The Supreme Question of Easter
March 23, 1997
Because this is Easter season, the major newsmagazines have been running cover stories on religious themes. Last week Time magazine did one entitled “Does Heaven Exist?” Newsweek chimed in with “The Mystery of Prayer: Does God Play Favorites?” Even TV Guide got in the act with a series on articles on the theme “God and Television.” All of them were interesting, but none more so than the story that ran in U.S. News and World Report. Titled “Life After Death,” the article reported on the scientific debate about near-death experiences. Listen to the first paragraph:
On the talk-show circuit and the bestseller list, the tales are legion. After being struck by lightning, a man meets a “Being of Light” who grants forgiveness for a lifetimes of violence. In full cardiac arrest on the operating table, a gradeschool teacher travels down a long tunnel to “a place filled up with love, and a beautiful white light.” And Elvis Presley takes her by the hand. (U.S. News and World Report, March 31, 1997, p. 59)
The article goes on to say that perhaps as many as 15 million Americans have had near-death experiences. Many of them were changed forever by the things they experienced. They had touched eternity, or so they believed, and life on this earth could never be the same again.
We all wonder about life after death, don’t we? It’s natural to think about it because sooner or later we’re going to die. That much is certain. This week I spent two hours with a 48-year-old businessman from Saint Louis who told me about a friend who asked him, “Have you smelled the first shovel of dirt from your grave yet?” Indeed, he has. With calm certainty he told me that sooner or later he was going to die of cancer. Twice it had come to him, twice he had beaten it, but the third time he might not be so lucky.
I. Death: The Last Enemy
Death is truly the last enemy of the people of God. That’s not my word. It’s what the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 15:26. We can beat many other enemies, but death always wins in the end. We can put it off, dress it up, delay it, or deny it, but to no avail. “It is appointed unto man once to die,” says the Bible, and no one will escape that appointment.
This week it was my privilege to share the platform at Word of Life Florida with Dan Gelatt. For 20 years he served with great distinction as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Elkhart, Indiana. He now serves as special assistant to the president of the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism. He is a good man and a very gifted speaker. The last year has been the most difficult in his life. His aged father died, his daughter-in-law died of cancer, then last September his wife of 44 years died of a brain tumor after a two-year illness. In his messages he openly shared with us his personal journey through pain and suffering. Last Monday morning I preached on the providence of God. I don’t think I had gotten three minutes into my message before he put his head on the table and started to weep. Afterwards he gripped my shoulder and said, “I believe all that, but it’s so hard.” He said that at the end, his wife didn’t even recognize him. A hundred times a day she would say, “Who are you?” He wept as I have not seen a man weep in many a year.
Jesus wept too. When he stood before the tomb of Lazarus he wept openly. People have wondered why he wept since he knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. I think he wept because he loved Lazarus and because he felt the pain of death. He saw the grief of Mary and Martha and wept for all the suffering that death causes in the world.
Death is the last enemy, and until it is destroyed, we, like Jesus, will weep too.
II. Jesus and Death
As I read John 11 I am struck by the fact that when Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, he deliberately delayed coming until he knew that Lazarus was dead. In fact, he stayed where he was for two more days. By he time he got there Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. When Martha saw him, she said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21). There is a strange combination of sorrow and enormous faith in those words.
“If you had been here.” We all think that from time to time. If Jesus had been here, my marriage would have been saved. Lord, if you had been here, I wouldn’t have lost my temper. If Jesus had been here when we needed him, our family would still be together.
But now Jesus is here. What will he do? Lazarus has been dead so long that any thought of an immediate resurrection is out of the question. But that doesn’t seem to be on Martha’s mind. She thought that Jesus could heal Lazarus and she also believed he would be raised on the last day. It apparently never occurred to her that Jesus could raise Lazarus right then and there.
