Death:Terrible Or Triumphant?
May 27th, 1979 @ 10:50 AM
1 Corinthians 15:51-52
DEATH: TERRIBLE OR TRIUMPHANT
Dr. W.A. Criswell
1 Corinthians 15:55
5-27-79 10:50 a.m.
The service is dedicated to our older adults. And it is doubly appropriate that it should be on this day because this is Memorial Day. It is the day when we remember these who have preceded us into glory. And as we get older, the remembrance of what God has prepared for us in a more beautiful and perfect world comforts our hearts and strengthens us in the way. So, the subject that was chosen by our adult leadership and given to me to preach this hour is entitled Death: Terrible or Triumphant. And we are looking forward to the appeal that is made at the conclusion of the sermon. And we will all remain in prayer, quietly standing before God, as the appeal is pressed to the heart by the Holy Spirit. No one of us leaving until the appeal is done. We started this last Sunday, and the whole service has taken a new turn. Last Sunday morning at eight-fifteen, we had a wonderful response. And this morning at eight-fifteen, we had a glorious harvest. And the Lord will bless us again at this hour. I do not understand many of the ways of our Lord, but somehow God blesses, God chooses to bless certain things. And one of them is the prayerful appeal of our people that the Lord save the lost and add to His church.
Now, the text for our sermon is the one that we read out loud together beginning at the [fifty-first verse of 1] Corinthians  and reading to the end of the chapter. And the subject: we are all going to be changed, all of us; “We shall all be changed,” some of us raptured to the Lord and changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet shall sound, and then the other great group of God’s redeemed family, and the dead who have died in the Lord, who have fallen asleep in Jesus, they shall be raised first, incorruptible; and then we who abide and remain unto the coming of Christ, we shall all be changed [1 Corinthians 15:51-54]. The whole spirit of the passage is one of infinite blessing, and assurance, and triumph to the child of God.
Death has a terrible and a horrible visage. There is no way to make death beautiful. Do you ever look at television? Do you ever go to a movie? Do you ever read a newspaper? Let me tell you; show you something that maybe you’ve never observed. Whether it’s on television or in a movie house or a picture on the front page of a newspaper, there will be depicted the violence and the murder in the story. But they never show the face of death. It will be covered over with a sheet. Rarely if ever, ever, you will ever see the horrible visage of death itself. It is just too much for the human heart. Death is a horrible visitor.
In the story of the life of Abraham, he is negotiating with the sons of Heth for the cave of Machpelah. And Abraham in furthering and pressing that negotiation says, “Sell me this cave in order that I may bury my dead out of my sight [Genesis 23:4, 8-9]. Of whom is he speaking when he says, “I want to bury my dead out of my sight?” He is speaking of his beloved Sarah, the wife of his youth, of his manhood, of his old age. God calls death an enemy. In this fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, in the twenty-sixth verse, it says: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” [1 Corinthians 15:26]. God calls death an enemy. It was never intended. Death is an intruder. It is an interloper. God never planned it. It is a concomitant, a corollary, an addendum, a result, a consequence, a curse, and a judgment of sin [Ezekiel 18:4, 20]. It is an enemy [1 Corinthians 15:26]. And the Lord has set Himself to destroy it. That is one of the presentations of the Holy Word of God, that the Lord Jesus came into the world to destroy death. That theme is presented over and over and over again in the Bible, that the crown Prince of glory, the Lord Jesus Christ came into this world to destroy death.
In this passage I have just read, 1 Corinthians 15:25-26: “For He must reign, till He hath put all enemies under His feet. And the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” In 2 Timothy 1, verse 10, Paul repeats the same avowal: There is now manifest unto us our Savior Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Look again, reading the author of Hebrews chapter 2, verses 14 and 15: “Forasmuch then as the children, we of the flesh, are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise took part of the same”—He was made like us, with flesh and blood—“that through death”—His experience of death—“that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death; and deliver us who through fear of death were all our lifetime subject to bondage” [Hebrews 2:14-15].
The Lord Jesus came into the world to destroy the very presence, and visage, and curse, and judgment of death. And in the glorious presentation and description of our living Lord in the Revelation, He is that, the Prince of life and the victor over death. When John sees Him in the first chapter of the Revelation; in the [seventeenth] verse John says, “I fell at His feet as dead,” so glorious, our living Lord [Revelation 1:17]. In the brightness, in the effulgence of His beauty, above the light of heaven itself, above the shining of the sun, John says, “I fell at His feet as one dead. And He laid His right hand upon me, saying, Fear not; I am the First and the Last: I am He that was living, and was dead: and, behold, I am alive for evermore; and I, I have the keys of Hell and of Death” [Revelation 1:17-18]. That is the living picture of our glorious Lord, triumphant over death and the grave.
