Love That Conquers Death

INTRODUCTION

Good morning! Today we are continuing the series we began on Easter Sunday. We’re talking about how the resurrection changed everything.

Without the resurrection, Easter would end on Good Friday and the cross would remind the world of torture and death. Without the resurrection there would be no Ascension, no one to send the Holy Spirit, no upper room experience to launch the church, Paul would have remained Saul, and we’d be missing most — if not all — of the New Testament. Without the resurrection our faith would be useless, grace would be faceless, and death would still be the final frontier.

BUT THE RESURRECTION CHANGED EVERYTHING. The resurrection means that God made a way to free us from sin. The resurrection means that Jesus conquered the powers of darkness. The resurrection changed the meaning of the cross for all eternity. Before the resurrection, the cross was an instrument of death and a symbol of disgrace, but because of the resurrection the cross became a declaration of God’s love. That’s why when we look at the cross, we’re not overcome by grief, but instead we’re reminded of God’s incredible and unstoppable love that he displayed to us through Jesus. That’s why we can say, “This is love.”

Death is not the easiest thing to talk about, unless you sell grave plots for a living. I actually know a person who used do that for a living. He was a door-to-door salesman. That’s a tough gig. Can you imagine sales pitch?

Hi, my name is Marty. Have you thought about death lately? Well, you should because death takes no bribes and you’re going to die…

If you can sell a grave plot, you can sell anything.

I was on my way to lunch with a friend of mine. We drove past a cemetery and my friend turned to me and said,

“Joel, did you know that people are dying to get in there?”

All kidding aside, death is the great tragedy of the human experience. Andrew A. Rooney (1919-2011), the American radio and television writer, who died at age 92, put it well when he said,

“Death is a distant rumor to the young.”

Andrew A. Rooney

It’s true, isn’t it? When we’re young, we spend all our energy on living, so even though there’s nothing in this world that’s as certain as death and taxes, while we’re young, death is the last thing on our mind. The Bible says that

There’s a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die…

Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, NIV

Birth and death form the boundaries of life on earth. These days, though, one the of things people spend a lot of time trying to do is pushing these boundaries. The quest to stay forever young is a booming industry. We’ve developed all kinds of methods to inject, suction, and tuck away the mileage, but the inescapable reality of wrinkles, a receding hairline, dentures, and eventually an AARP membership are signs that we are reaching the last boundary marker. 

And all kidding aside, the fear of all fears is death. Sociologists have observed that just about every society has its own version of “immortality symbols”—things that give the assurance of living forever. In ancient times, it was about being properly enshrined or buried among the gods. Think about the pharaohs in Egypt or the Taj Mahal in India. For Americans, it’s about big houses and cars, enormous trust funds and retirement accounts—things that we think will live on long after us. We want to make a name for ourselves, leave our mark, and therefore carry our legacy forward. Some of these things are not bad; they may even be decent motivations. We may be thinking about leaving the world a better place for future generations.

But as far as being immortality symbols—something that makes us live on after death—they come woefully short. Death is the great ending, the great finality, the inescapable curtain call.

So, when Jesus went to the cross on Good Friday, it was anything but “good.” His followers were devastated. The dream was over. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus said, they “had hoped that He would be the Messiah,” but now that hope had ended. Their heads hung low, their hearts heavy, their eyes swollen from weeping, and their purpose crushed. How could this be? Jesus was supposed to change everything!

If you’ve ever seen Les Miserables—the Broadway play or the movie—I think the scene where Fantine sings, “I dreamed a dream that cannot be” captures the kind of heart-broken despair that the disciples must have felt that Friday.

It’s good not to rush past that moment. You see, the darkness and the tragedy of Good Friday capture how we often feel in life: overwhelmed by brokenness in the world, filled with discouragement or despair, aware of the darkness and fear in our own hearts.

Death is the end of all possibilities. And if there is no answer for death, then all other answers do not matter. What can lift our heavy heads?

Love is Stronger than Death

“Love is as strong as death,” the poet sang in the Song of Solomon.

“No,” said the Father on Easter morning. “Love is stronger.”

On that first Easter morning, God the Father showed the world that there is a love that is stronger than death.

The preaching of the New Testament—particularly in the book of Acts and in Paul’s writings—makes a point to say that God the Father raised Jesus from the dead. This is crucially important because we are not meant to see Jesus as some sort of Superman figure, brought to the brink of death by some evil villain, who somehow musters up the last bits of life to burst free. The Gospel writers and the first preachers of Jesus want us to know that Jesus did really and truly die. He was buried. Fully dead.

But God did not abandon His beloved Son to the grave. He vindicates His faithful obedience and sacrificial death by raising Him up to new life! Here are two ways the Testament expresses that reality:

First, when the Jewish authorities arrested the apostles, Peter stood up before them and said in Acts 5,

“The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins.”

Acts 5:30-31, NIV

Then later, in Acts 13, when Paul was in a synagogue in Antioch, he said:

“We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm: “‘You are my son; today I have become your father.’ God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay. As God has said, “‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.’ So it is also stated elsewhere: “‘You will not let your holy one see decay.’“Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed. But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.”

Acts 13:32-37, NIV

Paul would develop this even further in his letters to the churches scattered around the Roman Empire. He understood that the resurrection of Jesus is not just good news for a few; it’s good news for the entire world!

