In the Apostles’ Creed we make this confession: He was dead and buried. He descended into hell.
With those words of the Creed we confess the deepest part of the suffering and humiliation of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostles’ Creed is one of the earliest statements of the Christian faith. In that Creed we are confessing that the sufferings of Jesus Christ carried Him down the path of yet deeper and deeper anguish and suffering until, at last, He endured, in the place of His children, the anguish of eternal hell.
We must remember who it is of whom we speak. We are speaking of the Son of God in our flesh. We are not speaking simply of a noble prince. We are not speaking even of a president who would leave the Oval Office and presidential honors and take the place of some lowly, poverty-stricken person living in a shack and wracked with cancer. No, we are speaking of God’s eternal Son, His only-begotten Son, whom the angels worship. And we must remember that we are speaking of the extent of His suffering, which is the sufferings of the anguish that we deserved in hell.
We would almost ask the question: Did it have to come to this? Did He have to suffer to such an extent? The answer to that is: Yes! Without His death and bearing exactly what we should have borne everlastingly in hell, there could be no salvation according to the justice of God. God, in His justice, placed upon Jesus Christ exactly the punishment which was due for our sins. And that punishment is nothing less than eternal damnation in hell.
That is what sin deserves. It deserves that because God is holy and righteous. And sin is a heinous and terrible thing, so heinous that it was only the Son of God in our place, bearing the whole weight of that curse, that could ever deliver us from our sins.
We stand again at the heart of the gospel. We stand where the believer, in Jesus Christ, is brought to great assurance. Here I may say that He has delivered me from the anguish of the torments of hell that I deserved. My sin is pardoned in the sight of God because a perfect payment is given when the Son of God died for me.
We confess, further, that we are delivered from our sins by the power of the cross of Jesus Christ. By His death we have obtained liberty and freedom from the dominion, from the ruling power, of our sins. Still more, we confess that through His death we have earned an entrance into eternal glory. By dying for us, Jesus has changed death from destruction and loss to victory and glory. His death changes our grave into a door which leads to His presence and fullness of joy.
By dying the death of the cross Jesus Christ, first of all, abolished the death which was over us. What is that death? Death, according to the Scriptures, is to be separated from God’s favor and to experience His wrath against sin. That death hung over us.
To understand this we must go back to the book of Genesis, to the beginning, and see how God created man. Adam was made to live. Genesis 2:7 tells us that God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. The seed of Adam’s life was not, first of all, his physical heart and the wonderful body that God had given to him. The essence of his life was not the breath that he drew through his nostrils. But Adam’s life was God. To love and to obey the one true God, to have fellowship with his Creator, and especially in the midst of the Garden of Eden at the Tree of Life, there to come into the presence of God and to enjoy in God’s presence eternal love of God. But death came upon him. God told him that if he were to violate God’s fellowship and disobey God, then he would be found in a different position towards God, a different position than that of loving, heartfelt obedience.
This was represented in the two trees of the Garden of Eden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. Concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil God said, “Adam, you shall not eat of it. For the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” Death, then, is something that is foreign to God’s original creation. Man was not created to die. Death came to Adam. And it came to us in Adam. Death, then, is God’s sentence. It is the just and true sentence of the almighty God upon sin and disobedience. Because of sin came death. We read in Romans 5:12, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin.”
You see, the philosophies of man, the philosophies of evolution, of New Age, which also have to deal with death, are philosophies which run contrary to God’s truth at every point. Death is not simply an evolutionary process. Death is not the natural recycling of matter. Death is not simply part of the great cosmos from which we come and now we go back into it, and we are reincarnated in some form. Death is not simply going on to the next, or higher, level. That is the vain foolishness of the thoughts of men. The Word of God declares that that is man attempting to shut out God. Death is God’s sentence for man’s sin. Death, of itself, brings the inescapable word of God: You have sinned against Jehovah, the only good; and so heinous is your offense and so corrupted are you from your original purpose that God gave when He created you, that you justly deserve banishment from God’s smile and all His hot wrath to be poured upon you.