In the incomparable portrayal of our future home in glory, in Revelation 21 and 22, our Lord is there with the new world and a new heaven in His hands, and He stands in the midst of the glory of the heaven that God is preparing for us who love Him. And He says, “I make all things new” [Revelation 1:21:5]. “There shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for these things are all passed away” [Revelation 21:4]. There are no graves on the hillsides of glory. There are no funeral processions down those golden streets. There are no funeral wreaths on those mansions in the sky. Death has been destroyed forever and ever. “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” [1 Corinthians 15:26]. The whole life of our Lord is presented in that significant frame as a victor over death.
When John the Baptist sends to Him and asks: Is He the ultimate and the final Christ, the revelation of God, He sends back to the great Baptist preacher and says to him: “You tell John that”—and then among other signs of His messiahship—“the dead are raised” [Matthew 11:3-5]. Our Lord must have many, many times raised the dead to life. Only three of them are presented in the Gospels, but all three of them are marks of His victorious triumph over the grave. In the fifth chapter of the Book of Mark, there is recounted the resuscitation and raising from the dead of the daughter of Jairus [Mark 5:22-24, 35-42]. In the seventh chapter of Luke, there is recounted the wonderful power of our Lord as He raised the son of the widow who lived in Nain from the dead [Luke 7:11-15]. And in the eleventh chapter of the Book of John, there is recounted the unbelievable conquest of our Lord over death, in His raising Lazarus from the grave, who had been dead four days [John 11:39], against whose calling forth, even Martha exclaims saying: By now, he has disintegrated. In that hot warm country, without embalming, the body soon decayed. Yet out of the corruption and out of the decay and out of the disintegration, the Lord God spoke. He called the name, and Lazarus came forth [John 11:43-44], as He shall someday call our names [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17]. And if we fall in the dust of the ground, He is able to raise us up and receive [us to] Himself into glory [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17]: the triumph of our Lord over death [1 Corinthians 15:54-57].
And, of course, all of the four Gospels present the marvelous resurrection of our Savior. It’s the climactic conclusion of all four of the evangelists. The [twenty-eighth] chapter of Matthew is that [Matthew 28:1-7]. The sixteenth chapter of Mark is that [Mark 16:1-7]. The twenty-fourth chapter of Luke is that [Luke 24:1-7]. And the twentieth and twenty-first chapters of John are that [John 20:1-17, 21:1-24]. This is the living Lord raised from among the dead. The repercussion of that in our lives is sweet and precious and full of assurance beyond what poem could write or song could sing or heart could imagine; that good thing God hath prepared for us who love Him [1 Corinthians 2:9].
To the world death is an horrible thing. It is an awesome thing. It is final and judgmental in the extreme. Existential modern philosophy finds in life nothing but despair. There’s no meaning to it. There’s no purpose in it. We finally fall into the grave, and that ends all of the meaning and purpose they find in life. That is modern philosophy. It carries with it also overtones that are terrible and horrible. What if there is a great judgment day? And these who have spurned the overtures of grace, and trodden underfoot the blood of Christ, and done despite to His love and mercy, what of them when they stand in the great judgment day of Almighty God? [Hebrews 10:29]. The thought, the very thought is horrible and terrible in the extreme.
But to us who have found hope and refuge in Christ, the visage of death, though in itself so terrible and so horrible, yet to us, it has been turned into a marvelous triumph. Unless you had particularly studied it and noticed it, you doubtless overlooked one of the triumph meanings in this passage that you just read: O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory [1 Corinthians 15:55]? Back of that is a tremendous meaning, a spiritual cataclysmic, glorious forever hope and triumph.
May I present it like this? When our Lord was transfigured on the mount in Galilee, there appeared to Him Moses and Elijah, talking to Him. And Luke writes it like this: they were talking to Him about His decease—the Greek word is exodos—about His exodos which He should accomplish in Jerusalem [Luke 9:30-31]. The very word “exodus” brings to my mind the second book in the Bible. And the Exodus is a story of the leadership of the great prototype and prophet of the Lord Jesus Christ, namely Moses, who led his people out of the darkness of Egyptian bondage into the glory of Canaan’s Promised Land, over the swollen Jordan [Exodus 14:15-31, Joshua 3:14-17]. Now, that’s Moses and Elijah who are talking to Jesus about the exodus which He should accomplish in Jerusalem.
