The Beginning and the End of Death
January 26th, 1986 @ 10:50 AM
THE BEGINNING AND THE END OF DEATH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-26-86 10:50 a.m.
You are a part now of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. And this is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Beginning and the End of Death. That is why the choral number is so unusually pertinent. The pastor, I have prepared nine messages around the theme, “The Beginning and the End.” The first, delivered two Sundays ago, The Beginning and the End of the World. Last Sunday, The Beginning and the End of Sorrows. And this Sunday, The Beginning and the End of Death.
In the Book of Genesis, in the first book of the Bible, beginning at verse 16, 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, surely die.
[Genesis 2:16, 17]
I have often wondered what that meant to Adam. He had never seen death and what did God mean when He said, “In the day that you transgress, you shall surely, surely, certainly die” [Genesis 2:17]. And I would think that it was only when he stood over the fallen, and prostrate, and murdered body of his second son, Abel [Genesis 4:8-9], that he knew what that word meant, “Thou shalt surely die” [Genesis 12:17].
And of course, in the third chapter of the same Book of Genesis, in the nineteenth verse, chapter 3:19, after the transgression and disobedience [Genesis 3:1-6], God says, “Thou shalt return unto the dust of the ground; for out of it was thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return” [Genesis 3:19]; the beginning of death. Under the curse, death is a horrible, monstrous terror.
You never saw on television the face of the dead. It is too horrible. You’ll see violence and murder, but the camera is always lifted, and you’ll only see a sheeted body lifted up and placed in some kind of a waiting car. Nor will you ever see it in a newspaper or a news magazine. Always it is a covered and sheeted body. The visage of death is too terrible, and dreadful, and horrible to be looked upon. Under the curse, death is a monster, fearful, foreboding, awesome, and awful. In all of the course of history it has been the most frightful of all of the visitations inflicted upon mankind; death.
In the Book of Genesis, Abraham comes to the sons of [Heth] and says to them, “Let me buy this place of the cave of Machpelah that I might bury my dead out of my sight” [Genesis 23:8, 9]. Of whom is he speaking? He is speaking of his beloved Sarah [Genesis 23:2]. “That I may hide her out of my sight”; the visage of death [Genesis 23:8].
Under the curse, God calls death, in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, an enemy [1 Corinthians 15:26]; that is, death is an interloper, it is an intruder, it was not intended. God never purposed for us to die. Death is a strange visitation in the kingdom and glory of our Lord; death. And the tragedy of it overwhelms all mankind. We all fall into the grave. It’s not a question of “if,” just a question of “when.” Will it be today, or tomorrow, or the next day, or the next day after that? But it will certainly and inexorably come.
In the ninetieth Psalm, the prayer of Moses, he says, “We spend our days as a tale that is told” [Psalm 90:9]. Nothing that we do not already realize, we see the end from the beginning, and whether it be of him or of her or of they, it is all the same. The end of life is in death. It’s in the grave. What a tragedy that awaits all mankind.
When I was a senior in the university, the great president, Samuel Palmer Brooks, died. He was buried in the newly completed Waco Hall. And for the hours he lay in state, before the memorial service, I stood at the head of his casket. And as I stood there, watching that interminable procession passing by the dead, I have learned since that it is but a facet and a description of my continuing ministry, now almost these sixty years, that endless procession in the presence of the dead.
The apostle John saw it in the Book of the Revelation as the four horsemen of the Apocalypse; first, the rider on the white horse going forth conquering and to conquer, the vigor of youth and of manhood and of womanhood [Revelation 6:2]. Then inevitably followed by the red horse with a sword in his hand to cut down [Revelation 6:3-4], followed by the black horse with the balances of judgment [Revelation 6:5], followed finally by the pale horse with his great and universal scythe [Revelation 6:8].
Standing in the midst of all of the paintings in the Chicago Art Museum one time, I looked upon one entitled The Race of Death. The racetrack, and the front runner, a young fellow riding a swift horse; but back of him the pale horse, and the rider was a hooded skeleton. And always he wins; always, he wins: the tragedy of death. And say that I avow I will lock my door against him, I will close my gate in his face, but he comes nonetheless. If I say I will flee to the city, I find him there. I will flee to the mountains and I find him there. I will escape to the farthest ends of the earth, I find him there. I will go to the other side of the seas, I find him there. There is no escape of that dreaded, dark and horrible presence.
But if I say I will confront him, I will stand up to, and face him, I am cut down when my very flesh melts away. I will double up my fist and I will smite him. The very skin and sinews of my hand fall away. And the bones separate from their joints. But I’ll search him out with my eyes in the darkest gloom. And my eyes become sockets, empty and vacant. I’ll shield my loved ones with my arms and prayers, and my very self becomes first his prey. I am dissolved and destroyed and consumed in death. I turn to the dust of the ground.
