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Death Be Not Proud

Erwin W. Lutzer | March 27, 2016

Selected highlights from this sermon

Death is inevitable. No amount of exercise or optimism can hold it at bay. But Christians have a different view of death. It has no hold on us, because when we die, we immediately go to be with Christ to await the resurrection of our immortal bodies. 

During the Elizabethan Era in England there was a very famous poet by the name of John Donne. He wrote a poem entitled Death Be Not Proud. A couple of lines read:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

And the poem goes on.

On the one hand death certainly has many reasons to be proud. No matter how well you exercise, no matter how well you eat, no matter how many supplements you take, you can fight against death, but in the end it will win. I’ve seen cancer take a man who was very tall and very strong, and reduce him to a skeleton. We’ve seen instances in which children have died, and so death can boast about the fact that it is mighty and strong, and it is the conqueror.

Tom Howard said that when it comes to the matter of death, “We are like a hen before a cobra.” He said that the hen has no opportunity to get away and no matter how much it might shriek, no matter how much it might call out, no matter how much it will dance, in the end it will be a heap of feathers and bones. And he says, “It won’t matter whether we approach death with a great deal of confidence and optimism, or fear. Either way, there we will be. We will be dead.”

There is a fable that comes to us from the Middle East that says that there was merchant who sent his servant into the market place to run an errand. And later on, the servant came back and said, “You know, when I was in the marketplace I saw Lady Death, and she looked at me and she looked so startled. And I’m so afraid of Lady Death. Give me your fastest horse so I can ride all the way to Smyrna tonight.” And so the merchant gave him his horse, and the young man rode off to Smyrna. Later on, that afternoon, the merchant himself went into the marketplace, and said to Lady Death whom he met, “Why did you startle my servant?” And Lady Death said, “I didn’t intend to startle him. It was I who was startled. I don’t know what in the world he was doing here in Baghdad, because I have an appointment with him in Smyrna tonight.”

You just can’t get away from it. On the day of your funeral it may be the only opportunity you’ve had to ride in a limo. People along the way will actually stop and let you by, but you’re dead anyway. And yet at the same time, Christians historically have looked at death very differently. As a matter of fact, there were those in the early church who talked about death as being a gift based on the words of the Apostle Paul who said: “All things are yours in Christ. Whether life or death, they are yours.”

How in the world is death the possession of a Christian? You know during the days of persecution, the early martyrs said this: They said, “The pagans can rob us of everything. They can take away our health. They can persecute us. They can destroy our property, but one thing they cannot do, and that is rid us of the gift of death, because it is death that ushers us into the presence of God.”

As a matter of fact, there was a man by the name of Cyprian, living in the three-hundreds, who said these words. He said, “Were it not for the plagues, Christianity would not have spread during those early times.” He said, “It was the plagues that encouraged people, and the Christians died so differently that all of the pagans said, “Why is it that they are dying with hope, and we are dying with such hopelessness?” The pagans said of the Christians, “They carried their dead as if in triumph. There was nothing but victory.” Have you ever been to a funeral where the people are not Christians? What you will see is a sense of hopelessness that is unbelievable. Contrast that to the funeral of a believer.

Now the reason that Christians look at it differently is because of the resurrection. My text today is from 1 Corinthians 15 where the Apostle Paul devotes an entire chapter to the resurrection. And to those of you who may be listening and you may be skeptics, and you may find that you just can’t believe in the resurrection (You may be an atheist or you may be investigating Christianity.), I want you to know that you are always welcome here at The Moody Church. We believe that it’s very important for people to be able to share their doubts, to be able to work through their doubts, and we want to be a welcoming community where it’s okay if you are struggling with your faith.

But if you are doubting, listen to what the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. I’m picking it up actually in verse 3: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (that’s to Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep (That’s a euphemism for death). Then he appeared to James (and to others).”

