Beyond the Gates of Death
July 17th, 1988 @ 10:50 AM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
7-17-88 10:50 a.m.
And this is the pastor bringing the message. It is entitled Beyond the Gates of Death. In our preaching through the Gospel of John, the Fourth Gospel, we have come to the fourteenth chapter.
This I have described as being the holy of holies. In the revelation of the meaning of the life and ministry and atoning death of our Lord, there is not in human speech or literature anything comparable to chapters 14, 15, 16, and the high priestly prayer of our Lord in chapter 17 in this Gospel of John. And how meaningful it is for us who have found refuge in Him.
There is more to life than to face the inevitable decay of our mortal bodies turning back to the dust of the ground, and our spirits with no place to go but to wander without body, disembodied in this weary world. The message of Christ is the most meaningful of all of the messages human heart could ever hear, if we would just open our souls to listen. So He begins in the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, the night He was betrayed, tried, condemned, and crucified, and was nailed to the cross at 9:00 o’clock the next morning.
Thus He speaks: "Let not your heart be troubled; ye believe in God" – we do – "believe in Me also" [John 14:1] – we shall. "In My Father’s house are many mansions, many abiding places; if it were not so, I would have told you" [John14:2]. Then eight times here in this brief passage does He speak of, "I go away." In the first verse He speaks, "I go away." In the second verse, "I go away." In the third verse, in the fourth verse, in the fifth verse Thomas repeats it. In the nineteenth and eighteenth verses He repeats it. In the twenty-eighth verse – and in the twenty-eighth verse He twice repeats it [John 14:2-28]. There are eight times in this passage that the Lord speaks of His death, of His going away.
The Son of God Himself faced death, the incarnate Spirit of the Father in heaven. Jesus faced death. And how universally does that find repercussion in our human mundane lives! We face inevitable, inexorable death.
In the Book of the Revelation in chapter 6, the Lord is opening the seals. The first seal He opens, "And behold, a white horse" [Revelation 6:1-2]. representing the conquerors of the world, like Alexander, like Caesar, like Napoleon – the white horse conquering. The second seal our Lord opens, "And behold, a red horse" [Revelation 6:3-4] – one of blood and of violence. The third seal He opens, "And behold, a black horse" [Revelation 6:5] – one of famine and starvation and need. Then the last seal, the fourth one, "And behold, a pale horse" [Revelation 6:7-8] – death.
In one of the great museums of the world, the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, I saw one time a vivid painting. It was a racetrack, and there were two horses running. The first one was mounted by a grim, awesome skeleton of death, and the one in front was mounted by a fleeing human being. And he was looking behind him, because the pale horse of death was gradually closing the aperture between. It’s universal. And you find that in the literature of the world. The great authors of human speech have found that inevitability part of their own thinking.
One quote, "We do not die wholly at our deaths. We have molded away gradually long before. Faculty after faculty, interest after interest, attachment after attachment, disappear; we are torn from ourselves while living. Year after year sees us no longer the same and death only consigns the last fragment of what we used to be to the ground."
Again, "My friend, there will come one day a messenger whom you cannot turn away. He will say, ‘Come with me,’ and all your business cares and earthly pleas will be of no avail. When his cold hand touches yours, you will drop the key to the counting room forever. You will not be too busy to die."
And another, "Death is the tyrant. His reign is in solitude and in darkness in tombs and in prisons. He lives without shape or sound, a phantom inaccessible to sight or touch, a ghastly and terrible apprehension."
And again, "Man, the birds of the air die to sustain thee. The beasts of the field die to nourish thee. The fishes of the sea die to feed thee. Our stomachs are their common sepulcher. Good God, with how many deaths are our poor lives patched up? And how full of death is this life of momentary man!"
And again, "To our graves we walk. Our cradles stand in the grave."
Again, "There are countless roads on all sides to the grave."
And again, "Wherever I look, there is nothing but the image of death: the knell, the shroud, the mattock, the grave, the deep damp vault, the darkness and the worm."
