The Resurrection of Christ—Easter Sunday 2014

This is from an old Latin hymn from the fifth century and possibly even earlier.  It was originally translated into English by John Mason Neale, and various additions and alternate translations have been made since.  Here is one version.  To hear it performed to a tune adapted by Michael Praetorius, though not with the exact words given below, click here.

Joy dawned again on Easter Day,
The sun shone out with fairer ray,
When, to their longing eyes restored
Th’Apostles saw their risen Lord.

His risen flesh with radiance glowed;
His wounded hands and feet He showed:
Those scars their silent witness gave
That Christ was risen from the grave.

O Jesus, King of gentleness,
Do Thou our inmost hearts possess;
And we to Thee will ever raise
The tribute of our grateful praise.

All praise, O risen Lord, we give
To Thee, who dead, again dost live;
To God the Father equal praise,
And God the Holy Ghost, we raise.

O Lord of all, with us abide
On this our joyous Eastertide;
From every weapon death can yield
Thine own redeemed forever shield.

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Have a blessed celebration of the resurrection of our Lord.

Jerry Shepherd
Resurrection Sunday
April 20, 2014

He Descended into Hell—Lent Day Forty

It was in the fall of 1983 that I began to attend Westminster Seminary.  I had gone there for the specific purpose of studying Old Testament.  But the seminary, like all seminaries, very unreasonably and very stubbornly insisted that I take courses in other disciplines as well, such as church history.  One of the unnecessary courses in which I enrolled was “The Ancient Church” with Dr. Richard Gamble. It turned out to be a fascinating course, and for the major research paper, I decided to write on a topic that had always puzzled me: What is meant by the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell”?  So, one of my first seminary productions was a paper entitled, “Ancient Church Conception and Creedalization of the Descent into Hell Phrase in the Apostles’ Creed.” I actually put a great deal of labor into that paper, and I still remember the hours I spent, not only in the Westminster library, but also in the nearby Lutheran seminary library, an old stone building which had a delightfully “Reformational” atmosphere about it.  In any case, the professor returned the paper to me with a single solitary comment on it: “A (one of the few).”  I tell you this solely for the purpose of tooting my own horn.

To make a long paper short, there were several ideas prevalent in the ancient church idea of Christ’s descent into hell.  They can pretty much be narrowed down to three basic conceptions: (1) Christ’s descent to hell was for the purpose of preaching and proclamation; (2) Christ’s descent to hell was in some way a continuation of his humiliation and sufferings; and (3) Christ’s descent to hell was an act of liberation to loose the bonds of the saints who were imprisoned there.  These three streams are not rigid, and there are numerous variations of each, as well as mixtures of all three in the church fathers.

The biblical passages which were used to support the idea of the descent were numerous.  The main passages were Ephesians 4:8-10 and 1 Peter 3:18—4:6.  But some of the other passages which were referred to in support were Matthew 12:39-40; Luke 16:19-31; John 10:16; Acts 2:24-32; and Romans 10:7.

When the phrase became part of the Apostles’ Creed is hard to determine, partly because the date of the Creed itself is hard to determine.  But even though the creedalization of the phrase may not have happened till the fourth or fifth century AD, the references to Christ’s descent are numerous and much earlier.  Among the church fathers who make reference to the descent are Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Melito, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Ambrose, Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and even the heretic Marcion.

Over those first few centuries, what rises to the forefront, and what I believe ultimately accounts for the descent into hell phrase eventually becoming part of the Apostles’  Creed, is that third understanding of why Christ descended to hell—that he went there to liberate the Old Testament saints from their imprisonment in Hades.  This has been referred to as the Höllenstürmung, the “Hell-storming” conception, or, more popularly, the “Harrowing of Hell.”  Here are some representative statements from the church fathers:

Therefore it became him, that when he went to Hades, he preached to those there, who in this life, had not allowed themselves to be convinced.  On that account therefore, the doorkeepers of Hades trembled and he broke and destroyed the gates of Hades and the iron doors and bolts were broken.  (Hippolytus)

Christ, not sharing in sin, descending to the depths of Tartarus, breaking the bolts of Hades, recalled to life from the jaws of the devil souls conquered by sin, having destroyed the dominion of death.  The divine triumph is written in eternal letters when it is said, “O Death, where is thy sting?  O Death, where is thy victory?’ ” (Ambrose)

He descended into hell alone, but ascended from there with a great company; for he went down to death, and many bodies of  the saints which slept arose through him.  Death was struck with dismay on beholding a new visitant descending into Hades not bound by the chains of that place.  Wherefore, O ye porters of Hades, when ye saw him, were ye scared?  What unwanted fear seized you?  Death fled, and his flight betrayed his cowardice . . . All the just were ransomed whom death had devoured, for it behoved the King who had been heralded to become the redeemer of his noble heralds.  (Cyril of Jerusalem)

So while the ideas of Christ preaching to the spirits in prison, or even in some way continuing his sufferings in hell, contributed to the mix, it was the third idea, the “Harrowing of Hell,” which ultimately accounts for the popularity of the descent and its inclusion in the Apostles’ creed.