One of the historical comments of the truth of that is found in the great monuments of history. They are to a victor named death. The pyramids of Egypt are one of the Seven Wonders of the World. What are they? They are tombs of vanquished and vanished pharaohs. Another one of the Seven Wonders of the World was the Mausoleum of King Mausolus, erected by his queen and widow Artemisia in Halicarnassus, the capital of Caria, ancient kingdom down there on the bottom side of Asia Minor.
Mausoleum; I see that word everywhere. A tribute, unconscious, that we pay to the victor death. In my humble persuasion, the most beautiful building in the world today is the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. It is a tomb of the dead. It is called sometimes the Teardrop of Shah Jahan, built first for his wife.
If you’ve been to Rome, you have seen the great tomb of Hadrian. If you have walked into Rome from the south, you have seen the tombs that line both sides of the ancient Appian Way. If you have been to Paris, you have visited the Church of the Invalides, the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte. And who would ever think of going to London without also visiting Westminster Abbey? Westminster Abbey is a church that enshrines the noble dead of Great Britain. These tremendous monuments are tributes to the victor death, universal.
But as I speak of these monuments, I’ve left out one. It’s so different, in another world. I’m speaking now of an empty tomb in a garden just outside the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem. The women came weeping, and as they approached that sacred place, where the body of a dead Christ was laid, they were greeted by angels who said, “He is not here. He is risen. Come, see the place where He lay” [Matthew 28:6]. And “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” [Luke 24:5].
Thirty-six years ago, in my first visit to Jerusalem, my preacher companion and I arose at daybreak and went to the tomb and sat there, and I read out of my Greek New Testament the twenty-eighth, the triumphant resurrection chapter, of the Gospel of Matthew [Matthew 28:1-20]. The purpose of the coming of Christ into the world was to destroy death [Hebrews 2:14]. This is the presentation of the gospel of the Son of God.
First Corinthians, chapter 15, verses 25 and 26, “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 hath brought life and immortality to light.” In Hebrews 2 and verse 14, “Forasmuch and inasmuch as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also took part of the same; that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death” [Hebrews 2:14]. Our Lord Jesus Christ went down into the grave, there to grapple face to face and hand to hand with death, that He might be vanquished and conquered forever; death [Revelation 1:18].
And in the glorious, initial, first vision in the Apocalypse, the first chapter of the Revelation, the apostle John, in exile on the isle called Patmos, hears a great voice as of a trumpet sounding behind him [Revelation 1:9-10]. And he turns to see the voice that spake, and being turned, he saw seven golden lampstands [Revelation 1:12]. These are his churches [Revelation 1:20]. This is one. Seven golden lampstands. And in the midst of the seven golden lampstands, there walked the Son of God whose face shined above the countenance of the sun [Revelation 1:13, 16].
And when I saw Him”—
said the sainted apostle,
I fell at His feet as dead. And He laid His right hand upon me, and said, Fear not; I am the First and the Last, the Alpha and the Omega.
I was dead; and behold, I am alive for evermore. And I, I have in My hands the keys of Death and of the Grave.
The mighty victorious conqueror of death is Jesus Christ our Lord [2 Timothy 1:10]. And His whole ministry is one of triumph and victory over the grave [1 Corinthians 15:55-57].
In one of those unusual providences of Scripture, in the eleventh chapter of the First Gospel, the Gospel of Matthew, our Lord sends word to John the Baptist in prison, “The dead are raised” [Matthew 11:5]. In the next Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, in chapter 5, is the story of the raising from the dead of the daughter of Jairus [Mark 5:22-24, 35-42]. In the next Gospel, the Gospel of Luke, in chapter 7, is recorded the story of the raising to life of the son of the widow of Nain [Luke 7:11-15]. And in the next Gospel, the Gospel of John, in the eleventh chapter, is told the astonishing story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead [John 11:39-44]; all four of those Gospels uniquely presenting the power of Christ over death. And finally, all four of them, joined in a glorious paean of praise and victory to God in Christ in the story of His own resurrection from the grave [Matthew 28:5-7; Mark 16:6-7; Luke 24:5-8; John 20:1-8, 11-18]; the end of death. He has abolished death [2 Timothy 1:10]. He is conqueror over death.
