There are all kinds of debates these days about the nature of the founding of America. Was it primarily religious? Was it political? Was it just about taxes? Was it just about representation But beyond the complexities of the founding of a nation, there is no debate about facts and figures. America declared independence on July 4, 1776. The Constitution was enacted as our founding document in 1789. There are 50 states. We have a national bird. We have three branches of the federal government. Every state has a governor. If someone were to ask us about America, we could relatively easily describe it to them. We could give them all kinds of facts and figures about the Federalist Papers, the revolution, the declaration of independence, and important dates.
Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God would be established. After all, Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom. Jesus says to the Pharisees, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20b-21).
When Jesus is asked to describe the establishment of his kingdom, he knows that the people are asking questions they’re not ready to have answered. They already had expectations for how a new kingdom would look, and they need to change those expectations. Nations and kingdoms have a king, they have militaries, they have houses or parliaments, they have government projects, all kinds of ordinary things. But Jesus tells these Pharisees that if you are just looking for the ordinary things any kingdom, you’ll be greatly disappointed.
I think this explains a lot of the various responses to Jesus and the things he said. When I read the account of the two thieves who were crucified beside Jesus, I can see no explanation for what happened apart from divine sovereignty, of God turning a heart of stone to a heart of flesh. One criminal could see the kingdom of God, but the other could not. One criminal saw a king dying for the salvation of his people, but the other did not. Why is that? Because the kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed.
But from the very beginning, the gospels have presented Jesus as nothing less than the cosmic king of the universe who deserves praise and adoration from all people. Luke makes clear that Jesus has the right lineage to be from the house of King David, so he has the rightful claim to the throne in Israel. The angels that speak to the shepherds announce that Jesus will be king for all people, not just Israel. Matthew presents the wise men from the east looking for the one who was born king of the Jews. At no point in Scripture is Jesus presented as anything less than the king of all the whole world who will welcome citizens from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people. But in the words spoken to the thieves on the cross, we see that:
Christ is king of the highest heavens and the lowest depths.
To some, the very notion of a king over the whole universe is a silly fantasy. The gospel is a myth. Jesus was a momentary figure in history whose life was snuffed out by a few soldiers who did that kind of thing regularly. Jesus wasn’t even on Rome’s radar. In fact, it’s his insignificance that best explains the response of those who have the authority to permit crucifixions. Pilate doesn’t understand why everyone is so up-in-arms about Jesus. He doesn’t know what to do, so he sends Jesus to another local ruler, a man named Herod. Herod winds up being just as confounded about why this man matters so much. There’s so much mist and confusion surrounding Jesus that Pilate finally authorizes his crucifixion just to have it behind him.
But are we surprised that people are confused about Jesus if his kingdom is not seen with human eyes? But what if his kingdom is larger than just what is visible to the human eye? Christ is king of the highest heavens and the lowest depths.
vv.32-34: The goodness and mercy of Christ is never more clear than at the crucifixion.
In the previous passage, Christ’s cross was temporarily carried by another man, Simon of Cyrene. There is no relationship to Jesus that does not involve a cross. Whether or not Simon knew Christ at that moment is unclear, but we do not know Christ if we do not know of his cross. In this passage, we see two criminals now on their own crosses for their own crimes. Their actual crime is unknown to us, but if they were crucified they must have been considered a real threat to the empire. Crucifying people together was an even greater shock to the eyes than a single person. It showed that Rome had no problem ending the life of anyone and everyone who threatened to disrupt good Roman society.
You have maybe heard more times than you care to remember just how horrendous crucifixion really was. “Agony” maybe begins to describe it. And yet, the gospel writers, all four of them, refuse to go into the gruesome detail that seems to be so interesting to us. Here in Luke, all we read is, “There they crucified him.” No notes, no word-pictures, no gory details. The story jumps from Jesus walking along the street to being mocked on the cross. We don’t need to focus on just how gruesome it was. We need to see that as Jesus hanged there, he never doubted the goodness of God.
Jesus does not address anyone on the ground or on the other crosses at first. The first person that Jesus addresses is his heavenly Father. Despite his impending death, Jesus never loses his trust in the Father. He knew that on the other side of the grave was a heavenly throne and a sanctified people. It was for the joy set before him that he endured the cross. Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Jesus would endure anything, any amount of suffering, any method of execution, to satisfy divine justice. He would have the full cup of God’s wrath poured out on him on behalf of the elect, that he might have a purified people to give to his Father.
