Need Help? Call Now
The Vanishing Power Of Death

The Day Death Died

Erwin W. Lutzer | April 11, 1993

Selected highlights from this sermon

Though Lazarus was ill, Jesus didn’t rush to his side. He waited. Lazarus died and was buried. When Jesus finally arrived, He spoke the promise that gives us all hope: that those who believe in Him will rise again to eternal life.

That’s the message of Easter, and when we think of this day, which some have appropriately called Resurrection Sunday, we’re reminded of the fact that there are many fears that exist in this world, a world of heartache. Many people have the fear of loneliness. Others have the fear of pain, the fear of poverty. But there is no fear that is as awesome as the fear of death. There is something so final, so complete, so irreversible that death has an awesome power over the human race. The author of the book of Hebrews, in fact, says Jesus Christ came to destroy him, that is Satan, who has the power of death, and to deliver those who, through fear of death, where all their lifetime subject to bondage. 

What we’re going to do in the next few moments is to look at how Jesus viewed death. And to illustrate it, we’re going to ask you to turn in your Bibles, if you brought your New Testaments, to the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John where Jesus resurrects Lazarus from the grave. The story takes place two thousand years ago, but its relevance is as direct and as complete in our day as it was in Christ’s day. And what I’d like to do to help us summarize this long chapter is to give you five characteristics that really illustrate the context in which believers die, the real characteristics of Jesus Christ, Savior, Lord, triumphant one over death.  

First of all, I want you to notice that believers die within the context of Christ’s loving care, the context of His loving care. I pick up the passage in John 11:5, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Jesus had been a guest at this home many times, and how He loved this little trio. But the fact that Jesus loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus did not mean He prevented Lazarus from passing through that iron gate of death. No, death came to tear this little home apart.

The people in the village said to themselves, “How are Mary and Martha ever going to manage without Lazarus? They are going to be lonely.” He evidently was the source of their support, and now he is going to be taken from them all within the context of a Christ who could speak the word and health would return to the cheeks of this dying man. Jesus loved Martha and Mary. He also loved the one who was dying, namely Lazarus himself. And the fact that Christ loved Lazarus did not prevent this death. Jesus let Lazarus die.

Notice carefully that Jesus Christ loved the one who was dying, and He loved the ones who were to remain behind. The Apostle Paul says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, distress, persecution? No,” he says, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us, for I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities will separate us from God.” Those of you who have lost loved ones… You widows who are here, and widowers, and parents who have little children who have gone on to glory, I want you to know today that there is no believer who dies outside of the circle of divine love and care.

Secondly, I want you to notice, we also die within the circle of God’s loving providence, His loving care, and His loving providence. We can’t take time to go through the whole story, but when Jesus leaves the northern part of the land and goes to Jerusalem, finally we notice in the text that Mary and Martha greet Him. Specifically, Martha comes first, and it says in John 11:21—She comes to Jesus and said, “Lord, if You had been here my brother had not died.” And then you’ll notice in John 11:32 that Mary comes, and when she sees Jesus she gives Him the same speech. She said, “If You had been here our brother had not died.”

One of the most difficult things for us to accept is the delays of Christ because we notice earlier in the chapter when Jesus found out that Lazarus was dead, the text says He stayed away two extra days to give him a chance to die and to be buried so that by the time Christ arrived, after that long journey, he had been in the grave already four days. But what the sisters are saying is, “Master, You love us, and yet You did not intervene. If You had come earlier You could have spoken the word, and our brother had not died. Where were you when we really needed You? Oh Lord, if only You had been here.”

And so they begin to think of those “if only’s.” And there is not a funeral that takes place, but with that funeral, there are some “if only’s.” If only we had gotten him to the doctor sooner if only the doctors had not operated, if only the doctors had operated. If only there had not been ice on that pavement, the accident would not have happened. Oh God, where are you? If only you had arranged circumstances differently, this would not have happened. But as I have said to you many times, what you need to write on a sheet of paper all of the contingencies, all of the “if only’s” and then understand that God’s providential guidance encircles the entire sheet of paper because my dear friend today even the “if only’s” of life are firmly held in His loving hand.

