Today, the reading is very long and is going to break our program up. It is a full-length sermon I wrote to condense into an outline for an ebook of sermon resources for pastors. I hope that you will take the time to read it today.
Adrian Rogers once told a captivating story. A spider walked into a cave one day and found a lion asleep. Like all of the creatures of the savannah, the spider feared the lion, although she was more concerned with his heavy steps than his jaws. She decided that with the lion asleep, she could finally capture him. All night long, she spun her web around him, running threads over his back, paws, and tail, until finally, he glistened to her eyes in a powerful net of silver. Sunrise came, and the lion stirred. He yawned with a roar, stepped up, and walked out of the cave. He did not rustle his mane to shake the web off but simply went on about his day, unweighted and unaware that he had ever been bound at all. All the spider’s skill and strength were nothing compared to the might of the lion. Those webs that could easily trap a fly could never hurt the king of the jungle.
We find ourselves bound by many things. Some of you might know someone who has been bound by addiction, or been bound by it yourself. Some of us have been bound by fear or pride. Sometimes, we are bound by things because of their strength. Sometimes, like an exhausted Gulliver being tied down by an army of Lilliputians, we are captured because of a moment of weakness. Sometimes, we can break free on our own, eventually. But some things that ensnare us are inescapable, on our own or with the help of friends and family. One example stands out above all others: when someone lies cold in a casket, no amount of willpower and no pep talk could ever rouse them again. The chains of death are more than our strength could ever overcome.
But today we are gathered to remember a death that was shaken off. We are here to worship a Man who could not be held by the things that we could never escape. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah shook off the pains of death like a spiderweb, and with His roar breaks their grip on us. What makes this Friday a good one is that the cross was not the end of Jesus’ story. It was impossible for death to hold Him.
Our text comes from Acts 2:14-40, Peter’s sermon on Pentecost. As the apostle reflected on the events of Good Friday and Easter, he gave us one of the most thought provoking lines in the Bible: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” It was not possible for Jesus to be held by the pangs of death! As we think about His death today, we’ll see three reasons why. It was impossible for death to hold Jesus, because the penalty was fulfilled. It was impossible for death to hold Jesus because death could not restrain what God had promised to free. And it was impossible for death to hold Jesus because death could never hold the Life.
Let’s begin in verse 14, and see Peter’s sermon about the indomitable Jesus.
But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: “ ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
The crowd had gathered because of the miracle of tongues on the day of Pentecost, and the reactions ran from one extreme to another. Some saw drunken rambling, some who were closer to the mark saw an incredible miracle, but Peter saw something much more dramatic. Prophecies, visions, and wonders would precede the day of the Lord’s coming, the sun would be turned to darkness (like it was when Jesus was on the cross) and the moon would be turned to blood. Something new and exciting was beginning, and the day of Pentecost was part of that. Yet it was not only something new, it was the fulfillment of this ancient prophecy from Joel 2:28-32 that he quotes from vv 17-21. “The time is here!,” Peter was clearly saying, “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Why did they need to be saved? What did they need to be saved from? Remember that Joel wrote during the Exile, when the Temple lay in ruins. Their access to God had been broken. They were scattered from their home. Their salvation would mean their communion with God and their return to their homes restored. It was a microcosm of the human condition since Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden: our sin has separated us from God and left us wanderers without a permanent place here. But now, that was all changing.
The presence of God had returned! His Spirit that had led the Israelites out of Egypt as a pillar of fire and that made the Temple too bright to enter on its dedication day had now returned, and sanctified the Church as a new Temple. For this to happen, the cause of the exile – our sin – must have been dealt with. The wages of sin is death (Romans 3:23), but the sinless Jesus did not deserve it. He took on our death willingly, and because its penalty was paid in full, death could no longer hold him. Death could not hold Him when its penalty was fulfilled. As Hebrews 9:12-14 tell us, “he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing us an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” His death was the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice that, like the old hymn says, “paid it all.”
The Boston Globe ran a horrifying story about a man named Rommel Jones, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Through a horrific clerical mix-up and the lack of an advocate, he spent four additional years in prison. He told people his prison sentence was up, “When my sentence is over, they can’t hold me no more. They’ve got to let me go,” he said. Mr. Jones was right. Whatever crime he committed, when the penalty was paid, the prison system no longer had any right to hold him. It was a miscarriage of justice, probably only explicable from a mixture of wickedness and incompetence. There is no such risk with God. When the penalty was paid, the pangs of death could not hold Jesus anymore.
But what about us? We are freed in Christ! If you have been saved by placing your faith in the Jesus who died for you, this is a Good Friday because the penalty of your sin has been paid in full. Paul put it this way in Romans 8:2-4: “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” There is a lot going on in those verses, but I want you to see how it related to the claim Peter and Joel made: whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. You can be saved from the penalty of your sin and I can be saved from the penalty of my sin because it has been completely dealt with. It has no more rightful jurisdiction over you than the Massachusetts Department of Corrections had over Rommel Jones. You are free, and God makes no mistakes.
Jesus did not only deal with the penalty of sin. He broke its power in us, allowing us to become new creatures. “For freedom Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1)”! Whatever sin you have been entangled with, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah has shaken it off without strain. When we try and deal with our struggles in our own strength, they are like a child’s finger traps, our pride making the pinch tighter. But when we go to Christ through prayer, corporate worship, confession to our brothers and sisters, and time in the Bible, God gives us new strength. What we mustn’t do is give up. The greatest enemy is death, and if death could not hold Him because sin was overcome, what could?
