The Beginning and the End of Death
January 26th, 1986 @ 8:15 AM
THE BEGINNING AND THE END OF DEATH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-26-86 8:15 a.m.
We welcome the throngs of you that share this hour with us on radio. This is the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Beginning and the End of Death.
I have prepared with God’s grace, nine messages around the theme on "The Beginning and the End": The Beginning and the End of the World, two Sunday’s ago; The Beginning and the End of Sorrows, last Sunday; The Beginning and the End of Satan, next Sunday; and today, The Beginning and the End of Death.
In Genesis chapter 2, verse 16:
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
I have often wondered what that meant to that first man: "Thou shalt surely die." He had never seen it. And it was only when he stood over the grave of his second son, Abel, who had been murdered by their first son, Cain, that he knew what that meant – "Thou shalt surely die." And in the next chapter, chapter 3 verse 19, "Thou shalt return unto the dust of the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" – the beginning of death.
Under the curse, death has a terrible visage and is a dreaded visitor. You see that every day of your life. You have never seen a dead body on television or as a paper in a news magazine. They will show the violence and the murder, but always there’s a sheet over the prostrate and fallen body. The visage is so terrible. And when you go to a funeral service, you look upon the finest skill of the mortician, doing his best to prepare that decaying body for our last look.
In this first Book of Genesis is the story of Abraham as he speaks to the sons of Heth, asking of them a place for a burying. "That," as Abraham said it, "I may bury my dead out of my sight" [Genesis 23:8]. Of whom is he speaking? He is speaking of his beloved Sarah, "That I may put her away out of my sight"; so terrible, the presence.
Under the curse, in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, death is called "an enemy" [verse 26]. His presence was not intended. Death is an intruder and an interloper. God never planned it. And all of us march in a procession that leads into the grave. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Would it be today? Would it be tomorrow? Would it be the next day? We shall surely die.
The ninetieth Psalms speaks of it, "We spend our days as a tale that is told" [verse 9]. We know the end from the beginning. Every life, it ends just that way.
When I was a senior at Baylor, the great president Samuel Palmer Brooks died. His memorial service was held in the newly completed Waco Hall. And I stood at the head of the casket for hours watching that endless procession pass by. And that has been a pattern of my life ever since, watching that endless procession passing by.
I think of the four horseman of the Apocalypse; the first rider on the white horse, so vigorous, going forth conquering, and to conquer; but followed by the red horse with the sword to cut him down; and followed by the black horse with the balances of an inevitable judgment; and finally, followed by the pale horse with his universal and inexorable scythe [Revelation 6:2-8].
In the Chicago Art Museum one time, I looked upon a picture. It was called The Race of Death. One rider on the track and back of him, the pale horseman, a skeleton with a hood; and he always wins. But I say, "I will escape him. I’m going to run. I shall flee to the city." Or, "I shall flee to the mountains." Or, "I shall flee beyond the seas." His coming is inexorable.
But I say, "I will confront him. I will stand up to him and face him." My very body melts away. "Yes, but I will strike him with my fist." The flesh falls away and the very bones separate and fall to the ground. "My eyes will search him out in the gloom." My eyes become empty sockets. "I would shield my home and my loved ones." I myself am the prey. I am vanquished and consumed in decay and death and dust.
Strange thing, in history, the world’s greatest monuments are to him, the victor of death; one of the strangest providences of life. The pyramids of Egypt – one of the Seven Wonders of the World – their tombs in which to bury ancient pharaohs; the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, or Artemisia, the widow of Mausolus built it. The king of Caria is dead; one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Mausoleum. I think the most beautiful building that stands in the world today is the Taj Mahal in Agra, called the Teardrop of Shah Jahan, built as a burial place for his wife. You have looked, if you’ve been in Rome, on the great tomb of Hadrian, or have seen the tombs on the Appian Way. If you’ve been in Paris, you’ve been at the Church of the Invalides, where Napoleon is buried. If you’ve been in London, you’ve been in Westminster Abbey, where the great of Britain are buried. Isn’t it unusual, the greatest monuments in the world are raised to that cruel and grim reaper, death.
But there’s another monument – so different, amazingly separate. You’ll find it in a garden on the outside of the Holy City Jerusalem. It is an empty tomb. And when the women came there weeping an angel said, "He is not here: He is risen. Come, see the place where He lay" [Matthew 28:6]. And another, "Why seek ye the living among the dead?" [Luke 24:5], the most astonishing announcement that ever fell on the ears of humanity; "He is not here. He is risen from the dead."
