The Portals of Death
April 6th, 1980 @ 10:50 AM
THE PORTALS OF DEATH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
4-06-80 10:50 a.m.
This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas bringing the message The Promise Beyond the Portals of Death. It is a reading in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John, the Fourth Gospel, beginning at verse 24. John 11, verse 24:
Martha saith unto Him, I know that my brother shall rise again 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 ever die.
My Greek professor said that this word of our Lord I have just read is the profoundest statement in human language. Jesus said, "I am the resurrection, and the life" [John 11:25].
According to the revelation of God’s Holy Word, there are two differing groups that will greet our Lord when He comes down from glory: one will be the resurrected ones – these who have fallen asleep in Jesus, and at the sound of the trumpet, at the announcement of the archangel, will rise from the dead. They are the first to meet our Lord in the air [1 Thessalonians 4:15-16]. The second group are all of us who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord. We shall be transfigured and transformed and immortalized in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, and we shall be raptured up, caught up to meet our Lord in glory, and so shall we ever be with the Lord [1 Thessalonians 4:17].
The overtones, the repercussion, of that revelation in the Bible, I find in so many verses. This is one: "I am the resurrection, and the life. I am the resurrection" [John 11:25]. It is in Him that these who fall asleep in Jesus are raised from the dead and meet our Lord as He comes down from the sky [1 Thessalonians 4:16].
"I am the life" [John 11:25]. He is the life of those, and of us, who will be alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, when we rise to greet Him from the courts of glory [1 Thessalonians 4:17].
Another like repercussion, overtone, is found in the beautiful story of the transfiguration of our Lord on Mt. Hermon. In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, beginning at verse 29: "As Jesus prayed, the fashion of His countenance was altered. His raiment became white and glistening, and there talked with Him Moses and Elijah [Luke 9:29-30]. They appeared unto Him in glory and spake of His" – the King James Version out of which I preach translates the word "decease." "They spake of His" – the Greek word is "exodus" – "which He should fulfill in Jerusalem" [Luke 9:31].
Moses, who led the exodus of God’s children out of Egypt [Exodus 3:10], and who died and was buried [Deuteronomy 34:5-6], Moses is speaking to the transfigured Lord of the exodus of these who are buried in the heart of the earth as they rise to meet our Lord in the air [1 Thessalonians 4:15-16]. And Elijah, who never died – who was wafted up, who was raptured up, who was translated to heaven, having never seen death [2 Kings 2:11] – he speaks to our Lord about the exodus, the leaving of these who are alive and remain until the coming of Jesus [1 Thessalonians 4:17]. Those two: Moses representing those who are resurrected [1 Thessalonians 4:16], and Elijah representing those who are raptured [1 Thessalonians 4:17]; these are speaking to Jesus about the great, mighty exodus, when God comes for His own in this world [Luke 9:30-31].
Another repercussion, overtone, of those two groups that shall meet Jesus when He comes again is found in the passage you just read – in 1 Corinthians [15:54]. Quoting Isaiah, the apostle Paul says, "Then shall come to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory."
Then two groups, again: one shall cry, "O Death, where is thy sting?" [1 Corinthians 15:55]. These are the raptured ones who shall never, like Elijah [2 Kings 2:11], they shall never taste of death [1 Thessalonians 4:17]. As they rise, transfigured and immortalized, to meet our Lord in the air, their cry will be, "O Death, where is thy sting?" [1 Corinthians 15:55]. And these who are raised from the grave, who fall asleep in Jesus [1 Thessalonians 4:15-16], they shall rise crying, saying, "O Grave, where is thy victory?" [1 Corinthians 15:55]. And then both together shall join their songs, and say, "Thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" [1 Corinthians 15:57]. What a marvelous thing hath God done for us who have found faith and hope and refuge in Him!
Any astute, scholarly historian will write that one of the reasons for the conquest of the Greco-Roman empire by the Christian faith was its promise of a life beyond the grave. Whether that man is an infidel or an agnostic or an unbeliever, if he is astute, that is what he will write as he tells the story of the advancement of the faith that we preach today. It conquered the Roman Empire because of its preaching and its promise of a hope and a life beyond death.
That hope of immortality, of never dying, of living beyond the grave is a passion in the hearts of all men in every generation, through all the centuries and in every color of ethnic and culture. It is universal.
If you have been to Egypt, you have seen in the museums those mummies wrapped in papyri, and the papyri covered with hieroglyphics: picture-writing. For centuries and for millennia it was a mystery what that writing was. Then, in 1799, the Rosetta stone was discovered, and the key to the hieroglyphic was opened. Those writings that we now can read are called The Book of the Dead. They are instructions concerning the life that is to come, and those ancient Egyptians who died were thus directed in the way beyond the grave.