But that is not the only reason that Death’s power was stopped. It was not just the absence of Death’s authority, but the presence of a higher Authority. Death could not hold what God had promised to free. Look in verses 22-31:
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him, “ ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.”
The crucifixion was no accident, where God’s plan had gone out of control and His chosen Redeemer was defeated by His enemies. This was “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” It was God’s plan that the Jews handing the Messiah promised in the Law to Gentiles who had no conception of the Law – crucifying and killing Him by the hands of lawless men. It would be bad news if this were where everything had gone off the rails. But it is a Good Friday because this was God’s promise and His plan. The same God who planned His death also planned His resurrection, and neither one would fail.
David wrote in Psalm 16 that “my flesh will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades or let your Holy One see corruption.” King David is long dead, and His body returned to the dust decades ago. On our honeymoon, my wife and I stood at the place that is marked as his tomb. David could not have been speaking about Himself. But David knew that God had made a covenant with him that, although David would not build God a house in the form of a Temple, that God would build David a house in the sense of a family. His descendants would rule on the throne. But here, tantalizingly, God apparently revealed to David that one of his descendants would rule forever. We know this is Jesus Himself! The one who was part of David’s house, as his descendant, but also God’s House – God Himself come down as a Man, a living Temple. On Pentecost, His body became a Temple in the same way, filled with His Spirit. God kept His Word! He kept it when He gave Jesus as a sacrifice, He kept it when He rescued Him from the grave, and He kept it when He sent His people power to be witnesses. He could not have done otherwise. It was not possible for Jesus to stay held by Death when God had promised that He would be freed.
His word is no less certain today. “Every word of God proves true, he is a shield to those who take refuge in him,” Psalm 30:5 promises. We can stand on God’s promises today too. Hebrews 13:5 tells us that we do not need to worry about our material possessions because God will “never leave [us] nor forsake [us].” Imagine the load that could be lifted when you realize that the concerns of this world cannot hold you because the Maker of the world is your provider. Maybe you are dealing with a struggle in your life and don’t know which way to go? Try on James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” You need food? God will never forsake you. You need wisdom? Ask in faith and He gives generously.
In John 6:37, Jesus promises: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” If you have come to Christ, you do not need to worry about Him rejecting you or turning His back on you. Maybe you have sinned, maybe you have doubted. But you are not the one strong enough that the chains of death are helpless before you. He is. Your salvation is not based in your strength but in His.
Because He will not cast us out, we can take the promise of John 14:3 seriously: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” Even death cannot hold us! Jesus has prepared a place for us to dwell with Him, the presence of God and the end of exile. The work that was pictured on Pentecost and paid for on Calvary will be fully realized because God is faithful. If death could not keep Him from fulfilling His promises, what could?
Death could never hold Jesus because the penalty was paid and the promise was sure. Death could not hold Jesus because of what He did. But I think that there is at least one more reason, even more fundamental. Death could not hold Jesus because of who He is. Death could not hold the life.
This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “ ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” ’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
This Jesus, David’s Son who David called ‘Lord,’ is exalted at the right hand of God. He received the promised Spirit and passed that Spirit onto His Church. He sits enthroned: Lord and Christ. Redemption is not something that just anyone could have accomplished, and it happens to have been Jesus of Nazareth. Redemption was tied to His nature as fully Man and fully God. This God-Man was so fully human that He could die in the place of His brothers, and so fully God that Death could not hold Him and He could take His life up again. “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men,” 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “the man Christ Jesus.”
It was this Jesus, who they crucified, that was made Lord. The same One – fully God and fully Man. In John 6:48, Jesus had said: “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Although it made the crowds turn away from Him, Jesus announced that He was the source of their spiritual life as surely as bread was the source of their physical life. He was even more explicit in John 11:25-26: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” Or John 14:6, in all of its glorious abstraction: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
That is as simple as it could possibly be. Jesus is Life Himself. Death could not conquer life. The message Peter preached was not about an abstract idea. His good news was not “Death could not hold it.” It was “Death could not hold Him.” Here is a real person, who invited you into a relationship with Himself, in His name. A relationship that will change everything. We can only find real Life in Him, because He is the life. 1 John 5:12: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Death could not hold the One who is the Life, and it cannot hold those who have Him, and who He has as His own. Not physical death, which will be broken in our resurrection like His. Not spiritual death, because the penalty of our sin and its power have been canceled. We can count on His promise and know that no thing and no one could ever stop Him. Death could not hold Him.
In Mere Christianity, CS Lewis wrote: “God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing. That is the key to history. Terrific energy is expended—civilisations are built up—excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top and it all slides back into misery and ruin. In fact, the machine conks. It seems to start up all right and runs a few yards, and then it breaks down. They are trying to run it on the wrong juice. That is what Satan has done to us humans.”
Is that you? Are you trying to run your life on the fuel of good intentions, education, material wealth, popularity, church attendance, or some other secular or religious rite? It won’t work. You can only find the strength to overcome the gravitational pull of Sin and Death by trusting in the one who conquered it. The One whose promises are sure. The One who is truly the Life.
“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
If that unstoppable life has cut you to your heart, there is no better way to make this a very Good Friday for you than to repent of your sin (which is defeated and has no power anyway) and come to know Him today.