Do you realize what Paul is saying? I mean, he is writing this maybe in 52 A.D. He’s saying that Jesus appeared to so many, and many of them are alive. If you doubt the resurrection, go and ask them. That’s clearly the implication of the passage. The evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ is overwhelming and compelling to anyone who is an honest doubter. Now if you are a dishonest doubter and no evidence will convince you, then you cannot be convinced, but the evidence is out there for open investigation.

Now you know that today we use an expression that I don’t think we used when I was growing up. We’d always say, “Give So-and-So a shout-out.” What I’d like to do is to give you three shouts - very briefly three shouts that the Apostle Paul has in this particular chapter about the resurrection.

The first shout is the shout of proclamation. You’ll notice he says in verse 20: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (once again a reference to death).” And then I’m skipping to verse 23: “But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”

Let’s unpack those words and help us understand what the Apostle Paul is actually speaking about. What he’s saying is, “Jesus is the first one to be raised with a glorified body.” There were other resurrections. For example, there was the resurrection of Lazarus, the resurrection of others even in the Old Testament times, but those people always had to die again. Jesus was raised with a glorified, eternal body. It was a physical body. It had continuity with His body when He was here on earth, using His earthly body. And the disciples were able to actually eat with him. They were able to touch Him. Jesus invited that. He said, “If you think that I am a spirit, well then a spirit doesn’t have flesh and bones. Come and touch me.” And you remember the example of Thomas. Thomas was doubting the resurrection and he said, “Except I shall see in his hand the prints of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” And Jesus appears to him and says, “Thomas, here I am. Look at the print of the nails. Touch me. See me. I am alive.”

Now, of course, there was continuity with who He was, but there was also a great deal of difference – continuity and discontinuity. With His new glorified body, He was able to travel from one part of the country to the other, and to be able to do so in a different dimension. But He was real. He was the same Jesus. It was a physical resurrection, and He is the firstfruits of those who slept. That is to say, He becomes the prototype of what we are going to be like. The Bible says that we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

Now, of course, there were skeptics in Paul’s day as well, especially among the Greeks. And so the Apostle Paul, when he’s speaking about this, says in verse 35: “But someone will ask, ‘How were the dead raised; with what kind of a body do they come?’” He says, “You foolish person. What you sow does not come to life unless it dies, and,” then he goes on to say, “what you sow is not the body to be. But a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain.”

Bottom line, here’s what Paul is saying: He’s saying, “If you don’t believe in resurrection, just look at nature. You can’t look at an acorn, for example, and analyze it and be able to look at that acorn and to say, “Well, I find in that acorn a tree.” But it’s there, and as a result of it being there, if you do put it into the ground and it dies, something very different grows that has both continuity and discontinuity.

Then, of course, we think of explaining to a small caterpillar what it’s going to be like to be a butterfly, and the answer is, you know, that there is just no way that a caterpillar could get his mind (if he has a mind) around what it’s like to be a butterfly. But eventually he will be, and there’s continuity and discontinuity.

So Paul is saying that even in nature we see these miracles. Why is it that you find it so hard to believe that somebody can be put into the ground, and when they are raised, they are raised in a different dimension, in a very different realm, but at the same time being the same person with the same memories, the same ideas, and so forth? So the first shout that the Apostle Paul gives is the shout of proclamation. Christ has been raised.

But there’s a second shout, and that is the shout of transformation – the shout of transformation! Look at what he says in verse 50: “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” Before I read the rest let me just camp there for one minute and tell you that earlier in the chapter the Apostle Paul has been making this argument. He has been saying that there are different realms. For example, he says that for humans there’s one realm, for animals another, for birds another, for fish another. There are heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies.

What he’s saying is that we can’t go to heaven in an earthly body. We need a glorified body just like Jesus, and that’s why we also need to be resurrected so that our body will become like His. And so he says that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”

And so the Apostle Paul says, “We ourselves are going to be transformed.” And in the verses that I just read he answers two important questions. The first question is, “Why is it that we need to be transformed if we want a body in heaven, which we will eventually have?” His answer is, “Because that’s a different realm; what you need is a glorified body. What you need is an eternal body. What you need is a body like Jesus.” That’s the first question that he answers.

