Life After Death

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One of the great objects of world mission is to give people hope. The Apostle Paul describes the situation of millions of unbelievers as "without hope and without God in the world" (Eph 2.12). The Apostle Peter sees "hope" as evangelistic. When those millions see believers whose lives are marked by hope, they ask questions. So "always be prepared [he says] to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for [not the faith but] the hope that you have" (1 Pet 3.15).

One of the great sources of lack of hope is the fear of death. That is true in every age and in all cultures.

Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, was a permissive in morality long before the 1960's. "I developed the view," he tells us, "that complete fidelity was not to be expected in most marriages." He not only rejected Christian ethics but also the Christian faith, as he tells us in his book Why I am not a Christian. The day Russell died, over 30 years ago now, I was a missioner at Oxford University. I heard the news of his death on the BBC's 1 o'clock news bulletin. That night at the mission the theme was the resurrection of Jesus. Having just read in Russell's autobiography his views about death, I was able to give the main missioner what Russell claimed about death before death claimed him. I have quoted a couple of sentences of this before. Let me now give you in more detail what he wrote:

"The mental night that has descended upon me is less brief and promises no awakening after sleep. Formerly the cruelty, the meanness, the dusty fretful passion of human life seemed to me a little thing, set, like some resolved discord in music, amid the splendour of the stars and the stately procession of geological ages. What if the universe was to end in universal death; it was none the less unruffled and magnificent.

But now all this has shrunk to be no more than my own reflection in the windows of the soul, through which I look out upon the night of nothingness ... There is darkness without and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere; only triviality for a moment, and then nothing."

By 8 o'clock that evening most had heard of Russell's death. As the main missioner read that passage - and I've had to cut some out - there was total silence. The Union Debating chamber was packed. There was an "overflow" meeting in a nearby hall. Hundreds of students were present. It was obvious that here was a man who had died without hope and without God in the world and had turned his back on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Now, contrast that with another man who died about the same time in the USA. He was so unlike Russell. He came from a bad home. The only friendship he ever experienced was from a Christian school teacher. Many years after he left school, the teacher received a letter. The gist of it was this:

"Dear Teacher, You may not remember me; but I've now got an ugly story. I'm in death row awaiting execution for murder."

And it went on like this:

"I desire to die so that is OK. But one thing bothers me. I'm afraid of what comes after death. I know you believe in God and prayer, and that is why I ask your help now. In other words, I cannot face what lies beyond with guilt on my soul and no hope of forgiveness. If you still believe in God, write and give me the courage to face death."

The teacher then entered into correspondence. She spoke of the death of Christ on the cross and how he had borne the penalty for human sin. Then she made a positive suggestion. He should take a big sheet of paper and write down all his crimes, fears, sins and hatreds and say, "God, here it all is - all of it. Forgive me, Father" and then destroy the paper. The result was another letter that went like this:

"Dear Teacher, I followed your instructions perfectly. I want you to know - because you love me regardless of everything - I stayed on my knees all night praying. I wasn't conscious of time or anything, only of God's forgiveness and love pouring over my guilty soul ...

Through God's grace I am clean ... I could shout it from the house tops ... I'm not afraid anymore of death or the hereafter. I am condemned to die in the gas chamber. I am ready. God is with me ... All is well, strong and sure. I go forth to meet my God."

If you want people to be like that man and not like Russell when it comes to eternity, then pray, work and give for Christ's mission around the world. Jesus Christ, as the writer to the Hebrews says, became man ...

"... so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death - that is, the devil - and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (Heb 2.14-15).

So much by way of introduction to our subject this morning which is LIFE AFTER DEATH. That is what Jesus is teaching about in our section of Matthew's Gospel, chapter 22.23-33. And I want to talk about first, THE DENIAL OF LIFE AFTER DEATH; secondly, THE FACT OF LIFE AFTER DEATH; and, thirdly, THE NATURE OF LIFE AFTER DEATH.

First, THE DENIAL OF LIFE AFTER DEATH

Look at verse 22:

"That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him [Jesus] with a question."

Now, you meet the Sadducees earlier in Matthew's Gospel. In chapter 3 verse 7 you read that when John the Baptist

"... saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?'"

You then read about them in chapter 16 where the Pharisees and Sadducees ask Jesus to give them a sign. And Jesus replies in verse 4:

"a wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign."

And then in chapter 16 verse 6, you read:

"'Be careful'," Jesus said to them. 'Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees'."

There were a number of different religious sects or groups in the time of Jesus, but the Pharisees and Sadducees were two of the most significant. The Pharisees were the ultra traditionalists. They were formalists and legalists in modern day terms. The Sadducees were the theological liberals. They only believed part of the Bible - the first five books of the Old Testament. And we are told in Acts 23.8 they say that ...

"... there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits."

The Sadducees were like Bertrand Russell. They believed that death was the end. So the Sadducees subtracted from the Bible by denying parts of it. The Pharisees added on to the Bible man-made traditions. And Jesus says you must be on your guard against such people. For their teaching works like "yeast". Yeast, of course, is such a small proportion of a loaf of bread in terms of size. But if it is allowed to do its work, it soon affects the whole. So it is with false teaching.

But notice that in verses 24-28 these Sadducees seem so polite and civil:

"'Teacher,' they said, 'Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?'"

And liberal false teachers can be so polite. But as with these Sadducees, they often are not wanting solutions to problems but just to sow doubts. The ancient Old Testament levirate law is being referred to here. Probably in Jesus' day it was little observed. But these Sadducees weren't really bothered about it. They were just wanting to cast doubt on any idea of life after death.