Physically Adam died. Death entered into his body. But much more was the fact that he came under the guilt of his sin. It meant that now he would fall, of himself, into the hands of God, who was a consuming fire against sin. Adam, and we who have broken His holy law so that sin says, “You deserve wrath,” will not now fall into non-existence. We will not simply go back into created matter. Death is not the end, as many of the vain philosophies of men would have us believe. But death is the word and the sentence of God that we now deserve to be banished by God into the lake of eternal fire to be the object of holy wrath.
Now, Jesus Christ has redeemed His children from the sentence of death which hung over them. We read in Hebrews 2:14, 15 of this wonderful truth. The apostle is explaining there the wonder of Jesus Christ, made a man, for the suffering of death. He says that in verse 9. He goes on to say that Jesus Christ took to Himself a body, flesh and blood, and He took to Himself a body exactly in order that He might die our death in such a way as to destroy its power over us, to deliver us, says the apostle, from the fear of death, from the fear connected to death with respect to our sins. By His death He has made a satisfaction for our sins and delivered us from the sentence of death which hung over us.
Why did Jesus die? Why did He die the death of the cross? The answer of the Bible is this: To remove the sentence of death from His children by having that sentence served upon Himself. God did not give His Son over to hellish misery of eternal wrath for light reasons. He did not give His Son to that suffering as an example or as an attempt to get men to realize what might happen to them. God gave His Son to death so that He might abolish the sentence of death which hung over us, in order that we might never descend into the bottomless pit of hell but that we might live forever in God’s presence.
What comfort and what assurance!
Now we know that even in our sufferings and greatest temptations, even when it appears that we are being tempted and our consciences are bringing to us the testimony of our sins, we, by faith, look to the cross and say, He died for me; my sentence is removed; I now look for refuge to the cross of Jesus Christ.
But Jesus Christ not only abolished the sentence of death which hung over us. He abolished also the death and the dominion of that death within us.
There is also the spiritual death that is within us. Let us go back again to Adam. Adam did die the moment he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Right then and there he died. Physically death began in him and death continued its work until at last it brought him down to the grave. But spiritually he died at the moment he ate. From what he was, he dropped over stone dead. All the love of God left him, gone out of him. Now, spiritually, he stood as a corpse. The life of God and love for God had left. The heartbeat of love beat in him no more. The breath filled with joy in God filled his nostrils no longer. The eyes which saw and loved God were now vacant and did not see. Spiritually he died. His eyes were closed and his heart ceased its beat in the love of God. And now they were filled with the very opposite-hatred for God and the neighbor. And his eyes were now filled with the lusts of the flesh and the pride of life.
This is also how we are born. Coming from Adam we are all conceived and born in sin. Ephesians 2:1 tells us that God has quickened us who were dead in our sins, who were children of wrath, even as others. We are born, of ourselves, devoid of any good. We are born corrupted in our sins and in the rottenness of our sins. The ghastly horror of spiritual death is as an active principle within us. And that brings us into the service of sin. Our eyes are darkened to God and now they are opened to vanity. We obey from the heart all the defilements of sin. Because by nature we are fallen in Adam and of ourselves born as sinners, death is within us so that we are under its dominion. But Jesus Christ was dead and buried and descended into hell. And He did that in order that the death which was in us might be abolished, that the dominion of that sin might be removed from us, in order that now we might be restored to love God, to love the neighbor, and to delight in that which is right and holy.
Because of the cross of Jesus Christ, sin no longer has the right to hold the child of God in its service. If today you were sentenced to serve a jail term but that sentence was pardoned in the way of justice, you could not be kept locked up in the prison cell. When the penalty has been meted out, the prison door must swing open. So the gospel declares to the people of God: “You are forgiven in Jesus Christ. You are forgiven in such a way that justice has been satisfied. The sentence for your sins has been served. The door now swings open. You are freed. You are no longer under the power and dominion of sin, but now, being made dead to sin, you are alive to serve the living God.”
