In my time at this church, the most memorable services, that I wouldn’t have missed for anything, have been the funerals, because as well as being times of sorrow they’ve been full of confidence about life beyond death. And there’s nothing more powerful than proclaiming the resurrection of those who trust in Christ, when the body of one of them is in a coffin here at the front.
Whereas at their funerals, people who aren’t Christians can only mourn – and maybe try to laugh death off. Eg, at the memorial service for Monty Python star Graham Chapman, John Cleese started his address with a take-off of the famous Dead Parrot sketch. It began:
Graham Chapman, co-author of the parrot sketch, has ceased to be. He has kicked the bucket, hopped the twig, hit the dust, snuffed it, breathed his last, and gone to meet the great head of light entertainment in the sky.
And so it went on, hiding behind humour in order to duck the issue of the day, namely death, and ending up with the trademark Monty Python song ‘Always look on the bright side of life’.
By contrast, I think of the funeral here of John Patterson. His faith was in Jesus, and I can still remember one of his wife’s poems, ‘Deathbed’, being read as she sat just a few feet from his coffin. It goes like this:
Now, when the frail and fine-spun
Web of mortality
Gapes, and lets slip
What we have loved so long
Out of our lighted present
Into the trackless dark.
We turn, blinded,
Not to the Christ in Glory,
Stars about his feet
But to the Son of Man,
Back from the tomb,
Who built fire, ate fish,
Spoke with friends, and walked
A dusty road at evening.
Here, in this room, in
This stark and timeless moment,
We hear those footsteps
With suddenly lifted hearts
The irrelevance of death.
That’s confidence about life beyond death, isn’t it? And I’ve come away from every Christian funeral thinking, ‘This is where the rubber really hits the road: it’s whether you have an answer in the face of death that ultimately counts – and we do.’ This is what sets us apart from the non-Christian world. It means that when we lose a Christian to death – a Christian husband or wife, or father or mother, or child or friend – then as the Bible says, we don’t ‘grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope’ (1 Thessalonians 4.13). And it means that when we face our own deaths, we can say, as the apostle Paul did, ‘for me... to die is gain... I want to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far’ (Philippians 1.21, 23). Which is why when a Christian friend was recently told by his consultant that he had cancer and probably only a year to live he replied, ‘You may not understand this, but, to me, what you’ve just said is more a sentence of life than a sentence of death.’ Could you say that, in his shoes?
So on this Easter Sunday let’s remind ourselves how it is that those of us who trust in Christ can face death with that sort of confidence. Would you turn back with me in the Bibles to 1 Corinthians 15 – the great Bible chapter about Jesus’ resurrection and ours. And we’re going to look at vv20-28, under three headings:
Firstly, JESUS’ RESURRECTION SHOWS THERE’S LIFE BEYOND DEATH (v20a)
The first question on this subject has to be, ‘How can we know there’s life beyond death?’ Well, look down to 1 Corinthians 15:12, where the apostle Paul writes:
But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
So clearly people back then were already denying that there could be life in a new body beyond death – there’s nothing modern about that. So what’s the answer, when people say, ‘Your belief in life beyond death can only be wishful thinking. You can’t know what’s the other side of death until you’re there – and when you are there, what you believe might turn out not to be true after all’? Well, the answer is: the facts of the gospel – what happened that first Easter. Just look back up to v1:
1Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel [ie, the news of what’s happened, the facts that] I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep [ie, died]. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8and last of all he appeared to me [ie, the apostle Paul] also, as to one abnormally born.
And if you turn over to v20, Paul sums up those facts like this:
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead...
And his resurrection that first Easter shows there’s life beyond death. Just imagine that our lives are like a tunnel. And at the end of the tunnel is the wall of death. It’s a glass wall – and it’s that one-way glass, so that we can’t see through it to what lies beyond; but from beyond, God can see through it to know everything about us. And if the Lord Jesus had not been raised from the dead, we would still be totally in the dark about what, if anything, lies beyond the end of the tunnel. So the atheist would say, ‘nothing,’ and no-one could judge whether he was right or wrong. Someone else might say, ‘heaven,’ and no-one could judge whether that was a comforting truth or a comforting lie.