Notice too that these Sadducees use a very "hard case" to trap Jesus. This is something liberal false teachers do today. They use cases at the margins to invalidate what is true or right and that can be clearly seen to be true or right when you look at the central basic issues. They do this over ethical issues. And they certainly do it with denials or doubts over the resurrection of Jesus. Some raise questions about marginal details in the four Gospel accounts of the Resurrection. But the gist is clear in the four Gospels (and the Book of Act). The central facts are unassailable.

One, the tomb of Jesus was empty that first Easter morning. Two, the body disappeared and was never even alleged to be 'found'. Three, there was the evidence of the grave-clothes, still left exactly as they had been around the body but now containing no body at all. Four, Christ appeared to his disciples, not as a "ghost" but as himself - capable of being handled and touched. And five, these appearances gave rise to a profound moral and spiritual change in the lives of the disciples. All this is something only almighty God could have done. You cannot deny the resurrection of Jesus and so the fact of life after death. And that is our second heading this morning.

Secondly, THE FACT OF LIFE AFTER DEATH

Look at verse 29:

"Jesus replied, 'You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.

When you are dealing with fundamental heresy that is public - not disagreements over secondary issues in private - but public false teaching, what do you do? This you see is a public debate. Look at verse 33:

"When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his [Jesus] teaching."

So what did Jesus do? Did he say to the Sadducees,

"I understand where you are coming from. And there is a case that can be made for what you are saying. And many would agree with you. But there is a different point of view. Perhaps you could think about it."

Of course, he didn't. He was very blunt:

"You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God."

The modern world thinks that it is rude to be definite and to say that religious or moral views are wrong. For many people religious or moral truth is not objectively true but something they create for themselves. They talk about "my truth". To say, then, they are wrong becomes a personal attack. But Jesus' love for people meant he wanted them to know truth that was objectively true. That is the position of common sense. So he was polite but definite. You should be, too, when fundamental truth is at stake.

And Jesus says the fundamental problem is that people "do not know the Scriptures [God's revelation of himself that has now been recorded for us under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit - they do not know the Scriptures ...] nor the power of God." How important that those two go together - the Scriptures and the power of God. With a head knowledge of the Bible alone, you may only half believe something like the Resurrection. But when the Holy Spirit gives you confidence in God's almighty power, you can fully believe in the Resurrection. Our creator can, of course, recreate.

Now the Old Testament had a very shadowy view of the Resurrection and life after death. However, there was a growing consciousness about it. And the Pharisees were further on than the Sadducees in this. But Jesus says that for all their liberalism and their rejection of the Scriptures, from what the Sadducees did believe they should have seen that there must be life after death. So he quotes from Exodus, the second book of the Old Testament that the Sadducees accepted as authoritative, and chapter 3 verse 6 and the words of God to them (and us) but first to Moses at the burning bush. Look at verse 31:

"... about the resurrection of the dead - have you not read what God said to you, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'?"

Jesus then adds these words:

"He is not the God of the dead but of the living."

When Moses heard those words originally, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been dead and buried hundreds of years. Yet God spoke of them as still being his people and he still their God. He did not say, "I was their God" but "I am their God." So the dead are in one sense still alive. From our perspective they have passed away. But in the eyes of God they live, and one day will be raised to a new and full life. That brings us to our third and final heading ...

Thirdly, THE NATURE OF LIFE AFTER DEATH

The tragedy with the Sadducees was that they thought resurrection life meant an exact replica of earthly life. If so, the woman in their hypothetical case might either be incestuous or made to chose between one of the brothers. This is the terrible tragedy of Muslim suicide bombers who think of heaven in this way and that there are 70 or so virgins waiting to give them pleasure in heaven for killing Christians, Jews, secularist Muslims and others. But what is the real nature of life after death? There is much we can't cover this morning of the Bible's teaching this morning. And you have to be careful over what you say happens at, and after, the end of time when Christ comes again, as you do over what happened at, and before, the beginning of time. But that doesn't mean you can say nothing as the Sadducees and liberal theologians suggest. The book of Deuteronomy reminds us:

"The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever" (Deut 29.29).

And what is revealed enables you to say what is not the case as well as pointing you in the direction of what is the case. With regard to negatives - first, you are told here that, verse 30:

"At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage."

This doesn't mean that life after death in heaven will be less fulfilling than life now. It will be infinitely more fulfilling and much richer. The exclusiveness of marriage in this new deathless life will no longer be needed for the procreation and rearing of children in family life. So happily married couples can have more loving relationships with each other but also with others. There will not be the restrictions and jealousies that unitive sexual relationships involve. Unhappily married couples, the divorced and the single will all be on a level with those happily married in this life. All will be winners. The Bible makes it clear that heaven means the eternal absence of everything that can cause frustration, sorrow or sadness.

With regard to positives - secondly, Jesus says that at the resurrection people ...

"will be like the angels in heaven."

That tells you the resurrection is not a crude resuscitation of your earthly body. But there will be change - continuity but transformation. That is the clear teaching of the New Testament. As a seed becomes a full blade of wheat, so, says the Bible, will your body change. "The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable." And like Angels we will certainly know each other. The Angels were not impersonal clones but recognizable individuals - like Michael and Gabriel whom we read about in the Bible. At the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appeared in glory but were recognizable. And so was Jesus in his resurrection body, which was totally transformed but he was recognized by the disciples. And his resurrection, we are told, is a foretaste of ours.

I must conclude. I do so with two questions.

One, are you going to experience that new life after death in heaven? If not, here is how you can according to that great chapter of Romans on mission, chapter 10:

"If you confess with your mouth 'Jesus is Lord' and beleive in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10.9).

Two, if you have trusted Christ, are you preparing yourself now for that new life after death in heaven? If not, here is how you can:

"Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God" (Col 1.3).

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