Sin remains in us. Oh, yes. Sin is not dead. But we are dead to sin. Sin still tempts us. Sin still dwells within our flesh. Sin still wages war against us. But now, in Jesus Christ, that sin no longer reigns. We are free, free to repent, free to walk in holiness and to yield up ourselves as servants of God.
Jesus Christ died in order to abolish the sentence of death which hung over us; the sentence of death which was within us; and the sentence of death which was awaiting us.
Yes, there is one more aspect of death. That is the death that awaits us, the death of our body, our being lowered into the grave when our flesh will rot and the bones will decay into dust and our body will lie silent under the sod. What about that death? Let us not minimize that death, for the Bible calls it in I Corinthians 15:26, the last enemy that shall be destroyed. Death is not the greatest enemy. The greatest enemy that we had was sin. That has been destroyed. For the guilt of our sin, payment has been rendered. But the last enemy is death. And last enemies are fearsome and ruthless enemies. The last opportunity of Satan in the flesh to have his way with us to take away our hope is through death. It is a great enemy when it comes to our loved one. That loved one is gone forever. And it is a great enemy when it comes to us as we are called upon to think about it and as the Scriptures calls us to consider the reality that we shall die unless Jesus Christ returns first. Death is a reality. It is undeniable. It is unavoidable. It is there. You are going to die. Your body will be placed in the grave and there is no coming out of that grave of yourself. All men, apart from Jesus Christ, devise their way of escape; they try to hide themselves from it. They try to shelter their minds from thinking about it. But it cannot be done, for death has the final word over man. All man’s words cannot gloss over the horror of death.
I believe in Jesus Christ who was dead, buried, and descended into hell. He was buried. He went into the grave. All that befalls the children of God in their death befell Him. He has now changed that grave so that it is no longer a deep hole into which we sink away forever. It is no longer the place where we are shut out from light and glory. But through His death He has made our death the gateway to heaven, the passage to eternal life.
Death now exists for the believer in order to reveal the power of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Do not fear the death that awaits you, child of God. Do not avoid it in your thinking. Do not try to blot it from your mind. Do not try to live as though death does not stand there to await the end of your life. But stand before death and the grave by faith. The grave is empty. Death has been vanquished. Death now has a door at the other end: the door that leads to eternal life. It is a stairway to eternal glory, an entrance into the eternal rest, a place of peace where we shall see Christ and be made like unto Him. And all our sins and sorrows will be gone and we will have spotless righteousness and everlasting peace. Even our bodies, which are placed in the grave, become a seed waiting to sprout out in the glorious harvest of the resurrection of the body when Christ comes again. Then, in the last day, Christ will come to lay claim to what is His. And He shall raise the body of His children unto life and immortality.
Do you believe this? Do you believe that death and its sentence has been abolished from you? The death which was over you and the guilt of your sins crying out for punishment; the death which is within you dominating you to make you a willing servant unto sin; and the death which awaits you in the grave-do you believe that through Jesus Christ, and by His death upon Calvary’s cross, that death and its sentence has been abolished?
Whoever refuses to believe in Jesus Christ must live with death. Death is your companion, then. The death which is over you in your guilt and liability for punishment before God. The death which is within you in your sins and the delight to serve sin. And the eternal death which awaits you at the moment of the death of the body.
But all who, by grace, through faith, have fled to the Savior Jesus Christ shall never die. There is no more death for them. And eternity will be too short to thank God for all of this.
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee for Thy word. We thank Thee that Thou hast given Thy Son, Jesus Christ, upon the cross to endure the hellish agonies of eternal hell and death and to leave in their place for us righteousness and life. We thank Thee that the guilt and the penalty for our sins has been paid. We thank Thee that we have been delivered from the ruling power of sin within us. And we thank Thee that we may know that the grave now is not the conqueror, that death has no sting, and we shall be brought to Thee through death to eternal glory. In Jesus’ name, Amen.