The Portals of Death
April 6th, 1980 @ 8:15 AM
THE PORTALS OF DEATH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
4-06-80 8:15 a.m.
It is a gladness, an infinite privilege to welcome the thousands of you who are listening to this hour on the two radio stations that bear it. This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, bringing the message entitled The Promise Beyond the Portals of Death. It is an Easter sermon. It is based upon a word of our Lord in the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, chapter 11, verses 25-26. First:
Martha said unto Him, I know that my brother shall rise in the resurrection at the last day.
Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in Me, though he die, yet shall he live.
And whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.
I remember my Greek professor saying that that is the profoundest sentence in human speech: "I am the resurrection, and the life" [John 11:25].
It is a strange thing – that is, to me, as I read the Bible – of the overtones that I find in the Scriptures: things that are revealed, and then the overtones that are repercussions of that revelation, not directly said, but overtones, things that beautifully follow after – repercussions.
We are told in the Bible that when our Lord shall come in triumph, there will be two groups of people to receive Him: one will be the sainted dead, and they will rise from the graves to welcome our Lord back from glory [1 Thessalonians 4:15-16]. The other group are the raptured ones, these who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord [1 Thessalonians 4:17]. And these two groups shall greet our Lord when He comes down from the heights of glory, down to this earth [1 Thessalonians 4:15-17].
Now, the repercussion, the overtones of that revelation in the Bible, I see in so many places. This is one: "I am the resurrection, and the life" [John 11:25]. The resurrection: these are they who have died in the Lord, and they are raised first; they shall see Him first, the Bible says. And "the life": He is the life and the hope of our living people, and these who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord. They shall rise to meet Him in the air [1 Thessalonians 4:15-17]. I see another example of that overtone in the beautiful story of the transfiguration of our Lord. In the Gospel of Luke 9:29, "As He prayed, the fashion of His countenance was altered, and His raiment was white and glistening. And there talked with Him two men, Moses and Elijah. They appeared to Him in glory, and spake of His" – and the word is translated "decease." The Greek is exodus. "And they spake of His exodus which He should accomplish," which He should fulfill, "in Jerusalem" [Luke 9:30-31].
Here is that same overtone, those same two groups: Moses, who led the exodus of God’s children out of Egypt – Moses is speaking to the Lord about the exodus of those who have fallen asleep in Jesus and who are buried in the heart of the earth [1 Thessalonians 4:15-16]. Moses represents those who have died in the Lord and are to be resurrected at His coming.
But there was also Elijah, speaking to Him of the exodus, the rapture, the taking away of those who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord. Elijah never died. He was translated, taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, in a chariot of fire [2 Kings 2:11]. And he represents those who will be translated at the coming of the Lord [1 Thessalonians 4:17]. And the two were there: Moses, who died and was buried [Deuteronomy 34:5-6]; Elijah, who was translated [2 Kings 2:11]. They are talking to Jesus about the great exodus of God’s people out of this world and into the glorious light of the kingdom of God.
I find another like overtone in the passage of Scripture that you just read, in 1 Corinthians 15:54. "Then shall come to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory."
Then Paul writes, "O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?" [1 Corinthians 15:55]. There it is again, that overtone of those two groups who shall rise to meet our Lord at His coming. "O Death, where is thy sting?" [1 Corinthians 15:55]. That is the cry of the raptured who shall never die; who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord [1 Thessalonians 4:17]. "O Death, where is thy sting?" [1 Corinthians 15:55]. And then these who are resurrected [1 Thessalonians 4:16] shall say, "O Grave, where is thy victory?" [1 Corinthians 15:55]. Then, both of them together shall join in the eternal chorus of gratitude and triumph: "Thanks be unto God who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" [1 Corinthians 15:57]. Ah! What a marvelous foretaste of glory do we have in the incomparable, marvelous, triumph of our Lord, not only over sin, death, and the grave [1 Corinthians 15:55-57], but finally at the consummation of the age, in His glorious return [Matthew 24:30].
Now, any astute historian – whether he’s an infidel or not – if he is astute, any learned, observing, historian would inevitably write that one of the reasons for the Christian conquest of the ancient Greco-Roman world was its hope for eternal life in the world beyond the grave. There is a passion in the hearts of men that is universal: to live beyond death. It isn’t peculiar to one culture, or to one ethnic group; it is historically universal.
