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What happened when Jesus died?

We know the cause of death; it was the cross. It was not necessarily the injuries to which He succumbed, despite His lack of ability to breathe as His lungs filled with fluid, or His cries from the cross indicating His thirst. His death may not have come from His visible wounds, not just those received hanging there at Golgotha, or from the beating He took coming down the Via Dolorosa to that place, or the scourging received from the Roman soldiers before, or even beating with rods in King Herod’s Court. Not even the roughing up He took before the Sanhedrin… it’s not just possible, not just plausible; it’s actually undeniable that any of us would’ve dropped far sooner than Jesus. Yet, it may not be the injuries to His body that led to His physical death.

It says quite clearly in the text that Jesus gave up His Spirit.

Nonetheless, Jesus breathed his last after 33 years of living on a Friday afternoon. Born of a virgin, He lived a perfect life and died a sacrificial death. He was the incarnate God, 100% God and 100% man—a conjoined uniqueness prophesied for millennia, the Hope of humanity.

His followers stepped up, asking the legal authorities for permission to bury the body. The God of the universe, the Messiah of the nation, and the Hope of glory was laid in a borrowed tomb as a final act of injustice, following the gruesome and torturous execution of Him in His innocence.

We know that Jesus lay in the tomb for three days, but there is speculation as to what took place during that time. The honest truth is that scripture does not paint a clear picture of what Jesus experienced during those three days.

Our human minds struggle with unknowns, which often causes us to fill in the blanks, sometimes leaving room for error.

My speculation may be no different, but I believe there is a very distinct possibility that Jesus did what He always did during those three days: He obeyed the Father.

Let me offer that our 2024, western understanding of “three days in the grave” distinctly differs from how original readers would have seen it.

The truth is that Jesus was in the grave for part of three days but only two nights. The time was counted in a very first-century Hebrew way. Here are the facts: 

  • Jesus was placed in the tomb late on Friday before the sun went down and the Sabbath began
  • He lay in the grave all day Saturday
  • He rose as the sun rose on Sunday morning when the Sabbath ended

The truth is that Jesus lay in the tomb for… a Sabbath: a Friday evening, all day Saturday, and rose on Sunday morning.

What did Jesus do during those days? He did precisely what the Father had instructed each of us to do on the Sabbath… He rested.

I know this might sound shocking, but the truth is that when Jesus died on that Friday, the job was done. When the perfect God-man offered His life as a sacrifice for every human being on the planet, the earth shook, the dead were raised, the temple veil was torn, the sky went dark in the midst of the day… why? Because that’s where the work happened! That’s when redemption occurred! That’s when we were freed from our sins.

Thanks be to God for the Cross of Christ. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18 (ESV)

When Jesus cried, it is finished; it was finished.

The wrath of God had been satisfied! The payment for our sins had been made in full! The hope of the cross was finally realized! The blood of Jesus poured out, a new covenant begun, and we moved from law to grace, from impossible standards to mercy and kindness, and from hopelessness to hope!

When Jesus left His mortal body, the work had been done as He cried, “Father, into Your hands, I commit My spirit.”

And just as He had always done, He rested on the Sabbath.

Then what was Sunday? What is the purpose of the resurrection?

Isn’t it amazing to contemplate that Christ rose on His own authority, in His own strength, in His own power? Yes, the truth is that on that Sunday morning the stone was rolled away and the body of Jesus Christ could not be found because He was raised in resurrection power, the firstborn of the resurrection. That Jesus Christ came back from the dead in the form and shape that each one of His own will take when there is a new Heaven and a new earth,

There was no tremendous cosmic battle that Sunday morning. It wasn’t a Ying Yang, light versus darkness, Jesus triumphing over Hell. That work had already been done.

Jesus Christ rising on Sunday morning reset the game clock for us all.

We had been separated from God and are now being brought near. We had a debt to be paid and nothing to pay with, and He paid it all for us.

He rose from the grave to put an exclamation point on the fact that what He did on Friday was accomplished, that He was victorious and that all of us who stand beneath the shadow of the cross and are seen through the veil of Jesus and His sacrifice are now saved by His blood.

God could have done the deed of saving us, accepting us, and restoring us at any moment, but to do it prematurely would’ve meant a sacrifice of His holiness and righteousness.

Only when Jesus Christ had paid the price, the debt canceled, and the divine wrath of God satisfied would the saving of humanity be both mercy for us and righteousness for Him!

The resurrection was evidence that everything had gone according to plan, that the debt had been paid, and that we are now restored to a right relationship with a holy God whose power was never in question and whose mercy is unimaginable.

The resurrection means that everything He said was true, everything He did was accomplished, and everything we hoped for has been realized.

Jesus paid the price for us on the cross and went to the grave. If He had stayed in the grave, we might wonder continually whether or not God had accepted that sacrifice. But, thanks be to God, when Jesus Christ rose from the grave, He rose gloriously and proclaimed victoriously that the battle was over, the victory was won, and the debt had been paid in full. 

All authority in Heaven and on earth had been given to Jesus, which He used it to perform the perfect sacrifice on our behalf, and now we can return to the place that God had intended us to be from the very beginning… with Him.


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