It’s not just that God determined the time that Lazarus would die. It is also that He determined the means. We don’t know what the disease was that Lazarus had, but whatever it was, it was the means that God used to usher in the death of Lazarus, and even that means was under God’s providential care.

Last fall here at the church we had a teenager, 15 years old, gunned down in a drive-by shooting. His name was Jason House. We look at this ugly crime, senseless, foolish crime that goes on in Chicago so often and our hearts are broken because of it. But may I say lovingly that if Jesus Christ, who was innocent and sinless was falsely accused and hung on a cross by wicked men, and that that death was also part of God’s providential plan, for a believer like Jason, even his untimely death must be seen as part of the big picture. And some of you have babies that are in heaven, and you say, “Why did God even give them to us?”

You know, sometimes when a shepherd wants to take the sheep through a dark valley to get them to the grazing lands on the other side, he can’t get them to go. They’re too stubborn. So what he does is he reaches down and he picks up one of the little lambs and puts that lamb on his shoulder. And then he begins to trek through that dark, deep valley, and the mother of the lamb begins to follow him, and the other sheep begin to see that she is going, and soon another one goes, and the whole flock of sheep goes to the other side. And that’s the way it is sometimes when God’s people die young. It makes us homesick for heaven. It is God’s way of getting us to remember that we are all going to the other side. Every believer dies within the context of Christ’s love, His loving care, but also His loving providence.

Third, we die within the context of His loving purpose. His loving purpose. Now, why is it that Jesus didn’t hurry back? Well, we know that Martha and Mary wanted a healed Lazarus. Jesus wanted a resurrected Lazarus. Jesus, when He was told about this death said, “This death is for the glory of God.” And if your Bible is open notice what He says in John 11:40 when He comes to the tomb, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God.”

How is God glorified in the death of a believer? First of all, God is glorified in our faith. He is glorified in our faith. By the way, did you get the juxtaposition of events there in verse 40? We always say, you know, “Seeing is believing.” The skeptic says, “You show me and I will believe.” Isn’t it interesting that here at least Jesus reverses the order, and He says, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, then you shall see?” Sometimes we have to see before we believe, but oftentimes we have to believe in order to see. And Jesus, standing there at the tomb of Lazarus says, “If you believe you will see the glory of God.” God is glorified by the faith of His people. And you know, the way in which we accept death, no matter how fearful it may be, the bottom line still is being able to die with a sense of confidence. It brings glory to Almighty God.

During the days immediately after the Reformation, there were Huguenots in France, and these dear Christians were marched to the stake, and they were burned because they were outside of the official church, Christendom. And as they were marching to the stake, they sang hymns so loudly that the authorities were so embarrassed that they had a band there playing to drown out the beautiful hymns of the Christians marching to their death.

It is said by the pagans of the early believers who were mercilessly martyred in Rome and in the Roman provinces… The pagans said of them that the Christians carried their dead as if in triumph. And finally, Tertullian says that the pagans cried out, “How long must we put up with this third race?” What they said was that “The Christians are different because they die differently,” and God is glorified because of their faith.

God is also glorified, I may say, because death is His way of getting His people home. You know, as Christians we are sometimes so contradictory. On the one hand, we sing about the glories of heaven and the wonders of the pearly gates, and then we spend all of our money, and all of our effort hanging around here. I don’t want to be critical of that. I’d like to live a while longer, but it is a strange contradiction. If heaven is so glorious why is it that we are hanging onto this world with such tenacity?

Well, I want to tell you something about death. Death is God’s way of releasing His people into heaven forever. It is God’s final victory for us because it is God’s ability to prove that the sheep that have been entrusted to Him have been finally brought safely home, never to wander again, never to sin again, never to backslide again. Finally, they are there forever. And that’s why death is a triumph to Christ, and glorifies Him. It is proof that the Savior has the ability to bring His people home.

