7/13/2020 11:15:19 AM
What God Did: Proclaimed Victory
Pastor Joel Leyrer - The Sixth Sunday After Pentecost - Sunday, July 12, 2020
Dear friends in Christ, As we continue our summer sermon series on the Apostle’ Creed today we come to a short little four word declaration of our faith that, perhaps more than any of the other statements, seems to always raise a number of questions. Some are more theological in nature, such as: When exactly did this happen? Why did it happen? What does it mean? Others are more of a personally curious nature, such as: what impact does this event mean for us today? What practical application can it provide us as we live out our lives as Christians? Without further introduction, these are the matters we will now consider from God’s Word as we turn our attention to the meaning and the message conveyed in the little phrase: HE DESCENDED INTO HELL
As a whole, our text for today is just one of the many clear and concise statements we find in the letters of the Apostle Paul on the subject of how we are made right with God and saved eternally. In the process of laying out this Gospel message, Paul also provides us with all we really need to know about Jesus’ descent into hell.
Let’s begin with the broader picture and context behind these words.
The very nature of Paul’s work as a missionary was to plant a church in a particular place or region, help establish it with leaders, and then move on to the next place God chose for him.
Unfortunately, shortly after he left it was not uncommon for other uninvited “spiritual leaders” to move in and confuse these young Christians with teachings or ideas or philosophies that didn’t square up with what Paul had taught. And while they varied in what they said, at their core all these false teachers were the same in this way: They all taught that Jesus Christ was not enough for eternal salvation. They all taught that in one way or another there was more to getting right with God than simply putting all one’s faith in Christ.
In other words, they taught the Law – that is, personal performance – as the path to eternal life. Sure, they would say, Jesus Christ is necessary for your salvation. But only partially. You also have to do something. Like, be a good person. Or follow certain church rules and regulations. Or keep the Ten Commandments to the best of your ability.
Put it this way. If salvation was like buying a new car, they would say Jesus Christ is the big down payment. But from here on in you must make all the remaining monthly payments by your life and actions and good deeds and overall religiosity. Which, of course, places the burden on us rather than on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for us.
With this as background, listen how Paul sorts this all out and, thankfully, sets the record straight. He makes three statements. This is the first: 13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ.
Paul often speaks in terms of death and resurrection. The reference to uncircumcision would be familiar to those with an Old Testament background. Basically, it means being outside of God’s kingdom. His general point: Getting right with God is something we cannot do for ourselves.
Rather, it is God, working through the Holy Spirit, who is responsible for this miracle of spiritual resurrection. “God made you alive with Christ” is a reference to coming to faith in Jesus and trusting in his work, not ours. Those who embrace Law as a way of salvation say we have a hand in our eternal destiny; Paul says that is no more possible than a dead person making themselves come to life.
Second statement: He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the written code with its regulations, that was against us and stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.
The Law of God – that which he demands we do and not do – as a “written code with regulations” “was against us and stood opposed to us.” Meaning, the Law of God cannot save us because we can’t keep it. The Law of God is an impossible means of salvation. In fact, the main reason God gave us the Law is to make us aware that we can’t be saved by it.
Consequently, those who want to be saved by the Law need to realize it is an all or nothing proposition. The Apostle James tells us that “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point of it is guilty of breaking all of it.” Anything short of perfection means damnation. And you know what we always like to say: “Nobody is perfect.”
Think about that. If the Law is indeed the way of eternal salvation, that little statement is nothing less than a self-imposed death sentence.
No. Paul is clear. The only means of salvation is Christ, who kept the Law for us and then paid our penalty by dying on the cross. Christ alone.
That thought is reiterated in Paul’s third statement: 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. Along with a similar (and perhaps clearer) passage in First Peter, this is where we hear of Christ’s descent into hell, as well as the reason for it. This is what we learn:
Sometime after his resurrection from the dead but before he showed himself alive to the world, Jesus visited hell. He did not go there to suffer, nor did he go there to give the souls in hell a second chance. Rather, the risen Lord Jesus Christ descended into hell for the singular purpose of declaring his triumph over sin, eternal death, and Satan.