For example, if you have been in Egypt, you have seen those mummies in those museums. And they’re wrapped up in papyri, written on with all kinds of hieroglyphics: picture-writing. For centuries, for millennia, that was a mystery what that writing was, until in 1799, the Rosetta stone was discovered. And the secret, the key, to the hieroglyphic writing was unlocked, and when all of those writings were read, it is a "Book of the Dead." That’s the title of it. That’s the way they refer to it: "The Book of the Dead," that is, these who had died were wrapped up in all of those hieroglyphic admonitions of how it is to be in the world beyond the grave.
A like mystery for many centuries attended the cuneiform writing – wedged-shaped writing. But when they found the vast, tremendous inscription on the Behistun Rock, they were able to decipher it, and that cuneiform, that wedged-shaped writing in monuments, inscriptions, baked in clay tablets, once again, telling of the hope that the human heart held for a life beyond the grave.
In the literature of the ancient cultures and civilizations of the Assyrian, the Babylonian, the Egyptian, the Greek, the Roman, the Phoenician, in its statuary, all of them bear witness to the undying imperishable hope that we shall live beyond the grave. The Gaelic warrior was buried in his armor; he would need it in the world to come. The painted American Indian was buried with his bow and arrow; he would need it in the world that is to come. It is universal. In the most degraded of all of the tribes in Central Africa or in Patagonia – that last country down there at the tip of South America – in their hearts, no less, is there the breathing, living hope of a life beyond the grave.
The same is true of our highest modern-day scientists, the most learned and scholarly of men. I remember one time, the dean of a university bringing me a book, and the man, the scientist who had written the book, had published in the back of it an epilogue. He had been an infidel – an agnostic, at least – and in that epilogue, he said, "Since I have written this book, my mother and my father have died." And then he testified. He wrote in this book of science, "Somehow I cannot but believe that my mother and my father live in some other land, in some other place." What a strange admission. He said, "I cannot explain it. I just believe it."
This is also our own personal experience. When we stand in the presence of death, we do so with wonder and inexplicable mystery and a longing in our hearts. Well do I remember, the first funeral I ever attended: in the little class when I was a little boy, a little girl who belonged to that class died, and school was dismissed so all of us could attend the memorial service for our little friend. That was the first funeral service I ever attended, and I sat there and looked at that little casket, in wonder at where she had gone. I couldn’t understand.
When I began my pastoral ministries as a teenager, the thing that most found repercussion in my heart was the funeral services that I conducted, and, of course, as the days passed, the dissolution of the home and family in which I grew up. I have a little sister that I’ve never seen; she died before I was born. I wonder what she will look like and where she is. Then my father died, and then my mother died.
The sweetest and the most spiritual of all of the ancient philosophers was Plato, and Plato one time wrote, "Oh that we had a certain word of that life beyond the grave!" And the longing of that incomparable philosopher is the longing of the human heart through all of the years and the ages and the cultures.
With what glory and with what marvelous thanksgiving and praise to God do we listen to the evangel, the good news of Jesus Christ. The marvelous announcement of the angel:
He is not here: He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go tell His disciples that He meets them in Galilee.
Oh! What a vista. What a promise. What an opened door God hath given us in Jesus Christ; and how He has changed the whole, stern, terrible, visage of our last enemy, death [1 Corinthians 15:26].
You know these ones were the symbols and the imageries of death: shadowy sheol or the dark and swollen River Styx. These are the images of death: skull and crossbones, or a broken, fallen column. These have been the images and the symbols of death: a darkened house or a black hearse. These have been the symbols and imageries of death: weeping and lamentation and wailing, despair, robes of blackness, plumes and accouterments plucked out of the gloom of the night. These have been the imageries and the symbols of death.
But today, in Jesus Christ, what are the symbols and what are the imageries of death? This is one, and we share in it this moment: Easter! Easter, with its rising sun, with its glorious, angelic announcement, with its choirs, and its songs, and its sermons, and its blessedness of hope and assurance. This is today, in Christ, a symbol and an image of death: Christ rising in triumph over the grave [Matthew 28:1-7]. What is today the image and the symbol of death? A heavenly home, a mansion in the sky [John 14:1-3; Revelation 21:2-3].
Right after my father and mother died, I sat and looked at a chalk artist as he drew a picture of an old house, and in front of it: a sign "For Sale," and just over the hill, an old man and an old woman facing the sunset. And then, when he had drawn that picture of the old home for sale and the old man and woman facing the sunset, I thought, "He’s done." Then, with his artistry, he began to draw a beautiful city of God in the sky and a mansion in the holy, heavenly city of the Lord. That is a new image and a new symbol of what it means to die.