But what happened that first Easter, for a period of 40 days, was that from time to time, the glass became two-way as God allowed a group of eye-witnesses to see the Son he’d raised from the dead. His Son had become a man in the person of Jesus and lived with us in the tunnel of mortal life. He’d been crucified that first Good Friday – which for him was the end of the tunnel. But then God raised him to life beyond the tunnel – where he would have been invisible to us, unless he’d made those resurrection appearances. And those first eye-witnesses saw them on our behalf and wrote about them in the New Testament (NT), so that we can also see them through their eyes. So as we read about Jesus appearing to his disciples in that locked room without using the door and yet being physical enough to say, ‘Touch me’ – we’re seeing someone who now belonged to eternity, appearing within time. We’re seeing life beyond death.
That’s how we know it’s real. So when we face those who deny it, or when we face our own private doubts (perhaps, especially, when we know our own time has come), let’s not be unsettled. Instead, let’s preach to ourselves the fact that Jesus’ resurrection shows there’s life beyond death. And if you’re not yet someone trusting in Christ, can I ask: ‘What do you believe is going to happen to you when you die?’ Because you really can’t face life properly without an answer to that. And whatever your answer is, it begs the other question, ‘Why do you believe what you believe?’ And I guarantee you won’t have a reason anywhere near as solid as the resurrection of Jesus.
So, Jesus’ resurrection shows there’s life beyond death. But the next question is, ‘How can I know I will be raised beyond death, to be with God, and the Lord Jesus, where they are?’ Well that brings us to my second heading:
Second, JESUS’ RESURRECTION GUARANTEES THE RESURRECTION OF ALL WHO TRUST IN HIM (vv20b-22)
And we need to be clear that the verses we’re about to look at apply only to those trusting in Christ. Just look back to v18. Paul’s been spelling out from v12 what would be true if in fact Jesus had not been raised from the dead, and among other things he says, v18, well:
Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.
Now ‘fallen asleep’ is just his euphemism for ‘died’. But notice whose deaths he’s talking about. It’s those ‘in Christ’ – ie, those who are united to Christ by faith. So he says, ‘If Christ hasn’t been raised from the dead, then those who’ve died trusting in him aren’t going to be, either. They’re lost, because there’s nothing beyond the end of the tunnel after all.’ Then look on to v20 again:But [the truth is:] Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep [ie, those who’ve died trusting in Christ].
Now what does he mean by saying that Jesus’ resurrection is the ‘firstfruits’? Well, I remember visiting some friends who have an apple tree, and the wife had to go out into the garden to get something. And she reappeared excitedly holding the first apple of the season. And she held it up and said, ‘Look the apples are coming.’ You see, she’s holding up one, single apple, and yet she’s saying, ‘Look, the apples (plural) are coming.’ Because that single one is the ‘firstfruits’ – it represents all the others it’s been united with on the tree, and it guarantees that they’re all on their way. And that’s what Paul means when he says that Jesus’ resurrection is the firstfruits. That one, single resurrection which has already happened represents and guarantees what will happen to all of us who trust in him. But how does that work? Well, look on to v21:
21For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
So every one of us is ‘in Adam’ – united with him as the head of our race. And when Adam took the step of rebelling against God, thinking he could be independent of God, he dragged all of us with him into that rebellion and its consequences – a bit like when a head of state declares war with another country and drags all his people in with him. And one of the consequences of Adam’s rebellion was that God imposed on the human race the blanket judgement of mortality. Because, according to the Bible, death is not natural – in the sense of originally part of our nature. I remember hearing the Newcastle professor of geriatrics – although, appropriately enough, I’ve forgotten his name – giving the Radio 4 Reith Lectures on the subject of aging. And he said: in theory, we should be able to live indefinitely because we have all the genes to renew and repair ourselves. He said, ‘We just don’t know why those genes stop working.’ Well, the Bible says we do: it’s because of God’s blanket judgement of mortality.
So, v22, ‘in Adam, all die.’ And death is the moment when God shatters our illusion of independence and calls us to judgement. And if we reach that moment unforgiven and unreconciled to him, we will be turned away from his eternal kingdom. And, again, if you’re not yet someone trusting in Christ, please realise that that’s what’s at stake. It’s that serious.
‘In Adam, all die’ – but, second half of v22, ‘In Christ all will be made alive.’ I.e. all who are united to Christ by faith will be raised from the dead and welcomed into his eternal kingdom. How? Well, because when the Lord Jesus reached the end of the tunnel of this life and died on the cross, he took on himself the judgement we deserve so that we might be forgiven. So when someone trusting in Christ reaches the end of the tunnel, and passes through, there’s no judgement waiting to fall because it’s already fallen on Jesus in their place. And God says, ‘Welcome – you have no judgement to pay for your sin, because it’s already been paid for you.’