And again, "Death is as near to the young as it is to the old; this is the difference: death stands behind the young man’s back, but before the old man’s face."
The prince who kept the world in awe,
The judge whose dictate fixed the law,
The rich, the poor, the great, the small
Are leveled – death has buried them all.
[from "Gay’s Fables: Fable XVI," Joseph Addison]
And I suppose there’s not a schoolboy that hasn’t learned the elegy, "Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard":
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
[And] all that beauty, all that wealth e’re gave,
Await alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
One other, "Men perish and are forgotten; their noblest and most enduring works decay. Death comes even to monumental structures, and oblivion rests on the most illustrious names" [Ausonius]. These are just some of the quotations from the great literature of the world. We live in a world of decadence, and darkness, and despair, and death!
There is no home and no family at whose door he does not come. What lies beyond? Is there anything? When I die, is it nothing? There are those world without end – in fact, all the unbelieving world sees nothing beyond the grave. They peer into the darkness and find nothing.
Here are some of the avowals of the great literary giants of the human family:
One, "Death is the greatest evil, because it cuts off all hope" [William Hazlitt].
Queen Elizabeth said, "All of my possessions, my kingdom, would I give for a moment of time."
Another, "Soon as man has found the key of life, it opens the door of death" [Edward Young].
Another, "Death, the first dark day of nothingness" [Lord Byron].
Another, "There is nothing certain in man’s life but this, that he shall surely die" [Ben Franklin].
And again, "Death is the only monastery, the tomb is the only cell; the grave that adjoins the convent is the bitterest mockery of futility" [Edward Bulwer-Lytton].
And again, "The sun sets to rise; but we, when our short day is done, fall into a never-ending night" [J Walthoe, 1729].
And a last, "When we see our enemies and our friends dying before us, let us not forget our own mortality; we all shall soon be where our doom is fixed forever" [unknown].
What an incomparable sadness, a despair, the persuasion that in death all life and meaning have ceased. What a tragedy! What a tragedy! They say we’re not going on, we’re going out. They say this life is a jungle in which the poor are ravaged and destroyed. We are victims before a violent and vicious enemy. They say we are harnessed to the dictates of a monstrous darkness over which we have no control. They say we are ground between the upper and nether millstones of a brutal, cruel fate and an insoluble darkness and crisis. They say we live before a juggernaut, a chariot of death that rolling shall finally crush us into the ground, into the dust.
Once in a while, as you read, you’ll find a great literary figure who will make a quiet concession. For example, Mary Anne Evans, who wrote in the last century in Great Britain under the name of George Eliot, the great gifted novelist, she said that we have an immortality in the lives of other people that we’ve influenced. And when I think of something like that, the only immortality we have, the only life we have beyond death is what I may have measurably influenced in the life of someone else. To me, that just magnifies the reign of the king of terrors. It but underscores the vanity and futility of life. Death shall reign forever. His chains are everlasting and unbroken. I think it also magnifies the hopelessness and helplessness of our human hearts and of the Christian faith itself.
Mary Magdalene is saved from seven demons, from demonic possession in order to die, to be buried in the grave. Zacchaeus is saved from his dishonesty in order to be food for the worms. The disciples are taught in the faith only to find it dashed in the darkness of death. And Jesus was nailed to the cross only to be buried forever in a tomb. I cannot, when I think of the world of unbelief in its reaction to the inexorable and inevitability of death, I cannot help but repeat this cry of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:19, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable."
Thank God there’s another page. There’s something else to be said. There is a gospel of hope and salvation and life and glory. And the next verse, Paul begins to avow it. The nineteenth of 1 Corinthians 15, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable"; now the next one:
But now, but now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept…
For as in Adam we all die, so in Christ shall we all be made alive.
For He must reign, till He hath put all enemies under His feet.
And the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death – he will not reign forever.
[1 Corinthians 15:20-26]
O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?
Thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
[1 Corinthians 15: 55, 57]
That is the hope of the gospel of the Son of God.