Jesus does not pray to be taken down. He does not pray to have his pain satiated. He prays instead that those watching and those who nailed him to the crossbeam would be forgiven this great sin. He taught his disciples to do exactly what he is doing now. In Luke’s recording of the beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets” (Luke 6:22-23). Jesus is being executed for blasphemy, having his name spurned as evil. He is taking these people to the Father in prayer. There is no love like his.
Jesus has already been stripped down earlier as he was beaten beforehand. In this same chapter, verse 11, the soldiers place Jesus is royal clothing, or “splendid clothing”, to show how ironic it is that the so-called king of the Jews has no soldiers of his own to guard their king. But again, the kingdom of God is not observable to the naked eye. Even as he prayed in Gethsemane, an angel came and ministered to him to strengthen him. He could have called down 10,000 angels to remove him from the cross and bandage his wounds. Instead, for the joy set before him, for the kingdom of God, Christ took the wrath of God on himself.
vv.35-38: You can be close to Jesus but far from the truth.
The religious leaders mock him, the soldiers mock him, and one of the thieves on the other crosses mock him. Luke is pulling heavily from Psalm 22 to show that what is taking place is in direct fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Psalm 22 is a Psalm about one who is suffering at the hands of evil men, all the while praising God for his provision. Psalm 22:7 says, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads.” Luke has already pulled from Psalm 22:18 in how the soldiers dressed Jesus and took his clothes. It says, “They divide my garments among them; and for my clothing they cast lots” (Psalm 22:18). The church saw just how much of the crucifixion was prophesied in the Old Testament.
Jesus is mocked by the religious leaders telling him to save himself. He helped so many people, but all of a sudden, he’s too weak to do anything. “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One” (Luke 23:35). Little do they know that Jesus is God’s chosen one, as made evident in his transfiguration. When Jesus is on the mountain, speaking with Moses and Elijah, God the Father speaks out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him” (Luke 9:35). Luke is just shining a light on the irony of everything they’re saying. They’re so close to Jesus but so far from the truth. The religious leaders were Bible experts, you could say. But how much of it did they choose to ignore because of how much Jesus threatened their lifestyle? You can know every word of the Bible, but if you do not know the Lord of the Bible, you do not understand what you are reading.
The soldiers are also mocking him. They offered him sour wine, which was a typical drink soldiers took with them as they went about their day. It would stay clean and drinkable. Knowing that Jesus is not coming off that cross alive, they’re not offering it out of kindness to a dying man. It’s a taunt. Not only that, but it also looks back at the Psalms. Psalm 69 is another psalm about God’s anointed one suffering in the hands of evil men. Verse 21 says, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.”
What’s perhaps most incredible is that both of these psalms, Psalms 22 and 69, both begin with the anointed one waiting on God to act, both describe the agony of the anointed one, and both end with the anointed one trusting that God will save him from the hands of his enemies. Jesus goes to the cross in anguish, but he stays up there because he knows that it is not the end. Christ knows that:
vv.39-43: The suffering of the saints ends in the presence of God.
In the third act of mockery, now one of two soldiers just wants Jesus to let him live. “If you’re who you say you are, then do your thing and get us off of here.” How is that any different from what the Pharisees have said? Actually, how is that any different than what Satan has said? In his wilderness temptations, Satan waited until Jesus was exhausted and starving and told him to turn stones to bread to feed himself. Satan then showed Jesus global power and authority and said it could be his if he would just worship Satan. Satan then takes Jesus to the top of the temple and tells him throw himself down. If he’s the Son of God, then angels will save him. What Satan tempts Jesus with is autonomy. Satan tells Jesus that the whole world has been delivered to him, and he can offer Jesus everything. Satan in fact is called the god of this world and the prince of the power of the air. But Jesus denies Satan all three times, showing that he will not deviate from the redemptive plan of God. Satan tells Jesus to throw himself down watch the angels save him. The thief tells Jesus to get himself down and save the thief as well. There is a way of looking at Jesus that only wants what he can give. Having Jesus get you off of your own cross is not the gospel. Having Jesus suffer and die on his cross while you bear your own cross beside him—that’s the gospel. Instead of seeing the cross the gateway to the kingdom of God, this criminal slanders God’s divine plan of redemption.
