The descent of Jesus (part 3)

This post continues a series exploring Raising Adam, Why Jesus Descended into Hell by Gerrit Dawson. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 4, 5678.

Last time, we looked at Jesus' descent on Holy Saturday to the realm of the dead (Hades in Greek, Sheol in Hebrew). We noted how the time Jesus spent in Sheol was part of the multi-step passage of descent and ascent that the incarnate Son of God undertook for our salvation. That passage began with the Incarnation, which Dawson calls "the great leap from heaven to womb." It continued through Jesus' life of faithful obedience and self-emptying love as he went about "undoing evil and reclaiming people from darkness." The journey came to a great crescendo when Jesus willingly "jumped up, so to speak, upon the cross," bearing our sin and yielding his life on our behalf. This was followed by Jesus' descent as he "tumbled down to the tomb." Then, from out of the realm of the dead, Jesus "re-bounded back through our world in glorious resurrection" (p. 37). In this post, we'll explore the initial steps in this amazing, consequential journey that was motivated by the love the Triune God has for humankind and all of creation.

The Incarnation

The Patristic writers were fond of saying that Jesus "became what we are, that we might become what he is" (p. 39), or as the apostle Peter put it, that we might "become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). For this "divine exchange" to occur, Jesus engaged in "a precipitous descent into our flesh. God utterly humbled himself. He emptied himself of divine prerogatives and took up our anemic humanity" (p. 39). This "dive" of Christ "into humanity" is attested by Scripture: Gal. 4:4; Phil 2:6-7; Heb. 2:14; John 1:14; Matt. 20:28; Luke 19:10. It also is attested by the Nicene Creed in its declaration that Jesus, "Who, for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man." As Dawson notes, "the Son of God descended in order to serve us in love so that we might be lifted up out of sin and death as we are rejoined to him forever" (p. 40).

The Baptism of Christ by Coypel (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Baptism at the Jordan

In the 30 years following his birth, Jesus lived a relatively quiet life as part of a family, worshiping (Luke 2:41), studying Scripture (Luke 2:46), and working as a carpenter (Mark 6:3). As Dawson notes, during that time Jesus was "prepared for his service as the long-expected Christ [Messiah], the suffering servant who would save his people." And then it came time for Jesus' public ministry, which began with a vitally important and consequential act of descent -- going down into the waters of the Jordan River, where he was baptized by his cousin John (the baptizer). As Dawson notes, "Jesus, the sinless one [was] so closely identified with those he came to save that he submitted to a sinner's baptism of repentance" (p. 41). This baptism had great significance, pointing back to Israel's experience crossing the Jordan to begin a new life in the Promised Land. It also pointed forward to what lay ahead for Jesus -- living a sinless life on his way to death on the Cross, and resurrection to new, glorified human life.

Conquering chaos and evil

The upstream source of the Jordan River, in which Jesus was baptized, is near Caesarea Philippi where a spring flows from the mouth of a cave near the bottom of a huge rock cliff. This formation, known as the "Gates of Hades," was thought by the ancients to be the entry into Hades. Standing nearby that formation, Jesus declared that the Gates of Hades would never stand against the church (Matt. 16:18). From this gate of hell, the Jordan to the Dead Sea, which is so salty that nothing can live in its waters. As Dawson notes, "the very topography of the Jordan lends itself to symbolism as life coming out of the depths and flowing to death, as a border between life and death, and as a diving line between this world and the next" (p.43). 

All this symbolism provides the context for understanding the rich meaning of Jesus' baptism, which he underwent as our representative and substitute (in his vicarious humanity) -- entering into death (symbolized by the Jordan's waters) picturing dying to one's old life of sin, and rising out of those waters to a new life committed to righteousness. In this way, Jesus' baptism also anticipates his death on the Cross, his descent to the dead, and his resurrection. Dawson comments: "The early church saw links between Jesus' descent into the Jordan and his descent into hell [Hades]" (p. 43). They also linked his baptism to Jesus' victorious combat with the evil one, who has his abode in the realm of the dead. 

From confirmation to temptation

Following his baptism, Jesus entered the wilderness where he was severely tempted by the evil one (the satan). Through the tests he faced, "Jesus descended beyond any reasonable and customary tests of keeping God's will when tempted with doing otherwise" (p. 45). The unwavering faithfulness to God exhibited by Jesus, the last Adam, contrasted markedly with the faithlessness of the first Adam. 

To undo the disaster into which the human race fell, Jesus had to encounter and defeat the evil one under the harshest of conditions (in contrast with the ideal conditions Adam experienced in the Garden of Eden). The point here is that "Jesus not only came down [descending from heaven to earth via the Incarnation] to experience our mortal frailty, but also endured strong temptation to sin.... So acute was Jesus' sensitivity to sin that he suffered far more than we do in his resistance to all evil" (pp. 45-6). 


We conclude this post with Dawson's comment on the profound meaning and consequence of Jesus' baptism and temptation:
Jesus went down into the filthy water of the Jordan, the unredeemed creation, as the sinless one in our sinful world and frail flesh. He consecrated himself to the task of our renewal. He did what the old Adam failed to do. He conquered temptation. He obeyed. He descended into the waters of death, which symbolize the dominion of the evil one. But, victorious by his consecration, he rose from the river that now represents the waters of new birth. Jesus came up, set aside as the new man in our old world, the new head of the human race. He is the one who symbolically takes all creation with him in this descent and ascent. Thus, his baptism is the type of the whole story of Jesus' journey of salvation. (p. 47)