The last time we considered various aspects of the suffering of Christ as set forth in our Communion Form. The concluding part of the paragraph of this Form, to which we want to direct your attention this time, reads as follows:
“and hath humbled Himself unto the deepest reproach and pains of hell, both in body and soul, on the tree of the cross, when He cried out with a loud voice, ‘My God, my God! why hast Thou forsaken me?’ that we might be accepted of God and never be forsaken of Him: and finally confirmed with His death and shedding of His blood, the new and eternal testament, that covenant of grace and reconciliation when He said: ‘It is finished.'”
There are three things mentioned here that demand our attention. First, there is the fact of Jesus’ descension into hell. Secondly, there is the cross-word that gives expression to the awful agony endured by the Savior on the accursed tree. Finally, there is that word spoken by Christ just before He commended His spirit to the Father, and in which He proclaims His complete and glorious victory. Remembering the death of Christ involves a deep spiritual consciousness of the implications of these three things.
It is to be observed that our Communion Form here does not speak of “an actual self-manifestation of Christ after the crucifixion to all the departed spirits.” (1) This view is maintained by some, and it is further claimed that this was the meaning of the early church of the expression found in the Apostle’s Creed: “He descended into hell”. Whether or not this is actually so we are unable to say. More significant is the fact that our Communion Form speaks of Christ “Humbling Himself unto the deepest reproach and pains of hell”, giving to this expression the same meaning that is found in our Heidelberg Catechism. In Lord’s Day 16 the descension of Christ into hell is explained to mean that “My Lord Jesus Christ, by His inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which He was plunged during all His sufferings, but especially on the cross, hath delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.” It is, therefore, not a singular phase of Jesus’ suffering that we must keep in mind but rather we should remember “that He, all the time that He lived on earth, but especially at the end of his life, sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind.” (2) He descended into hell in His incarnation, and all His life long He suffered its agonies. Words are inadequate to express this awful reality, but the purpose here is not to attempt to describe this suffering of Christ but only to leave in our consciousness a deep sense of awareness that He endured hell’s miseries for us. With that remembrance we must come to His Table.
Concerning the view that Christ’s descension into hell refers to a personal self-manifestation of the Lord after His crucifixion in the place of desolation and torment, we quote the following from the pen of Rev. H. Hoeksema in refutation:
“Besides, the notion that the Saviour suffered the torments of hell after His crucifixion is contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture. Evident it is that the Lord, after He gave up the ghost, cannot have suffered the torments of hell in body and soul, for His body rested in the grave of Joseph of Arimathea. Besides, such a view would be in conflict with the word our Lord addressed to the malefactor from the cross: ‘Today thou shalt be with me in paradise.’ And had He not announced in His next to the last cross utterance: “It is finished’? Surely, this triumphant outcry was uttered in the consciousness that the work of redemption, the sacrifice of reconciliation, had been completed and perfected, and that no more suffering remained to be endured.” (3)
Still other interpretations of the descension of Christ into hell have been offered, but with these we will not concern ourselves at present. Holding the interpretation that this refers to Christ’s endurance of “Inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies” we quote the following comments by Rev. Hoeksema:
“He endured them in all his sufferings, but especially on the cross. And even on the cross there is a gradual increase in His suffering of these hellish agonies. This is evident from all that occurs on and about the cross. During the first half of the six-hour period of the crucifixion, the sun still shed its light upon the awful spectacle on Calvary, the enemies have the audacity to mock and jeer at the crucified One, and the Lord Himself finds it possible to taken interest in the things about Him, praying for His enemies, committing His mother to care of the disciple whom He loved, and assuring the penitent malefactor of final salvation. But during the last three hours, the cross is completely taken out of men’s hands. Darkness, that dreadful symbol of God’s wrathful presence, descends on the scene; the enemies, amazed at the fearful omen, cease from mockery, and grow silent; and for the space of three hours the crucified One is completely wrapped up in His own suffering: not a word is heard from His lips. Then, almost at the end of these last three hours of His passion, He makes it known that He has been descending into the depths, that He has, indeed, reached the very bottom of hell, in the question of amazement: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'” (4)
Thus we see too that this descension of Christ into hell is most intimately connected with this agonizing cry of the Saviour which He uttered at the zenith of His suffering. This cry, too, is variously interpreted. It is not the cry of rebellion, as a child might ask the “why” of certain parental action in an attempt to shirk an assigned responsibility. Neither may the reference to His forsakedness be interpreted in the physical or local sense of the word. It is not as though GOD’S PRESENCE is absent at the cross. He is very much there, and the horrible darkness that gripped the land only betokens His presence in judgment and wrath. God is satisfying His justice toward the sinner. He is laying upon His own Son our burden of sin, and imposing upon the sin-bearer the just penalty. The cry is one of utter amazement as the Beloved of God tastes the bitterness of eternal wrath. Astonished, amazed, perplexed, troubled in soul, the righteous sin-bearer cries out from the depths of unfathomed misery. Yet the cry is not one of despair. Do not overlook the “Eloi, Eloi—My God, My God.” There is an unwavering confidence expressed in those words. It is the confidence of Christ that GOD IS and will forever remain His God. In unwavering love He clings to Him as “My God” even as the billows of. His wrath pour over Him. Jesus is the sin-bearer fulfilling the law of love, and in that love He will maintain an unbroken confidence in GOD, Whose will He is even now performing in the hour of deepest darkness.