It is against this backdrop that Jesus said to Martha those famous words that have been quoted at a million gravesides ever since:
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (11:25-26)
These words have been a light and a hope to the people of God for 2000 years. We quote them because they express our deepest faith in Jesus Christ. I’ve always thought these verses were a bit mysterious because Jesus seems to contradict himself. In one place he says a man will live even if he dies. Then he immediately says that if a man believes in him he will never die. How is it that you can die and not die at the same time? Is there is a kind of death is not really death at all? Is that what Jesus means? Let us consider each phrase carefully in order to understand what Jesus is saying to us on Easter Sunday.
1. He is the master of death in all its forms.
“I am the resurrection and the life.” Notice how personal this is. He doesn’t say, “I bring resurrection and life” but rather “I am the resurrection and the life.” In the presence of Jesus death is no longer death. It is something else entirely. As Paul says later in the New Testament, death has now lost it sting, and the grave its victory.
How can that be? The answer seems to be that death has been transformed by Jesus himself. I remind you that our Lord often used the word “sleep” to describe death. When he saw Jairus’ daughter, he said, “She’s asleep.” When he told the disciples that Lazarus was asleep, they said good because then they knew he would eventually wake up. Sleep is natural and normal, which is why no one calls the paramedics when you lie down to take a nap. The whole point of sleeping is to wake up later. Death for the believer is like lying down to a good long nap. The body may sleep a long time—for many years in fact—but in the end it will wake up. When Jesus raised Lazarus, it was just a specimen, a sample of what he will do for his people when he returns to the earth.
But it’s very personal with Jesus. The answer to death is not a resurrection. It’s Jesus himself. “I am the resurrection and the life.” No one can ever hope to escape death unless he is related to Jesus through personal faith.
That’s why this article in U.S. News and World Report is so telling. Men and women desperately want to peer beyond the veil. They want to know what lies on the other side of death. The answer is quite simple. If you know Jesus, what lies on the other side is resurrection and life. If you don’t know him, you have no hope at all. You might as well call the Psychic Hotline or talk to the woman who thinks she met Elvis. When the time of death comes, you’d better know Jesus or you’re going to be all alone.
This week all of us were shocked and saddened by the mass suicide of 39 men and women who were part of the “Heaven’s Gate” cult in California. Evidently they mixed a few Bible verses with some bizarre science fiction and threw in some New Age mysticism to create a heady brew that led them to believe that a UFO was approaching the earth. They thought that by taking their own lives they would be transported to new existence aboard the UFO. Why would people do something like this? I submit that their belief in life after death was entirely proper. However, when people cut themselves off from the Word of God, they have nothing left but vain speculations and idle dreams. What they did was extreme, but it illustrates the folly of trying to find answers apart from God’s revelation.
2. He is the answer to death for all of us.
“He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.” Think about those words for a moment. You can live even though you die. This is the fondest and deepest wish inside the human heart. To know that death is not the end. A few weeks ago Carl Sagan died of cancer at the age of 62. Newsweek magazine reported that he remained a resolute unbeliever to the very end. Listen to what his wife said,
There was no deathbed conversion, no appeals to God, no hope for an afterlife, no pretending that he and I, who had been inseparable for 20 years, were not saying goodbye forever. (Newsweek, March 31, 1997, p. 65)
How sad it must be to come to the end of life and to believe that after death this is nothing at all. Just a vanishing into the cosmos, a passing into the dark night, marching off the stage into eternal nothingness.
But without Jesus Christ, what other hope do we have? Over the last 20 years I have conducted funerals for all kinds of people. Most of them have been older, but occasionally I do a funeral for a younger person, and sometimes I have the duty to officiate at the funeral for a child or an infant. The circumstances vary of course, but this much is certain. At the moment of death the truth about individuals comes out. You can fake your religion most days, but you can’t fake it when you stare death cold in the face. In that moment Jesus makes all the difference in the world. In the saddest moments I have seen the light of God on the faces of those who have lost their loved ones. Through their tears they smile because they know Jesus and he has made all the difference.
He is truly the answer to death for all of us. As D. L. Moody lay dying, he exclaimed, “Earth is receding; heaven is approaching. This is my crowning day.” Many have felt that way as they came to the end of life.
