DEATH: TERRIBLE OR TRIUMPHANT?
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Corinthians 15:55
11-28-76 7:30 p.m.
You who listen on KILD and KCBI are sharing this evening service of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled Death: Terrible or Triumphant? The reading of the Scripture is the last part of the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, and with us, in this great auditorium, you who listen on radio, turn to the passage with us and read it out loud. First Corinthians chapter 15, beginning at verse 50 and reading to the end of the chapter. First Corinthians chapter 15, beginning at verse 50. Now let us read it, all of us, out loud together.
Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.
Behold, I show 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 trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.
[1 Corinthians 15:50-58]
And of the passage, particularly verse 55, is our text: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” [1 Corinthians 15:55]. Death: terrible or triumphant?
No one who is in anywise realistic would deny the terror of the king of the grave. Death has a visage that is horrible. In our movies and on TV, there will be the most unbelievable portrayal of violence, murder, bloodshed, but you’ll never see the cadaver, always a sheet will cover the cut down and murdered body, and a detective or some hero will look underneath the sheet, but you’ll never see the visage of death. It is a horrible thing, the decay of the flesh away from the skeletal form. Our morticians are sent to school to learn how to cover over the horror of death, and we buy flowers and all kinds of things to hide that terror away.
In the story of Abraham in Genesis, he comes before the sons of Heth and he says, “Let me buy from you at a price the cave Machpelah that I may bury my dead out of my sight” [Genesis 23:8-9]. Who is that dead one that he is seeking to bury out of his sight? It is his beautiful and beloved Sarah [Genesis 23:1-2], “that I may bury my dead out of my sight” [Genesis 23:8]. God, in this fifteenth chapter of the Book of 1 Corinthians and the twenty-sixth verse calls death an enemy [1 Corinthians 15:26]. It was not planned. He is an interloper and an intruder, and his waste of the children of the family of God is looked upon as a vicious innovation and invasion. Death is an enemy. And it was for the purpose of destroying death that Jesus Christ came down from heaven and entered into this world [Hebrews 2:14].
The same passage in 1 Corinthians avows, “For He must reign, till He hath put all enemies under His feet. And the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” [1 Corinthians 15:25-26]. And in the second chapter of the Book of Hebrews, “Forasmuch then as God’s children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself took part of the same; that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” [Hebrews 2:14-15]. Our Lord came down from heaven and entered the abyss of the grave that He might grapple face to face with him who had the power of death, that is Satan, and deliver us, who through all of our lives were in bondage, cowering before the terror and the horror of death.
The whole ministry of Christ is one beautiful, vast, and almighty demonstration of His power over death. Each one of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, will present in his own way that mightiness of Jesus grappling with death and overcoming it and triumphing over it.
For example, in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Matthew, the Lord sends word to John concerning His messiahship that the dead are raised up [Matthew 11:5]. Apparently what we have in the Bible are just a few instances of the ableness of Christ to raise from corruption and from death. In the fifth chapter of the Book of Mark, there is the story of the raising from the dead of the daughter of Jarius [Mark 5:22-24, 41-42]. In the seventh chapter of the Book of Luke, there is the beautiful story of the restoration to life of the only son of a widow who lived in Nain [Luke 7:11-15]. And in the eleventh chapter of the Book of John is the story of the Lord’s raising Lazarus from the dead who for four days had been in corruption [John 11:39-44]; that, in a land without embalming and in a warm country where the body quickly decays.
The Lord is power, and the Lord is triumph, and the Lord is victor over death and the grave [1 Corinthians 15:54-57]. And in those four Gospels, they reach their climax in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. [Matthew 28: 2-7], [Mark 16:6-8], [Luke 24:5-8], and [John 20: 3-18], each one ascends in glory and power until finally Christ is presented as victor over death and the grave [1 Corinthians 15:54-57].
What does that mean for us who are Christians? To the world, death is a monstrous visitor, and that is true whether one is a philosophical existentialist, that is, all that he sees of any purpose or meaning in life is what is down here for trade in the world. And the end of the world and the end of all life is to fall into the grave. There is midnight darkness when we breathe our last breath, and nothing lies beyond. Existentialism, modern philosophy, is a teaching of absolute and utter and unimpenetrable despair. And that is true whether one somehow believes in an afterlife, but he doesn’t give his life to God; for to him death is also the introduction to the judgment, and it is filled with terror and horror.
But for the Christian, death moves in an altogether different definition and in an altogether different world. Do you remember the incomparable story of the transfiguration of our Lord? As Luke recounts it in the ninth chapter, there appeared to Jesus Elijah on one side and Moses on the other side, talking to Him about His exodus, the Greek word, about His exodus, translated “decease” which He should accomplish in Jerusalem [Luke 9:31]. And they spake with our Lord of what His death, of what His victory over the grave meant to Moses, who was buried [Deuteronomy 24:5-6], and meant to Elijah, who was translated [2 Kings 2:11]; for neither one could remain in heaven were there not atonement offered for their sins [Hebrews 9:22]. And Moses on one side speaks to Jesus saying, “Lord, You must die for me that I might be raised from the dead and live in heaven.” And Elijah says, “And, Lord, You must die for me that I might have my place, raptured, in heaven”—Moses, who was buried [Deuteronomy 34:5-6], and Elijah who was raptured [2 Kings 2:11], speaking to our blessed Lord about His victory over death [1 Corinthians 15:54].
