When we say the Apostles’ Creed, we say these words:
I believe in Jesus Christ,
God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was … crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living
and the dead.
‘He descended to the dead … he ascended into heaven.’
Please, do not ever get used to that! Don’t take it for granted, not for even one moment.
‘Jesus descended to the dead … Jesus ascended into heaven.’ Jesus went to the lowest depths, through a terrible death to the grave. And Jesus is now at the right hand of God. Jesus is Lord! I repeat: don’t take that for granted.
Jesus descended to the dead.
Jesus died, really died, on the cross. In his death, he identified himself with sinners—and with the victims of sin. He identified with those who suffer for their own sins, and with those who suffer because of the sins of others.
He did that so that when we suffer, he shows us that he is with us. Jesus is one with all people who suffer.
It doesn’t really matter what our suffering is. It may be the suffering of a failed marriage, of poverty, of unemployment.
It may be the suffering of grief, mental illness, disability or loneliness.
It may be the suffering of people locked away indefinitely in detention centres through the policies of successive Australian governments.
Christ suffered for us, and Christ suffers with us here and now. In the hells we endure here, he is with us. He has descended to the dead, to those who are dead in their own sins and those who are dead inside through the sins of others.
Jesus descended to the dead so that the dead may have hope. So that we may find the way, all the way back to the Father.
The Apostle Paul needed that hope. Remember that he was writing from jail, his life in the balance. Paul prays for his readers that ‘the eyes of your heart [may be] enlightened, [that] you may know what is the hope to which he has called you …’ I’m sure that Paul was also speaking for himself. Sitting in a cell, presumably less that five star accommodation, dirty, perhaps with rats for pals, I think Paul would have earnestly desired that the eyes of his heart would be opened up to something much greater. And they were!
Let’s just remind ourselves of what Paul wrote from that dank cell:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you …
Now, here it comes—
what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.
Paul is aware of God’s great power there in his cell, possibly facing death. He is aware that Christ is with him, suffering with him, but he is aware of more than that: Christ not only descended to the dead, but he ascended into heaven! Paul goes on:
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.
Christ who descended to the lowest place has ascended to the highest place. This is how he fills heaven and earth, this shows he is the Alpha and the Omega, this is the way he bridges earth and heaven, this is the fulfilment of his prayer:
Your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as in heaven.
Where Jesus Christ is, God’s will is being done on earth as in heaven.
The New Testament takes it as read that Jesus is exalted to God’s right hand, the place of all authority. There are two further things we need to be clear about: Christ who is at God’s side is the Crucified-Risen Lord. And he remains human.
Jesus Christ is the Crucified-Risen Lord. The theologian Craig Keen puts it this way: Jesus ‘has not gotten over being crucified’. He hasn’t put it all behind him. The Book of Revelation sneaks us a glimpse of John the seer’s vision of the heavenly places. John says,
Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’
John looks to see the victorious one, the conqueror of death, the Saviour of the world. But John doesn’t see a mighty Lion. So what does he see?
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, …
The victorious Lion is ‘a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered’. I’ll bet that took John by surprise! Jesus is not ‘over’ crucifixion. He reigns now as the crucified-risen Lord, the Lamb who looks like it has been slaughtered.
We’ve talked about Paul in prison, but John the seer was exiled away from all he knew and loved on the island of Patmos. He also didn’t know what the future held for him personally. But he was shown that Jesus Christ reigns today, despite what the world may look like.
We are in our own kinds of prison, whether it’s of our own making or imposed upon us. We may have childhood traumas that mark us today, we may grieve someone we have lost, we may fear the future.
But we too are given a glimpse into the way things are. Christ reigns, though not everything is yet brought into line.
Christ reigns as the still-crucified-yet-risen Lord. He reigns as he suffers with us, that we may know true freedom through self-giving love. Christ suffers with us so we may learn to let go of the things and attitudes that cause us suffering. He doesn’t reign through force or fear.
Let me put it this way. Christ descended to the dead. No matter how low we are, he is with us. I certainly found that out when I suffered from depression. I learnt that no matter what I was feeling, Jesus was right there with me. I felt like I had nothing, but I was wrong. The Lord was with me, loving me into newness of life.
And more, Christ ascended into heaven. He will also raise us into the highest place with him. The hope Christ has placed in our hearts is
- that we shall share his life forever,
- and that the suffering we share now is preparing us to share life with him and with one another world without end.
Thanks be to God who has given us all things in Christ. Amen.