The British novelist, Somerset Maugham, tells the story of a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions. In a little while the servant came back, white and trembling: “Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra – there Death will not find me.” The merchant lent the servant his horse, and the servant mounted it and fled as fast as the horse could gallop to Samarra. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and seeing Death standing in the crowd, asked her: “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?” Death replied:
“That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a reflex response of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
OUR HOPE IS ANCHORED IN ONE WHO HAS CROSSED THE BRIDGE OF DEATH AND RETURNED TO TELL US WHAT IT’S REALLY LIKE
The mention of death fills most hearts with dread because we understand so little about it. It often comes suddenly and unexpectedly without warning. It has been called the most democratic of human institutions: it has no respect for age or wealth, snatches away loved ones, robs parents of a precious child, separates lifelong companions and close friends. The most terrifying thing about death is that it appears to be inevitable and final – it shuts a door that can never be reopened. Power, beauty and wealth can usually overcome any obstacle, but in death they meet their match. Death is so certain that there is an entire industry built around it: the life insurance industry. The life insurance business is based on the inevitability and finality of death.
Many people live in denial, and either avoid thinking and talking about it, or act macho and try to joke and laugh about it: For instance, Woody Allen once said: “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens!” Some may get a laugh out of that, but the reality is that Woody Allen will have to be there when he dies, at which time he, and others like him, might find out that death is no joking matter. Scientists, doctors, nutritionists all make claims that they have discovered ways to help us live longer. There are those who spend huge sums of money in cryogenic experiments which offer to freeze their bodies and preserve them after death, in the hope that man will conqueror death in the future and bring them back to life someday. However, to-date no one has been able to conquer death and keep us from dying. Despite all of our modern advancements, death still seems to have the final word. That’s why death is humanity’s deadliest enemy – of all the fears that human beings face, no fear is greater than the fear of death. While life and death exist side by side, in the constant battle between life and death, death always wins. It remains earth’s ultimate mystery…a universal terminal disease!
Since time immemorial human beings have sought desperately after a cure for this universal terminal disease. Our fearful fascination and curiosity about what lies beyond death have given rise to different theories about what lies beyond. Materialists believe that once we die and our bodies cease to exist there’s nothing beyond – that death is the end. Eastern religions generally believe that our ultimate future state is sheer nothingness, but until then we keep coming back into the universe in some other form of life. Still others believe that death ushers us into a new state of eternal existence in some form of either heaven or hell. Humans have always clung to a deep, inner, persistent longing for life that never ends. Is this a vain yearning, or is there a reason for hope? Is there life beyond the grave, and is there any way we can know for sure?
The response to that question from the empty tomb of Easter is a ringing…Yes! As a result of Easter, we not only know for certain what lies beyond death, we can look forward with eager hope and anticipation to what lies beyond death’s doorway. Our hope is anchored in One who has crossed the bridge of death and returned to tell us what it’s really like. Jesus, the only person in all of history who has been beyond and back – Jesus, who died, was buried and after three days came back to life, and still lives today!
WE SOMETIMES SPEAK OF DEATH AS GOING FROM THE LAND OF THE LIVING TO THE LAND OF THE DYING. ON THE CONTRARY, FOR THOSE WHO KNOW JESUS, DEATH MEANS GOING FROM THE LAND OF THE DYING TO THE LAND OF THE LIVING
Many attempts have been made down through the centuries to disprove the resurrection, and every one of them has miserably failed. The evidence is hard to contest and thoroughly argued in a number of convincing writings, such as: Frank Morison’s Who Moved the Stone?, Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, Gary Habermas’ The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. The facts speak for themselves:
Jesus died – He was brutally beaten, tortured and crucified. The seasoned soldiers were convinced he was dead and did not feel the need to break his legs; nevertheless, they pierced his side to make sure he was dead [John 19:32-34].
