Death Defeated

Revelation 1:18

“Since 1874.”

When I saw that on a sign, I knew I had to stop and take a second look.

It happened the other day when I went for a bike ride. I had gone south on Chesterville Road and then turned left on a road that would take me through a stretch of forest and around a bend that leads to Highway 6, a busy thoroughfare that carries a steady stream of traffic between Tupelo and Pontotoc and eventually on to Oxford and Batesville. I crossed Highway 6 and rode east on Bissell Road toward the Natchez Trace. When I am home during the spring and summer, I’ll ride from my house to the Trace and back four or five times a week.

Sometimes when you ride the same route day after day, you don’t see things around you. Not long ago I noticed a very small cemetery wedged onto a triangular piece of land next to the creek. On the other side of a well-worn chain link fence are several houses side by side. That’s the south side of the road: the creek, the tiny cemetery, and two or three homes. Fields planted with various crops occupy the other side of the road.

It’s an ideal road for bike riding because there isn’t much traffic. Many times I have ridden on Bissell Road on my way to the Natchez Trace, usually late in the afternoon. And so it was that one day this week, sometime after 5 PM, I was riding along the road when I passed the cemetery. For some reason I glanced at the sign that stood near the gate. This is what it said:

Westmoreland Primitive Baptist
Memorial Cemetery
Since 1874

In other times I would probably think about what church the cemetery was associated with because there aren’t churches nearby. But it wasn’t the name that caught my attention. It was the last two words:

Since 1874

That set to me thinking. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a phrase like that associated with a cemetery before. I’m used to seeing something like “Established 1874.” You usually see the word “since” associated with businesses still in operation.  If I see a sign that says “Since 1911” in front of a clothing store, I assume it means that they have been in business continually since 1911 and that they are still in business today.

I kept on thinking about that and so later in the week when I rode past the cemetery again, I decided to stop and take a closer look. After leaning my bike against the chain link fence, I opened the gate (it was not locked) and walked around the cemetery. Evidently it was founded in 1874 on land donated by Mr. Westmoreland who I believe is buried in one of the few plots with headstones. There are only a handful of marked burial sites. I did notice one marker for a child with a name given and then these two words added: “Died Young.” A few yards further I found a marker for a father and mother and their daughter who lived only a year or two and was buried in one of the first graves in the cemetery in the late 1870s.  Then I found a grave with this touching epitaph inscribed in stone: “He died as he lived-A Christian.” It is hard to think of a finer tribute than that.

Because the cemetery was so small, I finished my tour in less than ten minutes. As I rode away, I kept thinking about what I saw on the sign:

Since 1874

I finally decided that those two words, strange though they seemed, actually are quite fitting for a cemetery because they perfectly describe the true condition of the whole human race. We are a death-sentenced generation living in a dying world. As long as death reigns, we will always need undertakers and mortuaries and funeral homes and cemeteries. As long as death reigns on planet earth, there will always be an obituary section in the newspaper and there will always be a funeral somewhere.

We are a death-sentenced generation living in a dying world.

The cemeteries are always open for business.

I. A Dying World.

The Bible bears witness to this stark reality in many places:

“It is appointed unto man once to die” (Hebrews 9:27 KJV).
“I know you will bring me down to death” (Job 30:23).
“What man can live and not see death, or save himself from the power of the grave?”  (Psalm 89:48).
“The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

We cannot gloss over the hard truth. Indeed, it is vitally important that we face the truth squarely.

We are a dying race living on a dying planet.

Life is indeed a very short play.

We won’t be here forever. I read a very touching article in our local newspaper written by a woman on the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death. It was not sentimental or sad as I supposed it would be. After writing about the events of the last year and wondering what her husband would have thought about them, she said that she knew he would be glad to know that she had learned to laugh again and to laugh often. She summed up the last year this way:

When someone teaches you how short life is, you tend to quit wasting it. Not only is this not a dress rehearsal, it’s a very short play.

That last sentence seems very important to me. Life is indeed a very short play. As the poet said, “Death whispers in my ear and says, ‘Live. I am coming.’” This is not sentiment. It is sober reality. It is the reason why a cemetery can say “Since 1874.” There is always room for one more. Moses spoke of this truth in Psalm 90. Our only hope of finding significance is to find it in that which is eternal-in the God who is our eternal dwelling place (Psaom 90:1). Moses reminds us to think long and hard about these things. “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). 

“It is appointed unto man once to die”

I won’t be here forever.
Neither will you.

We all go through the Valley of the Shadow of Death sooner or later. The only question is, how will we make that journey? And what will we find on the other side?

We only have two ways to answer those questions:

1. Either we go through the valley on our own.
2. Or we take the testimony of someone who has been there already.

Eventually we will all take the first option, but by then it will be too late to do anything about it. If you face your own death unprepared, you will have to take whatever comes because once you are dead, you don’t get a “do over.” There are no second chances after we die. Or we can do the wise thing and listen to the testimony of someone who has been there and has come back to tell us about it.

Whoever has the keys has the authority to enter at will.