And that is the meaning of my text. “O death, where is thy sting?” [1 Corinthians 15:55]. That is the cry of Elijah and all who shall be raptured to meet our Lord in the air [1 Thessalonians 4:17]. And, “O grave, where is thy victory?” [1 Corinthians 15:55]. That is the cry of Moses and all who die and are buried in the earth when they rise from the dead [1 Thessalonians 4:16], “O grave, where is thy victory?” [1 Corinthians 15:55], In the atoning death of Jesus Christ, there has been bought for us an eternal victory over the grave, and it holds no horror and no terror, it holds no bondage for us [1 Corinthians 15:55].
Paul wrote in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is a gain.” And he wrote, in the fourth chapter of his last letter to Timothy, verses 6 and 8, “For I am now ready to be offered up, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing” [2 Timothy 4:6-8]—these who are waiting for the Lord either to come and we’re raptured: “O death, where is thy sting?” [1 Corinthians 15:55]. Or, these who are fallen into the dust of the ground, “O grave, where is thy victory?” [1 Corinthians 15:55].
So death, to the Christian, is the portal, it is the gate through which we enter into heaven. As Paul writes, in this fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, “This I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption” [1 Corinthians 15:50]. As long as I am in this mortal body, I cannot see the face of God. I cannot walk those golden streets. I cannot mingle with our Lord and His redeemed in heaven. This fleshly body shuts me out and shuts me away. But through the portal of death, I am able to enter into that heavenly life into which our Lord Jesus has so triumphantly gone [Acts 1:9-10; Hebrews 10:19-20].
I’m going to read for you a letter written by Benjamin Franklin, dated Philadelphia, February 23, 1756, written two hundred-twenty years ago. He is writing to a friend about the death of a relative. And I quote:
I condole with you. We have lost a most dear and valuable relation. But it is the will of God that these mortal bodies be laid aside when the soul is to enter into real life. This is rather an embryo state, a preparation for living. A man is not completely born until he is dead. Why then should we grieve that a new child is born among the immortals, a new member added to their happy society? We are spirits. That body should be lent us while they can afford us pleasure, assist us in acquiring knowledge, and in doing good to our fellow creatures, is a kind and benevolent act of God. When they become unfit for these purposes, and afford us pain instead of pleasure, instead of an aid become an encumbrance, and answer none of the intentions for which they were given, it is equally kind and benevolent that a way is provided by which we may get rid of them. Death is that way. We, ourselves, in some cases, prudently chose a partial death. A mangled, painful limb, which cannot be restored, we willingly cut off. He who plucks out a tooth parts with it freely, since the pain goes with it. And he who quits the whole body, parts at once with all pains and possibilities of pains and diseases, which it was liable to or capable of making him to suffer.
Our friend and we were invited abroad on a party of pleasure, which is to last forever. His chair was ready first, and he is gone before us. We could not all conveniently start together; and why should you and I be grieved at this, since we are soon to follow and know where to find him?
In God’s grace,
What a magnificent Christian view of death! This is not our real life. Our real life is hid with Christ in God [Colossians 3:3]. This is not our real home. Our home is in heaven [Philippians 3:20]. And this is just a preparation for the glory that is yet to come. And when the task is finished and the work is done, God opens the door in what we call death, and what the Christian Book calls a sleeping in Jesus [1 Thessalonians 4:14], awaiting that resurrection [1 Thessalonians 4:16], that awakening, when God shall give us back the house in which we live in, only immortalized, and glorified, and transfigured [2 Corinthians 5:1].
Heaven, with all of its glory, is ours beyond this death [Philippians 3:20]. And I enter it through that portal and that gate that we call death [2 Corinthians 5:8]. Therefore, when the time comes, let me be triumphant and victorious in my spirit! “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Thanks be to God who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” [1 Corinthians 15:55, 57]. Therefore, when the time comes for me to die, and when my task is finished and my work is done, let me go to be with the Lord. He says it is better over there than it is here [Philippians 1:21-23]. The life to come is the real life, full of the infinite joy and gladness that God hath prepared for those who look in faith and trust to Him [1 Corinthians 2:9].
And when the time comes for me to die, O God! if I can plead with my family, and if I can plead with my deacons, and if I can plead with my church, let me go! Don’t rig up all of those bottles, and pumps, and valves, and lines, and a thousand other things that science can contrive just to keep the protoplasm alive. That’s as though to say, “Heaven is a horrible place and Jesus is a monstrous thing! And for me to go to be with God is a horrible tragedy!” Why, it’s the repudiation of everything I’ve ever preached all of my forty-eight years as a pastor, and it’s a repudiation of everything that I have been reading in the Bible. To go to be with Jesus is a preciousness and to be in heaven is a glory.
