Holy Saturday

Matthew 27:57-66 or Mark 15:42-47 or Luke 23:50-56 or John 19:38-42; Isaiah 38:10-20; Jonah 2:1-10; Matthew 12:38-42; Ephesians 4:8-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Psalms 4, 16 & 24

He Really Did Take Our Place … Completely

(This devotion represents a particular interpretation of the “Descent”; others disagree.)

This is always a quiet day for me.  It seems that after Good Friday, Holy Saturday is a day of somber reflection.  We know Sunday’s coming, but we refuse to celebrate just yet – it doesn’t seem right just after his passion.

But what is the purpose of this day and why is it important?  It is mandated by the fact that the soul of Christ must have gone somewhere during that period of time.  Where was it?  Well, where the dead go, of course.  And hence we arrive at the famous line in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hades.”  We may say that this first teaches us that when our Lord came to be one of us and take our place, he meant it.  He not only became man and tasted death for everyone; he even experienced hell for everyone!  But he did not go there as a captive, but as the conqueror over the Evil One, who now has the keys of death and hell (Hebrews 2:14-15; Revelation 1:18).

Scripture also says that Christ preached to the spirits (that is, souls) imprisoned there (1 Peter 3:18-20), so that the gospel was indeed preached to all creation.  And finally, it was at this time that the souls of the righteous dead were delivered from the abode of the dead and into heaven.  These died looking forward to the promise, and received its fulfillment at Christ’s descent and resurrection.  (We should not assume that the righteous dead would have been in the same place or state as the wicked, e.g., Luke 16:19-31.)  Some may wonder why these had to wait before they entered heaven.  Because it is Christ who opens the gates of heaven for all believers.  No one gets there without or ahead of Christ, regardless of how “good” he or she may have been.  It is the work of redemption wrought by our Lord that saves anyone, from Abel down to the person who was saved just a minute ago.  The Old Testament saints were saved by looking forward to Christ (Hebrews 11:13, 39-40), while we are saved by looking back.  But we are all saved by the same One and by the same blood.  This is why we say, “The New Testament is in the Old concealed; the Old Testament is in the New revealed”: It’s all about Christ, from Genesis 1:1, where he is the architect of the universe (Proverbs 8:22-36; John 1:3; Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 1:2), to Revelation 22:21, where we are blessed with his saving grace, and everything in between.  The Father created the world for His Son, and gave the Church to him as a gift.  And the Son in turn takes our place and gives us as a gift to the Father, and we are saved in the glorious exchange.

Good Friday

Matthew 27:1-56 or Mark 15:1-41 or Luke 23:1-49 or John 18:28-19:37; Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalms 2, 22, 38 & 51

Why They Call It “Good”

It certainly didn’t seem good at the time.  Indeed, to the disciples, it seemed that all they had lived for over the past three years had come to a nightmarish end.  The one whom they thought was the Messiah, with whom they would reign in an earthly kingdom of peace and prosperity, was now hanging on a cross.  A crucified Messiah?  Who ever heard of such a thing?  No wonder Paul said that a crucified Christ was a stumbling block to the Jews, and just plain folly to the gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23).  Little has changed.  The preaching of the cross is just as offensive today, that is, when it is preached correctly.  Pray for preachers that they preach it faithfully, and that we all live it dutifully.

Yes, they thought they were going to get something more than what they got.  But what did they want?  An earthly kingdom?  Please!  I hope we all have had enough of those.  What the disciples did not know, and perhaps could not know until after the resurrection, indeed, even until after the ascension of our Lord and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, was that Christ offered them so much more.  His kingdom far surpasses what they envisioned.  We often say that Christ’s kingdom is a spiritual kingdom – and that is true.  But I sometimes worry that to some people, that makes his kingdom less real.  We must understand that spiritual things, though spiritual, are real, and indeed, if things be compared, are more real than the tangible things that we see and adore now.  As the hymn says, one day, “The clouds [shall] be rolled back as a scroll.”  Then, “The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend.”  Then, shall we see the spiritual world in all of its glory.  For this world shall pass away.  In fact, the Bible tells us that it is passing away now right before our very eyes (1 Corinthians 7:31; 1 John 2:17).  The world which Christians are promised far outshines this one, and is so much more real than this one.  This world is just a faint copy, a poor imitation, and it was even before the fall.