We die my friend, within the context of Christ’s loving care, within the context of His loving providence, the context of His loving purpose, and the context, of course, of His loving power. His loving power, because He’s at the tomb of Lazarus, and I love this prayer of Jesus. You know, before Jesus came out of heaven to earth, it was as if He and God the Father arranged what He was doing to do, and therefore, Jesus goes to prayer. And He almost says, “Father, You know, we’ve about this before so I wouldn’t have to say anything,” but the text says that as He was at the tomb of Lazarus He said, “Father, I thank Thee that Thou hearest Me always, and I knew that Thou hast heard Me, but because of the people which stand by I have said it.” And then the Bible says He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth.”

Someone has suggested very accurately that it’s a good thing He named Lazarus. If He had just said, “Come forth,” the whole cemetery would have appeared before Him. [laughter] After all, He is King of kings and Lord of lords, and so He had to specify just Lazarus this time. “Lazarus, come forth!” 

And he that was dead came forth bound hand and foot with grave clothes. His face was bound about with a napkin. And Jesus said, “I’ve done the impossible. Now you do what is possible,” and that is “You unwrap him,” and so they unwrapped him. You know, when we do what is possible, it is up to God to do the impossible.

Now when Lazarus was raised, he evidently was raised with an earthly body. Do you realize he had to die again? Can you imagine Lazarus as he gets sick at some later point and saying, “My word, all this again?” But he dies again. But do you know when we are going to be raised, when the trumpet is going to sound, and when Jesus is going to return, we are not going to be raised with these earthly bodies that we brought with us with all of their aches and pains and the disintegration that even those of us who are very young still feel? We will be raised with brand-new bodies. The Bible says, “We shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is.” An indestructible, eternal, sinless body. Yes, it will be based on the body we have here. There is continuity between the two, but it is going to be so transformed we will be exempt from all the aches and pains and the bruises of this existence, and once we are on the other side we will wonder why we were to attached so this very sinful, hurtful world.

I want to say to those of you who have loved ones in heaven, and that applies to all of us, that there is not a single one in heaven today who would ever come back to earth if he was given the opportunity to do so. They are secure in the fold of the shepherd because they die within the context of the Father’s purpose and power.

And then finally I want us to notice that true believers die within the context of the Father’s beautiful promise. The words, really of Jesus, here in this text of Scripture when He says in John 11:25, one of the most famous verses of all the Bible, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me shall live even if he dies.” We can understand that quite well, can’t we? Of course, we know we are going to live even if we die. And all of us will die unless we are living at the return of Christ. But then Jesus, with a play on words, and using the word death in two different meanings continues in John 11:26 and says, “And everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.”

What He is saying is if you are alive and you believe in Christ, spiritually you have life, and spiritually you will never die. Physically you will die, but spiritually, with the very life of God within you, you will go on living. He is the resurrection and the life.

Do you understand now why it is that Jesus Christ came to take away death’s sting? We die within His loving care, His loving providence, His purpose, His power, and with all the promises of God which are yeah and amen in Jesus Christ, however much agony we will go through on that death bed, we die with a Savior who has gone before us, and has said, “Follow me. Follow me.”

When I was perhaps six years old my father decided to buy some bees. It was a mistake, but nevertheless, he did so. And I remember how he went out and he built this beehive. I guess the Lutzers were going to get into the honey business. And then he bought a box of bees. And he brought them into the house, and somehow (I do not know how.) many of them got loose in our kitchen. And I’ll never forget going to bed that night, and as I was going up the stairs, my hand (I was crawling up the stairs.) went right onto one of these bees, and I was fiercely stung, crying like any six-year-old boy would cry.

Now, you know, it’s interesting. Afterwards that bee… I don’t know what happened to it. It got away and joined the crowd I guess, but do you know something? That particular bee that stung me with such enthusiasm, by the way… That particular bee could not sting anyone else again. He could buzz. He could make lots of noise. He could intimidate. He could frustrate, but the sting had been absorbed. He could not sting someone else again.

Oh, I’ll tell you death has an ugly face. It intimidates. It threatens. It is fearsome. But all it can do is have threats. It cannot make good on its threats because Paul says, “Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory?” Jesus won that victory, and he absorbed its sting for those that believe on Him.

