The Death of Death
II Timothy 1:10
April 4, 1999
“Christ Jesus … has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” II Timothy 1:10b
Of all the fears that grip the hearts of modern men and women, no fear is greater than the fear of death. It is an evidence of our technological progress that on this Easter Sunday we can boast that we have lived through the bloodiest century in human history. Today a general pushes a button in a somewhat remote office and a Cruise missile finds its target thousands of miles away. Killing is easier now because we have weapons of mass destruction. We can take out whole buildings and whole city blocks and even a whole city if we want to, and we still have time for a game of tennis before lunch.
We know how to kill but we don’t know how to die. When we face the prospect of our own death, we don’t know what to say or what to do. People say that nothing is certain but death and taxes. That is not quite correct. A person may find a way to avoid paying tax. He may simply not file a return – and at least for awhile he pays no tax at all. But you cannot avoid death or put it off. When your time is up, your time is up.
This is a subject we’d rather not talk about, especially on such a happy occasion. But if we can’t talk about death on Easter, when can we talk about it? The very essence of this day is a celebration that one man has slipped through the grave and come back to tell us about it. Death could not hold him. And now he holds the keys of death and hell.
No End of Death
No End of Death
Our text makes a wonderful affirmation when it declares that Jesus has destroyed death. Let us pause for a moment to consider those words. The older versions say he has “abolished” death. There is but one problem with that thought. Death does not appear to have been abolished. If death has been destroyed, someone forgot to tell the undertakers. People still die every day. The cemeteries fill up and new ones open. People claim that Forest Park (a community adjacent to Oak Park) has more dead residents than living ones – which is a strange thought but apparently true. There is no end of funeral homes, mortuaries, wakes, and weeping spouses. And there is no end of cancer, strokes, heart attack, sudden accidents, unexplained tragedies, ethnic cleansing, and bombs in the night. If you doubt my words, just pick up the Chicago Tribune and read the obituary section. Yesterday there were 54 different listings, including a 91-year-old former Girl Scout leader, a man who made his fortune on the Mercantile Exchange, a veteran of the Korean War, a college student who died of kidney cancer, and a 17-year-old boy who attended Wheaton Bible Church. The list goes on and on.
Death we have aplenty, where is the resurrection? How can we say that death has been abolished when death seems to stare us in the face every day? It is natural to think about it because sooner or later we’re all going to die. That much is certain. Recently I spent two hours with a 50-year-old businessman from St. 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. If death has been abolished, why do we still die?
Let’s begin with a basic question. If death has been abolished, why do we still die? I think the most obvious answer is that we die because of sin. Romans 5:12 tells us that death came to the world because of Adam’s sin. First there was Adam, then there was sin, then there was death. Sin always leads to death and as long as sin exists in the world death will never be very far away. Early this morning I read today’s Chicago Tribune and discovered 183 new names in the obituary section. Every day a brand-new list, names never repeated. Why? Because death reigns in Chicagoland.
How certain is the fact of your death? So certain that there is an entire industry built about the expectation of your death. It’s called the life insurance industry. The only reason you buy life insurance is because someday you are going to die. If you lived forever, you’d never need life insurance. But you buy life insurance precisely because you know the fact of your death, you just don’t know the time of your death. You pay the money, but in order to get the insurance benefit, you have to die. If you live and don’t die, you’ve spent the money and you lose. But when you die, someone else gets the money. Life insurance is based on one great theological truth: Death reigns.
When you die, the coroner will fill out a death certificate for you. There’s a space on that certificate that says “Cause of Death.” If we understand the Bible, the answer is always the same: “Sin.” Not sickness, not cancer, not an accident, not old age. Those are merely symptoms of the one great cause of death: Sin.
II. In what sense did Christ destroy death?
The word translated “destroyed” in II Timothy 1:10 means to render powerless. When Jesus rose from the dead, he broke the power of death forever. And one day death itself will die. Until then death has taken on new meaning for the Christian. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:26). Death for the Christian is a temporary interruption, a passing from one stage of life to another. That is what Paul meant when he declared that to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:21).