II. A Living Christ

It’s precisely at this point that the words of the New Testament become so crucial for us. In Revelation 1:18 Jesus declares, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades." I love that expression: “I hold the keys.” Every time I leave my house I take my keys with me. On my key ring I have five keys. One is for my house. One is for my car. The rest open certain gates and certain doors. They give me entrance into places where I am always welcome. Keys matter. Whoever has the keys has the authority to enter at will. When Jesus came forth from the tomb on Easter Sunday, he came forth holding the keys of death and Hades in his hand.

Proof positive that he had conquered the grave.

Have you ever wondered exactly how Jesus rose from the dead? I’ve heard a number of explanations involving the linen cloth that was wrapped around his body and the burial cloth that had been wrapped around his head. That’s what Peter and John saw when they looked inside the empty tomb (John 20:6-7). The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen wrapping (v. 7). A number of inferences are often drawn from this fact. The only thing we can say with certainty is that this means that his body was not stolen by robbers or taken by the disciples. No one stealing or taking the body would have unwrapped it. In his excellent book The Weekend That Changed the World, Peter Walker explains the reticence of the New Testament writers at this point:

The earthquake breaks open the tomb, but there is no mention of what happened at that moment (or at some previous point) to Jesus’ body. As far as we can tell, the tomb was opened, not so much to let Jesus out (cf. John 20:19) as to let others in. . . .

This is one of the most remarkable things about the Gospel accounts of those strange early morning events. Not one of them actually describes the Resurrection itself! . . . It is the great unseen factor, in itself forever mysterious, which yet explains so much else and casts everything in a new light (p. 46).

Science bows before the empty tomb. 

The gospel accounts were written 2000 years ago. We live in a day of exploding knowledge, yet we have no way to account for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ by purely human means. Science bows before the empty tomb. This week I read an article about the latest research into herbal medicine. Researchers in Korea have discovered that cinnamon and ginseng can prolong the life of a worm, but they don’t know how that applies to the human lifespan. Two thousand years later and we’re feeding cinnamon and ginseng to worms, hoping that somehow we can use it to help humans live longer. Who knows? Maybe it will someday add a year or two. I hope so. I’m all for it. And I’ll be glad to eat cinnamon and ginseng if it will help.

But no one has an answer for death. We can prolong life (perhaps), but there is no escape from the Grim Reaper. Death comes to all of us sooner or later.

III. A Transforming Hope

Science cannot possibly explain the Resurrection of Jesus. And we can’t explain it either, which is why the gospel writers didn’t try to describe the indescribable. I can only think of two words that describe what happened that first Easter.

Pure miracle.

Having encountered the risen Lord, they could not possibly keep quiet about it.

That’s why the New Testament never tries to “prove” the resurrection of Jesus in the scientific sense. Instead it describes the utterly transformed lives of the early Christians who saw their Master crucified and then saw him alive from the dead. Having encountered the risen Lord, they could not possibly keep quiet about it. They went everywhere spreading the Good News that God had entered the world in the person of Jesus Christ, that he lived among us, that he died a cruel death on a Roman cross, that in his death he bore our sins, taking on himself our guilt, and that he rose from the dead on the third day, never to die again. They proclaimed that those who trust in Jesus are forgiven, redeemed, saved, born again, given eternal life, and one day they will be raised from the dead when Jesus comes again.

This is the gospel we preach.
This is why we are not afraid to die.
This is why though we die, we will not stay dead forever.

Death has awesome power. It is truly the last enemy that will be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26). I would be happy if I never had to attend another funeral or never had to comfort another grieving spouse. But I know that I will because I am a dying man living on a dying planet surrounded by dying people.

Is there an answer to death?
Is there a hope beyond the grave?
Is there anyone who has defeated death?

Yes! His name is Jesus Christ. And on Easter Sunday the victorious Son of God came out of the tomb, having defeated the devil and all his demons, having broken the power of death, and he came out holding the keys of death and Hades in his hand.

Death cannot win in the end.

So I conclude very simply this way:

We are all bound to die sooner or later. If we think anything else, we are just kidding ourselves. We will all do some “box time” sooner or later. And it may be sooner than we think. There is no philosophy or positive mental attitude that can deliver you from death. Our only hope is in the Lord Jesus Christ who defeated death when he rose from the dead.

It seems to me that the cemetery was right to say “Since 1874” because people keep on dying all the time. But we Christians ought to say something like this:

Death Defeated
Since A.D. 33

Jesus said of his church that the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). How can that be since we are all going to die someday? The answer is, the church doesn’t depend on mortal men. It is built on the word and promise of Jesus Christ who is the Living One, who was dead and is now alive forevermore, who holds the keys of death and Hades in his hand.

Death cannot keep its prey,
Jesus my Savior.
He tore the bars away,
Jesus my Lord.

Up from the grave He arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes.
He arose a victor from the dark domain
And He lives forever with His saints to reign.
He arose, He arose, Hallelujah, Christ Arose.

That is our assurance. That is our hope. Death cannot win in the end. Death has been defeated. And the day is coming when death itself will be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14). Death was defeated when Jesus rose from the dead, and one day death will be no more.

So let the people of God rejoice. Jesus is alive! Though we die, we will not stay dead. The gates of hell will not prevail. Satan has the gates, but Jesus has the keys.

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Ray Pritchard

RAY PRITCHARD

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