And then there’s a second question that he answers, and that is simply this: “When is this going to happen?” Well, it’s going to happen at the glorious return of Jesus. It’s going to happen at the rapture of the people of God. It is then that Jesus is going to give us our new bodies. You say, “Well, that could still be a time away.” Yes, remember that it was predicted that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, and it took hundreds of years for that to be fulfilled, but it was fulfilled. And the day is coming when Jesus at the last trump, as it says here, is going to raise His people – the dead – and they will be taken to heaven.

Now, you say, “Well, what about those who die today?” So I want to be clear about this. For example, my parents were godly people who loved the Lord. They are in heaven today. Their soul is there, and the soul takes on the characteristics of the body. They can communicate. They can recognize one another. They are in the presence of Jesus. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. But they are incomplete, the New Testament teaches, and at the day of resurrection, it is then that their bodies will be raised, joined with their spirits, and so they will be eternally with the Lord, body, soul and spirit – complete redemption.

And also Paul says that there is going to be a whole generation of Christians that are not going to die. You know, if the rapture of the church were to take place today we wouldn’t have to die. We would be instantly changed he says in this passage and also elsewhere in the Scriptures. So what the Apostle Paul is saying is, when a Christian dies, we should look at a cemetery as a garden, and the garden has been planted. The seeds have been put into the ground, and some day God is going to recreate those bodies miraculously in full redemption and our inheritance. So there is the shout of proclamation. Jesus has arisen from the dead. There’s the shout of transformation, namely that we will be transformed.

And now we get to the shout of celebration. You’ll notice he says in verse 54: “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?’”

You see, the truth is that death is eradicated. That’s the meaning of the text. Death is totally swallowed up in victory. It exists no more. He is saying that the day is going to come when death will only be a memory. It will be gone forever. “Oh death, where is your sting?”

At least in grade school I was taught that a bee can sting only once and what we need to do is to understand that when it does that, its stinger has been exhausted, so you can imagine a child struggling because a bee is buzzing around. And the father puts out his hand, the bee stings the father’s arm, and the child is safe. In the very same way when Jesus died on the cross His death was a sacrifice, and the Bible says that He tasted death for us. And now He says, “Whoever believes on me will not even taste death.” Oh yes, I know what happens in hospitals, but let’s imagine that you are dying. You are in your last moments and there’s all this activity in the hall. They are talking about you. The doctor is saying, you know, that all the indications are there – you are going to die. And suddenly you die as a believer. Jesus welcomes you in the other realm and says, “Welcome to heaven.” And then at a future time Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever lives and believes on me shall never die.” And your body will be raised and you will be there eternally with the Lord.

The Bible says in the book of Revelation very clearly: “Behold the tabernacle of God is with men. He will dwell with them and be with them, and God Himself shall be their God, and He shall wipe away every tear from their eye. There shall be no more sorrow, nor crying, nor death. Forever gone.”

Christians do death differently. Here at The Moody Church we have a woman who is dying of cancer. And I asked her permission to read just a couple of lines of an e-mail she sent us. She said, “A time comes in the life of a cancer patient when chemotherapy no longer is effective. Unfortunately, I believe that that time has come for me. I feel my body can take no more of these medications. Acceptance and surrender are the only two attributes that I need to exercise at this time. I look forward to the time when my soul shall leave this body and be united with Christ. But surrender is not something done once for all. It requires minute-by-minute surrendering. Surrender increases the quality of life, and the quality of one’s dying. There is a peacefulness that comes with that, and not despair, and not giving up. I strongly recommend that each one of you take a hard look at your lives. At this point in my life my achievements, diplomas, wealth, looks, friendships have all faded away. What is left is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit who will take me into eternity.”

And in another e-mail she says, “Since I do not know the date or the time of my entry into the eternal home, I’ve decided to be joyful every day.” And then she references a Psalm that “When I am afraid I trust in You and Your promises.”

