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His Broken Body Rose

What We Still and Will Believe

I believe in Jesus Christ. . . . He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. The third day he rose again from the dead. (Apostles’ Creed)

None of the disciples signed up to see this part of the creed fulfilled.

They thought they were on the victory march, the Triumphal Entry, the precipice of ushering in the kingdom. They thought they were returning home from war in celebration, not heading straight into the heart of enemy territory. They considered the “Hosannas” that greeted them at the gate as only appropriate (Mark 11:9). They did not expect the cross, even though Jesus predicted it plainly on several occasions:

The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. . . . Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men. (Luke 9:22, 44)

Yet none of the disciples reckoned what was ahead. Even Peter, the rock, took Jesus aside and tried to rebuke him saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). His mind, Jesus tells us, was set on the things of man, not God (Matthew 16:23). Peter, like Satan, tempts him with a kingdom devoid of bloodshed (Luke 4:5–7).

But the suffering, crucifixion, and death of the Messiah — so hard for the disciples to believe — were a wonder to the gaze of heaven. The angels watched entranced. With unblinking eye, they beheld the unveiling of the sufferings of the Christ and the subsequent glories long foretold by the prophets (1 Peter 1:10–12). In contrast to the disciples, Moses and Elijah descended to the hill of transfiguration and had only this topic on their mind to discuss: “And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:30–31). His departure, literally his exodus. So, what did he accomplish at Jerusalem?

Suffered Under Pilate

If you could insert one other historical name into the ancient creed alongside Mary and Jesus, whose would it be? Joseph? David? Moses? Adam perhaps? The only other to be mentioned by name is Pontius Pilate.

“Jesus’s body did not decay. He was not abandoned to Sheol. He rose.”

We know that he hesitated to put Jesus to death, that he thought him innocent, that he tried, more than halfheartedly, to release Jesus alive. Yet despite his hand-washing, he was the presiding official who acquiesced, and his name has gone down in infamy: He suffered under Pontius Pilate. History revealed this complex villain as the representative of a world raging against its God and his Messiah. Peter connects Pilate explicitly to the villainy of Psalm 2:

“Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers were gathered together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed” —

for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:25–28)

Pilate and Herod joined hands in their complicity to kill the Son of God (Luke 23:12). Pilate found Jesus innocent and yet condemned him to crucifixion in order to satisfy the mob (Mark 15:14–15), an abomination in the sight of God (Proverbs 17:15).

And this was no mere man, but God’s beloved Son.

Was Crucified and Died

Pilate sent Jesus to be scourged and then crucified. Modern readers might be surprised at how short Mark’s description reads, “And they crucified him” (Mark 15:24). All of Mark rushes to the reality those four words convey. So, why doesn’t he say more? Perhaps because anyone who had witnessed one needed no more detail.

The word crucified contained enough horror to involuntarily recall half-dead men, stapled to trees. Stripped. Bloody. Naked. There they hung in agony. There they cried for a speedy death greatly delayed. There they remained: seeing, hearing, feeling — yet unable to move. No intermissions, no bathroom breaks. No hand available to shield the sun from their eye or swat the flies from their open wounds. There a man squirmed as a worm on a hook, bait for the gaping mouth of Sheol. And they crucified him.

And as he writhed in incomprehensible pain, his reviled death unfolded before countless eyes and ears and insults (Matthew 27:39–44). Jesus suffered intensely. He suffered publicly. And he suffered under the righteous wrath of his Father. Hanging upon a tree, Jesus hung under the curse of God, “for a hanged man is cursed by God” (Deuteronomy 21:22–23). He did not merely have men against him, but “it was the will of Yahweh to crush him” (Isaiah 53:10). He willingly drank the cup of divine wrath poured full strength against sins he did not commit (Matthew 26:39).

And he died. He didn’t fake it nor avoid it. The human body of Jesus was separated from his human soul. He spoke clearly to John at Patmos, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17–18).

Descended to the Dead?

The Apostles’ Creed continues, “He descended to the dead.” What does it mean that Jesus descended to the dead? Did he descend into hell? Was there more horror waiting, even after he uttered the seemingly victorious words: “It is finished” (John 19:30)?

When he uttered “It is finished,” it was. His shame, his suffering, his humiliation, ended. He was buried in honor, as was foretold (Isaiah 53:9), laid in the tomb of a member of the Jewish council, Joseph of Arimathea, who — unlike the disciples — looked for the kingdom of God in the broken and scarred body of Christ (Mark 15:43). So, what did they mean that he descended to the dead?

In summary, Jesus descended into what the Old Testament long referred to as Sheol (or “Hades”), the realm of the dead, human souls torn in death from their bodies, awaiting the final judgment. And there Jesus liberated those of faith who had preceded him, including Abraham, Noah, Moses, David, Rahab, Samuel, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist.

“The seemingly preposterous suffering of Christ leads to the everlasting enjoyment of Christ by his people.”

Sheol itself, before Christ descended, stood divided into two parts, separated by a great chasm (Luke 16:26): Abraham’s bosom and Sheol proper. The former is where Lazarus and other righteous saints dwelt in peace (Luke 16:25); the latter was a place of torment. When Jesus descended from the cross to the dead, he went to Abraham’s bosom, the place of “paradise,” to lift those faithful ones there into heaven. In emptying Abraham’s bosom, all who die now depart to be with Christ directly (Philippians 1:23).

On the Third Day

All who died before Jesus saw their body go to the grave and decay while their souls went to wait in Sheol. But of Jesus, David wrote, “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption” (Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:31). Jesus’s body did not decay. His soul was not abandoned to Sheol. He rose on the third day.

Being born of the virgin Mary, suffering under Pontius Pilate, having been crucified, died, and buried, all led to this: he is the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he might be preeminent (Colossians 1:18). The seemingly preposterous suffering of Christ leads to the everlasting enjoyment of Christ by his people. His people, his bride, were purchased through his blood — not aside from the cross, but through it. There, he secures all of watchful heaven’s Hosannas (Revelation 5:9–13).

Atheists throughout history have believed that Mary birthed Jesus, that he was crucified under a historical figure named Pilate, but we still and will believe that Jesus lives. We believe he reigns. We believe he is alive forevermore, holding “the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17–18). We believe that his death shattered death. We believe his broken body rose. And we believe that he will soon raise ours with his.