The end of death. Our Lord came into the world for that purpose, to destroy death. In that fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, "He 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]. In 2 Timothy 1:10, "He hath abolished death and brought life and immortality to light." In Hebrews 2:14, "Forasmuch as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also took part of the same; that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death." Down into the grave did He descend that He might grapple with our ultimate and final enemy, death.
And that magnificent Revelation chapter 1:
I fell at His feet as dead. And He laid His right hand upon me, saying, Fear not; I am the First and the Last – the Beginning and the End – I am He that was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore; and I – I – have the keys of death and of the grave.
[Revelation 1:8, 17-18]
He came into the world to conquer death.
It’s a beautiful way that the four Gospels present our living Lord, an amazing presentation. In Matthew: "Tell John the Baptist that I raise the dead; the dead are raised up" [Matthew 11:4-5]. In Mark: the story of the raising of the daughter of Jairus [Mark 5:21-24, 35-42]. The next one, in Luke: the story of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain [Luke 7:11-15]. The next one: John, the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead [John 11:17-43]. And then all four of them, the story of the glorious resurrection of the Son of God.
And what does that mean for us? It turns our mourning into joy, our defeat into victory. It’s a poignant word in the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. The women come to the disciples with the glorious news of the resurrection of Christ as they mourned and wept [Mark 16:1-7]. You can’t keep from mourning. You can’t keep from weeping. It is a crushing presence. But as deep and dark as the sorrow that attends the disillusion of our bodies, so is the glory of the triumph. The sting is taken out of death, and the victory is robbed from the grave. And the most marvelous thing in God’s revelation as you read a moment ago, twice is it said, "And we, we shall all be changed" [1 Corinthians 15:52]. There is no such thing as a Christian dying. He never dies. He’s just changed. He’s transfigured. He’s immortalized. We shall be changed.
One of the most interesting asides in that fifteenth chapter of the first Corinthian letter: "Each one in his order" [verse 23], tagma, order, like troops passing by, like ranks, like serial, like groups going by, each one thus changed in his order. Then he names the order: Christ; that’s first, He was the first one. The first one to be resurrected from the dead is Christ; then the firstfruits, that little group who were raised after the coming of Christ out of the tomb, that firstfruits [Matthew 27:52-53]. After the Passover, the Feast of the Firstfruits, when that first sheaf was waved before the Lord, the harbinger and the promise and the earnest of all of the rest of the harvest, that little group, that little group who were raised after Christ ascended from the grave. Christ, tagma; the firstfruits, tagma. Then they that are Christ at His coming. The rapture of these who will be alive when the Lord appears and the dead who will rise first, the tagma, that great group that’ll be raised up to glory [1 Thessalonians 4:14-17].
And then the end ones, tagma, the last ones after the millennium, at the end of the age, these who have fallen asleep in the Lord Jesus, they will be raised finally and last of all [Revelation 20]. What an amazing, what an amazing revelation! That such should be our destiny and God’s promise for us who fall into the ground and into the dust of the grave. We shall be like Christ. In time, He is timeless. In death, He is deathless. In the grave, He is victorious. And in eternity, He lives forever, and our lives are hid with Christ in God. We shall be like Him, just changed.
May I make one other observation? To the world, to the lost, death is a horrible reality. There’s not any future but to fall into the grave; no other destiny but to face the judgment day of Almighty God. And death to the lost and to the world is a horrible spectacle. It’s an awesome prospect. It’s a horrible visitor.
Could you imagine being in my place and asked to hold a memorial service, a funeral service, for someone who is lost? Can’t you think of my place? What do you say? What comforting word can you bring? There’s not anything to say. There’s not anything to do but to wait. Death to the world is a horrible prospect.
But death to the Christian is an infinite gladness and glory and victory. To the Christian, death is the loosing of the ship, the weighing of the anchor homebound. Death to the Christian is a chariot of ascent, going up to glory. Death to the Christian is a prisoner who is now set free. Death to the Christian is a homeward bound of a pilgrim through the years of this life.
