For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
I Corinthians 15:3-4
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
We come now to the time of Christ’s existence about which the Bible says very little. Even our hymns focus on Christ’s death and resurrection, and rarely mention his time in the grave (except for “Up From the Grave He Arose”). So, what was going on during that Friday night, Saturday, and early Sunday morning?
Here again we turn for help to the Larger Catechism, where we read, “Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day, which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.” (A50) His burial was humiliating because he had no sin but, because he bore the penalty for our sins, he bore the consequence of having his physical body buried. It was humiliating for him to be under the power of death and in the state of the dead because he himself is the lord of life, as he demonstrated by raising others from the dead.
Notice that the catechism quotes from the Apostle’s Creed. Those four words have occasioned more controversy than perhaps any other clause in the creed. Let me just say that the framers of the catechism took the stance that this clause refers not to the place of Christ’s body after death but to the position of his body after death.
Dear believer, consider once again the incredible love of our Lord for his people, that he would willingly subject himself to the penalty of sin to the ultimate, that he would willingly endure being under the power of death for a time. But take heart! Death will not have the final word! As Martin Luther reminds us,
Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands
for our offenses given;
but now at God’s right hand he stands
and brings us life from heaven.
Therefore let us joyful be
and sing to God right thankfully
loud songs of hallelujah! Hallelujah!