Jesus was dead.
After His famous last words, we are told that “he gave up his ghost” and when the Roman soldiers came to take the bodies (Jesus along with the two thieves) they saw “that he was already dead.” In historical accounts, from Tacitus to Pliny to Josephus, the event is noted, and even the Jewish Talmud of the era points out that the man named Yeshua was crucified. There is no doubt – Jesus was dead.
So that was that. He was born, he lived His life, and He died. It is the same for us all.
He, being a Jew, and his followers too, meant certain things had to happen before the sun went down. The Jews recognize sundown Friday to sundown Saturday as the Sabbath, the day of rest. There wasn’t much that an observant Jew could do on the Sabbath. No work. No food preparation. No commerce. A “Sabbath day’s journey” was considered to be to the walls of the city. A lot had to happen, and fast, to stay within the guidelines of the Jewish religion. So, his followers, particularly Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, came and took His body, prepared Him for burial, and laid Him in a tomb. Because one thing was certain – Jesus was dead.
As the world prepares for the Easter week there is a lot of talk given to Friday, the day of crucifixion, and Sunday, the day of resurrection. But not much observance is given by most to Saturday. Maybe it’s because that is the Sabbath, and all is quiet. Maybe it’s because there is a day missing in the New Testament accounts. And it is reinforced in modern Christian preaching with phrases like “but Sunday’s coming!” all the while ignoring Saturday.
Which is unfortunate, because that was quite the day in the history of the world.
A little background. Up until this point in history the dead were presumed to be sleeping, their bodies awaiting the resurrection. The story, though, is told of a certain beggar named Lazarus, you know the one, he only hoped to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. But both Lazarus and the rich man died, as we all must, and the story takes an interesting turn:
“So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.” Luke 16:22-23
So it would appear that the grave was really only the beginning of another life, of death – in a place referred to as Hades by the Jews, the underworld, a place divided into Sheol and Paradise, a place for the wicked and the righteous. On the cross, Jesus told the repentant thief that “today you will be with me in Paradise.”
It turns out that on Saturday Jesus was busy. Friday He said that it was finished, the law was fulfilled, His mission accomplished, the price was paid. But there was a little detail to be taken care of first. The Apostle Paul would later write this odd reference about the events of Saturday:
“therefore He says:
“When He ascended on high,
He led captivity captive,
And gave gifts to men.”
(Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) Ephesians 4:8-10
Sometimes you have hit rock bottom before you can find your way back, sometimes you must go down to go up. There was a seat at the right hand of God waiting for Him, but there was a little job to be done first.
It says that there were captives in captivity, prisoners in prison, souls held without a way out. Prisons have gates to keep people in – no one is trying to get in. In the history of East Germany, no one was ever shot trying to escape into the East side of Berlin – everyone wanted out, to freedom. And that’s where Jesus found Himself headed, while Jerusalem rested, and His disciples mourned, to the prison that held men in. Because Friday was rough but historic, and Sunday is coming, but the Son of God was about to finish some eternal business and loose the souls of the faithful, who were not of this earth, and looked for a homeland.
“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18
Hell is a prison, a place of captivity. Gates can’t attack you, and walls can only keep you in. They are fixed and locked, rigid and withholding hope. The goal of the prison is punishment – but remember, yesterday Jesus said it was finished. All of it.
“I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death.” Revelation 1:18
So, on that sleepy Saturday Jesus, the spotless lamb, God’s plan for redemption, the price paid for your soul, my soul, all souls took His keys and opened the gates. And He led the captives out, ascended, it says, to freedom and life eternal.
And that thief on the cross? Today, as promised, he was with Jesus in Paradise.
Because there is hope.