Death: Terrible or Triumphant?
May 27th, 1979 @ 8:15 AM
DEATH: TERRIBLE OR TRIUMPHANT?
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Corinthians 15:51-52
5-27-79 8:15 a.m.
On the radio there are uncounted thousands of you who are sharing this hour with us in the First Baptist Church of Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message at this service because it is Memorial Day; at the next service because it is dedicated to our Senior Adults. This is the last of those sixteen spring services in which differing divisions in the church have chosen a message that they would like to hear preached again. And this is the message chosen by our Senior Adults. It is entitled Death: Terrible or Triumphant? And because it is Memorial Day, a day dedicated to the memory of those who have preceded us into the presence of God, this sermon has been prepared to be delivered this hour.
You read the text: 1 Corinthians 15:50-58. I pick out a verse in it:
We may not all fall asleep, 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, we shall all be changed.
[1 Corinthians 15:51-52]
Death has a horrible visage, and there’s no genius that can take away the awesome presence of death. If you watch television, or if you go to a movie theater, or if you read a newspaper, you may look at the violence and the murder and the terror that results in death, but you will rarely look upon the face of death itself. The picture will cover over the dead with some kind of a sheet. And you may watch the prelude that leads to the shedding of blood, but you will rarely see a picture of the visage of death. The face of death is a horror. When you go to a funeral service, they will many times open the casket and people file by looking on the face of the dead; but only after the mortician has done his finest work in embalming and in preparation and in dressing, that we might have somewhat of a presentation of the former life and look of the one who is dead. And even then we try to cover over the place with all of the flowers that we can gather. Death has a horrible visage.
When Abraham stood in the presence of the sons of Heth, seeking to buy the cave of Machpelah, he urged its sale, saying, "That I might bury my dead out of my sight." Of whom is he speaking? He is speaking of his beloved Sarah, "That I might hide my dead out of my sight" [Genesis 23:3-4, 8-9]. Even God calls death an enemy. In the twenty-sixth verse of this same fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death" [1 Corinthians 15:26]. Even God calls death an enemy. This comprises one of the heavenly and spiritual and significantly tremendous purposes for the coming of Christ into the world: that He might destroy death. This is a theme that is reiterated over and over and over again in the Bible. For example, in this fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, verse 25 and 26, "For Christ must reign, until He hath put all enemies under His feet. And the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death" [1 Corinthians 15:25-26]. Look again in 2 Timothy 1:10, "Now is manifest the Savior Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." Or look again in the second chapter of Hebrews, verse 14 and 15:
Forasmuch then as the children, we the people God has made, are partakers of flesh and blood, Christ also Himself likewise took part of the same; that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death . . . And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
He came into the world to destroy death. In the Apocalypse, the triumphant description of Christ is just that: "I fell at His feet as dead," writes John in Revelation 1:17-18, "I fell at His feet as dead. And He put His right hand upon me, saying, Fear not . . . I am He that liveth and was dead; and behold I am alive forevermore . . . And I, I have the keys of Hell and of Death." Or the incomparable picture of the eden into which someday we shall be introduced as living brothers and sisters, Revelation 21:4, "And there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for these things are all passed away."
The presentation of the life of our Lord is that: that He is able to destroy him who has the power of death [Hebrews 2:14]. In the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, answering John the Baptist’s query about whether He was the ultimate Christ, the Lord sends back word [Matthew 11:2-3], saying, "Tell John that the dead are raised to life" [Matthew 11:52]. It was a sign of the messiahship of the Son of God. And in the Gospels, there are three instances of it, out of I suppose a multitude; for He had power over death. In the fifth chapter of Mark, there is described the raising of the daughter of Jairus from the dead [Mark 5:22-24, 35-42]. In the seventh chapter of Luke there is the description of the raising to life of the son of the widow who lived in Nain [Luke 7:11-15]. And of course, in the eleventh chapter of the Book of John, Jesus stands at the tomb of Lazarus, and at His word raises Lazarus from the dead [John 11:43-44]. All four of the Gospels present the Lord Jesus Christ as triumphant over death. The twenty-eighth chapter of Matthew is that [Matthew 28:5-7]. The sixteenth chapter of Mark is that [Mark 16:5-7]. The twenty-fourth chapter of Luke is that [Luke 24:1-12]. And the twentieth and twenty-first chapters of John are that [John 20:1-21:25]. He is triumphant over death [1 Corinthians 15:54-57]. He is reigning over that kingdom of blackness and darkness forever. "The last enemy that is destroyed is death" [1 Corinthians 15:26].
The meaning of that for the Christian is beyond any way that syllable or sentence could describe it. To the world, death is the horrible end of all things. To the existentialist philosopher, a philosophy of despair, life has no purpose and no meaning; it ends in the grave. And however life is lived, whatever turn it takes, just lies in the personal choice of whoever is living it. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, and its ultimate end is to fall into the darkness of the grave. That is modern philosophy. It carries also with it overtones of horror. Maybe we might stand at the judgment bar of Almighty God, in which event the whole unknown future is filled with dread and foreboding and terror. That is death to the unbelieving world.