Let’s pause to consider the bare facts surrounding Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Did Jesus not die? Yes. Was he not buried? Yes. Did the women not weep? Yes. Where, then, is our hope? It rests not on Good Friday or in the long hours of that lonely Saturday. Our only hope may be found in what happened early on Easter Sunday morning. If Jesus was nothing more than a man, then we have no hope at all. And our dreams of immortality are just that – idle dreams. But there is good news from the graveyard this morning. There’s an empty tomb in the cemetery. It’s the tomb of Jesus Christ. He died on Friday afternoon, they buried him on Friday evening, and by Sunday morning his tomb was empty. This is God’s good news – that death could not hold him, that the grave could not keep him, that he is the Lord of life, the King immortal and eternal. How did he destroy death? He could only conquer death by entering the realm of death, yanking the keys from the hands of the devil, unlocking the door, and marching out on Easter Sunday triumphant over the grave.
He died like we die. He was really dead, actually dead, completely dead. He wasn’t partly dead or mostly dead. He was as dead as any person could be. And from that state of death God raised him back to life. He himself walked into that dark valley alone. He faced cold death and looked into its awful face. He stared down death, broke its power, and walked away victorious.
One day death will die! O God, let that day come soon!
This week I happened to read a sermon preached over 100 years ago by a man named T. DeWitt Talmage of New York City. He illustrated our coming resurrection by referring to what was then a new-fangled invention called a phonograph. He spoke of how a person’s voice could be recorded and preserved on a cylinder and then played back again and again even after the person had died. Then he asked this question, “If man can do that, cannot God, without half-trying, return the voice of your departed?” But if God can bring back the voice, then why not the lips and the face and the body and bones? He concludes with this wonderful sentence: “If man can do the phonograph, God can do the resurrection.”
That was 100 years ago. Today we can send live pictures zipping around the globe in seconds. And we can take your DNA and identify you in a crowd of 6 billion people. Truly we live in a remarkable age. But if man can do that, what can God do? He can raise the dead. He did it once and he can do it again.
III. What is death like for a believer?
Four thousand years ago Job asked this question, “If a man dies, will he live again?” (Job 14:14a) That is the greatest of all the questions, it is the one great question Easter was meant to answer.
Have you ever touched a dead person? Have you ever experienced the cold, clammy, waxen feel of death? There is no movement in the nostrils, no twinkle in the eyes, no smile on the lips. Death feels terrible, unreal, unnatural. When we stand over the body of someone we love, we feel helpless, angry, defeated and afraid. Death is sobering, frightening, terrifying. No wonder the Bible calls it “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26). No one has ever lived who hasn’t trembled before the Grim Reaper.
Deep in our hearts we wonder what will happen when our time comes to cross the Great Divide. How will it be with us when we have to go through the valley of the shadow of death? Will we be afraid? Will our faith stand the test?
The Bible tells us that the sting of death is sin (1 Corinthians 15:56). Consider that picture for a moment. How do you take the sting out of a bee? By taking the sting yourself. Then the bee can hurt you no more. Christ took the venom of death. Death stung him and killed him. But death could not keep him dead. He took all the venom of death so there is none left for his people to fear. Death for us is no longer a curse but a blessing. The New Testament calls it “sleep” because when you sleep, you plan to wake up later.
People ask, Will it be the same body? Yes, but greatly improved – which is good news for most of us and for some of us, it’s the only hope we have. Our bodies will be immortal and incorruptible. Today we have five senses, then we may have 500. Scientists tell us the body constantly renews itself as old cells disappear and new ones are formed. They say that every seven or eight years we have an entirely new body. If you are 50 years old, you’re living in the seventh or eighth version of your own body. Yet you still have the same scars you had when you were young. I’m 46, which means that I’m on my sixth or seventh body, yet I still have a scar on my right index finger from New Year’s Day 35 years ago when I cut myself trying to open a can of Vienna sausages. And despite the continual renewing of my body, I remain the same person. This illustrates that even though the body changes completely, human personality endures forever. Now if God can do that on this earth, think what he can do when he has unlimited time to work on you. If God can rebuild us ten times on this earth, I’m sure he can do it an 11th time. And when he does, he’ll fix us up so we’ll never have to be rebuilt again.