Now those two: Moses died and was buried [Deuteronomy 34:1-6]; Moses represents those uncounted thousands and thousands of the children of the Lord, God’s redeemed family, who have fallen asleep in Jesus [1 Thessalonians 4:14]. Elijah never died [2 Kings 2:11]. Elijah was immortalized, translated in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. Elijah was caught up to heaven in a glorious whirlwind, when the chariot of the Lord came down to take him back to glory [2 Kings 2:11]. And those two represent the two great segments in the family of God. There are some who fall asleep in Jesus. They die and are buried in the earth, as Moses [Deuteronomy 34:5-6]. But there will be some who are like Elijah, who will be alive at the return of our Lord [2 Kings 2:11]. And they will be caught up in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, and shall be gloriously changed, immortalized, transfigured in a moment [1 Corinthians 15:51-53; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17]. So, Moses stands there by the side of the Lord, talking to Jesus about that great deliverance from bondage, representing us who die in the Lord [Luke 9:30-31; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17]. And then Elijah stands by the side of Jesus talking to Him also about that great exodus when God’s people are taken out of the bondage of death in this world and caught up with our Lord into glory [1 Corinthians 15:51-54]. And this is the meaning of that glorious passage, “O Death, where is thy sting?” [1 Corinthians 13:55]. That will be the cry of those who, like Elijah, are raptured up into glory! They never die [2 Kings 2:11]. “O Grave, where is thy victory?” [1 Corinthians 15:55]. That is the cry of those who have fallen asleep in Jesus and are raised from the dead, and rise to meet our Lord in the clouds, in the air [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17]. What a triumph! What an incomparable glory God hath reserved for us who have found refuge and hope in Him.
That is why the apostle Paul could write from his prison in Rome: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is a gain” [Philippians 1:21]. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is a gain,” and that’s why, as he faced his final execution, the apostle wrote:
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 also to all them that love His appearing.
[2 Timothy 4:6-8]
In death, triumphant. In the street that runs through the midst of the University of Chicago, there is a very large sculptured piece, very large, crosses the whole street at the end [Fountain of Time, Lorado Taft]. And it is humanity, mankind looking at death; there’s a little lagoon in front, and they look over that lagoon at death. Over here is a child, and he looks at death in wide-eyed and innocent and unrecognizing wonder. In the middle will be a youth in the prime of his life, and he covers his eyes and shields his face from that awful visage, for death to the youth is such a terror and a horror. But you couldn’t help but notice to the extreme left, the last one. It is an old, old woman, and she has fallen on her knees, and with her arms outstretched she looks at death with welcome, and release, and glory, and gladness.
Christ has won that victory for us, and I don’t need to be afraid. When the time comes and the deeds and the task and the assignment that God has given to me, when it is finished, I don’t want doctors and scientists and experimental anatomists to keep this protoplasm alive. Why, my brother, I have been preaching over fifty years that it’s better over there than it is here, that Jesus is waiting for us there, and that when we die, we go to be with our Lord. And when time comes for my release, shall I dread and fear as though it is a horror to see Jesus? Oh no! Oh no! When my task is finished and the work is done, what a privilege, and what a blessing, and what a holiness to close our eyes on this world of age and death and to open our eyes and be in glory, to see the Lord [2 Corinthians 5:8], and to walk streets made of pure gold, to look at gates made out of solid pearl [Revelation 21:21], to look at a walled city called heaven, made out of solid diamond [Revelation 21:17-19].
Once in a while somebody will ask me, “Where did you get the idea that the wall of heaven is solid diamond?” The reply is very simple, “The Greek word is iasper. They didn’t know what jasper was, so they just spelled it out in English, jasper, jasper. They didn’t know what it was, so they just spelled it out in English.” But the Book says: jasper, clear as crystal. What is the most precious of all stones, clear as crystal? [Revelation 21:11]. My brother, that’s diamond! Diamond even the wall is made out of sparkling diamond: Why, a woman will wear a little piece of it, a little tiny piece of it. And say, “How precious this little piece.” Sweet people, its one thousand four hundred miles that way and one thousand four hundred miles that way made out of solid diamond! [Revelation 21:16].
