What Good News is there in the Burial of Christ? (The Hidden Victory of Holy Saturday)

eastertombofjesusclosedHoly Saturday and Christ’s time in the grave doesn’t have many texts in the New Testament. In fact, the accounts mostly just skip from the crucifixion, the accounts of his burial on Good Friday, through to eyewitness accounts of the Easter Sunday appearances. And yet, the truth of Holy Saturday–the burial of Jesus–is given to us as of particular, gospel significance for us in a couple of place (Romans 6:1-4; 1 Corinthians 15:4). Following these texts, it is even enshrined in the Apostles’ Creed, “He was dead and buried.” What is the significance of his time as a dead man, buried in the ground? What does it mean for us that the Son of God lay in a cold tomb that Saturday, before bursting free from its chains the next morning?

In the Institutes (II.xvi.7), Calvin comments that there is a twofold blessing given to us in Christ’s death and burial: “liberation from the death to which we had been bound, and mortification of our flesh.” In other words, Christ’s tomb is the birthplace of our victory and holiness. Calvin elaborates on the first benefit in this way:

Here again is to be seen how he in every respect took our place to pay the price of our redemption. Death held us captive under its yoke; Christ, in our stead, gave himself over to its power to deliver us from it. So the apostle understands it when he writes: “He tasted death for everyone” [Hebrews 2:9 p.]. By dying, he ensured that we would not die, of — which is the same thing — redeemed us to life by his own death. He differed from us, however, in this respect: he let himself be swallowed up  by death, as it were, not to be engulfed in its abyss, but rather to engulf it [cf. 1 Peter 3:22, Vg.] that must soon have engulfed us; he let himself be subjected to it, not to be overwhelmed by its power, but rather to lay it low, when it was threatening us and exulting, over our fallen state. Finally, his purpose was “that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” [Hebrews 2:14-15]. This is the first fruit that his death brought to us.

For Calvin, Christ destroyed the power of death, by dying and disarming it from the inside. Echoing the Fathers, he speaks of Christ engulfing the death that would have engulfed him. In this way, he not only conquers death, but the author of death, Satan. By assuming responsibility for our sin and suffering the curse on our behalf, he exhausts its power over us, liberating us from the claims of death.  Though he committed his spirit to the Father and was with him in paradise that day (Luke 23:43-46), looking at the stone rolled in front of the tomb on Holy Saturday, we see that Christ truly tasted death on our behalf. (By the way, for those of you paying attention, this is Calvin doing the Christus Victor element of atonement, right alongside penal substitution.)

But there is a second benefit for us in Christ’s death and burial:

The second effect of Christ’s death upon us is this: by our participation in it, his death mortifies our earthly members so that they may no longer perform their functions; and it kills the old man in us that he may not flourish and bear fruit. Christ’s burial has the same effect: we ourselves as partakers in it are buried with him to sin. The apostle teaches that “we have been united with Christ in the likeness of his death” [Romans 6:5], and “buried with him …into the death” of sin [Romans 6:4]; that “by his cross the world has been crucified to us, and we to the world” [Galatians 2:19; 6:14 p.]; that we have died together with him [Colossians 3:3]. By these statements Paul not only exhorts us to exhibit an example of Christ’s death but declares that there inheres in it an efficacy which ought to be manifest in all Christians, unless they intend to render his death useless and unfruitful.

Christ’s death and burial is not just something that happens outside of us. I affirm a form of penal substitution such that Christ really does something for us, on our behalf, in our place, that we cannot do for ourselves. All the same, while Christ’s death means we no longer have to die in such a way that we are separated from God, it does not mean there is no death for us. In fact, for those of us who place our faith in him, it means that Christ’s death was our death–the death of our old, sinful nature. All that I’ve been, all that I was, my sins, my failures, my shame, my guilts, my God-denying habits and lifestyle, my lusts, my pride, my insecurities and sin-inducing fears, all have been put to death in the death of Christ and buried along with him in that tomb.

Following Paul, Calvin says we need to know that when we stare at the stone closed over the door of the tomb on Holy Saturday, Christ is forging the foundation of our present and future holiness. Because Christ was dead and buried, I no longer have to live in the clutches of my old life. The World and all of its claims to authority over my life, as well as the inner drives that I feel powerfully threatening to rule over me, have been killed, shoved into the grave and left there. In fact, by union with Christ, his death is not only just an example, but there is a power, an “efficacy”, in it that floods into our lives, purging us of sin and bringing a new life of holiness to be displayed before all. What marvelous good news!

Of course, the reality is that on that first Holy Saturday, nobody saw that. Most of Christ’s disciples were in hiding or observing the Sabbath. The only people around were the guards, who were probably sitting there bored, wondering why they had to guard some fool peasant’s tomb. And that is the way of it much of the time in our own lives, isn’t it? Though we live post-Resurrection, with the Gospel publicly proclaimed before the world, it still can feel quite hidden. Christ has conquered death, but we still see people dying. Christ has put the old man to death, but it feels like he’s still ruling.