The words Paul use calls to mind an ancient celebration of victory. The conqueror leads a parade of disarmed, defeated soldiers making it apparent for all to see that there is nothing to fear from their former enemies. So it is with Christ. The Easter hymn rings true: Jesus lives, the victory is won, death no longer can appall me…
Bottom line: Jesus descended into hell to proclaim that sin, which formerly blocked the path to heaven, has been removed as an impediment, because it is forgiven. Death, which at one time led to eternal separation from God, has been transformed and is now the gateway to eternal life. And Satan – who as the arch enemy of God wants everyone else to join him in hell, is defeated and powerless.
The overall point, again, is that it is the performance of Christ alone on the cross (and not our personal performance of trying to earn his favor by keeping the Law) that provides the victory.
Since we’re on the general subject today let’s circle back and talk a little more about the devil. Because that’s a practical conversation worth having.
What’s most important for us to know is that even though his power has been conquered, God still allows him to exist. And while he is in no way God’s equal, he still has influence and strength. But only as far as God permits.
Within those limits, however, he has accumulated quite an arsenal of temptations over the years. Since we as God’s Children are the ones he doesn’t already have, we’re his “target” audience.
One of his greatest strategies is introducing doubt and attempting to spread discouragement into our lives. He knows how to play all the angles.
In First Peter where we are told: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” Do you know the passage immediately after that? It’s this: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” The connection between the two is not hard to make.
Is it not true that in our most anxious moments Satan tries to make us doubt the love or wisdom of God in our lives? When things aren’t going the way we’d like them to… when God falls short of the expectations we mortals attach to him… when God’s timetable lags behind ours… when, despite our fervent prayers, it appears God isn’t really coming through for us in the way we’ve directed him …when we look at the possessions and worldly success of other people, some of whom openly despise God by their lives, and in our self-pity feel we aren’t being treated fairly…
In all those situations Satan sees an opportunity to drive us away from God by wedging doubt and discouragement into our souls. He’d like us to question the wisdom of God because the next step is to question the existence of God.
In difficult times he tries very hard to direct our eyes away from the cross of Christ (where we see God’s ultimate act of love for us) and have us dwell on our present troubles, introducing the idea that God has somehow failed us. He tries to get us to believe that we have the right and expectation to live in a perfect world and that our lives ought to be free of any pain or suffering when, in fact, God distinctly tells us in his Word that because of sin there will be trouble.
So, he’s very good at what he does and how he does it. But let’s never forget he’s been defeated. Just as he has been conquered by Christ, he can also be conquered by us.
Because of what we have at our disposal. In the last chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul uses the symbolism of a heavily armed Roman soldier and lists the various pieces of spiritual armor available to us. He ends that section by encouraging each of us to take up “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.”
Do you remember how Jesus put down Satan’s temptations in the wilderness? He used this same formula each time: “it is written.” He appealed to Scripture and Satan was left defenseless.
The take-away: in times of doubt, temptation and despair; at times when maybe the devil is making a little inroad into our heart, let us remember that we can drive him away with the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God.
So, let this discussion on Christ’s descent into hell and victory over Satan also serve as personal encouragement to be in the Word. To stay in the Word. To constantly reflect on the Word and the promises God extends to us in his Word. Because it is through the Word we are equipped and
strengthened and made confident in God’s love. And we know, as Martin Luther wrote:
Tho devils all the world shall fill, all eager to devour us.
We tremble not, we fear no ill, they shall not overpower us.
This world’s prince may still, scowl fierce as he will.
He can harm us none. He’s judged the deed is done.
One little Word can fell him.
What’s the one little word? Some say it is Jesus. Some say it is the single Greek word translated “it is finished.” Some say it is the single Greek word translated “it is written.” Take your pick or take them all.
Because they all ultimately mean the same thing: In Christ and his Word we live confidently and triumphantly, now and forever. Amen.