The Incorruptible Christ
April 20, 2003
The first word is sometimes as important as the last word.
Seven weeks had passed since the resurrection of Jesus. For 40 amazing days, Jesus appeared to his disciples on many occasions and taught them concerning the Kingdom of God. Then he ascended into the clouds and returned to his Father in heaven. Ten days passed while the disciples huddled in the Upper Room, waiting, praying, watching, wondering what would happen next. On the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), the answer came in the form of strange languages, a mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire. At length Peter stood to explain it all to the crowd of baffled onlookers. What did it all mean? Were these men drunk with wine? No, they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then Peter began to preach the gospel. He reminded the hearers that with wicked hands they had crucified Jesus Christ. But that was not the end of the story. On Sunday morning something unbelievable happened. Jesus rose from the dead.
This is how Peter explained it to his transfixed audience: “But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24). This is the first public statement by any Christian regarding what happened that first Sunday morning when the women found the empty tomb.
“God raised him from the dead.” A simple statement of fact.
“Freeing him from the agony of death.” What the resurrection meant for Christ.
“It was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” The reason Jesus had to rise from the dead.
Looking back, it now seems inevitable to Peter. Only 50 days ago, he and the other disciples were cowering behind closed doors, overcome by grief and fear. After the horrific events of Good Friday, the last thing they expected was a resurrection. Even the women who came to the tomb were coming to anoint a dead body. They had no thought of finding the tomb empty. And when they found it empty, they assumed someone had taken the body away.
What a difference a day makes! Having seen Jesus up close and personal, Peter knew that he had risen from the dead. The impossible had happened. A dead man had come back to life. The Son of God had broken the power of death. The grave had been defeated. And now everything was clear in his mind. He had to rise. It was inevitable. Amazing that he had not seen it sooner. The only word for it was “impossible.” Not “Impossible for Jesus to rise” but “Impossible for Jesus not to rise.”
Ashes to Ashes
As we ponder that remarkable transformation, consider a statement we often hear at funerals: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” We’ve heard it so often, it seems almost a clichÃ©. The phrase harkens back to God’s judgment on Adam in the Garden of Eden. “For dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).
From the dust, to the dust.
From the dirt, to the dirt.
From the earth, to the earth.
This is the destiny of all men. We rise from the dust, we live 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 or 80 or 90 years, and then back to the dust we go. All of life is just a parenthesis in the journey from dust to dust.
But not Jesus. He did not go back to the dust. Though he died, his body did not decay in the grave. “He was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay” (Acts 2: 31). He died as the sin-bearer. But because he had no sin in himself, his body did not decay in the grave.
But why was it impossible that death could not hold him? Perhaps it is a statement about his power. Jesus at one point said he had the power to lay down his life and the power to take it back up again (John 10:17-18). But the resurrection was more than a demonstration of his divine power. Perhaps it is a statement about the power of the Father. Logic demands that the Father not leave his Son in the grave forever. Certainly, the resurrection proves the power of God over the realm of death. But Peter’s statement goes beyond that. Perhaps it refers to the fulfillment of Bible prophecy. Peter even quotes Psalm 16 as a prophecy of the resurrection of Christ. But the impossibility to which Peter refers goes beyond prophecy. Perhaps it refers to the moral necessity of vindicating the words of Jesus. He said over and over again that he would rise from the dead. He told his disciples that he would be betrayed, tried, mistreated, crucified, and that on the third day he would rise from the dead. Even if they never really “got it,” he told them many times. If he didn’t rise from the dead, then he is not “the truth” (John 14:6) as he claimed, and his words cannot be trusted. No doubt this is involved in his resurrection, but even that is not the end of the story.
I think the most important factor can be found in a statement Peter makes in Acts 3:15 when he tells the men of Jerusalem that they “killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses” (KJV). Ponder that title: “Prince of Life.” Other versions say, “Author of life.” Jesus is the source of life, the Lord of life, and the Prince of Life. He is life incarnate. Life itself comes from him, and apart from him there is no life at all. If that be true, how then did he die in the first place?
He had to die in order to save us.
He would not stay dead forever.