Death and the curse were in our cup,
Oh, Christ was full for thee.
But Thou hast drained the last dark drop.
‘Tis empty now for me.

How I wish I could stand before you today and say that everybody is going to be resurrected with Jesus, everybody’s going to be happy, everybody’s going to have this wonderful resurrection body and live eternally in bliss. Oh, what a poor minister of the gospel I would be if I gave that impression. I would be judged by God for my foolishness because if there’s anything that is clear in the Bible, it is that very few people participate in the benefits I have just spoken about. The majority are going their own way. 

There are two ways. Remember that cemetery in Indiana with that tombstone and on it is written the poem,

Pause, stranger, as you pass me by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you will be.
So prepare for death and follow me.

But a passerby read the poem and scrawled on the bottom:

To follow you I’m not content
Until I know which way you went.

In the fifth chapter of John Jesus gives two resurrections. He says there is a resurrection unto life, and there is also a resurrection unto damnation. Even in the Old Testament, the book of Daniel says those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to everlasting shame and contempt. Two resurrections at two different periods of time. And you see, the difference has to do with whether we have given up all attempts to impress God, whether or not we have repudiated all the dependency upon sacraments and upon the various rituals and works that all of us as human beings like to do. And we cleave only to Christ who is the resurrection and the life, and all of our faith is put in Him because Jesus said so clearly, “He that believeth on Me is saved, but He that believeth not, the wrath of God abides on Him.”

Yesterday I read the story of a king who, when he died, so hated the doctrine of resurrection that when he was put into the ground, he asked that a granite slab be put over the grave, and there be huge clamps that would be clamped onto some pillars that were put around him. And on the tombstone was written, “Purchased for eternity,” that it was not to be moved. But I’m told that within time there was a tree, and that tree began to grow between one of the clamps and between that slab, and began to push it apart. 

Listen to me carefully. There is nothing you can do, absolutely nothing, to prevent your resurrection. You will be raised. The question is at which resurrection will you appear, and with whom will you spend eternity?

Do you remember Shakespeare? We used to all affectionately call him Billy Wigglesword because William is the same as Billy. And then what’s the difference between a wiggling sword or a shaking spear? [laughter] But he was giving… I’m sorry about that. [laughter] But he was giving a soliloquy. I know I was going a little fast for some of you. [laughter] And the soliloquy was “To be or not to be.” That is the question. And the soliloquy goes on to say if I commit suicide, in that sleep of death what dreams may come when I have shuffled off this mortal coil?

What Hamlet is actually saying is, “Look, whether I live or die, I’m a loser. To live is misery. To die means that in that sleep of death, there may be more terror than I am even experiencing now.” I want you to contrast that with the words of the Apostle Paul when he said, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” 

Hamlet said, “Live or die, I lose.” Thanks to Christ, Paul said, “Live or die, I win.” And it is Jesus Christ who makes the difference.

I need to ask you today, those of you who are religious. Those of you who are here today, have you fervently, completely, and only trusted the Savior who will raise you from the dead with Him with all the loving compassion and concern we have spoken about today. Christ is waiting for a response from you even today. You are not here by accident. You are here by divine appointment. And if you agree, let us pray.

Our Father, how grateful we are that when we think of the terror of death, Jesus has come and said, “It’s okay. It’s okay. I’ve been through it. I know what’s on the other side. I’m going to be there to meet you.” Thank you.

And for those who may be here today who have never believed on Him, we pray your Holy Spirit would do what no human words can. Show them their need of Christ the Savior at this moment.

And now before I close this prayer I want you to pray. What is it that you need to tell Christ? If you are a believer, pray for those who are around you. And if you are unsure as to where you will spend eternity, tell Jesus right now you receive Him as your Savior, forsaking dependence on everything else, and you put your faith in the only one qualified to save. You tell Him that right now.

Father, hear the heart cry of everyone bowed before you, in Jesus’ holy name, Amen.

Tell us why you valued this sermon.

Other Sermons in this Series

Related Sermons