For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit
Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
The late Tom Harpur was a Canadian author, broadcaster, religion editor at the Toronto Star, theologian, and Anglican Priest. At the time of his death (February 2017) an obituary in The Globe and Mail began with this sentence: “Tom Harpur was a devout Christian who was not certain that Jesus existed, but did believe in the principles that were taught in his name.” In his last book Harpur wrote, “Read as historical (the story of Christ), they border on the ludicrous. Read as allegorical and metaphor, they shine with contemporary potency for one’s daily life.” (Harpur, Born Again, p. 2)
1. Let me ask you a question. As you read the gospels do you get any sense that the Apostles tell this story of Jesus so that we might discern a better set of principles for living? The Apostle John tells us straight up that he writes “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” By this John does not mean that there is some human principle of “believing” that will rescue humanity. John means believing Jesus. It is very particular.
In the Apostle Peter’s first letter he puts the significance of the Jesus story this way; “By his great mercy he (God) has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Peter isn’t extolling some principle of hope as some sort of better path for living—a first-century equivalent of the “power of positive thinking.” The “living hope” is Jesus Christ. He is telling us that God has done what is impossible for us in Jesus Christ, namely defeated death. As Peter goes on to explain, what God has done in Jesus is to give us “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
In point of fact, this tendency for some in the church to struggle with the apostolic claims with regard to Jesus and read them as merely allegory or metaphor is not new. Some in the Corinthian church was doing this very thing thinking they could discern in the Jesus story a superior kind of spirituality. That Jesus was crucified became, for them, less important as if they could leave that cross business behind. So much so that it prompted Apostle Paul to write, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)
You can’t have the resurrection without the crucifixion —and vice versa. The resurrection is not just the appearance of a dead person. It is the mighty act of God to vindicate the One who’s every right to exist was thought to have been negated by the powers that nailed him to a cross. At the same time, however, the One who is gloriously risen is the same One who suffered crucifixion. It is not an insignificant detail that when Jesus appeared to his disciples, after calming their fears with a word of peace, his first act was “he showed them his hands and his side.” This point is made doubly clear at his second appearance when “doubting Thomas” asks to see the mark of the nails and the spear in the Lord’s resurrected body. (John 20:25)
Jesus is raised with scars of his wounds visible. The Apostolic witness is that the Crucified Jesus is the risen Jesus. This event is in a category all by itself. We don’t interpret it, it interprets us. God tells us what he is doing here for our sakes. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead renders the crucifixion of Jesus victorious.
The Apostles declare that Jesus was raised with wounds visible. What people make of the apostolic witness is another matter. The Apostles in that room when the risen Jesus arrives are witnessing something they are quite sure is impossible. The scars from his wounds tell them it really is the same Jesus they saw crucified. As soon as Thomas sees the wounds he is utterly certain that he is in the presence of Jesus, his saviour and Lord. Jesus presence is entirely physical, yet he is not bound by physical laws, by the laws of space and time. Jesus is the same embodied man, say the Apostles.
The Apostles, in their written letters, tell us that the wounds matter; that the event to which the wounds bear witness is crucial; that the crucifixion of Jesus is the prism through which the whole story of Jesus it to be viewed. When the world beholds the crucified it sees only shame. The apostle John, however, rightly discerned the cross to be the “hour” of Christ’s glory. The world sees the cross as weakness so weak it couldn’t be weaker. The apostle Paul, however, knew the cross to be God’s strength, a strength so effective it couldn’t be stronger. The world sees the cross as that hideous moment when death gloats. Disciples know that the cross yields life, life eternal.
“Jesus sowed them his hands and side.” The resurrection of Jesus with the scars of his wounds visible witnesses that his resurrection renders his cross victorious. One of the reasons I love singing the hymns of the church is because of the theology expressed in them. The hymn Crown Him With Many Crowns has us sing of “rich wounds yet visible above.” One day you too will he shown his hands and side. Scarred forever for our sakes.
2. The Apostle John rightly discerned the cross to be the “hour” of Christ’s glory. Glory meaning where we see the character of God most clearly. The self-giving of Father and Son at the cross is the place where we witness God’s most characteristic work. If the cross is where God acts most effectively because most characteristically, then our discipleship is characteristically Christian and therefore effective only if it is cruciform. Then vulnerability for the sake of Christ’s kingdom has to characterise our discipleship. And such vulnerability will always be invigorated with the selfsame resurrection that rendered our Lord’s vulnerability victorious.
To say it another way, Jesus risen form the dead with wounds yet visible witnesses that his vulnerability at the cross wasn’t useless but victorious for salvation. So too all our self-giving for the sake of the kingdom of our Lord is rendered victorious by his resurrection. He renders it fruitful for the purposes of rectifying all things.
I want you to form in your mind’s eye the following picture of an old man. He is age 81. He has been trudging from door to door for four consecutive days, begging money. It is wintertime, and as he tells us himself, his feet have been immersed from morning to night in ice-cold slush.
He stops begging at the end of the fourth day inasmuch as he has been overtaken by what he calls a “violent flux.” (Today we should say “uncontrollable diarrhoea.”) By this time he has garnered 200 pounds wherewith to purchase food, clothing and coal for poor people who are very dear to him.