What does that mean to the Christian? Every glorious and joyful thing that heart could pray for and mind could imagine! Instead of sorrow and mourning, there is joy and celebration. In the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, when the women go to the tomb and find it empty, and listen to the announcement of the angel that He is alive [Mark 16:5-6], they go to the disciples, who, the Gospel describes, are mourning and weeping [Mark 16:10], a picture of all of us. There’s no circle unbroken—your own; mother, gone; father, gone. Brother, sister, husband, wife, daughter, son; there’s no circle unbroken. And it always bears with it its sorrow and its tears. While they mourned and wept, the women came with that marvelous announcement, “He is alive! He is alive! Christ lives!” [Luke 24:9-10]. And the glorious concomitant and corollary, which is the avowal of Scripture from beginning to end; because He lives, we shall live also [John 14:19]; a Christian never dies; never. He is just changed [John 11:26].
In the passage that you read just now in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, in verse 51 and verse 52 [1 Corinthians 15:51-52], that avowal is made side by side, in both verses: “We shall all be changed. We shall all be changed” [1 Corinthians 15:51-52]. In the twenty-third verse above where you read, the apostle writes by inspiration, “Each one of us in his order,” in his tagma [1 Corinthians 15:23].
Tagma is a Greek word referring to series, to ranks, to orders, as you would stand and see a parade in an army go by, the orders, the ranks going by. So we shall be changed in our order and in our ranks. First, he said, is Christ. The first to be raised from the dead, to be changed is Christ. He is first [1 Corinthians 15:20]. Then the tagma, the prophet writes, the first fruits [1 Corinthians 15:23], that little group who were raised after Christ came forth from the tomb [Matthew 27:52-53]. The first fruits, he calls it [1 Corinthians 15:23]. After the Passover [Leviticus 23:5], was the Feast of the First Fruits [Leviticus 23:9-14], when they took a sheaf of wheat and waved it before the Lord [Leviticus 23:11]. It was an earnest and a promise of the great harvest that should follow after. In their tagma, in their order, Christ the first, then the first fruits [1 Corinthians 15:23], that little group raised from the dead after Christ came forth from the tomb [Matthew 27:52-53].
Then in the order, in the tagma, they that are Christ’s at His coming [1 Corinthians 15:23; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-15]. When the Lord comes, they who are dead in Christ shall rise first, then we who are alive and remain, shall rise to meet them in the air [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17], all of us changed [1 Corinthians 15:51-52], immortalized, glorified in our order, in our time, in our tagma [1 Corinthians 15:23]. And then last, he said, the end ones, these who have fallen in the Lord beyond the millennium, in their tagma, those end ones shall be raised, resurrected to live in the sight of God [1 Corinthians 15:24]. We all shall be changed, all of us; the end of death, victorious over death [1 Corinthians 15:51-57; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17].
One of the greatest verses in the Bible is in the eleventh chapter of John when the Lord says to the grieving sisters of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never, ever die” [John 11:25, 26]. A Christian never dies. Christ in time is timeless. Christ in death is deathless; Christ in the grave is victorious [1 Corinthians 15:55-57]. And Christ in eternity lives forever, and our lives are hid with Christ in God [Colossians 3:3]. The immortality He possesses is the immortality that is bestowed upon us [John 14:19]. We are just changed in death [1 Corinthians 15:51-52]. We never, ever die [John 11:25-26].
May I speak finally of the results of that in the Christian life, the pragmatic, empirical repercussion in our own lives? It’s a violent difference. To the world, death is an unspeakable, indescribable, unapproachable tragedy. It’s the end. It’s the dissolution. There is nothing beyond except maybe to dread and to fear. Sweet people, there is no assignment ever given to me in life that has in it the impossible help of trying to conduct a memorial service for somebody who’s not saved, they’re not a Christian. What do you say? What do you do? What can you say and what can you do? Imagine you in my place and you stand there before a grieving family, and they’re not Christians. They don’t have any hope. All you can do is just weep with them. The hopeless despair of that family outside of Christ is, I say, indescribable and unapproachable.
How different, moving in a different world on a different plane, how different the one who stands in the presence of his dead, and this one has just preceded you to glory? They’re just there before you arrive. But their home is in heaven. And their fellowship now is visibly triumphant with the angels and with the Lord Christ Himself.
Death to the Christian is like a ship weighing anchor, and off to a home on the other side of the sea. Death to the Christian is a chariot of ascent, rising up to heaven, like the one that carried Elijah to God [2 Kings 2:11]. Death to the Christian is a voice answered, “Come up higher where God is” [Revelation 4:1]. Death to the Christian is like a captive freed and home bound.
If I can, let me point out a little thing in the Bible. There are so many little congruous intimacies in the Word of God, just the sign of the omniscience of the Almighty that wrote it into that sacred text. Do you remember, in the ninth chapter of the Book of Luke, is the story of the transfiguration of our Lord? [Luke 9:28-35]. And transfigured, glorified, on one side of Him is Moses, and on the other side of Him is Elijah [Luke 9:30]. And the Greek text says that they are talking to Him about His exodus, His exodus, translated in the King James Version, “His decease,” His exodus, “which He shall accomplish in Jerusalem” [Luke 9:31]; His exodus out of the darkness of slavery and into God’s promised glory and land. They are talking to Him about His exodus which He should accomplish in Jerusalem, about His death [Luke 9:30-31]..