The other criminal, appointed to eternal life, tells the other criminal to mind who he is talking to. Jesus is innocent while they hang there for good reasons. Even if crucifixion is an awful way to die, this criminal knows it’s better than his miserable life of sin and rebellion deserves. This criminal asks that Jesus remember him when he enters his kingdom. The thief asks Christ for mercy and sees him as the doorway into the kingdom. Everyone else is asking, “What kingdom?” But those who have been given faith, paradoxically, can see the unobservable kingdom.
Merciful Jesus tells the second thief, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (v.43). Jesus’ ministry of redemption did not end at the cross. This raises the question, where exactly did the soul of Jesus go when he died? Where is paradise? If he was truly dead, as the church confesses, until the third day, where was he?
The doctrine of the descent of Christ affirms that upon his death, Christ descended to the realm of the dead as every human did, up until that time. He declared victory over sin and death to the spirits in prison and released the captives. Understandably, sometimes there is some discomfort about this because of certain language that has been used, such as in the creeds. The apostles’ creed says, “He descended to Hades”, or as most English versions say, “He descended to hell.” “Hell” really means the grave. But sometimes we use the word “hell” to mean where evil people are in torment forever. And obviously, we do not affirm that Christ went to hell to suffer. That is far from what Scripture teaches.
But if Christ went to paradise, where did he go? Many Psalms, as we have already seen, which speak about the suffering of God’s anointed one also speak of him descending to Sheol, or the Hebrew word for the realm of the dead. As Hebrew culture eventually came in contact with Greek culture as Jews spread throughout the Greek-speaking world before Jesus’ time, Hades became another common word meaning essentially the same thing as Sheol. It’s where every soul went upon death.
But the Scriptures also speak of Sheol or Hades or Hell as if it had distinctive levels, kind of an upper and lower section. For example, when the prophet Isaiah taunts the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14, he tells the king that he will go down to Sheol, even to the “far reaches of the pit” (v.15). The Psalms and Proverbs speak of this pit and give it the name Abaddon, which means “destruction”. Proverbs 15:11 compares Sheol and Abaddon when it says, “Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord.”
Now, in no way should we go from these clear passages to enormous speculation about the nine levels of the inferno. Instead of overreacting to that egregious error, we should simply correct it. While the Old Testament may not spend an inordinate amount of time on the afterlife, we should never say that it was not clear.
As we move on in to the New Testament, there is no change or contradiction. There is still one realm of the dead yet division of that one place into “rooms” or “compartments”, you might say, of comfort and torment. This is perhaps no more clear than in the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
If you’re not familiar with the story, a rich man refuses to address the needs of a poor man named Lazarus at his doorstep. Once both of them die, the rich man goes to Hades in torment while Lazarus is carried by the angels to a place called “Abraham’s bosom” or “Abraham’s side”. Lazarus is comforted there and is with other saints. Lazarus and the rich man can clearly speak to each other. In fact, Abraham himself speaks to the rich man who is in torment. The rich man wants someone to rise from Abraham’s side to find his brothers and warn them of their impending fate. But central to the story is that the two places are not interchangeable, no one can cross from one place to the other, and both are considered to be in the heart of the earth.
In addition to the gospels, the apostle Peter teaches the descent of Christ in 1 Peter 3:18-22, which says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.”
Ironically, this is a passage often used to teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. What it really teaches is that as Christ went to the prison, IE Sheol, Hades, Abraham’s side, or paradise, so baptism corresponds to that. Baptism is descent into the water and is a symbol of death to self. Coming up out of the water is a symbol of new life in Christ, which he achieved in his resurrection.
The apostle Paul speaks of Christ’s descent in Ephesians 4. He says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth [Literally, the lower regions OF the earth]? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)” (vv.8-10). Christ freed from the grave the righteous saints who died before his once-for-all sacrifice and led those captives free into heaven. That’s why Paul can now say, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:23). All the dead in Christ are now with him rather than Sheol or Hades.
In his descent, Christ proclaimed to the captives that he had won the victory over death and Hades. It is not the word for preaching, in the sense of gospel preaching aimed at the salvation of souls, but proclamation of victory over the forces of evil. Those in Abaddon, in the deepest recesses of the pit, are reserved for destruction and eternal torment. When Jesus tells Peter that he will build his church, he includes the fact that the gates of Hades will not prevail. In his descent, Christ opened the gates to Hades and proclaimed his triumph and took those at Abraham’s side with him to the court of heaven. As Jesus speaks to John in Revelation 1, he says, “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” (v.17b). The keys are his because he has all authority over the highest heavens and the lowest depths.