There was a woman whose husband’s name was David. And he was killed in a car crash. And in an e-mail she talked about the anguish that she was going through. Of course, she would experience that. But at the end of the day she did say that it was Easter that transformed her attitude because she realized that Jesus did not just roll the stone away for Himself. He rolled the stone away for every believer who follows Him. (applause) That stone has been rolled away.

You know, back in 2001 there was a plane that was flying in Peru and a military jet shot the plane down accidentally. They thought that it was some people who were hauling drugs, but actually it was a small missionary family. And the bullet went through the mother who was holding a child – a nine-month old baby, and the mother died and the baby died in the plane. The father, as he thought about this (His name is Jim Bowers, by the way.) was, of course, in great agony. In fact, even a year later he said that he could not really rid himself of the images of his wife dying in that plane. And you can imagine what that was like. But he did know that whenever he grieved, he was grieving for himself. He was not grieving for them. In fact, to quote him directly he said, “Whatever happened to them was not a tragedy. They just got to heaven sooner than the rest of us.” That’s a man of faith.

Let me remind you of this: No matter how many victories death wins, those victories are only temporary. Thanks to Jesus, the victory has been won and death will be abolished because of the glory of God and the victory and the triumph of Jesus. We know that to be true. (applause)

Now there’s one tragic mistake that you can make, and the tragic mistake is simply that you assume that you are going to be among the redeemed, that you’re going to be raised by Christ and in His presence. You are assuming that when actually you have no right to assume that. I’m talking about those who are cultural Christians, those who say, “Oh, I attend church, and I’m a good person.” That does not get people into heaven.

Jesus said that there are two resurrections. He said there is a resurrection to life and there’s a resurrection to damnation (John 5:29). Imagine that – a resurrection to damnation! In fact, Jesus taught that the way to heaven is narrow, and few there be that find it. Why is it that it is true that there are so few? It’s because we depend upon everything else – mainly ourselves – to think we are good enough and that surely God will receive us when in point of fact He won’t. We have to remember that we don’t receive Christ because we came from a Christian family. That doesn’t make us Christians. Rituals don’t make us Christians. Being good doesn’t make you a Christian, though I am glad you are trying to be good. In fact, if only five percent of my salvation were dependent upon me, and ninety-five percent were dependent on God, I could have no assurance of eternal life because I never know whether or not I’m doing my five percent.

The good news of the Gospel is that when Jesus died, His death was so sufficient that if you stopped trusting yourself and recognized your sinfulness and your great need, and you come to Him and you receive Him as your Savior, your only Savior and your only hope, it is then that He gives you the gift of eternal life. “As many as received Him to them He gives the authority to become the children of God, even to those who believe on His name.”

I fly quite a bit, and what happens is (if you ever fly on standby) you know that you are always uncertain. You always wonder whether or not there’s going to be a seat for you on the plane. And you just irritate that ticket counter lady to no end. I’ve done that and she says, “Sit down. I’ll tell you.” (laughter) But when you have a ticket, you can read a newspaper or you can watch CNN because you know that you have a seat on that plane.

One of the ways in which you know that you are a believer is if you have the assurance of God’s promises and the Holy Spirit that there is a seat for you – a room reserved for you in heaven. Do not take it for granted. The Bible says, “Examine yourself to see if you are in the faith.” Have you turned from your sin? Have you received Christ as Savior, and the free gift of eternal life?

I have no doubt that there are people who are listening today who say, “No, I have not.” Even while I pray now you can receive Christ as Savior and you can believe on Him. If God has put that in your heart, reach out to the wonder of His grace.

Our Father, we ask in Jesus’ name that Your Holy Spirit would work mightily right now. We pray, Father, that people might recognize that every one of us needs a Savior, and there’s only one out there. We thank You today, Father, that death no longer has authority over us. We thank You that death is the pathway. It is the chariot that You send to bring Your children home to glory. And we ask, oh Father, that through faith in Christ many right now will believe that they might participate in the resurrection unto life.

I’m speaking to you now. Everyone is listening. Right now, where you are, you can say, “Jesus, I receive You by faith. Thank You for dying for me and being raised to prove Your Lordship. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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