But to the believing Christian, death has been redefined into the finest opening of the doors of heaven to those who have found refuge and hope in Christ Jesus. I want you to look at this. There is a passage that you read that on the face of it speaks of just one thing; but looked at carefully is one of the most triumphant notes in the Bible. It is verse 55 in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians [1 Corinthians 15:55]. And the background is this: when the Lord was transfigured on top of the mount, there appeared to Him Moses and Elijah. Luke says that they were talking to Him about His decease, the Greek word is exodus, about His exodus which He should accomplish in Jerusalem [Luke 9:31]. What an unusual way to speak of the death of our Lord. They were talking to Him, Moses and Elijah, about His exodus.
And an exodus, in our book, the second book in the Bible, an exodus is a great deliverance for us. They were talking to Him about the exodus which He should accomplish, bring to pass, triumphantly so in Jerusalem [Luke 9:30-31]. Now you look at those two men. They represent such diverse assemblies among the people of God. Moses died and was buried [Deuteronomy 34:5]. He represents those who fall asleep in Jesus before the rapture [1 Thessalonians 4:14-17]. Elijah never saw death; he was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, he was translated in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye [2 Kings 2:11]. And he represents those who at the end time, at the consummation of the age, shall never taste of death, but shall be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump [1 Corinthians 15:52].
For when the trumpet shall sound, and the voice of the archangel is heard, the dead shall be raised incorruptible – that is Moses – and all of us who remain, who are in the rapture, we shall be changed, all of us, in that moment, in the twinkling of an eye [1 Corinthians 15:51-52]. Now the meaning of that text: "O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?" [1 Corinthians 15:55]. That is the upward and triumphant shout of both of those great groups of God’s people. "O death, where is thy sting?" That is the victorious cry of the raptured, who are taken up to heaven in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump. And, "O grave, where is thy victory?" That is the triumphant cry of those who have fallen asleep in Jesus, who hear the voice of the archangel and are raised from the dead [1 Thessalonians 4:16]. Death, terrible to those who don’t believe, who are outside of the grace of our Lord; but triumphant to those who have found hope and eternal life in the Lord Jesus. Therefore, death to us is the opening of the door into the glorious world that is yet to come. And that is the meaning of the passage that we read:
This I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. But I show you a mystery: we shall all be changed, all of us; raised, resurrected, these who fall asleep in Jesus; and in a moment transfigured and immortalized, we who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord.
[1 Corinthians 15:50-54]
And the entrance into glory, into the heaven of heavens, into the presence of God is in death [2 Corinthians 5:8].
As long as I am in this house of flesh, "This I say, brethren, flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" [1 Corinthians 15:50]; as long as I live in this mortal body, I’ll not see God’s face. If I were, I would die. No man can see God, and live [Exodus 33:20]. As long as I am in this house of flesh, I cannot see God’s face. I cannot be a part of that redeemed throng gathered in the presence of glory. It is only through the portals of death that I can finally come into the presence of our blessed Lord. And what a beautiful and precious hope that is.
I read a letter written by Benjamin Franklin to a friend, dated Philadelphia, February 23, 1756; written 223 years ago.
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 life 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 bodies should be lent us. While they can afford a pleasure, assist in acquiring knowledge, doing good to our fellow creatures is a kind benevolent act of God. But 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 choose 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 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? Adieu, Benjamin Franklin
Isn’t that a wonderful sentence? "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?" Death is our release, and it is our entrance into heaven. And that is why the beautiful incomparable meaning of the apostle Paul when he writes, "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is a gain" [Philippians 1:21]. That’s why when he faced death he wrote one of the most triumphant sentences in the Bible:
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 them also that love His appearing.
[2 Timothy 4:6-8]
A release, an entrance into heaven; this hath Christ wrought for us.
One of the young women in a church that I pastored in these days gone by, oh, she was twenty-two years old, something like that – so very ill. So when I went to see her, she was dying. And she said to me, awakening, coming back to consciousness out of a coma, she said to me, "Would you read me out of the Bible?" I read the twenty-third Psalm [Psalm 23:1-6]. I read the fourteenth chapter of John [John 14:1-6]. Then she said, "Would you sing for me a song?" And I sang "In the Sweet By and By." Then she said, "Would you pray a prayer of release?" And I knelt down and prayed for God to open the door. And after I said, "Amen," she fell back into that deep coma, and died. This is the triumphant climactic close of the Christian life. "Would you read from God’s Word?" And we read. "Would you sing one of the songs of Zion?" And we sing. "And would you pray a prayer of release?" And we pray. The visage of death for us is no longer horrible and terrible, but it is now to the Christian God’s final work of redemption – when we’re released and are welcomed into heaven, awaiting the full and purchased possession, the resurrection and the immortalization and the transfiguration of this house in which we now live [Ephesians 1:11-14].
It is a preciousness to give our hearts and our lives to this blessed hope in the wonderful Jesus [Titus 2:13-14]. And that’s the appeal made to your heart this solemn morning hour. In a moment we stand to sing our hymn of appeal, all of us praying and waiting, believing God will answer our prayers, give us a harvest, and if that somebody is you, on the first note of the first stanza, answer with your life. A family you, coming into the church, a couple, confessing Jesus as Savior, or just that one somebody you, if you’re in the topmost row in the topmost balcony, there is time and to spare. Down a stairway, down one of these aisles, "Pastor, today I have decided for Christ and here I come." Bless you, angels attend you as you answer, while we stand and while we sing.