What is the image and the symbol today? After the resurrection of Christ [Matthew 28:1-7], what is the new image of death? It is a welcome, a homecoming. Our Lord stood up – the only place in the Bible where the Lord is ever pictured standing; always He is seated on the right hand of the Majesty on high [Hebrews 1:3] – but our Lord stood up when He welcomed His first martyr, Stephen [Acts 7:55-56] – a symbol of death.
When I came here, in the bulletin they would have – in our church bulletin and in our Reminder – they would have obituaries. Then they’d put the names of the people in the congregation who had died; obituaries. I went to the editor of the little paper, and I said, "Don’t ever put that anymore, not anymore. You put there, 2 Corinthians 5:8,’Absent from the body, and at home with the Lord.’" And it’s been that way ever since: "Absent from the body, at home with the Lord," that’s the new image of death: welcomed, welcomed into the presence of the saints of God, into the angelic hosts by the Lord Himself.
What is the new image of death, now that Christ has risen from the grave? The new image is triumph. If I could not express it in a bad way: a Roman triumph; for that’s the imagery that Paul uses in Ephesians [4:8]: "He took captivity captive." And He entered into glory with Death and the Grave tied to His chariot wheels: the imagery of the triumph of Christ over Death and over the Grave [1 Corinthians 15:54-57]. The new imagery of death is a triumph. I suppose that’s why the old-time forefathers used to sing:
My latest sun is sinking fast.
My race is nearly run.
My strongest trials now are past.
My triumph is begun.
O come, angel band.
Come and around me stand.
O bear me away on your heavenly wings,
To my eternal home.
["My Latest Sun is Sinking Fast"; Jefferson Hascall]
That is the new imagery of death. It is a triumph! What is the new figure and the new symbol and the new imagery of death? It is an opened door into glory.
In the fourth chapter of this Book of the Revelation, the Apocalypse, John says, "And I beheld, and lo, a door, opened in heaven; and I heard the voice as of a trumpet, saying, Come up hither" [Revelation 4:1]. That is the new imagery and the new figure of death. It is an opened door into glory.
Here we live in the midst of disease, and age, and death; [there] is no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither any more tears, for these things are all passed away [Revelation 21:4]. Here men burn with fever and shiver with cold; there, through that open door, is the soul’s summer land. Here we live in a decaying tabernacle. There we have a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens [2 Corinthians 5:1]. Here we live in a hut; there, in a mansion [John 14:2-3]. Here we abide in a decaying and changing city; there in the eternal, New Jerusalem [Revelation 21:2-3], renewing itself, whose streets are paved with gold, whose gates are solid pearl [Revelation 21:21]. Here we see through a glass, darkly; but there face-to-face [1 Corinthians 13:12]. Here reason is just a spark; there it is a flame. Here our song is just a note; but there it swells into a marvelous symphony. Here we eat on a crust; there we shall sit down at the banquet table of the Lord [Revelation 19:6-9]. Here the tree ripens once a year; there the tree of life ripens once a month with twelve manner of fruits [Revelation 22:2]. Here we drink at broken cisterns; there we shall drink at the fountain of the river of life [Revelation 21:6].
Oh, what God hath done in giving us the victory through Jesus our Lord! And that’s why the Revelation closes, 22:17:
The Spirit and the bride say, Come.
And let him that heareth say, Come.
And let him that is athirst come.
And whosoever will –
let him take the water of life freely.
God’s open heart, God’s open invitation, God’s open door into the kingdom of light and life and blessing, now and forevermore.
May we stand, together? Our wonderful Lord, forgive our halting and stammering words that seek, that try to magnify the great victory our Savior won for us that Easter morning. We too face that grim visitor. His terrible visage is at our very door. Some of us, down that journey, can almost hear his knocking, he’s so close.
"But do not be afraid, I am with thee; I will never leave or forsake thee" [Hebrews 13:5]. I am the resurrection, and the life; and he that trusts in Me can never die" [John 11:25-26]. Death is but the open door through which we walk into the presence of the glory of God. O Lord, find room in our souls for that faith [Ephesians 2:8]. And may many come in loving adoration, in deepening spiritual gratitude to give heart and life to Thee now.
And while our people wait just for this moment and while we pray, and in a moment when our choir sings this invitation appeal, down one of those stairways, down one of these aisles, "Pastor, this Easter, triumphant Sunday, the whole family is coming. We’re on the way," or just a couple you, or just one somebody you. And our Lord, make it a heavenly and triumphant and soul-saving hour, in Thy wonderful name, amen. Now, while we sing, down one of these aisles, you come. Answer with your life, while we pray and while we wait just for you.