He is not a stupid man. In fact he has written 35 tomes, including a textbook on logic. Let me say it again: he is not a stupid man. In addition to his native English he knows thoroughly eight other languages: Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, German, Dutch, Italian, and Spanish. In fact he knows these eight languages so very thoroughly that he has written a grammar in seven of them. He reads comfortably in more languages than Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, or Immanuel Kant. Still, in his transparent humility he will undergo any humiliation and endure any suffering for the sake of a cruciform ministry modelled after the cruciform ministry of his Lord.
His name is John Wesley.
Discipleship is always cruciform. Take the simple matter of forgiveness. It is a simple matter. Simple, I said; I didn’t say easy. Forgiveness is never easy. Is a cross ever easy? Remember, what we forgive is precisely what can never be excused. Most people confuse these two matters. Most people, I have found, assume that to forgive is to find an excuse for something or accept an excuse for something. In any case, they think that to forgive is to excuse. But in fact forgiving and excusing are mutually exclusive. We excuse the excusable. We forgive, on the other hand, what is inexcusable, utterly inexcusable. We forgive precisely what can never be excused. It can only be forgiven. Forgiveness comes from people who have been seared and stamped with the cross. Forgiveness finds it power in the resurrection of our Lord promising the day when all will be set to rights (or rectified).
3. I would like to circle back to something I noted with you a moment ago about our Lord’s resurrection appearances. I noted with you that the Apostles witness that Jesus’ presence is entirely physical, yet he is not bound by physical laws, by the laws of space and time. Jesus is the same embodied man, but somehow locked doors are no barrier to him.
It is important that we take the New Testament as a whole. The events of Jesus death and resurrection in themselves do not disclose their meaning. The physical action of crucifying Jesus does not disclose that it was for us or for our sin. We are bystanders. This is something God does for us in himself. God needs to disclose its meaning to us. The same could be said for the resurrection. As fantastic as in must have been to be in the room with the disciples on that day the event itself does not tell you that it means that our Lord’s self-giving at the cross was victorious.
Its meaning is unpacked in the Apostles’ letters—in their proclamation that follows. And here we need to emphasize the forty days between Jesus resurrection and ascension when he showed them from scripture its meaning. We see the result of this in Peter’s Pentecost sermon when he quoted Psalm 16, “For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit,” as predicting the messiah’s resurrection. Jesus showed them how to read the scriptures through the prism of his death and resurrection.
One of the motifs that the Apostles use, in unpacking its meaning for us, is that the risen Jesus is the new Adam. What humanity could never achieve he did for us in the perfection of his life and in conquering death. He went to the cross to face the powers of sin and death for us—and was victorious. Here in the room with Jesus the disciples see the same embodied man and at the same time the new man (Adam), having entered upon a different manner of existence.
As Jesus read Psalm 16 hear heard the Father’s promise to never let him see the Pit. God won’t abandon him there. To be sure, the Psalmist is praising God for a rescue from a near death experience from an illness. But there is a more profound meaning here. In some respects every recovery from illness is a staving off of death. But such staving off arises from God eternal purposes to defeat death in the Son. So Jesus could say to the disciples he would rise again because of God’s promise, “For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.”
Kimberly Bracken Long Associate Professor of Worship, Columbia Theological Seminary; in her published comments on Psalm 16 she wrote of personal experience.
“After my father’s funeral my mother shared all sorts of memorabilia with my family which included her father’s letters and notes and sermons. She showed me a few typewritten pages that took my breath away and made the tears flow. On those pages were the words my father said at the grave of my stillborn sisters. My mother carried the twins full term before it was clear that something had gone wrong. What had been a growing wave of joy in our family came crashing down when the girls were lost to us before they were born. It was different in those days; there was no funeral or even a time of prayer with the family. My father … took the girls to be buried in the family plot. Only one dear friend accompanied him. Though it was only the two of them, there were things that need to be said. For all the pain in my father’s heart all he could do was give thanks for the goodness of God—the God who welcomed my sisters home, the God who held our lives in divine hands, the God whose faithfulness is beyond measure.”
In the course of my pastoral work it is a phone call I will never forget the phone call. It came from a young couple who were expecting their first child. They were calling from the hospital because their little boy came prematurely and was stillborn. I went to the hospital and blessed that little boy commending him to our Lord’s keeping. He was the spitting image of his father.
A few days later, I stood with them and a few family members at a grave. We buried him in his little white casket. As a Pastor, I can tell that in such moments all our metaphors and allegories are hollow and silent. It is because I know the risen Saviour that I can find hope in him. The scripture witnesses, in the terms of Psalm 16, that because God did give up his faithful One to Sheol nor let him see the Pit so too he will not give us up, who cling to him faith, to Sheol or the Pit either. That little boy is being preserved by God. In Christy, he will one day meet his brother and sister who were later born to this family. And surely, in the rectification of all things achieved by Christ at the cross, that his parents would know him and he them would be part of that rectification.
The Apostle Paul’s word to the Roman church comes to mind. “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?”
For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit
Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side