Now do you see those two there? One is Elijah. One is Elijah, Elijah, who was raptured to heaven [2 Kings 2:11]. He is symbolic of all of those who will be alive at the coming of the Lord and who are changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump, when the trumpet shall sound and the living saints of God are raptured [1 Corinthians 15:51-57]. That’s Elijah. And the other one is Moses. He is symbolic and typical of those who fall asleep in the Lord and are buried in the heart of the earth. Moses, who died and was buried [Deuteronomy 34:5-6] and in the glorious fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians; Moses, rising from his grave shouts, “O Grave, where is thy victory?” [1 Corinthians 15:55]. And Elijah, symbolic of those who are raptured when Jesus comes, “O Death, where is thy sting?” [1 Corinthians 15:55]. One, having never, ever died, the sting of death taken away; and the other, of those who are buried in the heart of the earth, where is the victory of the grave? The end of death, He has conquered death.
May I last speak of that as it applies to us, to you, to me? As long as I am in this house of clay, I cannot enter the courts of glory. I can’t walk on golden streets past the portals of solid pearls and look upon the face of God and live [Exodus 33:20]. The passage you read in 1 Corinthians stated it like this, “My brethren, 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 dust and flesh, I cannot see God, and I cannot fellowship with the hosts of angels, and I can’t inherit my home in heaven [1 Corinthians 15:50]. I must pass beyond these portals of flesh, and humanity, and mortality, and corruption, and decay [John 14:2-3], if I rise to be like my Savior and to look upon His glorious face [1 John 3:2].
And that leads me to say something in your hearing and in your presence. When my task is finished, and my work is done, I don’t want those life supports placed in me, in my veins, down my throat, down my nostrils, over my face in order that I might breathe one more breath or live one more minute. When time comes for me to die, when my task is finished, and my work is over, and that time comes; I’ve been preaching here in this pulpit forty-two years that it is better over there than it is here [Philippians 1:21-23], that my inheritance is there and not here [1 Peter 1:4], my home is there and not here [John 14:2-3]; and when time comes for me to go to my home and to inherit what God hath purposed for me [Colossians 3:24], shall I face it with dread and terror and foreboding and seek all of those life supports that I might tarry here in this weary world one more minute or one more day: not so!
When that time comes, I pray 27,000 of you will go to the hospital or wherever I am and say, “I heard him say in the pulpit, in our hearing that when time comes for him to be translated, he wants to go. He wants to see Jesus. He’s ready. He’s prepared. God is calling, and he hears the voice of the Lord. And it’s time to go up.”
You know, things that happen to you when you’re young make such an indelible impression. You never get away from them. Here’s one. In my early, early pastorate, little village church, out in the knobs was a young woman dying, in a deep coma already. And when I went to the country home, way out and on the back side, they aroused her, “The young pastor is come.” And she was awakened out of that deep, deep coma. And she said to me, “Would you read to me out of God’s Word?”
And I read to her out of the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John. “I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, there ye may be also” [John 14:2-3]. I read out of the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John. Then she said, “Would you sing me a song?” And I sang, “In the Sweet By and By.” And then she said, “Would you pray for me?” And I knelt down and prayed. And when I said, “Amen,” she went back into that deep, deep coma and died.
O precious cross, O glorious 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, 1693]
I’m ready. Any day, any time, I have made my peace with God. I have trusted the Lord as my Savior, and He is able and mighty to deliver. He has conquered death [1 Corinthians 15:55-57]. Because He lives, we shall live also [John 11:25-26]. Now may we bow in prayer?
Our Lord in heaven, could there be a more comforting or precious message than the gospel of Jesus Christ? The whole world under the condemnation of death, facing that inevitable hour, but great God in glory, what a victory our Savior hath won for us [1 Corinthians 15:55-57]; we love our Lord. We praise His worthy name. We look forward to the hour when we shall see Him [1 John 3:2]. And we pray that in this life, we shall be brave, that God will stand by us and with us. And when that inevitable hour comes, it will be the greatest triumph of our days. Lord, bless our dear people.
And in a moment, we shall stand and sing a hymn of appeal. And when we stand to sing, somebody you, “Pastor, today I give my heart in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ, and here I stand” [Romans 10:8-13]. Or a family you, coming into the fellowship of the Lord’s dear church [Hebrews 10:24-25], 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 who come. May 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 am on the way. Here I am. Here I come.”