I often think of these two: one, the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah speaking to Jesus. And Luke says, "They were speaking to the Lord about His exodus which He should accomplish in Jerusalem" [Luke 9:28-31]; translated, "about His decease," about His exodus, "which He should accomplish in Jerusalem" [[Luke 9:28-31]; the exodus, out of slavery, out of darkness, and death, the exodus, heavenward, the Promised Land, our inheritance, the glory.
And then did you see that? There was talking to Jesus about His exodus, Moses and Elijah. Moses died and was buried, and he represents those who, as they were caught up, shout, "O grave, where is thy victory?" And the other one is Elijah, who was raptured, and as he was caught up into heaven, as we shall be in the rapture, he cried, saying, "O death, where is thy sting?" [1 Corinthians 15:55]. One representing these that were dead and are buried, and the other representing these that shall be alive at the coming of Christ and are raptured up into glory.
And for us who have found refuge and hope in Christ, death is the open door into heaven. "This I say, my brethren," in the passage you just read, "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption" [1 Corinthians 15:50]. As long as I live in this house of clay, I can never see the face of God and live. And as long as I’m in this body, I’m shut out from the presence of the Great Glory, the fellowship of the angels, and my home in heaven. It’s only when I’m translated, it’s only through the death of this mortal house that I can inherit the home in glory and live in a transfigured and changed house made without hands, eternal in the heavens [2 Corinthians 5:1].
And that’s the reason, my sweet people, that I’ve said, all the years of my life, when my task is ended and my work is done, I don’t want any life supports forced on me. God says it’s better over there than it is here. And how is it that I have preached in this congregation for forty-two years, the glories and the preciousnesses of heaven, that when time comes for me to die, these in the hospital bring all of those instruments and force them down my throat and down my nose and in all of my veins, that I might breathe one more breath, staying here in this weary world. Don’t do it.
And I call you to witness this day, that when that time comes for me, by the thousands, you descend on the hospital and say, "I heard my pastor avow in the pulpit, before God, that when time comes for him to be translated, he doesn’t want those life supports forced upon him. He wants to go to be with Jesus." That’s my home. Not here, there. My inheritance is not here, it is there. And the fellowship enduring, cannot be here. It’s a dissolving circle in which we all live. It’s there. Want to be with Jesus.
I have to close. Sometimes the things that happen to you when you’re young make indelible impressions upon your life. This is one. In one of my country pastorates, way out there in the knobs, a young woman lay dying and in a coma. When I went to see her, they were able to arouse her. "The young pastor is here."
And when she was aroused, out of the depth of her coma, she said to me, "Oh, would you, would you read to me out of God’s Book?"
And I read to her out of the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John. "I go to prepare a place for you" [verse 3], for your coming. I read out of the fourteenth chapter of John.
Then she said, "Would you sing me a song? Would you sing me a song?"
And I sang, "In the Sweet By and By."
Then she said, "And now, would you pray?"
And I knelt down and I prayed. And when I said the "amen," she sank back into that deep coma and died.
O precious cross, oh, glorious crown,
O resurrection day!
Ye angels from the stars come down
And bear my soul away.
[from "Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?" by Thomas Shepherd]
The end of death for us who found refuge in Christ, that means victory; that means glory, that means home, that means Jesus, that means heaven, that means our life forevermore.
Lord, Lord, that all might come to that faith and trust and victory in Thee. And Master, in this great throng here in the sanctuary this morning, that without loss of one, we all might be in the kingdom; children in the household of our heavenly Father. Why not? Why not?
In this moment when we stand and sing our appeal, to give your heart to that wonderful Savior, somebody you, "Pastor, today, I give my heart in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ, and here I stand." Or a family you, coming into the fellowship of the Lord’s dear church, or just you, between you and God, answering the Lord’s call to your heart, "The Lord has spoken to me, pastor and here I stand." And our Lord, bless these that come. May the angels attend them in the way, and may all heaven rejoice in the commitment of life, and heart, and days, and hope to Thee. In Thy saving and wonderful name, amen. While we stand and while we sing, "This is God’s day for me, pastor, and I’m on the way. Here I am. Here I come."
THE BEGINNING AND THE END OF DEATH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
I. The beginning
1. Genesis 3:19
2. The horrible reality of death
3. Death is a dreary defeat
II. The end
1. Christ conquered death
2. Results, death is now victory for the believer
3. Meaning and message for the Christian
a. Turned sorrow into joy
b. Sting and victory removed
c. Death destroyed once and for all