For centuries, the cuneiform inscriptions – the wedge-writing of ancient Assyria and Babylonia and the Sumerian civilizations – for centuries that cuneiform writing was unknown to us. Then, by being able, using as a key the great cuneiform inscription on the Behistun Rock, we were able to unlock all of those multitudes of clay tablets written in cuneiform. And when the secret was unlocked and we were able to read what those ancient civilizations wrote, they write about the life beyond the grave.
Any schoolboy familiar with the literature and the artistic sculpture of the ancient Phoenicians, and Assyrians, and Greeks, and Romans, and Phoenicians, he is familiar with the fact that in all of their artistry and in all of their literature, they are portraying a life beyond the grave.
The Gaelic warrior was buried with his armor, that he might live in the world to come. The American painted Indian was buried with his bow and arrow. He would need it in the life to come. There is no culture, there is no ethnic group in the history of mankind but that has held that hope dear to their hearts. Even those lowest tribes in Central Africa and the degraded Patagonians in the tip of the South American continent, as debased and darkened as they are, they have in their hearts the hope of that life to come.
One of the men that I knew so well, a dean in a university and the head of their department of psychology, brought to me a book by a learned scientist and said, "I want you to look at this." At the end of the scientific treatise, there was an epilogue. The man, in his life, in his professional teaching, was an atheist or an agnostic, an unbeliever. But in that epilogue at the end of this book, he had written that his mother had died and his father had died, and he said that "Somehow, though I cannot explain it, I believe that my mother and my father are alive in some other place, and in some other land." It is a passion. It is a hope that has ever lived in the human heart, and that, also, has been our experience. We cannot obviate our confrontation with the cruel enemy of death and have hope that somehow, in some way; we may triumph over his terrible presence.
The first funeral I ever attended, I well remember. I was a small child in possibly the first or the second grade at school, and one of our little playmates, one of our little class members, a little girl, had died. And in that small community, they dismissed the school for us to attend the memorial service, and as a small child, I looked in wonder and in amazement at what had happened to that little friend. Where was she? Where had she gone?
When I began my own pastoral work as a teenager, of all of the ministries that were given me in responsibility as a pastor, none ever had the repercussion in my heart as conducting those memorial services. What is this death? And where have these gone whom we have loved and lost for the while?
Finally, of course, it came in the dissolution of my own home and family circle in which I grew up as a boy. I have a little sister I have never seen. She died before I was born. I wonder what she looks like, and I wonder what she is doing and where she is. Then finally my father died, and then my mother died. What is this? And where have they gone?
The dearest and the most spiritual of all of the ancient philosophers was Plato. And Plato cried, saying, "Oh, that we had some certain word of that life beyond the pale of death!" This is the preaching of the gospel, and this is the glad announcement of this holy and heavenly day:
And the angel said, He is not here: He is risen, as
He said. Come, and see the place where the Lord lay.
And go tell His disciples that He meets you in Galilee.
This is the sublimest announcement ever made to human ears. "He is alive! He is risen! [Matthew 28:5-7]. Our Christ has conquered Death and the Grave [1 Corinthians 15:55-57]. He is the resurrection, and the life" [John 11:24].
In all of these days past, the imagery and the symbol of death has been the shades of sheol, as it is in the Old Testament [Job 10:21-22; Psalm :14-15], or the dark and swollen River Styx, as it is in Greek literature. The imagery and the symbol of death in these days past has been a skull and crossbones. It has been a broken and a fallen column. The imagery and the symbol of death in these days past has been a darkened house and a black hearse. The symbol and the imagery of death in these years past has been the wail and the lamentation of these who are brokenhearted. It has been the robes of blackness and plumes plucked from the gloom of night and of death. That has been the imagery and the symbolism of death in days past.
But today, today, in Christ, there is a new imagery and a new symbolism. What today is the imagery and the symbolism of death? It is Easter! Easter, that’s what makes Easter, the triumph over death! He is risen! [Matthew 28:1-7]. Death now to us is represented by the rising of the sun, by the flowering of these Easter lilies, by the songs of hope and redemption, and by the praises that greet our Lord every Lord’s Day morning. Easter now is a symbol and a figure of death and the triumph of our Lord over the grave [Matthew 28:1-7].
What is the sign and the symbol of death today? It is a mansion in the sky, a home in heaven [John 14:1-3; Revelation 21:2-3]. Poignantly, and doubly so because the artist drew it right after the death of my father and mother, I saw a chalk artist draw a picture of a home, a house, and in front a "For Sale" sign, and then a picture of an old couple over the hill. And I thought that was the picture. And it was so sad and so hopeless: that home for sale and the old couple facing the sunset over the hill. Then, the artist began to draw in the sky a picture of that heavenly and holy city and a mansion on one of those golden streets. That today is the symbol and the figure of death: a mansion in the sky [John 14:1-3].