Death was necessary to pay the price for our sin. But death could not hold him forever, for death could never conquer life. Death is a powerful foe, but life is supreme. Death wins many battles, but the Prince of Life wins in the end.
Death could not keep its prey, Jesus my Savior.
He tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord.
It was impossible for death to hold him for death can never defeat life in the end. Life always wins because the Prince of Life won the battle 2,000 years ago.
He Simply Slipped Away
It is good to ask ourselves how Jesus rose from the dead. The actual act of resurrection was hidden from human eyes, and the means by which God raised his Son are beyond human understanding. But this much we know. When they took Jesus’ body down from the cross, they wrapped it carefully with strips of linen interspersed with 75 to 125 pounds of spices and aromatic resins. Those spices and gummy resins formed a tight bond with the linen cloth so that it eventually became a hard encasement around the corpse that protected it from potential grave robbers because it made it extremely difficult to remove the linen wrapping. After placing the body in the tomb, an enormous stone was rolled in front of the entrance. Later Pilate had the tomb sealed and posted soldiers at the entrance. The only other fact we know is that the body of Jesus, though dead, did not suffer any decomposition.
Sometime before dawn on Sunday morning, Jesus rose from the dead. From John’s description, it seems as if he passed right through the linen wrappings without disturbing them. I say that because John reports that he and Peter looked inside the tomb and saw the wrappings in the same place where they had been on Friday evening, almost like a cocoon after the butterfly has emerged (John 20:3-9). Jesus simply slipped away from his grave clothes once and for all. He arose from the dead, healthy and vigorous, bearing the scars of his suffering, yet in a glorified human body.
What does this mean for us today? Jesus gave us the answer to that question on the night before his crucifixion. “Let not your heart be troubled” (John 14:1 ESV). How simple, how clear, how profound those words are.
The world is filled with pain. “Let not your heart be troubled.”
There is sadness on every hand. “Let not your heart be troubled.”
We all have questions we can’t answer. “Let not your heart be troubled.”
What will the future hold? “Let not your heart be troubled.”
There is so much sickness. “Let not your heart be troubled.”
We watch war unfold in the Middle East. “Let not your heart be troubled.”
We’re all going to die someday. “Let not your heart be troubled.”
Keith Willhite’s Funeral
After I came home from church on Wednesday night, we received a call from Dallas with the news that Keith Willhite had died. The news was not unexpected even though he was only 45 years old. His wife Denise had told us a week earlier that the end was near. I first met Keith and Denise when he was a student at Dallas Seminary and they attended the church I pastored in a Dallas suburb. That was 20 years ago. Since then we have kept in touch as Keith got his doctoral degree and taught at Denver Seminary and later at Dallas Seminary. In 1997 he was diagnosed with malignant brain tumors. He fought back with all his strength, enduring radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. Shortly before he died, he told Denise he wanted me to speak at his funeral service if I could. And so my dear friend managed to die in the middle of the busiest week of the year for a pastor. It seemed at first that we couldn’t make it to Dallas, but we found a flight and we found a way to juggle my schedule. I spoke at the first of our two Good Friday services, and then Marlene and I flew to Dallas, arriving just after midnight. The funeral service was scheduled for 10:00 a.m. in Rockwall, a suburb on the east side of Dallas. After the service, we went to the graveside where Keith’s pastor made some brief remarks. At the end he did something I had never seen before. In some places it is customary to throw dirt into the grave. When the pastor finished, he took the petals from a red carnation and scattered them on the coffin while reciting, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 NKJV). It was deeply moving to me. Only later did the symbolism hit home. Dirt represents death, flowers represent life. Or literally, since flowers bloom from the earth, life comes forth from death.
When I spoke at the funeral service that preceded the graveside, I commented that if you have to die, the best week of the year to die is Holy Week because it always ends in a resurrection. It seemed significant that we were burying Keith on Holy Saturday—the day of preparation that comes between Good Friday and Easter. The message of Holy Saturday is, “Get ready. Something is about to happen. But it hasn’t happened yet.” I said to Denise, who was seated right in front of me, “The problem is, Saturday seems so long. It feels like Sunday will never get here. But I checked it out and even though it’s Saturday here in Texas, it’s already Sunday on the other side of the world. Way out there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Easter has already arrived. And it’s coming in our direction. Thank God, we’re not moving back toward the crucifixion. It may be Saturday but we’re moving toward Easter. Sunday’s coming. All we’ve got to do is hold on a little while longer and Sunday will soon be here.”