Perhaps sometime in the future, maybe next year’s “Holy Saturday,” I’d like to come back and look at this whole concept.  The textual, contextual, and conceptual problems are legion, and the attempt to sort through all the contextual and conceptual issues, to exegete the texts, and to construct some kind of biblical-theological picture which takes into account all of the biblical data—this is in itself a “descent” into a labyrinthine maze in which many commentators and theologians have been trapped and from which they have yet to emerge.  Perhaps at Christ’s second coming he will descend into the labyrinth and free them from their prison.  For now, the only thing I can say is that, despite all the textual problems, I believe the church fathers were on to something.  I believe, along with my Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, that the texts very possibly are pointing to something like a Höllenstürmung, a Hell-storming, a Harrowing of Hell.  I, myself, have not yet done the rigorous exegetical work necessary to say “yea” or “nay.” But, at some point, I’m going to take courage and enter the maze.  Hopefully, I will also emerge.  But, for now, in solidarity with, and deference to, the saints of the ancient church, I will affirm:

He descended into hell

Jerry Shepherd
Holy Saturday
April 19, 2014

Christ Died for Our Sins According to the Scriptures—Day Thirty-Nine: A Late Good Friday Afternoon Meditation

In the previous posts of this Lenten series, we have made our way through the first three of the four servant songs in the book of Isaiah.  I would like to have posted every day of this passion week on the fourth servant song in Isaiah 52:13—53:12; but, because of the pressures of the semester, was unable to do so.  And I don’t want to try to say everything I wanted to say about this very important passage in this one post.  So, I’ll come back to that, God willing, in another Lenten season.  Instead, on this Good Friday afternoon, I offer the following, focusing on the role of the Psalms in the life of Jesus during Passion week, culminating in the role they play even as Christ hangs on the cross.

The passages below are all the places in the gospels, as best as I can ascertain, where the words of the Psalms appear on Christ lips in the week leading up to his crucifixion.

16 “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him. “Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, ‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’?” (Matthew 21:16, quoting Psalm 8:2)

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Matthew 21:42, quoting Psalm 118:22-23; see also Mark 12:10-11; Luke 20:17).

42 “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied.  43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, 44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.” ‘  45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” (Matthew 22:42-45, quoting Psalm 110:1; see also Mark 12:35-37)

18 “I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill the scripture: ‘He who shares my bread has lifted up his heel against me.’ ” (John 13:18, quoting Psalm 41:9)

25 “But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’ ” (John 15:25, citing Psalm 35:19 and/or Psalm 69:4)

38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” (Matthew 26:38, quoting Psalms 42:5, 11; 43:5; see also Mark 14:34)

46 About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, quoting Psalm 22:1; see also Mark 15:34)

46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.  (Luke 23:46, quoting Psalm 31:5)

As you, can see, passages from the Psalms were very much on Jesus’ mind during the last week of his life before his crucifxion.  Indeed, two of the seven sayings from the cross are quotations from the Psalms.  There are three implications I would like to draw from this.

(1) In all of the passages at which we looked, Christ is portrayed as taking the language of the psalmist onto his own lips. In other words, Christ becomes the Psalmist of Passion Week. Rather than creating new expressions to articulate his sorrows, his anguish, and his grief, he chooses to utilize the compositions contained within the Psalter. The prayerbook of Israel has become his prayerbook. The laments of his ancestors have become his laments. David’s greater son has inherited the Psalms of David, and they now belong to the rightful heir, the true Messianic King.

(2) What we have noticed about Christ’s use of the Psalms during Passion Week, is also true more generally of most Psalm citations that are made in the New Testament with reference to Christ. For the most part, when the New Testament cites a psalm with reference to Christ, either the citation of the psalm is placed directly on Christ’s lips, or the logic of the citation is best understood if the words are regarded as being spoken by Christ. In other words, far more often than not, it is not so much that the psalm quoted is about Christ; rather, the psalm is by Christ. Thus, Messianic psalms are not so much psalms that are predictively about Jesus; Messianic psalms are psalms that are sung by Jesus. Indeed, there may not be any purely predictive psalms. It might be more precise to say that Christ appropriates these psalms for his own use. But that does not make them any less Messianic.  As I wrote in my dissertation nearly twenty years ago,

To be sure, Jesus “appropriates” the psalmist’s language. But what is important to see here is that this is not just an “after thought” appropriation. Rather, it is both an “intentional” and an “intended” appropriation. When God inspired David and the other psalmists to compose their laments, their thanksgiving songs, and their hymns, these compositions were not only, or even primarily intended by God for use in their original contexts. Instead, God intended them for use by his Son. And, if we are to determine what a text means by authorial intention, then it seems that we have to say that these psalms receive their fullest and intended meaning in Christ’s appropriation of them.

(3) Finally, this is instructive about the way in which we might make use of and pray the Psalms.  The words of the psalmists which gave strength and comfort, and even provided the very words for the Son of man to use in expressing his deepest anguish, can provide us with strength and comfort and the words we need as well. Thus, the Psalms become more to us than just cute little spiritual ditties, or a collection of promises to put in our “promise boxes.” Rather, they become the lenses through which we see clearly the issues of life and death.