What is today the symbol and the figure of death? It is a welcome by our blessed Lord Jesus. Always in the Bible Jesus is presented as seated; always He is seated on the right hand of the Majesty on high [Hebrews 1:3]. But one place He stands: He stood to receive His first Christian martyr, Stephen [Acts 7:55-56]. That is the symbol and the figure of death today. It is a welcome from our living Lord into the company and the fellowship of the saints and the angels of glory.
When I came here, in our Reminder, they’d have a little column, a little place where they called "Obituaries." And I went to the editor, and I said, "Don’t ever put that there. Don’t do that. You write there 2 Corinthians 5:8: "Absent from the body, and present with the Lord."’ That’s the sign and the symbol of death today: "Absent from this body, but present with the Lord."
What is the sign, and the symbol, and the figure of death today? It is a triumph, a Roman triumph – not in the bad sense of that conquering word, but in the good sense that Paul uses it in [Ephesians 4:8]: "He ascended on high and took captivity captive." A sign and a symbol and a figure of death today is our triumphant Lord, with the Grave and with Death chained to His chariot wheels, entering into heaven, Victor over our greatest and cruelest and most universal enemy [1 Corinthians 15:54-57]. The sign of death today is our Lord’s triumph in entering glory.
I suppose that’s why our 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 snowy wings,
To my eternal home.
["My Latest Sun is Sinking Fast," Jefferson Hascall]
What God hath wrought for those who love Him! [1 Corinthians 2:9].
The sign and the symbol and the figure of death today in Christ is an open door. In the fourth chapter of the Apocalypse, of the Revelation, John says, "And I beheld an opened door into heaven, and I heard a voice as it were of a trumpet, saying, Come up hither" [Revelation 4:1]. That is a sign of death today: an open door into heaven.
Oh! My soul, in this life, we live in the presence of age and disease and death, but there, "There is no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither is there any more pain: for these things are passed away" [Revelation 21:4].
Here, here men are burned with fever and chilled with cold; but there is the soul’s summer land. Here we live in a dissolving tabernacle; but there we have a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens [2 Corinthians 5:1]. Here we live in a hut; there we shall live in a mansion [John 14:2-3]. Here we live in a changing and decaying city; there we shall live in the New Jerusalem [Revelation 21:2-3], that eternally renews itself, with its streets of gold, and its walls of jasper, and its gates of solid pearl [Revelation 21:18-19, 21]. Here we see through a glass darkly; but there face-to-face [1 Corinthians 13:12]. Here our reason is a spark; there it is a flame. Here our song is one note; there it swells into a glorious and heavenly refrain [Revelation 5:9]. Here we eat on a crust; there we shall sit at the banquet table of the Lord, and the Lord Himself shall serve us [Revelation 19:6-9]. Ah! Here the tree ripens once a year; there it ripens in the tree of life, with twelve manner of fruits every month [Revelation 22:2]. Here we drink out of broken cisterns; there we shall drink at the fountain of the river of life [Revelation2 1:6].
Ah! What God hath prepared for those who love Him! [1 Corinthians 2:9]. That’s why the Book closes with the incomparable and beautiful invitation:
And 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.
Welcome. God says, "Welcome." The Holy Spirit says, "Welcome." The bride of Christ, the church, says, "Welcome." Jesus, our Lord, says, "Welcome."
Ah! Master, what more precious privilege than to stand before men and angels and confess Thee as our Lord: our hope, our heaven, our resurrection, and our life. And that’s our appeal to your heart today. May we stand together?
Our Lord, though with faltering and with stammering and stumbling words, we have sought to magnify the glory and the promise of our risen Savior, yet may the Holy Spirit bear the words on wings of appeal. And may God grant in the hearts of these who have listened a beautiful and precious response.
Our Master, today may there be whole families who answer God’s call with their lives. May there be those who accept Thee as Savior, those who will come into the fellowship of the church; some to be baptized, some to link life and lot with us. Our Lord, honor the preaching of the gospel with a sweet and precious response. We shall praise Thee for it., in our Lord’s dear name, amen.
While we stand, while we pray, while we wait, and in a moment when the choir sings the appeal, down one of the stairways, down one of these aisles, with your family, come forward. Just a couple of you respond, or just one somebody you, into this aisle, down one of those stairways, as the Spirit shall guide and lead, answer with your life. It will be the most meaningful decision you have ever made. Make it now. Do it now. We’re waiting and praying for you to come. While we pray, while we wait, while we sing, make it now. Make it now.