That’s what Paul meant when he said I am in a strait betwixt two – for to depart and to be with Jesus is far better, but to remain with you is necessary [Philippians 1:23-24]. And as long as there is a task for us to finish, there is a work for us to do, may God give us strength and grace to do it. But when the task is done, and the work is finished, and my life becomes a burden, heaven is sweet and Jesus is dear. And to go to be with Him is not a horrible and a dreadful thing; it’s a sweet and a precious thing. It’s our final and ultimate victory as we are liberated out of this bondage to rise in a freedom of the spirit with our Lord [Romans 7:24-25]. And this is the Christian view of death.
In our little church where I once pastored, there was a consecrated young woman. Some children, some young people, somehow have an affinity for God that is dear. It is godly. It is heavenly. I cannot explain it, just as I cannot explain some children that are so wayward and prodigal. I don’t understand it. Nor do I understand why some young people are so consecrated and so godly. Well, this young woman was. I would say she was eighteen or nineteen years of age, and this is before they learned what to do with pneumonia.
When I began my ministry, if people had a terrible case of pneumonia, they died, inevitably died. I buried them—I don’t know how many people I’ve buried who, before penicillin was discovered, died of pneumonia. Well, she was dying of pneumonia. And they asked me to come, the young pastor, and I went to the home out in the country, I went to the home and took my chair by the side of this dying girl; so consecrated, so full of the Spirit of Jesus.
So after she had said in the best way she could words of devotion to our Lord and expectancy of soon being with Him, she said to me, “Would you read to me from God’s Book?” And I read to her the twenty-third Psalm [Psalm 23:1-6], and the fourteenth chapter of John, “I go to prepare a place for you” [John 14:2]. Then, after I had read the Book, she said to me, “Would you sing me a song?” And I sang for her “In the Sweet By and By.” And then she said, “Would you pray?” And I prayed. And when I had finished my prayer, she closed her eyes and fell into a deep coma and died.
Was that a defeat? Was it? Was that the despair of the modern, existentialist philosopher? Was that the end of the way? “O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory? . . . Thanks be to God who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” [1 Corinthians 15:55, 57]. And as long as we have work to do, may God bless my hands in strength to do it. And when the task is done and the work is finished, and my life is a burden, then Lord, let me go to be with Thee. Heaven is sweet, and dear, and near, and precious. And the angels wait to bear us up to the Lord [Luke 16:22]. He says so in God’s Book. May we pray?
Our Lord, someday, sometime, somewhere, that inevitable hour comes. May we not be filled with dread, and foreboding, and anxiety, and terror, but may it be like the precious meeting with our Savior who stands with outstretched hands to receive us [John 14:3], who has prepared for our coming these many years [John 14:1-3], and who loves us even unto death. Ah, Lord! May we who love Thee and who have looked in faith to Thee [Ephesians 2:8], evidence that marvelous, wonderful, triumphant commitment to Christ [Hebrews 10:38]. May our people die well, triumphant, unafraid, for Jesus is coming [James 5:8], and His footsteps are welcome and His face is dear and heaven is precious. Ah, Lord! To Thee do we commit ourselves in a new way tonight, and, our Master, in this appeal, give us souls that others also might share that wonderful victory that Christ hath won for us over sin, over death, and over the grave [1 Corinthians 15:55, 57]. In His triumphant and saving name, amen [John 14:13].
In a moment now we shall stand and sing our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it a family you, a couple you, one somebody you, “Tonight, pastor I have made that decision for Christ, and here I am.” Some of you to put your life in the fellowship of our dear church; some of you to take Jesus into your heart as Savior and Lord, some of you to come to be baptized into the fellowship of the church; as the Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart, make the decision now. And when you stand up, stand up walking down that stairway, coming down that aisle, “Here I am, pastor. God bless me. I give my life to the Lord.” May the angels who someday shall come for us in death, angels may they attend us in the way, in life, as you come, while we stand and while we sing.
TERRIBLE OR TRIUMPHANT
I. Death a terrible visage
TV, movies – murder, violence, but never see the results
Abraham seeking a place to bury body of Sarah (Genesis
God calls death an enemy – it was never intended (1
II. Purpose of the coming of Christ – to
presented over and over again in Scriptures (1
Corinthians 15:25-26, 2 Timothy 1:10, Hebrews 2:14-15)
ministry of triumph(Matthew 11:3-5, Mark
5:41-42, Luke 7:14-15, John 11:39-44)
four Gospels describe His glorious resurrection(Matthew
28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20, 21)
III. The results in the faith and life of
the world, death a dread and a terror
Philosophical, existentialist despair
Horror of awaiting judgment (Hebrews 10:29)
the Christian death is a triumph(1 Corinthians
Moses and Elijah present at the transfiguration(Luke
a. Moses represents
those who have fallen asleep in Jesus
Elijah represents those who will be alive at the return of our Lord(2 Kings 2:11, 1 Corinthians 15:51-53, 1 Thessalonians
writing from prison in Rome (Philippians 1:21, 2
IV. Death is the portal through which we
way to enter is through door of death (1
Corinthians 15:50, Exodus 33:20, Revelation 22:1-2)
Letter of Benjamin Franklin
my work is ended, let me die (Philippians 1:23)