I am spending this time on the Apostles’ Creed because Jesus-followers need to get a firm grip on what they believe. So many church people are content to casually believe in Jesus, go to church when they’re in town, and maybe read the Bible occasionally. It’s good for them and it doesn’t cost anything . Well, it didn’t used to cost you anything to take luggage with you on the airplane either. But we are heading towards a time when admitting that you believe in Jesus and go to church (or that you own a Bible) is going to cost something – maybe a lot. Some readers may already be experiencing that in their work place or at school. Even if out-in-the-open persecution of Christians in the Western world never happens, you will need your faith more than ever; life will be severely tested in so many ways that casual belief won’t get it done. So, “get a grip” on your faith while there’s time!
…suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell. On the third day he rose again;
Lots of big fancy theological words can get piled up on this one: atonement, propitiation, redemption, justification. This little chain of historical events carries a lot of freight. Put simply, Christians believe that every human’s rebellion against God (sin) brings with it the verdict of “guilty”, and the sentence of death. But God the Almighty Father sent his Only Son our Lord to rescue people by standing in for us to receive the judgment and punishment from God that we deserved for our rebellion.
The fact that Jesus was condemned before Pilate is more than a historical detail – Jesus stood before Pilate accused as a guilty evil-doer. To rescue us he allowed himself to be condemned by a mortal judge, and sentenced to death. But the gospel accounts of Jesus display his “shining innocence”. They show clearly that he had no guilt and evil of his own; he was punished for the evil lodged in our hearts, poisoning our own lives and the lives of others, in ways petty and monstrous.
Crucified, dead and buried seems to be a triple redundancy to state emphatically that Jesus was really, really dead. But there is significance in the manner of his execution. The cross was a sign of being cursed. It carried, of course, a heavy stigma from a human point of view – what would be your first reaction to hear that someone you knew ended up in the electric chair? Kinda casts some tarnish on your opinion of them (or however tarnish ends up on someone) doesn’t it? But death on a cross also carried the curse of God’s law (see Galatians 3:13). To believe that Jesus was crucified means you believe that the entire curse of God lay on you because of your rebellion against God (sin), and falling short of God’s design for you – But! That curse was lifted off of you, and transferred to Jesus.
Even more, Jesus abandoned himself completely over to the power of death – the curse of sin – “he was dead and buried.” Death is the power that puts the chains on the human experience, and holds us captive. Jesus surrendered himself to death to deliver us from it. “…because [Jesus] suffered death for us, he is now crowned with glory and honor. Yes, by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9).
“He descended into Hell”. I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, what does that mean exactly, where does the idea even come from, and do I really have to believe that or can I just mumble that part?
John Calvin said, “If it is left out, much of the benefit of Christ’s death will be lost.” Yes, he really said that. Admittedly, the Biblical data is slight and indirect, but it is found in Acts 2:31, Ephesians 4:9, and possibly I Peter 3:18-20. The idea that Jesus descended into Hell pushes the envelope on the necessity of Jesus surrendering himself to the power of death. What Christians believe that Jesus suffered the pain and torment of death to rescue us – body and soul. Jesus not only died, but also suffered Hell in order to experience the terrible torments of God’s judgment after death. When Jesus suffered in your place, he went the full distance. He suffered the full extent of God’s judgment. To believe this is to believe, as Calvin states, “…in death we may now not fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up.” Or as Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:54, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” If you believe Jesus suffered the full extent of death, you believe that both physical and eternal death have been consumed by your Lord.
Christians believe something that stands the “real world” on its head: Jesus was physically raised from the dead. Long time church people hardly think about it. Easter is just the high point on the church’s spring calendar. We forget how foundational the resurrection is to Christianity and how profoundly it blows “the-way-things-are-supposed-to-work” right out the window. Paul was very emphatic with the Corinthian Christians that without Jesus’ resurrection Christianity is a joke:
But tell me this—since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.
Spend time thinking through who put Jesus in the position of being condemned to death, and how they put him there. The phrases “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried” carry with them the overtones of our world’s hard reality, where lies, corruption, manipulation, misuse of political power and a host of other manifestations of evil are the way it works. If Jesus rotted in the grave, then all of that evil would have won; Psalm 2 would end at verse three – the powers of earth succeed in their plot to break their chains and free themselves “from slavery to God.” But God changed the rules, upset the apple cart, turned the tables, re-wrote the book; evil appeared to have gained the upper hand, only to have its scheme transformed into fatal defeat on Easter morning. Give that careful consideration.
Not only did God’s goodness triumph once for all over evil, but in Jesus’ resurrection love triumphed over hatred.
…the attitude of those who procured [Jesus’] crucifixion was an almost virulent hatred, so bitter that in the end it was capable of ascribing the loveliness and graciousness of his life to the power of the devil. If there had been no resurrection, it would have meant that the hatred of man in the end conquered the love of God. The Resurrection is the triumph of love over all that hatred could do … The Resurrection is the final proof that love is stronger than hate.
Suffered, crucified, risen – three words that form the core of God’s loving hope for this world. Look for how they intersect with your life today.
 Isaiah 25:8
 I Corinthians 15:12-19, Tyndale House Publishers: Holy Bible : New Living Translation. 2nd ed. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 2004.
 William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, The Daily Study Bible Series, Revised Edition, Westminster John Knox Press,1975, p. 147, 148.