We’re not going back to the Garden; we’re going to heaven.  But we must become spiritual creatures to get there.  Saving faith makes us spiritual creatures, and we grow in matters of the Spirit for the rest of our lives.  We put off the flesh, and put on the new man, the new nature, or the spiritual man, re-created after the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:17-24).  And God changes us from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).  There are other reasons why it’s called “Good” Friday.  But I think this is one of them.

Maundy Thursday

Matthew 26:1-75 or Mark 14:1-72 or Luke 22:1-71 or John 13:1-18:27; Psalm 89

Jesus’ Own View of His Glory: The Cross

And the moment that the world has waited for has finally come.  Or, in Jesus’ own words, “The hour has come” (John 12:23), and in another place, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him” (John 13:31).  We might say that there have been four great events in world history: Creation, the Birth of Christ, his Passion & Resurrection, and his Second Coming.  Of course, the last event awaits its time.

I’m really at a loss for words.  How can one do justice to Holy Scripture at this point?  It seems all one can do is bow down.  Why does the King of the universe see fit to do all this for me?  Why does the Uncreated One think a lowly creature like me worthy of all this trouble?  Why does the Eternal One bother with one whose life is but a breath?  Why does the Sinless One take my sins upon Himself?  Why should he sweat drops of blood and agonize for me?

Jesus says much in the passage we quoted above: “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.”  In some mysterious way, Jesus saw his passion as his glory.  What we see as indescribable shame and agony, he calls his glory.  God is glorified by taking upon Himself our shame; God is exalted by taking upon Himself our humble state; God shows His omnipotence by taking upon Himself our weakness.  And God shows His infinite grace and mercy by taking upon Himself our sin.  This is His glory: The glory of the cross, for we follow, and are disciples of, a crucified Lord.  And now He calls us to live crucified lives (Mark 8:34; Galatians 6:14).

This is the meaning of his washing the disciples’ feet, of his refusal to stop Judas’ treachery, of his resignation to the Father’s will in Gethsemane, of his forgiveness of the disciples’ abandonment of himself in his greatest hour of need, of his remaining on the cross while his enemies taunted him to come down rather than calling twelve legions of angels to his rescue, and of his prayer, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.”  The list could go on.  It was and is his glory to do all of this for us.  The Apostle Paul later claimed such crucified living as his own (2 Corinthians 12:10; Galatians 2:20).  And if we will be his disciples, we must do the same.  His glory was the cross.  What is ours?

Wednesday in Holy Week

Hebrews 12 & 13; John 12:37-50

The Glory of the Son

Hebrews 12 paints for us New Testament worship as it really is.  We do not gather at Mount Sinai where God came down in thunder and lightning and trumpet blast, as described in Exodus 19 and 20:18-21.  As awesome as that sounds, our worship is far superior and awe-inspiring.  We gather at Mount Zion, “The heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.” Now that Christ has ascended to the right hand of the Father, we worship him in all his magnificence and glory.  And with him are the angels and the saints who have gone before.  You might read Revelation 4 and 5 for a glimpse of the throne-room worship that happens in heaven, the worship that the early church tried to model.  Indeed, we walk into that very throne-room each and every Sunday when we enter the sanctuary for worship.  Mount Sinai doesn’t even begin to compare!

And whom do we worship?  Whom do we glorify?  John 12:37-41 tells us.  There, John refers to Isaiah’s throne-room vision in which he saw God high and lifted up in the temple (Isaiah 6).  He uses the passage to explain why the people could not hear Jesus’ message.  But then, John says something remarkable: “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him” (12:41).  Him who?  Him, Christ, that’s who.