Holy Saturday is the reminder that despite all appearances to the contrary, Christ has liberated us from the clutches of sin and death.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Should We Hope to Die at 75?

Should we hope to die at 75?  That’s the premise of a long and provocative article at The Atlantic.  As Ezekiel Emanuel, its author, writes:

Seventy-five years is all I want to live. I want to celebrate my life while I am still in my prime. My daughters and dear friends will continue to try to convince me that I am wrong and can live a valuable life much longer. And I retain the right to change my mind and offer a vigorous and reasoned defense of living as long as possible. That, after all, would mean still being creative after 75.

What should we make of this?  That’s what Matt, Alastair and I discuss on this week’s episode.  Give it a listen and let us know in the comments what you think.

Soli Deo Gloria


Two Instances of NT Judgment (Or, Apparently Luke Didn’t Get the Memo)

sapphira-leclercEverybody knows that God allegedly struck people down in wrath in the Old Testament. We find dozens of instances in the Torah of God dealing out judgment in the form of illness or death, both on foreign enemies (Pharaoh & the Egyptians) as well as his own people (Sons of Korah, the snakes, etc.) for their sins. The pattern continues on through the historical prophets, as well as the the literary prophets. In text after text we see God prove that he both “kills, and makes alive” (Deut. 32:39; 1 Sam. 2:6), as he executes his righteous rule over the earth.

Of course, that’s the Old Testament. It’s now quite common to assert something along the lines of “Well, though the OT was really inspired (to a point), the fact of the matter is the OT authors were confused on some realities when it comes to God. How do we know this? Well, Jesus. I mean, Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, who does whatever he sees the Father doing, right? So Jesus never killed anybody nor did he teach anybody to kill anybody. Therefore, we know that God’s not the kind of God who would kill anybody or ever command anybody to be killed like we see in a number of OT narratives and legal passages. Now that Jesus came, we can overlay Jesus’ picture on the OT and see clearly which parts get God right and which don’t.” Or something like that.

This is the sort of thing Andrew Wilson has dubbed the Jesus Tea Strainer hermeneutic. I’ve dealt at length  with this sort of logic before in a few places myself, dealing with the problematic theology of revelation, hyper-pacifism, and it’s contradiction of Jesus’ own views of the Old Testament. Once here with respect to some unfortunate things Brian Zahnd said, and a second time with respect to Steve Chalke and Sabbath Sticks. Still, it’s worth pursuing the line of thought from another angle.

You see, it appears to me that if this logic were true, then the New Testament writers who had seen Jesus wouldn’t have gotten God wrong, right? I mean, they’d seen him face to face and received the New Covenant blessing of the Holy Spirit in union with Christ who would reveal all things to them, right? And anybody being discipled by them in subsequent years who also wrote inspired Scriptures should have that gift as well, right? So then, if any biblical writers might be expected to get the totally non-violent nature of God right, it would be the New Testament writers.

Except for it seems that they didn’t get the memo. At least Luke didn’t. Observe:

But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last.

And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. (Acts 5:1-11)

In this dark and disturbing story we see the judge of all the earth disciplining his church. Ananias and Sapphira greedily and foolishly conspired to lie to the church about their giving and in doing so lied to God himself, bringing down his judgment. Now, of course, it’s possible for you to try and speculate as to whether both Ananias and his wife both just so happened to have cardiac failures on the same day, in the same situation, (shared eating habits & whatnot), or you can accept it in line with the revelation of the OT as the hand of God.

Still, if that’s not convincing enough, jump ahead a few chapters to Acts 12:

Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.  (Acts 12:20-23)

Just as in the Old Testament, the Lord strikes down a tyrant who has been oppressing his people for his pride and arrogance. If in the last story Luke left the author of judgment anonymous, here he explicitly names him: “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down…” Now again, if you want to go about speculating as to whether this was a rogue angel, prone to disobey God, who nonetheless goes about defending his name…well, that’s your prerogative. It seems clear enough from the context, though, that this is to be taken as a divinely authorized judgment–angels are “messengers” bringing God’s righteous message here.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that in both cases Jesus’ followers are not the ones executing judgment. A pacifist reading of these texts is totally possible; I don’t mean to settle that issue here. What I will say is that unless you want to go around calling into question the New Testament’s revelation of the character of God as well, then you have to have an amazing level of confidence in your ability to distinguish the really inspired bits from the not-so-inspired bits–one that I’ll admit I simply don’t share. This is especially the case when I consider that the inspired author of Acts is also the inspired author of one of those Gospels I’m relying on to get my picture of the non-violent Jesus who points us to a God who never violently judges people.

Now, this may not be enough to convince you, but I do hope it at least slows you down from the overhasty judgments about Jesus & the OT we’ve been seeing lately. Buying into these claims means biting off, chewing up, (and eventually spitting out) a bit more than you might have anticipated.

Soli Deo Gloria