Or it’s like when a man immigrates to this country and is granted British citizenship and then marries a woman from his home country, because of their union they’re treated as one and the husband’s citizenship guarantees that his wife can follow. And it’s like that with us and the Lord Jesus. If we’re married to him by faith, then in God’s eyes we’re one with him and guaranteed a place where he has gone.
Which is why Paul uses that euphemism of ‘falling asleep’ for the death of a believer, because it holds no more fear for a believer than falling into bed, looking forward to waking up completely refreshed in a new day – in this case, an eternal, new day. And Paul calls on us to view our own death, and the deaths of fellow-believers, that way.
So, Jesus’ resurrection shows there’s life beyond death. Jesus’ resurrection guarantees the resurrection of all who trust in him. But then a final question for tonight is this: how do we cope with mortality and death in the meantime? Because it’s one thing to be confident about what will happen at the very end of the tunnel, thanks to the Lord Jesus’ death and resurrection. But it’s another thing to cope with our journey there – through both our own sicknesses and death, and the sicknesses and death of those we love. So, my third and final heading for tonight is:
Thirdly, JESUS’ RESURRECTION GUARANTEES THE END OF DEATH AND ALL OTHER EVILS (vv23-28)
That’s what we have to look forward to, and that’s what enables us to cope on the way. Whereas, if I didn’t have faith in Christ, then as life wore on I’d only be able to look back to the best – back to better health and better fitness and better memory and better mind and so on. And I also think I’d be bound to misinterpret God as I faced sickness and death. Here, eg, is what George Bernard Shaw wrote:
How are atheists produced? In probably nine times out of ten, something like this happens: A beloved wife, or husband, or child or sweetheart is gnawed to death by cancer, stultified by epilepsy... or strangled by diphtheria, and the looker on, after praying vainly to God to refrain from such... cruelty, indignantly repudiates his faith in the divine monster and... becomes not merely indifferent and sceptical, but fiercely and actively hostile to religion.
That’s the non-Christian speaking –and speaking angrily. How, by contrast, can we cope with the journey through sickness and death? Well, look down to v22 again:
22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27For he "has put everything under his feet." Now when it says that "everything" has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
There’s not time to go into that in detail. But the main point is that when God raised the Lord Jesus from the dead and back into heaven, then as v27 says, he ‘put everything under his feet’ – including sickness and death. So like v25 says, the risen Lord Jesus is currently reigning over those things and will, when he comes again, overthrow them and eradicate them from his eternal kingdom.
Which means that, whereas an unbeliever ultimately has to look back to the best, those of us trusting in Christ are looking forward to the best – or should be. So, eg, having gone deaf in his twenties, Beethoven’s dying words were, ‘I shall hear in heaven.’ And if his faith was in Christ, those words will have been proved true, because as Revelation 21:4 says:
There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
So there will be no more miscarriages or congenital problems or infertility or mental illness or cancer, or any of the pain and grief and indignity that goes with our mortality and aging and dying.
But that’s the future, beyond the end of the tunnel. Meanwhile, back here in the tunnel, sickness and death are still enemies at large and make us prone to misinterpret God in the way George Bernard Shaw did – prone to read off our circumstances the conclusion that that he doesn’t really love us, or isn’t really in control.
But the whole point of 1 Corinthians 15 is that we have to read what God is like, not off our experience, but off the gospel – off the events of that first Easter. We have to read off the cross that God does love us in a way that doesn’t change when they discover the tumour, or when we’ve suffered the stroke. And we have to read off the resurrection that Jesus is reigning – and that we’re ultimately in his hands, not the hands of the disease or of the doctors or even, finally of death itself. We’re in his hands and in his time he will shepherd us through the valley of the shadow of death to be with him where he is. And we also have to read off the resurrection that Jesus is returning – that the countdown has begun to the end of death and all other evils, and that whatever we go through in reaching the end of the tunnel will be infinitely compensated for by the quality of life beyond.
One of the funerals I mentioned at the start was of a friend who was just a year older than I am when he died. And I still remember my last conversation on earth with him, just 2 weeks before his death. He’d been reading this chapter and he said to me, ‘It’s lit up for me like never before. It’s as if God has been saying to me, ‘You’ve always needed to know this – but now you really need to know this.’ Brothers and sisters in Christ, we need this chapter. We need to know it well. Because this is what God has given us not just to live by, but to die by.