Note: This is part of a series which began on December 10. To start at the beginning of the series, or to access the Table of Contents, click here.
It is fitting that on the day we celebrate the arrival of the Messiah, we should also celebrate the accomplishment of the purpose for which He came: His victory over death! That is exactly where our text takes us today.
From the agony of Christ’s crucifixion, where we left off yesterday, Jennens and Handel move into a celebration of Christ’s resurrection. They turn first to a pair of texts from the Psalms.
#30: Air (Soprano)
Psalm 16:10 — But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell; nor didst Thou suffer Thy Holy One to see corruption.
Psalm 24: 7-10 — Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is this King of Glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is this King of Glory? The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory.
And now, Daniel Block’s commentary on this section:
In segment B of Part II (#30-34) the tone changes dramatically as the concern shifts from the passion and crucifixion of the Messiah to his resurrection. Again changing first person speech into third person narration (while retaining the direct address of God!), Jennens attributes the resurrection of the Messiah to the will and power of God by quoting Psalm 16:10. But Messiah’s resurrection did not involve merely a return to earthly existence, like that of Lazarus (John 11:43-44). On the contrary, having been raised from the grave, in Hebrew identified as Sheol, the pathetic Lamb rejected by all has been transformed into the glorious King of Glory. Jennens appeals to Psalm 24:7-10 to paint a celebrative picture of a triumphant King marching up to the Temple on Mount Zion. As a divine warrior the Messiah has triumphed over death. The psalmist calls on the gates of Zion and the gates of the Temple to open wide for the King that he might take up his throne in the Temple. No natural grammatical historical exegesis would have led to a Messianic interpretation of this text, but as a result of Jennens and Handel’s work, in the minds of most, especially those familiar with this oratorio, this interpretation is determinative.
I’ll make just a brief comment on this second text, but my main focus will be on the first. The “Lift up Your Heads” chorus is one of the more famous numbers in Messiah, but as Block points out, there is nothing overtly Messianic in its meaning. Psalm 24:7-10 is a call & response as those bearing the ark of the covenant seek to enter the sanctuary in Jerusalem. It is a celebration of a victorious return from battle! So while it is not necessarily referring to the Messiah in this context, we can easily see how it could be applied to the occasion of Christ’s victory over death. It is interesting, though, that among the many names ascribed to Jesus Christ in the New Testament, “King of Glory” is not one of them (though he is called “Lord of Glory” in 1 Corinthians 2:8 and James 2:1). Despite this fact, there are many songs today which do ascribe this title (even the Psalm 24 reference) to Jesus. Might this be a sign of the influence of Handel’s great oratorio?
The big question raised by today’s text, though, is this: Did Jesus really go to Hell?
Millions of Christians around the world affirm a belief that Christ “descended to Hell” as they recite the Apostles’ Creed each Sunday. This is one of our oldest Christian traditions, as this Creed can be traced back to the very early church. In fact, to within a generation of the writing of the Scriptures.
THE APOSTLES’ CREED
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting.
While many churches (including my own) do not regularly recite this and other great Creeds of the faith (perhaps we should?), it is often included in the lyrics of our songs (for two examples likely familiar to SSBC folks, check out “Because We Believe” and “You’re The Lion of Judah“). There is a great deal of debate, though, about the line “He descended to Hell”, which did not appear in the original version of the Creed.
Much of this debate lies around the translation in the Authorized (King James) Version — from which Jennens drew the text for Messiah — of several different words from the original languages. “Sheol” (Hebrew), “Hades”, and “Gehenna” (both Greek) are all rendered as “hell” in the KJV, but they do not all carry the same meaning.
The Jewish concept of Sheol described where everyone went after death; some to reward, some to punishment. A more appropriate translation might be “grave”. The Greek “Hades” is similar. When the apostle Peter gave his sermon at Pentecost, he quoted Psalm 16:10, saying that David foresaw Christ when he wrote that Psalm. Psalm 16:10 uses the word “Sheol” (OT = Hebrew); Acts 2:27 uses “Hades” (NT = Greek).
Many point to another Peter reference to support the idea that Christ did, in fact, descend into Hell as we understand it (what Jesus called “Gehenna”). In 1 Peter 3:18-20, which has been described by some as the hardest passage in all of Scripture to understand, Peter says that Christ “proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they did not formerly obey”. Some believe that this means that Christ gave those who had died in unbelief a second chance at redemption, though this contradicts many other passages which plainly state that there is no chance at redemption after one has died. This is one of the passages on which Catholics base their doctrine of Purgatory, believing that people can be saved after death.
Others believe that Christ did briefly descend into Hell, to proclaim His victory to the spirits (meaning the devil and his demons) there. Still others reject that Christ went to Hell at all, and say that Peter meant that Christ had preached “in spirit” through Noah as he built the ark, offering a message of repentance and righteousness at that time.
Many respected leaders in the church have taken different stands on whether Christ actually went to Hell for us. You can read more about this here, but I’ll leave leave you with just a couple quotes as you decide for yourself how you will interpret these verses.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) says, of this passage in 1 Peter, “this passage refers not to something Christ did between His death and resurrection, but to what He did in the spiritual realm of existence, through the Spirit, at the time of Noah. ‘Christ preached to the spirits in prison’ means Christ preached to people who are now spirits in prison when they were still persons on earth.”
Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564), in his “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, disagreed. “The [Apostles’] Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.” He believed that Christ must have suffered and overcome on our behalf not only physical death, but spiritual death.
Pastor John Piper says this: “In fact, [Jesus] said to the thief on the cross, ”Today you will be with me in paradise.’ That’s the only clue we have as to what Jesus was doing between death and resurrection. He said, ‘Today—this Friday afternoon, after we’re both dead—you and I will be in paradise together.’ I don’t think the thief went to hell and that hell is called paradise. I think he went to heaven and that Jesus was there with him.”