Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
November 24, 2013
Mark Galli the Editor of Christianity Today, writes in the November issue (p. 47) of looking across Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point (7,200 ft. elevation, 3,200 above valley floor) at Half Dome (8,800 ft. elevation, 1,600 ft. higher yet), experiencing and observing two reactions: fear and awe. People hold onto each other as they walk tentatively toward the edge. They dread falling over but want to get as close to the edge as possible.
I have been there, and even looking at a picture gives me a weak wobble in my knees. I have had a similar approach avoidance experience at Niagara Falls, especially in the tunnels behind the Canadian Falls, drawn to the power of the rushing water and feeling it pulling me in and over.
This was a profound worship experience for me. I wanted to lie face down in the tunnel and weep. Mark Galli compares this fear and fascination to being encountered by Almighty God: “We find ourselves attracted to the very thing that makes us afraid, and rather than running from it, we want to get closer.” (p. 49)
The call of Isaiah (6:1-8) expresses well this experience common in the Hebrew Scripture, which is reflected in many Psalms. But this is not limited to the Old Testament. As Hebrews 12:29 says, “Our God is a consuming fire.”
In the account of Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke 23:33-43, people responded with similar contradictory reactions. At this moment of Jesus’ apparent defeat, Luke presents him as King.
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”
36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43He replied, “Truly I tell you[,] today[,] you will be with me in Paradise.”
If you remember, Luke uses “people” for those who followed Jesus positively while not yet his disciples. He wrote that “the people stood by, watching,” (v. 35) in distinct contrast to the leaders who scoffed, probably directing their ridicule at the people as much as at Jesus.
Luke gave special attention to the centrality of forgiveness in Jesus’ ministry, and his is the only Gospel that records Jesus’ prayer asking forgiveness for those who crucified him and his welcoming to Paradise one of the criminals who was crucified with him.
On this Christ the King Sunday, we pay specific attention to how Luke identified Jesus as King in his crucifixion account. The leaders and the unrepentant criminal scoffed at Jesus as Messiah. But the soldiers mocked him as King of the Jews. Pilate’s inscription “This is the King of the Jews” expressed his contempt for all the Jews, not just the charge against Jesus. “What kind of king do you have, anyway?” But the criminal asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Had he seen or heard Jesus before? Or did he recognize in Jesus’ response that Pilate’s inscription and the soldiers’ mocking were true. Jesus was King, even if they couldn’t see it?
Luke forces us to ask: What kind of King is Jesus? By holding Colossians 1:11-20 up against the way Luke presents Jesus as King at his crucifixion, we get a paradoxical picture of Jesus, to whom we respond with approach and avoidance.
Pagans often considered their kings to be gods. Egyptian Pharaohs and Roman Emperors expected to be revered as divine. But Israel never assigned divinity to her kings. Even the greatest were flawed humans. Colossians pointedly emphasizes that the fullness of God dwells in this King who is the image of the invisible God.
Colossians defines the mission of this God-King in terms of redemption and forgiveness of sins, making peace through the blood of his cross. That takes us directly to Luke’s presentation of Jesus as King at his crucifixion. What kind of King is Jesus? He is a Redeemer-King who gave himself to welcome us into his Kingdom.
Jesus welcoming the criminal Paradise is a puzzle. We may not solve the puzzle, but pondering it sheds light on Jesus as Redeemer-King. Where was Jesus, what was he doing between his death on the cross and his resurrection? Some have suggested he was in Paradise, since he told the criminal, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke did not use punctuation, so the comma in our English translations could go after “today,” as I told the passage. The Apostle’s Creed says “He descended into hell.” More recent translations say “hades” or “the dead.” Though falling out of favor in our time, one theory is that Jesus actually went to hell to take our eternal punishment in that compressed time. As our Disciples forbearers recognized The Apostle’s Creed is not Scripture but a human document. Nevertheless, twice 1 Peter says that Jesus proclaimed the Gospel to the dead in prison (3:19; 4:6) which seems to have been during the time his body was in the tomb. The Eastern Church calls this “The Harrowing of Hell” and shows it in icons as Jesus breaking down the gates of hell to liberate those held prisoner there. The details are fascinating but too complex to fit in this sermon. When Peter made his confession in Matthew 16:18, Jesus said that the gates of hell could not prevail against the Church. In Jesus’ time a city’s gates were to keep invaders out, and not for pursuing enemies.
Since Jesus broke down its gates and invaded hell, we do not need to be afraid of the gates of hell. Hell needs to be afraid of us. As Redeemer-King, Jesus sends us as his agents on his mission to liberate hell’s prisoners.
On the same day John Kennedy was shot, November 22 fifty years ago, C. S. Lewis died. Michael Ward, Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, wrote a commemorative article in this month’s Christianity Today. He wrote that C. S. Lewis is in many ways closer to our postmodern contemporaries than he was to his own. “Our challenge in this post-Christian world is not so much to prove that Christianity is true as to show that it has meaning.” (p. 41)
A little later in the 60s, Karl Barth wrote in “The Rationality of Discipleship” that Christians don’t need to argue better than atheists, they need to live better.
Perhaps you know that the arguments of the new atheists do not revolve around rational or empirical proofs but around the violence and damage perpetrated in the name of religions through the centuries. In such an environment, evangelism must radiate meaning and living, not philosophy. Shallow appeals to let Jesus solve your problems don’t cut it either. In our time, the essential ingredient of evangelism is the approach avoidance reality of our own relationships with God through Jesus in the challenges of life – individually and together. Mark Galli defined it this way. “Perhaps evangelism is not so much one hungry person telling another hungry person where to find bread, as one terrified person telling others where they can go to experience this beautiful fear.” (p. 48)
To learn more about "The Harrowing of Hell" go to
To learn more about "The Harrowing of Hell" go to