I ended my talk with these words. Looking at the coffin, I said, “Rest well, Keith. Death will not have the last word. We will see you again.” Then I sat down.
“If We Believe”
Is that just wishful thinking? Is that just sentimental hoping? On what basis do we believe we will see our loved one again? I tell you the biblical answer. We do not believe in the resurrection of the saints because of anything we see with our eyes. All around us we see death and more death. Death still reigns in the world. It’s been a long time since anyone has seen a resurrection. Everything we see with our eyes argues against it. But faith will triumph in the end. We do not believe in the resurrection of the saints because of what we see with our eyes. We believe in the resurrection of the saints because we believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Listen to the Word of the Lord: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (I Thessalonians 4:13-14 NASB).
“If we believe.” Do you believe that Jesus died and rose again? I do.
That’s all you have to believe. But that’s the “whole ballgame” from God’s point of view. That’s the whole message of Easter. If God raised his own Son from the dead, he will not leave in the grave those who believed in Jesus while they were alive. Because he rose, we too will rise. Because he lives, we too will live.
There’s good news from the graveyard this morning.
Good news that the tomb is empty.
Good news that Jesus rose from the dead.
Good news that the devil couldn’t hold him.
Good news that death has lost its sting.
Good news that the grave has lost its victory.
Good news that we need not fear death any more.
As far as I know my heart this morning, I am not afraid to die. Not because I am especially brave. For I am not. But I know what’s on the other side. My Lord has come back and told me what I can expect. I don’t have anything to worry about.
If you hear that I have died tonight, when you bury me, stick up a sign that says, “Temporary residence.” I’m coming back up. You can count on it. I say that without any sense of pride or boasting. For my resurrection does not depend on me.
It does not depend on my good deeds.
It does not depend on any merit in me at all.
It depends solely and wholly on my Lord Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead on Easter Sunday morning. He promised that if I would trust in him, someday I would rise with him. I’ve staked my entire life on that promise. If it’s not true, I have no other hope.
But it is true. That’s why I don’t plan on staying dead forever.
Don’t Look in the Graveyard
Good news from the graveyard? That’s a strange place for good news. But that’s what Easter is all about. If you’re looking for Jesus today, don’t look in the graveyard. He isn’t there. He left the graveyard 2,000 years ago and never went back.
The really good news is this … If you are looking for Jesus today, you can meet him right now. May I introduce you to him? His name is Jesus of Nazareth. He is the Son of God from heaven. God so loved you that he sent Jesus to die on the cross for you. He was buried in Joseph’s tomb. He rose from the dead on Easter Sunday morning. He paid for your sins so that if you believe in him you will never perish but have everlasting life.
Are you trusting the One who rose from the dead? Jesus is alive and standing with open arms inviting you to accept his offer of eternal life. The door to Heaven is wide open. I invite you to take a step of faith and allow Jesus to prove to you that he is alive. I extend to you a personal invitation to consider becoming a Christian: If your soul is hungry for something more than you have found, try Jesus. If Jesus is knocking on the door of your heart, make sure you open the door.
Each of us has an appointment with death sooner or later. But that is a cause for rejoicing—not for fear, provided we have put our trust in the One who holds the keys of life and death. Here is the final proof that death has been destroyed. When Jesus rose from the dead, he left the door to the tomb wide open. That means we won’t have to fight our way out of the grave when he calls us to wake up. He left the door open 2,000 years ago. That is God’s guarantee that even though we die, we won’t stay dead forever.
One final word and I am done. Perhaps you’ve seen the billboard with a picture of Jesus hanging on the cross. Underneath the picture are three words: “It’s your move.”
Jesus died on the cross. It’s your move now.
Jesus rose from the dead. It’s your move now.
God has answered our deepest questions with the simplicity of an empty tomb. On this happy Easter morning I declare to you that Jesus Christ is alive. My friend, what will you say to that? What difference does it make to you? Will you give him your heart and your life? Will you trust him as Lord and Savior?
It’s your move now.