Holy Saturday 2015
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves know – this Jesus, being delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raise him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it.” (Acts 2:22-24)
In this passage, Peter proclaims an important part of the Christian gospel: that God sovereignly planned and knows all things in the history of the universe, including the death of His own beloved Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and yet, and at the same time, men are free agents, created as human beings with wills and souls and responsibility and freedom. Jesus was delivered up according to the definite plan of God, and the Jews killed Him. Jesus was delivered up according to the foreknowledge of God, and the Roman’s pounded stakes into His hands and feet. Jesus was delivered up by God, and evil men are guilty of the crime.
This same point is made throughout the Exodus narrative. The Lord tells Moses that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart and Pharaoh will not listen to Moses and will not let the Israelites go free (Ex. 4:21, 7:3). And at the same time, throughout the story, Pharaoh is busy hardening his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 8:35). Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart? Exodus says that God and Pharaoh were both involved. But it wasn’t as though Pharaoh truly wanted to listen to Moses but God wouldn’t let him. It’s not like God’s action somehow collides with Pharaoh’s will or choices. God exists on another plane. God exists in another way. His sovereign will does not cancel out a human will. God created the world and respects what He has made. He respects human beings as human beings, and He does not toy with us. He has not created puppets to tease and torture. He has created human beings with minds and wills and loves and desires. And God respects what He has made.
But the mystery of existence also includes the fact that God upholds all things by the power of His Word (Acts 17:28, Heb. 1:3). Every atom in the universe is held together by His power. Jesus says plainly that not a hair can fall from our head, not a sparrow can fall from the sky apart from the will of our Father. He personally clothes the flowers of the field. He knows the number of grains of sand on the seashore. He knows the name and exact coordinates of every star in every galaxy. And this sovereignty extends to evil. Isaiah says, “I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the Lord, do all these things” (Is. 45:7). Or the prophet Amos says, “If a trumpet is blown in a city, will not the people be afraid? If there is calamity in a city, will not the Lord have done it?” (Amos 3:6) Likewise, Habakkuk wrestles with the Lord knowing that He is the one raising up the Chaldeans to punish the wickedness of Israel. This means that God’s Word held together the atoms in the bodies of the Romans, the atoms in the stakes that they held, and the atoms in the mallets that they used to pound the stakes into the cross of wood that held our Savior’s body. The One who holds our world together allowed Himself to be crushed by the ones He made, and they were not being coerced into killing him. They were not being forced to do something they didn’t want to do. The Bible clearly says that if they had known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8).
Our visceral reaction to the sovereignty of God is frequently to object. Paul anticipated this objection in his letter to the Romans: Doesn’t this mean that God is unjust? Why does he still find fault? Who can resist his will? (Rom. 9:14, 19). First off, we should recognize that we’re reading the Bible rightly, when the Bible says that we will be tempted to ask such-and-such a question. If you are tempted to say, doesn’t that mean that God is the author of evil? Doesn’t that mean that God punishes men for doing evil deeds that He determined that they would do? Doesn’t that make God unjust? If these questions occur to you, be encouraged, they occurred to Paul and the first Christians, and they’ve occurred to Christians and non-Christians alike down through the centuries. You’re reading your Bible correctly.
And the Bible doesn’t ignore the questions. If the Bible were a sham, if Christianity were a get-rich-quick scheme, if Christianity were a personality cult, it would avoid these difficult questions. It would avoid these kinds of turn-offs. But one of the evidences of the truth of Christianity and the reliability of the Bible is the fact that it refuses to flinch when the unspeakable is spoken. It refuses to back down when the appalling is raised. And so Paul responds with the boldness of faith, and he says to our objections, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he prepared beforehand for glory?” (Rom. 9:20-23)
This is not an easy answer. This is not an answer that massages the pride of man. This is an answer that humbles man. And notice how it does this. Our objection is primarily based on the assumption that people are better and deserve better and that God is likely botching it all and not really to be trusted. The most pious objection is the attempt to absolve God of evil because we cannot imagine how God could be sovereignly orchestrating all things and yet not be culpable for the horrors that happen in our world. But the Bible gives us two answers. The first is: Will you, O Man, lecture the One who spins the crab nebula? Will you pat the Infinite One on the head and give Him pointers about how to run the universe? But secondly, the Bible clearly and unmistakable says that people are free to do what they want. They are free to be people, and nobody is making them do anything they don’t want to do. But it turns out that what you want to do is evil. What you want to do is enslave yourself and hurt others. What you want is hardly freedom. Your porn habit is hardly freedom. Your emotional careening is not freedom. Your anger problem is slavery. Your greed and envy is a prison. And therefore man is the problem. God is righteous, and we are guilty.
But because God is God and is not limited like us, He is both free to uphold all things according to the perfect counsel of His will, and He is free to enter our world and so He has in the Lord Jesus Christ. There’s an old rule of leadership that most people instinctively know and that is that we ought not require of someone else what we are not willing to do ourselves. We know it’s a good rule because God has embodied that rule, quite literally. He does not insist that we repent and believe from a distant galaxy, from another dimension, on another plane of existence. No, He entered into our world. He was born a man like us. He lived with the relative freedoms and limitations of being human yet without sin. And it is in this way that He summons us to follow Him. It is fundamentally as a man, as the man Jesus, that He looks at us and says, “Follow Me.” Trust me. Let me guide you. Let me lead you through this world. This is what we mean by faith. This is what we mean by trust. When we say, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, we mean committing your life to Him.
And Jesus shows us the path of faith by entrusting Himself to His Father. He cries out to His Father, He prays to His Father, He submits to His Father’s will. He knows all things are in the hand of His Father; all things answer to Him. And He knows that this is fundamentally good news. This is comfort and joy. Do not worry about what you will wear or what you will eat or where you will live, Jesus says. Don’t you know that your Heavenly Father upholds all things? Trust in Him. Believe in Him. Give Him your whole heart, your whole life. Let Him have it all. Here, Jesus says, watch me die in your place, watch me suffer for you.
The startling thing about what Peter says in that passage that we read a moment ago is that God raised Jesus, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it. Do hear the same mysterious layers at work once again? God raised Him by loosing the pangs of death, and at the same time, Peter says, that it was not possible for death to hold Jesus. Which is it? Is it God’s sovereign action or is it some other power or possibility at work in the world? The Bible’s answer is, yes. It was God’s will, and it was not possible that death could hold Jesus. And this too is part off the answer to the mystery. To entrust yourself to this God, to this Jesus, is to entrust yourself to the God who rules in such a way as to make death powerless. God’s power makes things possible which would otherwise be impossible for you. Will you loose the pangs of death? Will you free yourself from the bondage to sin? Will you roll away the stone from your grave? God’s sovereign care for Jesus made Him strong to rise for you, and that same sovereign love makes you strong to rise above everything that holds you down.
What is there in your life that seems stuck, that seems impossible? Where does it seem that God has delivered you over to suffering or the hands of evil men? Or where have you failed and sinned and hurt others? The gospel of Holy Saturday, the good news of Jesus is that in Him God works. God plans to loose the pangs of death. He works to make new things possible. He is free so that you can be free. He plans so that you may plan. He creates so that you may create. He dreams so that you may dream. He forgives so that you may forgive. He loves so that you may love. He lives so that you may live.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.