In the Apostles’ Creed we confess that after Jesus’ death and before his resurrection, he descended into hell. We don’t know much about this, other than that “he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:18-19). We do know enough to say that it happened. However, there seems to be more that Jesus did between his death and resurrection than simply visit hell. There is another place he went: heaven. (If you want to read about the descent into hell, click here.)
I don’t think I’ve heard as much about the visit to heaven, probably because it’s not mentioned in the creed, but Scripture actually has more to say about it than the descent into hell. Jesus speaks of it repeatedly in John 14-16. He speaks of going to prepare a place for his disciples (14:3) and “going to him who sent me” (16:5). He says, “A little while, and you will see me no longer, and again a little while, and you will see me” (16:16). The disciples correctly understood this as his departure to the Father (16:17). This would mean sorrow at first, but soon their sorrow would turn to joy (16:19-24). Sorrow when they think their Lord is dead, but joy when he is raised and appears to them (20:20).
At first glance, some of these verses may seem like references to Christ’s ascension forty days after his resurrection, but that doesn’t fit the context, because Jesus says all these things to his disciples on the evening before his crucifixion. They would see him again in just a few days, and John records several appearances of Jesus to the Twelve after his resurrection. They also weren’t sad when Jesus ascended into heaven. They actually had great joy (Luke 24:52). So instead of his ascension forty days after his resurrection, Jesus speaks of going to the Father by way of the cross.
So what did Jesus do when he went to the Father? Hebrews 9 gives us some insight into this. It compares the earthly tabernacle with heaven, and the sacrifices offered at the tabernacle with the sacrifice of Jesus. In this New Covenant, Jesus is both the sacrifice and the priest.
First the Old Covenant: At the tabernacle, the animals were sacrificed outside in the court. That’s where the altar was. But once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), the high priest would bring the blood of the sacrifices into the Tabernacle and into the Most Holy Place. There he would sprinkle it on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant. He was the only one allowed into the Most Holy Place, and only once a year. But the Tabernacle was only a copy of the heavenly reality (Heb. 9:23).
Now for the New Covenant: Christ entered, not into an earthly tent made with hands, but into heaven itself “to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb. 9:24). “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 an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). The Scriptures have to tell us about this part of Jesus priestly work, because it is hidden from us.
It’s kind of like how the Israelites couldn’t see what the high priest did when he went into the Tabernacle, and then behind the veil to sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat. They could see the animals slaughtered outside on the altar, but they couldn’t see what the priest did with the blood when he went inside. In the same way, there’s the part of Jesus’ sacrifice that we see, and there’s the part we don’t. The world saw Jesus crucified, and we have the eyewitness testimony written down for us. But no man (except, of course, for Jesus) saw what he did when he entered into heaven by means of his own blood. So it’s written down for us so that we will know his crucifixion outside the city of Jerusalem isn’t the only part. Jesus also went to the Father and presented his own blood in heaven as the once-for-all atonement for sin. For this reason we have confidence to stand before God on the Last Day. The blood of Jesus has gone before us.
The peace of Christ be with you all,