Meditate on this!
Consider it over and over again, for it is to the end (purpose) that you may thus remember His suffering and death that the supper of the Lord has been instituted in His Church. Do not eat the bread and drink the wine merely by force of habit, or as blindly following an ecclesiastical tradition, for it will not be of benefit to you that way. We are to “remember Him by it,” and only in the measure that we are in a spiritual way engaged in this remembrance will we arrive at a true and lasting appreciation for all the benefits that are signified and sealed unto us in the Supper.
All of this must be remembered in the light of the final word of Christ in which the new and eternal testament, that covenant of grace and reconciliation is confirmed.
“It is finished!”
We must be careful that we understand these words. They do not mean the same as if Jesus was simply announcing his death. “It” is not the same as the Lord’s earthly life. Neither must we construe this cross-utterance to refer to all things in general, to the Old Testament prophecies or Scriptures or even to the Savior’s mediatorial work. After these words were spoken there are many things yet that must come to pass and are now being fulfilled, but the end is not yet. And the Scriptures likewise have not been “finished,” for we have only to think of those prophecies that speak of Christ’s resurrection and exaltation to glory. These were not yet finished when He “gave up the ghost.” Later, when the Lord arose from the dead, He continues in His glorified human nature to function as our Mediator, preparing a place for us, making continual intercession for us and bestowing upon us the benefits of His redemptive work.
“It is finished,” denotes that the act of redemption is fully accomplished. Sin is completely atoned. The counsel of God concerning His plan of salvation is realized in the death of His Son. Rev. Hoeksema expresses it beautifully when he writes:
“The measure of suffering, and obedience, is filled. All that was to be borne of the wrath of God against the sin of all the elect, had been endured even to the end. Nothing, emphatically nothing, remains to procure for us eternal righteousness and life.” (5)
And consider carefully this statement:
“The Son of God had tasted all there is to be tasted in the agony of death as the expression of God’s just wrath.” You see now how utterly untenable is the position of Arminianism and Modernism, that leaves the work of Christ uncertain, unfinished, indefinite and dependent upon man’s contribution to make it an effective salvation. You see too what a beautiful comfort there is in the knowledge that Christ performed a complete and finished work. There is no guess work in salvation, for it is outlined in minutest detail in God’s plan and realized to perfection in Christ’s death. The new and eternal covenant of grace is established and made perfect. It is finished indeed.
A finished work. That is what we are to remember in the Lord’s Supper!
How contrary that may seem to us from a natural point of view. When a young man of thirty-three years of age is suddenly taken away, we are inclined to say that there was so much yet for him to do. He was just beginning in life. In reality of course this is not so, and we know that, too; but certainly this could not be said of Christ. He finished all that the Father gave Him to do, and there was nothing more to be done.
The term “finished” is not one that denotes a temporal end but it is the word that points to the ultimate purpose or goal of a thing. It is used in Scripture with reference to “the end of all things.” When the last moment of history arrives and all things have been accomplished according to the predetermined purpose of God, we will say that the “end” has been reached. So it is with the work of God in Christ. The purpose of Christ’s coming in our flesh is fully accomplished. The plan of salvation is realized in Him. It is finished! The end is attained!
In this confidence we may celebrate the Supper which He instituted, remembering Him thereby and rejoicing with unspeakable joy. Then we do not merely celebrate the historic fact of His suffering and death, but we commemorate the glorious accomplishments of that suffering and death. We joy in the realization of the eternal covenant of grace, and we experience the blessedness of His communion in that covenant.
(1) Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, Vol. II, p. 46
(2) Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 15
(3) Rev. H. Hoeksema, Death of the Son of God, p. 270
(4) Ibid, p. 274, 275
(5) Ibid, p. 275