But, and this is all-important, we do not go to the Psalms directly. Rather, we go to them through our Head, Jesus Christ, the one to whom the Psalms belong, the rightful heir of the prayerbook of Israel, and royal Son of David, who, as the King of Israel, has rightfully inherited the book of Psalms. It is his book, and it can be our book only because it is his book. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says so eloquently, and so correctly,

If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible and especially the Psalms, therefore, we must not ask first what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ.

We pray the Psalms, not by ourselves, but, rather, in solidarity with the one who prays them with us.

So, on this late Friday afternoon, if you desire to meditate more thoughtfully, and enter more contemplatively into the sufferings that our Lord went through for us on that first Good Friday nearly two thousand years ago, perhaps one way in which you could do that would be by way of the Psalms which were in Christ’s own mind and heart as he faced his great hour of trial.  Read them, meditate on them, pray them.  Pray them in solidarity with your Lord.  Perhaps, by doing so, you will find one very meaningful pathway into the heart of Jesus.

Jerry Shepherd
Good Friday
April 18, 2014

The Resurrection of Christ—Sixth Sunday of Lent

G. K. Chesterton’s poem, The Donkey, is one of my favorite pieces for Palm Sunday.

When fishes flew and forests walked
          And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
          Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
          And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
          On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
          Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
          I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
          One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
          And palms before my feet.

I don’t presume to know all that went into Chesterton’s thinking, and I have not read all the literary analyses of this very interesting poem. Perhaps Chesterton meant nothing more than to write a whimsical and fanciful poem about an animal connected to Palm Sunday, much like some of the children’s Christmas songs we are all familiar with, like, for example, The Friendly Beasts. But I wonder if Chesterton might have had some insight here about human nature and the uncanny ability we have to take a narrative about Jesus and turn it into a narrative about us. This would be very interesting, and would capture some of our evangelical culture very well. What asses we are to think that the shouts about our ears and the palms beneath our feet are actually for us!

Jerry Shepherd
April 13, 2014

Christ Died for Our Sins According to the Scriptures—Day Thirty-Four: The Flint

In the last post we turned our attention to the third of the four servant songs, found in Isaiah 50:4-9.  I reproduce the text here again.

4 The Sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.  5 The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back.  6 I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.  7 Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.  8 He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me!  9 It is the Sovereign LORD who helps me. Who is he that will condemn me? They will all wear out like a garment; the moths will eat them up.

In addition to what I said in the last post, there are three more things I would like to point out about this third servant song.

(1) As I mentioned in an earlier post in this series, I believe these servant songs have both an immediate and a distant referent.  The more distant referent is Jesus Christ.  The more immediate referent, that is, a person or persons from the prophet’s own context—there is much academic discussion as to who that might be.  See the list I gave in the earlier post, for Day Five.  The point I wish to make here is that, since there are two referents, we have to be careful about taking every detail in these servant songs and using them to “fill in” details in the passion narrative of Jesus.  It would be wrong therefore to argue that because the servant in this song talks about people pulling out his beard hairs, that this necessarily means that the same happened to Jesus.  That is certainly possible, but it is not demanded.  In the same way, it would be wrong to take Isaiah 53:2 and argue that Jesus, all his life, must have been a very unattractive person.  Not every detail should necessarily be taken forward, or be used to fill in details in the gospel narratives.

(2)  The servant of the Lord states, not only that he has not shrunk back from the physical abuse he is encountering in his attempt to carry out his assigned task.  But, even more strongly than this, he states that he has set his face like flint.  We should see the resolve of the servant here mirrored in the resolve of Christ as he sets his face for Jerusalem.  I believe that Luke does indeed pick up this theme in the ninth chapter of his gospel:

51 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.

Commentators on the gospel of Luke have often referred to the section of the gospel that begins with this verse and continues through chapter 19 as Luke’s “Travel Narrative.”  It is that section where Jesus is steadfastly, resolutely making his way toward Jerusalem.  Even before this earlier in chapter nine in the account of the transfiguration, we see Jesus, Moses, and Elijah talking about Jesus’ “departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”

And, then, as Luke continues to narrate Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, he tells of this very interesting encounter with some Pharisees, who, at least on the surface, appear to be concerned for Jesus’ safety:

31 At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”  32 He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’  33 In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day–for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! (Luke 13:31-33)

Jesus has set his face for Jerusalem.  He is going there to accomplish his departure, his death, his crucifixion. He is going there to reach his goal, his own death in Jerusalem.  He has set his face like flint.

(3) The servant of the Lord can do this because his has complete trust that the Lord will vindicate him.  Despite the false charges that have been leveled against him, the servant knows that, ultimately, the Lord will clear his name.

Similarly, Christ surrenders himself to the will of his Father, and he knows that ultimately, the Father will testify on his behalf.  This is why he can say, “not my will, but yours be done.”  And this is why, on the cross with his last breath, he can cry out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

He is, indeed, the Lord’s true servant.

Jerry Shepherd
April 12, 2014