Jesus was buried – Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin, laid Jesus’ body in a tomb he had prepared for himself. The religious leaders requested Pilate to ensure that Jesus’ tomb was secured, and the security was foolproof. A rope was stretched across the tomb’s entrance, sealed in wax at each end with the official seal of the Roman empire, and a detachment of Roman soldiers guarded the tomb [Matt. 27:57-66].
Jesus’ tomb was empty – The gospel account gives us a vivid description. Heaven’s angels arrive at the tomb and roll the stone away, the soldiers shake in sheer terror and Jesus walks out of the tomb. By the time the women and the disciples arrive, it’s all over – the tomb is empty! [Matt. 28:1-4].
Jesus is seen alive – The women who went to anoint the body of Jesus are frightened, confused and overcome with joy as they head back to tell the disciples what they have witnessed [Matt. 28:8-10]. This was only the first of eleven appearances of the risen Christ on different occasions to various people, including on one occasion to over 500 people [1 Cor. 15:3-8].
Jesus has risen from the dead – he is alive! No political ruler, social reformer or religious teacher in all of human history has ever died, been buried for three days and come back to life…never to die again. It confirms beyond doubt that he is who he claimed to be–the Way, the Truth and the Life. It proves that he has conquered death and defeated the powers of sin and darkness. Hear Paul’s triumphant declaration:
“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” [1 Cor. 15:54-57].
DEATH HAS MET ITS FINAL NEMESIS IN THE RISEN CHRIST
But what does this mean? People still die every day. There is no end to cancer, strokes, heart attack, sudden accidents, rape, murder, and bomb blasts. We still have mortuaries, funerals, weeping spouses, parents and heartbroken friends. If death has been destroyed, someone forgot to tell the undertaker–it continues to stare us in the face every day. When Paul calls sin the “sting” of death, he tells us that although death stung and killed Jesus, it could not hold Jesus–he rose from the dead. Jesus took the sting, the venom of death so we don’t need to fear death any longer. Because Jesus defeated death, death today is like a bee without its stinger–it has no sting, no power! When Jesus rose from the dead, he destroyed death–he broke the power of death and rendered it powerless forever. Hence for the believer, physical death is nothing but an entry into life…real life: “death defeated, life vindicated in a steady blaze of light” [2 Tim. 1:10, MSG].
We sometimes speak of death as going from the land of the living to the land of the dying. On the contrary, for those who know Jesus, death means going from the land of the dying to the land of the living. A father was walking through a cemetery with his four–year old daughter. She asked him what the graves were. After struggling for an answer, the father eventually replied: “These belong to people who have gone to heaven”. She responded: “Daddy, have they gone to the angels?” to which he nodded. With a knowing smile, she declared: “Ah…so that is where they left their clothes!” The little girl got it right–those who died in Christ have left their earthly clothing and have gone to be with Jesus and are with Him.
So what does Jesus’ rising from the dead mean for your life today? Above all else it means that you can trust Jesus’ promises about death and life beyond the grave. The prophet Job expresses the age-old cry of the human heart when he asks: If a man dies, shall he live again? [Job 14:14]. This resonates with a similar cry from the soul of India: Asato maa sad-gamaya; tamaso maa jyotir-ga-maya; mrtyor-maa amrutam gamaya: Lord, Lead me from the unreal to the Real; Lead me from darkness to Light; Lead me from death to Immortality [Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, I.iii.28]. Because of Easter we can answer a resounding “Yes” to this cry of the human heart: We can live again – there is a way from the unreal to the real– from darkness to light – from death to immortality!
Death has met its final nemesis in the risen Christ. Jesus is the only One in all of history who has been beyond and back, and makes the stunning declaration: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” [John 11:25-26, ESV]. So this Easter let’s share the earth-shaking, life-changing news–that in Christ, death dies…life lives! The Lord of Life, One who is Life himself alone holds out to us the following promise of life beyond the grave: Because I live you also will live…[John 14:19].