3. He is the victor over death for all time.
“And whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” In some ways this is the most amazing statement Jesus ever made because he is clearly saying that death for the believer ceases to be death at all. It is merely the continuation of life in the presence of God. That’s what Paul meant when he said that to die “is gain.” It’s also what David meant when he declared “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Jesus had this in mind when he promised the dying thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Can you imagine what it was like for Jesus to raise Lazarus from the dead? First he told them to roll away the stone. Martha objected, pointing out that his body would stink because it had been dead for four days. Then Jesus prayed to his Father. Then he cried out, “Lazarus, come forth!” Why did he call his name? Because if he hadn’t said, “Lazarus,” all the dead in all the graves of the world would have been suddenly emptied. The Bible says that Lazarus came forth from the grave, still bound in his graveclothes. Jesus ordered that the wrappings be removed and he be set free.
Here’s something you may not have considered. Lazarus was raised from the dead only to die again later. Why did Jesus raise him? So that we would know that he could do it. After all, anyone could say “I am the resurrection and the life,” but only the Son of God could do what Jesus did.
III. The Question You Must Answer
It’s Easter Sunday morning, 1997. What does this day mean? It means that through Jesus Christ you may be released from the fear of death. But there’s a question you must answer. It’s the question found at the end of verse 26. We generally overlook the question, but it’s the key to what Jesus said. This week I’ve asked people to quote the passage and they always stop before the question. But if you skip the question, then you miss the whole point.
Here’s the question. “Do you believe this?” That’s the supreme question of Easter. In the end truth must always become personal. Let me wrap up this message by asking you six all-important questions:
1. Do you believe with all your heart that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came from heaven to live on this earth 2000 years ago?
2. Do you believe that when he died on the Cross, he died in your place, bearing your punishment, and paying for your sins?
3. Do you believe than on Easter Sunday morning, he literally, physically, bodily rose from the dead never to die again?
4. Do you believe that Jesus is now seated at the right hand of God the Father?
5. Do you believe that Jesus is truly the resurrection and the life and that he is able to remove the terror of death for those who trust him?
6. Are you willing to stake your life on your answers to the first five
(Note to the reader. When I preached this message, I had the congregation stand and give their personal answers to those questions in unison. I challenged them to get off the fence and make a personal decision for Christ. If you are reading these words in private, I here and now challenge you to stand up, read those questions out loud, and then give you own personal answer to each one. You say, “He’s not serious, is he?” I’m as serious as a heart attack, which may happen to you some day, in which case you need to be sure about your relationship with Jesus Christ. Better to stand up now and make your decision than to wish you had when it’s too late to stand up at all.)
I began the message by quoting from the magazine article that asks the question “Is there life after death?”. In some ways, you can’t blame the people of the world for looking to Near-Death Experiences to answer that question. If you don’t know Jesus, you’ll grasp at any straw. But if you know him, you don’t need to worry about those things. We don’t need the word of people who nearly died when we have the word of someone who died on Friday and then came back to life on Sunday morning. His Word can be trusted and he said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
As we talked on Monday afternoon, Dan Gelatt told me about the last moments of his wife’s life. As he held her in his arms, she breathed a few short breaths and then was gone. “I held her in my arms until Jesus came and took her in his arms,” he said.
There’s an old gospel song called “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart.” One of the verses contains this phrase, “There’s a light in the valley of death now for me, since Jesus came into my heart.” That light is the light of Jesus who stands knocking at the door of your heart this morning.
Do you know him? I pray you will open the door and let him in. You will never regret that decision and when death finally comes, it won’t be death at all, but an entrance into life everlasting. May God grant you grace to believe and make you restless until you find your rest in him. Amen.
Lord Jesus, what would we do with you? Where could we go but to the Lord? You alone have the words of eternal life. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. I pray for those who stand on that sinking sand this morning. May they find the Rock of Ages. Thank you for the hope we have, hope that goes beyond the grave. Amen.