“What God hath prepared for us who love Him!” [1 Corinthians 2:9]. And when time comes, that ought to be the finest hour of our lives:
O glorious cross! O precious crown!
O resurrection day!
Ye angels, from the stars come down,
And bear my soul away.
[from “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?”; Thomas Shepherd]
Death is triumphant for those who have found hope and assurance in the blessed Jesus.
May I point out one other thing? We have time. Death that used to enclose all of God’s people in Hades, death now is our open door and our entrance into glory [1 Corinthians 15:55-57]. If we had time, it would be a wonderful sermon to preach about Jesus, who through the torn veil of His flesh opened the way for us into heaven [Matthew 27:45-53; Hebrews 10:19-20]. We are told that death is no longer a grave, but that death now is a door that opens for us our entrance into heaven [Psalm 49:15, 73:24].
So, the apostle Paul wrote: “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 house of flesh, I can’t see God, and live. The Scriptures plainly avow: “No man shall see the face of God and live,” [Exodus 33:20]. As long as I am in this body of sin and death, I can’t see God. And I can’t be in that beautiful family where God walks in and out before His people [Revelation 21:3], drink at the river of the water of life, eat from the tree of life that bear, that bear twelve manner of fruit [Revelation 22:1-2]. I can’t do that.
The only way that I can ever enter into that vision beatific in its realization and to be a part of the family of God in heaven is that I go through it—the door of death—and that is the Christian faith and the Christian hope: that in death, we are ushered into the presence of God [Psalm 49:15].
I’m going to read a letter that Benjamin Franklin wrote the twenty-third of April in 1756. That’s two hundred twenty-three years ago. He dated it “Philadelphia, February 23, 1756” and he’s writing to a friend. They both had lost a friend in death. So, Benjamin Franklin wrote:
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 an embryo state of 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. The bodies that should be lent us, while they can afford us pleasure, assist us in acquiring knowledge, doing good to our fellow creatures, the bodies lent us is a kind benevolent act of God. When these bodies 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, 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 so, he quits the whole body, parts at once with all pains and possibilities of diseases which it is 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 shall soon follow and know where to find him?
Young man came up to me after the service was over, and he said, “All my life, I was taught that he was an infidel and an atheist.” I said, “No, no. He may have expressed some things in terms that the rest of us would not quite see it that way, but you read that letter.” This is one of the finest sentences I’ve ever read:
Why should you and I be grieved at this, that he has gone before us, since we are soon to follow and know where to find him?
That’s a great Christian persuasion, and that’s a great Christian faith, and that’s the heart of our assurance, that in Christ death is nothing but an entrance into the glory that is to come [1 Corinthians 15:55-57]. I live in that kind of a world.
In one of my first pastorates, there was a young woman in her early twenties out in the country, in her home with her family, and they said, “She is dying and she wants you to come, her pastor.” So, I drove out to the home. She had fallen into a deep coma. But arousing her, telling her that I’d come, she said, “Would you read to me out of the Bible?” And I read the twenty-third Psalm and the first part of the fourteenth chapter of John. 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 for my final and ultimate release?” And I knelt down and prayed. And when I finished the prayer, she closed her eyes, fell again into that deep coma and died.
What a beautiful and precious moment, “Would you read God’s Word?” And we read. “Would you sing a song of assurance?” And we sing. “And would you pray a final prayer of release?” And we pray, and go to be with Jesus.
O God, how much do we lean on Thy kind arm? And how infinitely sweet and precious to find promise and assurance and comfort in Thee [Matthew 11:28-30]. That’s what it is to be a Christian. That’s what it is to rear your family in the love and nurture of the Lord [Ephesians 6:4]. That’s what it is to go through the pilgrimage of this life with triumph in your heart, songs on your lips, praises in your soul. And that’s what it is finally to be welcomed by our Savior and those who await for us in glory.
And that is our invitation to your heart this morning; all of us praying, all of us waiting, all of us believing that God will sweetly and beautifully press the appeal to your heart. And we’re going to stand in a moment and wait for you to answer with your life. In this balcony round, on this lower floor, a family you, a couple you, or just one somebody you “Today, I have decided for God, and here I am. Here I come.” On the first note of that first stanza, answer. And may the Spirit of God encourage you, and angels attend you as you come, while we stand and while we sing.