We usually see the Isaiah passage as referring to God the Father.  But John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says that it was the pre-incarnate Son.  In the same way did many of the early Church fathers see the Son in the burning bush.  This is all to say that it was the Son all along, from the Old Testament through the New.  He was at creation, “For by him all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible” (Colossians 1:16).  He was the Angel of the Lord that visited Abraham (Genesis 18), the spiritual Rock that followed the children of Israel (1 Corinthians 10:4), the exalted Lord who appeared to Isaiah (Isaiah 6).  And it is he whom we approach every Sunday morning.  He is the King who bestows upon us a kingdom, one that cannot be shaken.  He is the Minister of the city to which we aspire, the One to whom we owe the sacrifice of praise.  Before his throne, we humbly bow; his never-ending mercies, we plead; his continual aid, we beg.  He is the eternal Son of the Father.  Therefore, “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”

Tuesday in Holy Week

Hebrews 11:1-40; John 12:20-36

Which World Are You Living For?

In the Gospel of John, some Greeks come looking for Jesus and ask Philip if they can get an interview.  We never read of what happened about that.  The episode serves a more important purpose, which is Jesus’ declaration of the standards for eternal life.  He says that whoever loves his life shall lose it, and whoever hates his life in this world keeps it for eternity.  It seems that he is saying that Christians are people who do not live for this world, but understand that they are living for another, that this life is preparation for the next.  They walk by faith in God, searching for a different kind of city whose designer and builder is God.  The things of this world do not attract them.  Their calling lies beyond.

And this is what Hebrews 11 is all about.  It’s called the “roll call of faith.”  And, no doubt, it is one of the most inspiring chapters in all of Scripture.  In it, the great Old Testament saints are presented before our eyes as models of faith, men and women who looked upon this world with utter disdain compared to the world that had stolen their hearts.  Abraham left his comfortable homeland and went to a place he didn’t even know, where he lived in tents.  He was told that his offspring, which as yet were none, would inherit the land after being enslaved in another land for four hundred years (Genesis 15:13).  Moses “refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.”  I have only named two; Hebrews names several, and then says there are plenty more.  These conquered but only by suffering and the forfeiture of their lives.

And how were they able to do so?  By faith!  And here is the central theme of Hebrews, the central theme of Scripture.  “Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.”  The Gospel of John says it best: “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).  And it is this faith that changes lives.  It is this faith that cherishes the invisible God, knowing that this world is not all that there is, that something is terribly wrong with it, and that is because of our sin.  Yet, faith reaches ever upward, responding to the One who answers the deepest yearning of our hearts.  He has formed us for Himself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Him.  He, and not this world, is the believer’s desire.  “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

Monday in Holy Week

Hebrews 10:1-39; Mark 14:1-11

Assurance in Times of Stress; Warning in Times of Leisure

These Hebrews had grown a bit slack in their zeal for the Lord.  We know this from two places in this chapter.  Verse thirty-two calls the Hebrews to “recall the former days” when they gladly endured suffering and hardship, knowing that they had a far better abode awaiting them.  The fact that they must “recall” shows that they had forgotten.  The second place that speaks to the cooling of their ardor for the Lord is verse twenty-five where they are warned not to “neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some.”  In short, they needed some encouragement.

And they received it.  They are reminded of how superior our Lord’s offering of himself is to the former offerings of the bulls, lambs, and goats in which they used to place their trust.  Those offerings foreshadowed his.  While the priest must stand at the altar day after day, Christ offered himself once for all, and now sits at the right hand of the Father.  His blood cleanses us body and soul, clears the conscience, and makes us acceptable to the Father, for “he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”

Therefore, Christians may have confidence to enter the holy place, the very throne-room of God, because of the blood of Jesus.  The curtain which separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies in the temple, which was rent asunder (Matthew 27:51) upon our Lord’s death on the cross, testifies to his precious body, which was rent asunder for us.  The loving heart of our God has been manifest and exposed to the world like never before.  Who could doubt?  Let us enter the Holy of Holies through his body, fully assured, with clear consciences, for He who calls us is the One who sent His Son to suffer and die for us.  Rejoice!  The path is before us, and it was cleared by our Lord.

