An Opened Heaven, and Hades Shall Not Prevail

Many of us heard the Calling of Philip and Nathanael (St. John 1:43-51) this past Sunday, the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, and it is a remarkable account in many ways. So many points worthy of thoughtful consideration and homiletical development in that Holy Gospel – there’s a lot to choose from, almost an embarrassment of riches.

As in the past, I was especially struck by the Word of our Lord declaring that Nathanael would see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. For one thing, the angels are centered and focused on the incarnate Son, and they take their starting point from Him on earth: notice that they are ascending first, and then descending back to Him (St. John 1:51). Wherever He is – the Word-made-Flesh, the God-Man Jesus Christ – that is where the one true God is located, and that is where His Kingdom and His Paradise are found.

Now, we have just recently heard how the heavens were opened at the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan River (St. Matthew 3:16) – torn open (schidzomenous), as St. Mark (1:10) describes, like the temple curtain at the death of our Lord (St. Mark 15:38). The Baptism of our Lord had already taken place prior to Nathanael’s call to discipleship, but the heavens were torn open for us by the Cross and in the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, to which His Baptism pointed. In His accomplished victory over death and the grave, He opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all who believe and are baptized in His Name; and in Him, it shall never be closed again.

As Luther has so eloquently preached on this text: “Before the advent of Christ heaven was closed, and the devil had full sway; but in and through Christ the heaven stands ajar again. Now Christians see heaven opened, always hear God the Heavenly Father conversing with them, and behold the dear angels continuously ascending and descending upon us. The Heavenly Father still addresses these words to us: ‘This is My beloved Son!’ He will continue to do so until the Day of Judgment, nor will heaven ever be closed again. When you are baptized, partake of Holy Communion, receive the Absolution, or listen to a sermon, heaven is open, and we hear the voice of the Heavenly Father; all these works descend upon us from the open heaven above us” (Luther’s Works AE Volume 22, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, pages 201-202).

We hear much the same thing, as well, in St. Matthew’s account of the Confession of St. Peter (St. Matthew 16:13-20), specifically in the Lord’s response and promise to St. Peter: “I will give you the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (St. Matthew 16:19). Both the binding and the loosing Keys are here given to the Church on earth, but both aim at opening heaven to sinners through repentance and faith in the Lord’s free and full forgiveness of sins. It is our hope and prayer, of course, that the binding and retaining of sins in the case of the impenitent would bring them to their senses – to repentance – in order that heaven should then be opened to them through the loosing and absolving of their sins in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And with that gift of Holy Absolution is the sure and certain promise of our Lord, that not even the gates of Hades shall be able to prevail against His Church (St. Matthew 16:18). As Christ has been crucified, put to death, and buried for our transgressions, and as He is risen from the dead for our justification, never to die again, death and the grave are not able to prevail against His Church. Hades could not hold onto Him, and neither is it able to hold on to us, who die and rise with the same Lord Christ Jesus. And not only do we who are called and sent as pastors have the privilege of preaching that promise to others, but also the blessing of that promise for ourselves.