After I preached this, Ted King suggested a modern computer software analogy. Right now I am Ray Pritchard Version 7.0. Because I am a work in progress I am susceptible to viruses, quirky incompatibility, and sudden system failures. But the day is coming when God will issue Ray Pritchard Version 12.0 and I will be immune to viruses, completely compatible, and free from system failure for all eternity.
How will he do it? I do not know and that is one reason I believe in the resurrection. If there were no mystery, I could not believe it. I don’t want a God who only does things I understand.
A few weeks ago while hosting “Open Line” I received a call from a young girl who asked how we will know each other in heaven. I said that I don’t know the total answer to that question, but I am certain that we will recognize each other just as James, Peter and John knew Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration. One thing is for sure: We won’t know less in heaven than we know on earth. Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. I told the young girl that in heaven she will say, “Hi, Pastor Ray,” even though we’ve never met, and I will say, “Hello, Heather,” though I’ve never laid eyes on her. Such is the mystery and wonder of the resurrection.
We will be raised, restored, recognized, and we will be rested. Isn’t that a wonderful thought? Many people at the end of life say, “I am so tired.” If we were to go around this room today and ask, Are you tired?, almost everyone would have to say yes. Your head is tired, your back is tight, your nerves are shot, your eyes are heavy, and your legs are weary. Why? Because we live in a tired world. Things run down more easily than they are filled back up. The older you get, the more tired you become. Everything about this world is exhausting. Romans 8:21-22 says the whole creation is in bondage to decay and groans while waiting for the day of redemption. God in his mercy gives us rest at last – and when we are raised, we are raised in good health and good spirits, with a smile on our faces, with energy coursing through our veins, with vim and vigor that shall never abate through all the ages of eternity. We will rise rested – and shall be at rest even while we serve the Lord forever.
A Doorknob on the Outside
One final note. When we bury someone we don’t put a latch on the inside of the casket. There is no doorknob inside the tomb. Why? Because we can’t come out of our own accord. But thank God, there is a doorknob on the outside – a latch only God can open. When that great morning comes, Jesus himself will say, “Good morning! You’ve slept long enough. It’s time to get up. Hurry, children! We’re going to take a trip today.” Then as we rise through the air there will be a great gasp of recognition. Mother! Father! Son! Daughter! You look so good! Sweetheart, is that you? Yes, mother, it’s me. And so we shall ever be with the Lord.
Colds gone, flu disappeared, cancer vanished, strokes a distant memory, paralyzed limbs will leap once more, the deaf will hear, the blind see, the mute will speak, broken bodies will be made whole.
“Quick now, get in line. The heavenly procession has already begun. Look out for that cloudbank, go straight for the pearly gates.” Then we will ascend until the earth is like a mountain, then like a ship, then like a ball, and then like a speck. Before us we will see heaven first like a speck, then like a chariot, then like a throne, then like a city, then like a star, then like a sun, then like the universe itself. Farewell, dissolving earth! Earth recedes, heaven opens before us.
Behold, a bright light shines from the Easter tomb. A light that banishes darkness and bids it flee away. We think death means going from the land of the living to the land of the dying. No! For those who know Jesus, death means going from the land of the dying to the land of the living.
If a man die, will he live again? Yes! Yes! Yes! Here is the answer to the greatest question, the deepest question, and the final question. All of us will face death someday. But for those who know Jesus, death holds no fear. We’re not afraid of the darkness for Jesus is the Light of the world. We won’t stay in the valley of the shadow of death for Jesus has said he will be our guide. We may die, but we won’t stay dead. Jesus has the keys and one day he is going to come back for us.
Are you trusting the man who rose from the dead? Jesus is alive and standing with open arms inviting you to accept his offer of life eternal. 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 2000 years ago. That is God’s guarantee that even though we die, we won’t stay dead forever.
People of God, rejoice. Easter has come again, death has been defeated, and someday will be destroyed completely. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. The day is coming when God will wipe all our tears away. Until then, let this thought fill you with hope. There is a light shining from the tomb, a light that leads us from the darkness to the Glorious Day that shall never end. Amen.