But we must also hear the words of warning.  Having come to faith in Christ, we’ve no reason to treat sin lightly.  We of all people know how much it cost God, how much our salvation was worth to God.  How dare any of us treat sin as if it were a trifle!  We who believe never want to act in ways that “spurn the Son of God,” “profane the blood of the covenant,” and “outrage the Spirit of grace.”  Instead, let us hold fast our profession and endure, that we “may receive the promise.”  Judas betrayed the Lord and forfeited the promise; the woman who anointed Jesus persevered and received the promise.  And both are remembered.

Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-17; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-48; John 12:12-36;

Hebrews 8:1-9:28

Jesus Enters the Holy Places

Today is the day we commemorate our Lord’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem amid shouts of joy.  He comes as the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9) with people welcoming him with words that indicate they believe in him.  Many of these same people will be calling for his crucifixion just five days later.  Rather fickle of them.

Matthew then records how our Lord entered the temple and turned over the tables of the money-changers.  The temple was supposed to be a house of prayer, not a den of thieves.  The Gospel of John recites Psalm 69:9 regarding the event, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  And yet, even for our Lord’s love of God’s house, he predicted it would be destroyed (Matthew 24:2).  And it was about forty years later.

Hebrews speaks of a temple, but not one made with hands.  The temple that was built under Solomon in the tenth century before Christ, and destroyed about four hundred years later, and the temple built in the sixth century before Christ, and destroyed almost six hundred years later, were mere copies, shadows of the heavenly realities which they depicted.  For our Lord is “a minister in the holy places in the true tent, that the Lord set up, not man.”  Christ entered the holy places through the “greater and more perfect tent, not made with hands,” and shed his own blood and not that of goats or bulls.  This temple or tent that Christ thus entered is the heavenly reality of which the earthly temples that were destroyed were only copies.

Which is to say that we Christians celebrate the real thing.  His blood really works for us, for his cleanses the conscience, something the blood of animals could never do.  His blood is so effective for us that he only had to give his life once for all, not over and over as the priests had to do with the animals under the old covenant.  His temple was his body (John 2:18-22).  It was this temple that could never be destroyed, try as they may.  So whether we speak of the temple of his body or of the heavenly temple of which he is now the minister seated at the right hand of the Father, he has now come and inaugurated this new and lasting covenant with his own blood, a covenant that will never grow old since it is founded on God’s promise and deals with the realities and not the copies.  This was the plan from the foundation of the world.  This is the glory that God reveals to us about Himself.  His Son’s blood secures our forgiveness.  And now, we await him a second time to gather us, who eagerly anticipate his coming.

Saturday in the Fifth Week of Lent

Hebrews 7:1-28

After the Order of Melchizedek

Here we meet Melchizedek, whose name means “king of righteousness.”  He is a somewhat obscure figure who appears in Genesis 14:17-24, just after Abraham rescued his nephew Lot from some kings who had taken him captive.  He is called “priest of God Most High,” and blesses Abraham in the name of that same God.  In response, Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of what he had.  (A tenth is a “tithe.”)  What is even more interesting in this account is that when the king of Sodom approached Abraham to thank him (he was one of the kings Abraham inadvertently helped by defeating the other kings who had captured Lot), Abraham refused, for he said, “I have lifted my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’”  Abraham knew which man was righteous and received a blessing from the one, but adamantly refused for his name to even be mentioned in the same breath with the other.

Melchizedek’s name shows up again in Psalm 110:4, a prophecy concerning the Messiah, and is quoted in reference to Jesus in this passage in Hebrews.  What is going on here is again how the New Testament, or covenant, outshines the Old.  The old covenant relied upon priests to offer sacrifices, constantly.  They were all of the tribe of Levi, Abraham’s great-grandson, to whose tribe Aaron belonged.  But Christ was not of that tribe; he was of the tribe of Judah.  So how could Christ be our high priest?

The answer to this question lies with this obscure man who blessed Abraham.  He wasn’t even an Israelite (as they were the children of Abraham), much less of the tribe of Levi.  He just shows up there in Genesis.  Hebrews mentions that he is “without father or mother,” not literally of course, but that his genealogy is nowhere recorded.  Thus, in this way, he prefigures Christ in that he has “neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he continues a priest forever.”  So Christ fulfills the prophecy about being a priest, a new priest, a better priest than the Levitical priests of the old covenant.  And as a new kind of priest, one who lasts forever, he brings a new and better covenant.  And what can be sweeter music to the ears than to hear the words, “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”  As the holy, innocent, and unstained “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), his sacrifice is “once for all,” ever efficacious for us.

