If you grew up like me, you thought of this day as a kind of interim period after Good Friday and before Easter. Preparation for Sunday was a big component, especially in the evening. There was admittedly little reflection on the meaning of the 30-something hours when Jesus’ body lay in the grave. What after all, was there to think about?
The Apostles’ Creed tells us that Jesus descended ad infernos, a Latin phrase meaning “to the dead,” which early English versions of the Creed translated as “into hell.” Beginning in the 1500’s, translators recognized that hell proper is not the best understanding of infernos. The Hebrew word Sheol, a shadowy realm where humans reside after departing this life was the destination for the righteous and the wicked in the Old Testament.
The resurrection and ascension of Jesus transferred faithful persons (saints) in the Old Testament to heaven (paradise). Yet the question debated by theologians is what the immortal soul of Jesus did during Holy Saturday?
Jesus was true God and true man. As true man, he could die—he did die. But God, by definition cannot die. It is inconceivable that the eternal creator and sustainer of the universe could cease to be. And herein lies the mystery: The Son of God, possessing two distinct natures in a single person, died at Calvary.
And yet the New Testament teaches that between death and resurrection Jesus (1 Peter 3:19–20a) “preached to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God patience waited in the days of Noah…” Curious readers have speculated about the nature of this “preaching.” Was it a second chance at salvation, or a message of triumph over demonic forces? With no other evidence in Scripture of demons being converted, the consensus has been that the Apostle intended the latter.
Jesus body lay in the grave, and though his immortal spirit “descended to the dead,” the human body was dead. Dead in the same way we will all one day be dead. This would not provide much comfort if it were not for Easter Sunday, yet the author of the book of Hebrews reminds us that the real death of Jesus provides exactly this when he says (Hebrews 2:14–15),
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise partook of the same things, that though death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
Early in the same chapter, we read that Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2:9) “tasted death for all men.” These words intend to instill confidence that our own death will not be eternal oblivion. Christ’s resurrection is the victory over the fiercest enemy, the enemy to whom Jesus was willingly subject on Holy Saturday.
Thus, we can be joyful and thankful this day, for as Romans 6:5 reasons, “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him a resurrection like is.”
‘Tis myst’ry al! th’ immortal dies!
Who can explore this strange Design?
In vain the first-born Seraph tries
To sound the Depths of Love Divine
‘Tis mercy all! Let Earth adore;
Let Angel Minds inquire no more.
“And Can it Be” by Charles Wesley (1707–1788)
O God, Creator of heaven and earth; grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.