The Good News of Holy Saturday

In Protestant American churches, and particularly in evangelical ones, Easter, along with Christmas, is the highlight of the church year. Pastors exhort their congregations to invite their neighbors, the worship leader may prepare some special music, and families will gather together afterward to eat some/a lot of New Covenant ham. In between these two poles of celebrating Christ’s birth and resurrection, though, many evangelical congregations have lost a sense of the rest of the Christian calendar. Even when a pastor mentions Holy Week, the most an evangelical church might do is have a Good Friday service.

One day in particular that suffers from this apathy towards the traditional church calendar among evangelicals is Holy Saturday. While Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and some mainline Protestants still practice the Holy Saturday evening liturgy, both the practice and theological impact of the Great Sabbath have been lost in many evangelical churches. So what does Holy Saturday mean? Why is it important not only that Christ “died, and was buried,” but also that “he descended to the dead”?

First, when I affirm that Christ descended to the dead, what I mean – and what I think the Bible teaches – is that Jesus experienced the fullness of death as the incarnate Son. In other words, his human body went down to the grave, his human soul went to the place of the dead (and more particularly, the place of the righteous dead, Paradise), and both of these occurred while his human nature was all the while hypostatically united to the divine nature of the Son. So the God-man experiences death – not just in a moment, but the state of death, remaining dead for three days. I think, then, we can point to at least three aspects of Christ’s time in the tomb that are good news – part of the gospel.

  1. Holy Saturday is Jesus’ Sabbath rest. Jesus declares on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and, as the Triune God rests after the work of creation is finished, so Jesus rests after his work of new creation is finished. Saturday is the seventh day, the day of rest, and Jesus is resting after completing his work of redemption. Of course, we’re still waiting on the resurrection – without Easter Sunday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday mean nothing. But Jesus’ mission is effectively completed when he gives up his spirit at the crucifixion.
  2. Holy Saturday is when Jesus experiences death for us. The Nicene Creed declares that Jesus came “for us and for our salvation,” and his time in the tomb is part of what he does for us. As the God-man, Jesus experiences death. He has not just died for a moment and then received life again, nor did he revive after being placed in the tomb and then just chill until Sunday morning. Jesus remained dead. I think this is particularly comforting for those facing death, or who have loved ones facing death – Jesus has experienced this with us and for us. We have nothing to fear because Christ our Brother has faced and experienced the same death we all face.
  3. Holy Saturday is Jesus’ victory over death. Again, we’re still waiting on the consummation of Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection on Easter Sunday, but in a very real sense the fact that Jesus remains dead for three days is in itself defeating death. He doesn’t just experience death for us; by experiencing it as the God-man, he also defeats it for us. Death therefore has no sting or victory anymore (1 Cor. 15:55). In the early church, Holy Saturday was when Jesus declared his victory to all the dead, righteous and unrighteous, since he was in the place of the dead with them. So we can say on Saturday Jesus’ announced victory and on Sunday he demonstrated it.

Race, Ethnicity, Class, and Social Injustice Are Gospel Issues

I continue to hear and read comments like “race isn’t a gospel issue.” This could not be further from the truth.

Race is a gospel issue because our world, though one in Adam, is divided by ethnicity, nationality, tribal distinctions, and social classes. We are one people in our common parentage, but we are not one in the way we treat each other. We are not one when we plunder one another, fight one another, oppress one another, and destroy one another. Someone might say at this point, “yes but this is a matter of simply recognizing the image of God in each other. That’s not a gospel issue.” What gives you the eyes to see and ears to hear the image of God in your fellow man clearly and truly *other than* the gospel? Christ is the new and better Adam, and only by seeing his life can we see and understand true life and all the lives around us. Common grace is given by God, to be sure, but until our eyes are opened by the power of the Holy Spirit and the light of the gospel we only see one another through a glass darkly. Sin clouds our minds and our thoughts about one another. Race is a gospel issue because only by the light of the gospel can we truly understand our diversity and unity in Adam and, for those who are believers, in Christ.

Race is a gospel issue because the Old Testament says it is. God *makes a race* out of Abraham and Israel, his chosen people. Israel does not exist as an ethnic group or nationality *until God makes them*! God has chosen to redeem the world through one particular ethnicity, indeed through one man from that particular ethnicity, and through that one man to bless the nations. God, through one race, draws all races to himself. Every tribe, tongue, and nation. The good news of the gospel is through one race and for all races, so that at the coming of our Lord Jesus every knee from every race should bow and every tongue from every ethnicity should confess that Christ is King.

Race is a gospel issue because the New Testament says it is. Jesus sends his disciples out to proclaim the good news of his death and resurrection to *all nations,* to the *ends of the earth.* The gospel is for all people, which in the New Testament would be read as saying it is for all kinds of people, that is, all races, ethnicities, classes, etc. The book of Acts narrates this in dramatic form, with the gospel going first to the Jew and then to the Gentile. Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians all explain the gospel *so that their readers will understand how both Jew and Gentile can be part of the one people of God.* Paul’s majestic explanation of the heighth and breadth and length and depth of Christ’s atoning work is set in the context of racial unity in the church! Galatians tells us that male, female, barbarian, Scythian, slave, and free are one in Christ – these are socio-economic and racial distinctions. The gospel of Jesus Christ speaks to the unity of a once disparate group of people. Ephesians 2:15 tells us the same – we are one new man in Christ Jesus. That’s one new man made from different racial groups. The gospel speaks to race. In fact, if race wasn’t affected by the gospel, most of us [Gentiles] would still be without God and without hope in the world (Eph. 2:12). Philemon’s uniqueness in the canon is, in part, the fact that it applies the gospel specifically to social and perhaps racial divides between believers. 1 Peter 2:9-10, again speaking to us Gentiles, tells us that we who were once not a people are now his people. Why? Because the gospel transcends and subverts racial divides.

Race is a gospel issue.

The Theo-Dramatic Character of the Gospel

From Kevin Vanhoozer:

Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension [and Pentecost] are the embodiment of all God’s promises, cosmic and historical, and hence the fulfillment of the purpose of creation and covenant alike.

The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: WJK, 2005), 55.

Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, and giving of the Spirit at Pentecost are “part of Christ’s work, part of the climactic action of the theo-drama.” They are, in other words, all part of what we call “the gospel.” This gospel is primarily narrative in character, in that it relays the story of Jesus the Christ’s restoration of God’s people Israel, and through Israel the world, but also dramatic (Vanhoozer’s words) in that it calls the audience of the evangelion to respond.

STR Article Accepted

I received exciting news this morning that my article “Victory, Atonement, Restoration, and Response: The Shape of the New Testament Canon and the Holistic Gospel Message” has been accepted for publication the Winter 2012 issue of Southeastern Theological Review. This article was a fun one to write, since it was the first new project I’ve worked on using the methodological and theological foundations I proposed in my dissertation.

Here’s an abstract-like paragraph from the introduction:

The canonical shape of the New Testament aids the reader in understanding the biblical gospel as a threefold work of victory over evil, restoration of creation, and redemption from sin through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, as well as the proclamation of the church of that work both in announcing it and calling the nations to respond to it. This will be demonstrated through attention to the shape of the fourfold gospel corpus and Acts, the placement of Revelation at the end of the canon, and the shape of the epistles. In searching the biblical material, primary emphasis will be placed on demonstrating that Christ’s work, and therefore the gospel, includes victory, atonement, and restoration. Some brief concluding thoughts on the need for a personal response to Christ’s message, and that response’s part in the gospel, will also be offered.