/5th century, would write: “If Christ had not died for us, we should not have been saved, and if He had not gone down among the dead, death’s cruel empire would never have been shattered.”  What does Jesus go down to the dead in order to do?  Punch. Death. In. The. Face.  The power of death and then walk out of the grave, one day later, crashing death’s party.  That’s what happens.  We’ll say it like this.  Not only does Jesus have solidarity in suffering, but that he has conquered cosmic evil.

When Jesus comes and declares that the kingdom of God is here, this is not a nicety.  He does not get high fives.  He puts the enemy on notice. . . .your time is limited.  Sin, death, evil, and all of its friends have been invaded.  The prince and power of this air is on blast from the kingdom of heaven, because He’s coming to redeem, restore, and renew his good, but broken, world that He deeply and dearly loves.  He comes preaching the kingdom of God. . . .{Look up at me a second.} This is a declaration of cosmic war!  That’s what’s going on.  Do you wonder why every super hero movie has the same plot line?  Essentially, it’s good against evil.  Who’s going to triumph?  Is good going to win out?  Why is it the story we tell?  It’s the story that the cosmos is telling. So when Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, he says, listen, your battle is NOT against flesh and blood. You know what?  That’s not who our battle’s against and that’s not who God’s battle was against either.  But against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Eph. 6:12)   It’s THOSE that He conquers.

If you’re like me, you’re going, well, if in your descent to the dead you punched death in the throat, well then, why do people still die, and why does evil still happen, and why does our world still look the way that it looks?  It’s the difference between being elected and being inaugurated.  There’s a time period in between.  The victory is sure.  He is on the throne.  He does reign.  Right now, there’s competition between the kingdom of evil and the kingdom of God.  One day there will be no more competition; the kingdom of God will win out!  It’s like watching a Bronco game that you DVR’d and you already know that they win.  You’re still sorta on the edge of your seat.  You know they win but you’re still watching the game.

How does this defeated enemy work?  Here’s a few ways.  He works in encouraging people to hold onto bitterness and not forgive.  This is the defeated enemy at work.  Forgive so you don’t give the devil a foothold, Paul would say. (Eph. 4:27)  How does he work?  He works through planting thoughts in your mind.  So Paul will write in 2 Corinthians 10:5 — ….take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.  How does he work?  He causes us to get off of the gospel, so Paul will write in Ephesians 6, stand firm.  Three times in the most prolific passage in the New Testament about spiritual warfare, Paul will say, “Just stand!”  Stand in the gospel.  The devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8-9)  You read that and go, oh my goodness, that’s nerve-racking.  Then you read the solution to it. . . .standing firm in the faith…  Wait!  That’s how we fight this battle?  Yes, that’s how we fight this battle!  The enemy is already defeated.  Just tell him!  It says he’s the accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:10), so we stand firmly planted in truth.  I just want to remind you today, that greater is He who is in you, than he who is in the world.  (1 John 4:4)  

In Revelation 1:17-18, John records this about Jesus.  This is just awesome and let this inform all that we’ve talked about up until this point and send us forward.  When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.  Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid.  {Maybe you need to hear him say that to you today.  Do not be afraid.  Listen to why we don’t have to be afraid.}  I am the First and the Last.  I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever!  And I hold the keys of death and Hades.  If Jesus holds the keys, let him take the wheel.  The truth of the matter, friends:  “Though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.  The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.” (Martin Luther,  A Mighty Fortress)   On the cross, Jesus forgave our sins, in his descent he conquers death and enters into solidarity with human suffering, in his resurrection he purchases new life!  Don’t miss next week!

Let’s close with that great hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God.  {Ryan gives instruction for writing on the stained glass windows.}   Lord, thank you for being a God who descends to the darkness, to the pain, to the questions, to the doubts, and also being a God who ascends and who invites your creation to ascend along with you.  We love you.  It’s in your name that we pray.  Amen.