But some Christians in Corinth weren’t sure. They wondered if all of this was really necessary to believe. Couldn’t they just say that Jesus was a good teacher and that he was still here spiritually? Why did it matter if He had actually been physically raised from the dead?

These questions brought out some of Paul’s clearest teaching on the resurrection. I want us to take a closer look at what he said and make three big observations from it.

“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

1 Corinthians 15:20-26, NIV

Paul is saying at least three things to us. First: THE RESURRECTION DEFEATS DEATH.

Paul calls death an enemy. Let us be clear about this: death is not a friend; death is not a doorway into eternity; death is a beast. It is an enemy. But it is an enemy that was destroyed by Jesus’ victory on the cross.

DEATH THREATS IN HISTORY

History shows us that when power is abused, the weapon that is wielded is the fear of death. Tyrants and thieves, dictators and despots, all resort to one ultimate threat: the threat of death. But when death no longer holds a sting, tyrants no longer have any power. This is what happened in the early centuries when Caesar after Caesar would threaten to kill Christians if they did not renounce Christ and worship them. Yet these Christians were free of the fear of death. They knew that they belonged to the One who had conquered death, the One who have been raised up.

This is why it’s so important that we understand what really happened to Jesus. He did not have a near-death experience and then get resuscitated. He did not pass out on the cross, only to be refreshed by the cool air of the tomb. He died. The piercing of His side, which caused blood and water to flow out, is a medical note on the finality of His death.

The disciples were not hallucinating when they saw Jesus. That is why the Gospel writers recount stories of the disciples not recognizing Jesus at times. There was something familiar, but also something very different about Him. His body seemed to have new—perhaps spiritual—properties that allowed Him to appear in a room with locked doors, and yet His body seemed to have the same or similar physical properties that made Him hungry and able to eat. Thomas could touch His scars and see the wounds.

The disciples weren’t using the word “resurrection” to describe Jesus going to heaven after dying. They had other ways of talking about something like that. When they said He was alive, they did not mean, “in their hearts,” the way we sometimes speak at funerals of a person living on.

The ancient world had categories for spiritual journeys in the afterlife or hallucinations or visions of a ghost. But what happened to Jesus shattered all their categories. They had no words to describe this. That’s why the four Gospels give somewhat differing accounts of the resurrection. So many stories. So much breathless recounting of something they had no words for.

So, by the time Paul is writing to the Corinthians, he can say to them that he is simply last in a long line of witnesses to the resurrection. Here’s how Paul put it:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas,  and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

1 Corinthians 15:3-8, NIV

This is the second major point we can note from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

THE RESURRECTION IS GOD’S NEW BEGINNING WHEN ALL POSSIBILITIES HAVE ENDED.

Resurrection is not resuscitation—like CPR. Resurrection is not hallucination. Resurrection is not a spiritualization of the afterlife. Resurrection is what only God can bring about when all other possibilities are gone.

Conclusion

One of the questions we need to ask ourselves is, Do I need resurrection in my own life?

What things are dead, what possibilities have ended, where has the story gone off the rails?

Maybe you don’t want to think about those places or areas in your life because, really, what’s the point? How could you possibly change the story now? It’s over, right?

Well, that leads me to my third and the last point about the resurrection:

RESURRECTION IS A GIFT!

Paul wrote,

“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

1 Corinthians 15:21-22, NIV

What did we do to deserve this gift? Nothing. What can we do to earn it? Nothing. Resurrection does not emerge from potential. Resurrection is not an achievement. No one can raise themselves up from the dead. But in Christ all will be made alive!

Hallelujah! Are you catching why this is such good news?

One day, all who are in Christ will be raised up with glorious new bodies. We will have bodies like Jesus. We don’t know much more about what those bodies will be like, but we know that it will seem similar and yet radically different. Using the same materials, it will have new properties. All of that is wonderful. And it has led to Christians saying for 1700 years now—in the words of the Nicene Creed—that

“we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

Nicene Creed

But you know what? Resurrection life can begin in you today. Right now.

Paul, after writing to the Corinthians about the significance and meaning of the resurrection, wrote this to the Christians in Rome and said:

And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

Romans 8:11, NIV

The Holy Spirit, who, with the Father raised Jesus from the dead, is bringing new life to you. The same love that did not abandon Jesus to the grave will not let you go. He loves you with a love that is stronger than death.

Paul finishes out the chapter—Romans 8—with this powerful assurance:

Because Jesus took on death and let it exhaust its power on Him . . . Because the Father in His love raised Jesus up from the grave, vindicating His faithfulness and demonstrating His belovedness . . .

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,  neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:37-39, NIV

Now for all who are in Jesus, nothing—nothing, not even death—can separate you from the love of God. This is love.

Pray

Gracious God, you have loved us with an everlasting love. You sent your Son to earth because you love us. Jesus, you laid down your life, willingly. You are one with the Father. His love and your love are one. In your death on the cross, we see this love. And in your resurrection we see the Father’s love that would not let you go. Jesus, we say “Yes” to you today. We want to let you love us. We want to be in Christ so that the Holy Spirit can be in us. Come now, Holy Spirit. Bring your resurrection life in us. Make our hearts that were dead in sin alive again. Stir us with new power to obey you and to love you. Send us into the world with this life. Fill us with the hope that one day we will know this resurrection life in fullness. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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