Friday in the Fifth Week of Lent

Hebrews 5:11-6:20

Assurance and Warning

I am a firm believer in what is called the doctrine of “the perseverance of the saints.”  I am aware that some disagree, and that is fine.  Many teachers of the Church have differed on this point.  Hebrews 6 has often served as a passage of contention.  It is not my intention here to argue one side or another, but to show that the Bible has a way of shaking us out of our spiritual slumber and warning us of our indolence, so as to incite us to continually mortify our flesh and strive for holiness, so that we may not presume upon his good grace but examine ourselves daily to be sure that we are indeed of the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5).

The recipients of the letter are first chided for not being mature and being “unskilled in the word of righteousness.”  This was a hard saying for the people since “by this time [they] ought to be teachers.”  It is sad but true.  How many of us have been Christians for so long but remain babes in Christ, people who lack basic Christian virtues such as humility, faithfulness, or even chastity.  We care not for doctrine, thinking it tedious and boring, but are puffed up and angry, easily offended, constantly complaining, insisting on our own way, unwilling to learn, and as a result, immature.

It is this kind of behavior, and worse, that leads to the kind of warnings we must hear from the word of God.  Repentance is a daily activity, not something we do once and for all when we are saved.  A Christian must grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior (2 Peter 3:18).  The life of the believer must manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26).  We must show that we possess what we profess.  And the way we do this is by our works, for our Lord said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

However, we must be careful that our faith does not become moralistic in that we are trying to save ourselves by our works.  We cannot.  Only Jesus saves.  But we must “be all the more diligent to make [our] calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10).  The beautiful part is that just after Hebrews warns us, it reassures us, “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things.”  And since our God cannot lie, we may flee to Him for refuge in time of doubt, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”

Thursday in the Fifth Week of Lent

Hebrews 4:14-5:10

Our Sympathetic High Priest

Under the old covenant, priests were many.  They were necessary to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people.  Moreover, they were all sons of Aaron, Moses’ brother, whom we met in Exodus.  Thus, they were all duly called of God, as Aaron’s was the priestly line, and completely necessary as God’s law ordained them to their task for the people.  But not only did the priest offer sacrifices for the sins of the people, he had to offer sacrifices for himself as well, as he too was a sinful man.  We might say that the priest understood the people, being a sinner himself.  He could “deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.”

We have said now many times that the Old Testament or covenant was preparation for the New; indeed, it foreshadowed the New Testament and covenant with its various regulations (for example, the sacrifices foreshadowed our Lord’s sacrifice).  Here, we see the Old Testament priests foreshadowing our great High Priest, Jesus Christ.  We might say that they were copies of the One who was to come in their functions, those functions being offering sacrifices on behalf of the people.  Thus a priest served as a go-between for the people and God.

And so we see how they foreshadowed and anticipated our Lord’s coming.  Our Lord is the quintessential go-between and the perfect mediator.  Unlike the priests of old, he does not have to offer sacrifices for himself, for he is sinless.  But because he assumed our nature, he is like the old priests in that he knows us and “sympathizes with our weaknesses.”  In our Lord’s human nature, he was tempted like as we are, yet without sin.  He too offered prayers to God “with loud cries and tears” as one who suffered with us and for us.  Scripture even says that “he learned obedience through what he suffered,” not meaning that our Lord was ever disobedient to His heavenly Father, or his parents, but that even he grew in knowledge and wisdom as a human being (Luke 2:51-52).  He grew in his own godly perfection and holiness as he lived our life, endured trial and conquered temptation, and so was made (and ever was) the spotless Lamb of God.

And now he is our great High Priest, the One who intercedes for us through prayer, the One who “re-presents” us to the Father, not as the old Adam through whom we sinned, but as the new Adam, who is himself.  Through him, we are made acceptable, forgiven, and spotless.