From what we see in Scripture, it seems He was descending into the place where departed spirits had been held since the beginning of time. The disembodied spirits of believers and non-believers were being held in the place we now call Hell. At that time, there was a chasm separating the spirits of the saved and the spirits of the damned. Jesus went down into that area and set free to Heaven those believing saints, and apparently made clear to everyone that He was the long-awaited Messiah. (Ephesians 4:8-10 tells of this.)
But what was happening in the realm of the living? There is very little related of the events in the land of the living on that awkward Saturday. The many disciples of Jesus were in mourning and slipping into depression. The Bible tells us that they had forgotten that Jesus had predicted He was going to rise on the third day. (Jesus answered, “Destroy this sanctuary, and I will raise it up in three days.” – John 2:19) When we refer to this holy weekend, we often smile and say, "... But Sunday is on the way." There was no such phrase on that first holy weekend. The Jews were resting on one of their highest of holy days. That was the Sabbath. And they had only hours beforehand laid Jesus' unprepared body in the tomb of one of His wealthy followers. Their intention was to go back on Sunday morning and ceremonially prepare His body for complete burial and the time of extended mourning. Saturday was a lonely day indeed for the hundreds of disciples of Jesus. But it was a busy day for the enemies of Jesus. Just because we find ourselves in spiritual shock doesn't mean the enemy is in the same state.
Not everyone had forgotten Jesus' teachings. Several times during His ministry He had predicted/prophesied that He was going to be killed and then come back from the dead. He even gave a time frame for Him resurrection. There is no way to know how many times Jesus referenced His resurrection. Apparently it was enough for the disciples to remember after He was risen. But the religious leaders of the day remembered it before He was risen. To me, this is very significant. The religious leaders were the ones who had such a difficult relationship with Jesus. They were suspicious of His power. They were jealous of His popularity. They were angry at His disregard for their rules. Eventually, they were the ones who persecuted and prosecuted Him to death on the cross. The enemies of Christ didn't believe in Him, but they feared Him and His movement. His following had grown to the point that they were convinced everyone was going to go after Him. Even some in their inner circle had come to believe in Him as the Messiah. To them it was blasphemy. So the account we find in Matthew 27 should not be surprising. It reads like this...
(Jesus was placed in a tomb on Friday.) The next day, on the Sabbath, the leading priests and Pharisees went to see Pilate. They told him, "Sir, we remember what that deceiver once said while he was still alive: 'After three days I will rise from the dead.' So we request that you seal the tomb until the third day. This will prevent his disciples from coming and stealing his body and then telling everyone he was raised from the dead! If that happens, we'll be worse off than we were at first." Pilate replied, "Take guards and secure it the best you can." So they sealed the tomb and posted guards to protect it. [Matthew 27:62-66]
As we know, their plan was flawed. You can seal a tomb, but you can't stop resurrection power. Jesus rose from the dead early Sunday morning. An angel rolled away the huge stone that covered the tomb-cave. Jesus came out, and now I am a free man with power over sin and death. BEST. DAY. EVER!
The disciples discover the empty tomb, meet the resurrected Jesus, and begin to recall all of the times that He had predicted His resurrection. They spend the rest of their lives telling the story of the resurrection and died martyrs, happily ever after. They now await their own physical resurrection. The Jewish leadership on the other hand was in trouble. The guards had been startled out of their wits and were obviously no match for the angel at the tomb. They were taken out of play and were now in serious trouble for allowing a sealed tomb to be opened under their watch. So, this is how that went down...
Some of the guards went into the city and told the leading priests what had happened. A meeting with the elders was called, and they decided to give the soldiers a large bribe. They told the soldiers, "You must say, 'Jesus' disciples came during the night while we were sleeping, and they stole his body.' If the governor hears about it, we'll stand up for you so you won't get in trouble." So the guards accepted the bribe and said what they were told to say. Their story spread widely among the Jews, and they still tell it today." [Matthew 28:11-15]
What stands out to me is that the world remembered what Jesus had said, while His followers did not. Whether the priests and Romans believed in the resurrection of Jesus or not, they knew what He had said, and they counted on it being a part of the story. Note what they said earlier... "If His disciples spread the word that Jesus rose from the dead, we'll be worse off than before." The non-believers understood the power of the resurrection, even if they didn't believe in it. They already thought Jesus had caused everyone to believe in Him before He died. But if word got out that He had come back from the dead?!? Katy bar the door... and so they tried to do just that.
They sensed the power of resurrection in a way that the disciples did not… perhaps in a way we do not. Do we sense the power of resurrection? The world is still moving away from God... at a faster rate than ever. The conspiracy to keep Jesus in the grave continues. The world is trying to remove God from every aspect of life. I believe they understand the power... maybe more than we do. Maybe the Godless culture understands the ramifications of belief in the resurrection, and Heaven, and Hell, and the divinity of Christ, and the unity of the Church, etc., more than we do. Maybe we don't remember what Jesus taught about these things. But they do. They understand the danger of hypocrisy. They know the power of propositional truth. They see the value of absolutes... even if they don't live by them. Do we? Do I? Do you? Are we so apt to forget those things which make Him different from every other god... those things that make us so different from every other people? God help us if the world acts upon the realities of Christian truth with more vigor than do we in whom resides the same Spirit of the One who rose from the dead under His own power.
This is 'the day in-between'. What do you believe? What do you act upon? Were His words just the words of a good teacher, or do they have the power to bring revolutionary life into our hearts, and world-changing hope into our communities? Our Master did not live, die, and rise again so that we could be out-believed by non-believers.
Find more of David’s work at Heart Of Ministry.