There’s a twofold coming of our Lord. He came the first time to die for our sins, to make atonement for our transgressions. He came the first time to save our souls [John 1:25]. He is coming again. And the second time He comes, He is coming to redeem this fallen, decaying body. He is coming to save the whole purchased possession, my soul and my body [Ephesians 1:14]. I am not, you are not, we are not going to be absorbed into some universal element when we die. God marks the place where we are laid. God knows that dust into which we have turned in death. And out of that grave, God shall raise the perfect, transformed, immortalized, resurrected body: you, the real you.
As our Lord said,
Handle Me and see that it is I Myself; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, such as you see Me have,
Children, have you here anything to eat?
And they give Him a piece of a fish, and of an honeycomb…
And He did eat before them.
We shall be people. We shall be ourselves. You’ll be you. And I’ll be I. And we’ll sit down at the marriage supper of the Lamb and break bread together, and live – world without end! – in a paradise framed by the omnipotent hands of God.
There is a little word here that Paul uses in his description of what will happen when Jesus comes again, at the consummation of the age. And the little word is tagma. He says here in verse 23 of this glorious chapter, "But every one of us in his own tagma, tagma" [1 Corinthians 15:23], and then he gives the order. It is translated here, "Every one of us in his own order," tagma. Tagma is a military term. And it refers to the ranks and the ranks and the series and the series of marching soldiers as they say, pass in review. A tagma, an order, a series. And there is a tagma, there is a series, in God’s consummation of the age.
May I begin with the now? First, the Lord is in heaven preparing a place for us. He is there. He has preceded us there to prepare a mansion for us. That’s the way the wonderful passage begin, "In my Father’s house are many mansions, I go to prepare a topos, a place for you. And if I go and prepare a topos, a place for you" [John 14:2, 3] – topos refers to a place where you live. It refers to a place where we worship His name. It refers to a place at your address, topos. It’s a real place. It’s not a fantasy. It’s not a perceivable, far out, imaginative thing hoped for or guessed. It’s a reality. It’s a topos. I live in a topos. You do too. It’s a real place. And our Lord has prepared that kind of a place for us. We shall be real people. And we shall be in a real home, a real city, called heaven, the New Jerusalem [Revelation 21:1-4].
A second thing: not only is our Lord in this series, not only is our Lord preceded us into heaven, preparing this topos, this place for us, but when we die we immediately are in His presence. There’s no such thing in this Word as soul sleep or waiting to the consummation of the age. We are there when we die – there, immediately in His presence.
When the dying thief turned to the Lord on the cross and said, "Lord, when You come into Your kingdom, remember me" [Luke 23:42]. He was thinking some distant time. Our Lord replied, "Semeron – this day, today, this day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise" [Luke23:43]. This day, the moment you die, you’re in the presence of our Lord. "Today, semeron, you will be with Me in Paradise."
In the sixth chapter of the Book of Acts when they were stoning Stephen to death, he lifted up his eyes and saw the Lord standing to receive him, that moment; standing [Acts 7:55-56]. Everywhere else the Lord is pictured as seated on the right hand of God. That’s the only place where He stands to receive the soul of His sainted first martyr. In 2 Corinthians 5:8, "Absent from the body, present with the Lord." The moment you die, absent from the body, that moment you are in the presence of the Lord.
Then, the final consummation; the final consummation. When our Lord comes, there again is an order. There’s a tagma. There’s a series. Could I read it? In 1 Thessalonians 4, beginning at 13: "I would not have you without knowledge, brethren, concerning them who are asleep" – that’s God’s word for death: sleep – "concerning them that are asleep, that you sorrow not, as those unbelievers who have no hope. If we believe in Jesus" – and we do – "that he died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus" – who die in the Lord – "these God will bring with Him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord" – God Himself avows it – "that we who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not precede them which are asleep" [1 Thessalonians 4:13-15]. We’re not going to see the Lord first in the order, in the tagma:
The Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, with the trump of God: and these that sleep in Christ shall rise first:
Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
[1 Thessalonians 4:16-17]
Who will be the first to see Jesus? These who have fallen asleep, who have died, they will be the first. The Lord will bring with Him from heaven the souls, the spirits of these who have died [1 Thessalonians 4:14]. And the first of His coming will be the dead shall rise [1 Thessalonians 4:16], and soul and body shall be reunited as our Lord’s body was reunited, glorified. They will be exactly like our Lord, raised from the dead. They will see Him first.
"Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up" [1 Thessalonians 4:17] – the Greek harpazō, "snatched away." The Latin Vulgate translates it raptus, the verb raptura. We get our word "rapture" from it. That’s the rapture of God’s saints. First in the order will be these that have fallen asleep in Christ. They will see Him first. Then in the tagma, we who are alive when He comes will "be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump" [1 Corinthians 15:51-52]. Then we shall rise to meet our Lord in the air [1 Thessalonians 4:17].
Let me take time just to say one thing, out of a multitude that press upon my heart. "The Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, with the trump of God: and these that sleep in Jesus will rise first" [1 Thessalonians 4:16]. Why don’t these other people hear Him? Why don’t the unbelievers hear His voice and the sound of the trumpet? How is it just these that love Jesus hear that voice and that sound?
Well, one day I came across something that explained that to me. In the wintertime, as you know, these great mallard ducks fly from the north down to the south and they winter in the south. Then when summertime, springtime comes, why, they go back up to the north. Well, when those great mallards came down into southern Louisiana, there was a farmer who caught one and staked him out, tied a string on his leg. And put him on the pond there with his domestic ducks. And that great mallard from the north just swam around, swam around, swam around; spent the wintertime with those domestic ducks.
But when the springtime came, those great mallards rose out of those swamps and lakes of southern Louisiana. And one of that band of great mallards flying back home looked down from the sky and saw that mallard down there on the pond swimming around with those domestic ducks. And they called from the sky. And that great mallard lifted up his head and lifted up his eyes. And when they called from heaven, he gave a great lurch but was pulled back down by the stake and the string. They called again from the sky. They called again from heaven. And that great mallard spread his wings and once again lurched to join them in the heavens and broke the stake and broke the string and rose up to meet them in the sky.
When I heard that, I said, that’s exactly what it will be at the time of the consummation. These who die without Christ don’t hear. They don’t move. Their hearts are not stirred like those domestic ducks. They just circle around in the earth and the pond. But that great mallard, that great mallard, when they called from the sky, his heart was stirred, and he lifted up his head and his eyes and joined them in heaven.
That’s the way it’s going to be with us. We, if we fall asleep before the Lord comes, when the trumpet sounds and the archangel cries, we shall hear His voice. And we shall rise to meet our Lord and the saints of God in the sky, in the sky. O God, what a hope! What a promise! What an open door into glory!
Now, may I say a word to you who have listened on radio and have watched on television? Right where you are is a glorious place to open your heart and your life to the faith of the blessed and precious Lord Jesus. That is why He came into the world for you [Luke 19:10]. Had there been no one else living on this planet, He would have come and died for you. You are precious in His sight. And if you’ll just open your heart to the blessed Savior and say, "Lord Jesus, I want You to live in me. I want to be Yours. You forgive me my sins. You guide me in the pilgrimage of this life and Lord someday open for me the gates of heaven."
There is life for a look at the crucified One
There is life at this moment for you
Then look sinner look unto Him and be saved
Jesus died for you
["There is Life for a Look at the Crucified One"; A.M. Hull]
O glorious gospel, wonderful faith, triumphant death and an eternity from God beyond.
And the throng of people in this sanctuary, "This day, pastor, I have decided for Christ and here I stand." Or, "This is my family, all of us are coming into the fellowship of this wonderful church." Or just you, "Pastor, God has spoken to me and I am answering with my life." Make the decision now in your heart and when we stand to sing this appeal, on the first note of the first stanza, come and welcome. A stairway, from the balcony, an aisle on the lower floor, "This is God’s day for me, preacher, and here I am," while we stand and while we sing.
BEYOND THE GATES OF DEATH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
I. The background of the passage
A. Our Lord faces death
1. Eight times He speaks "I go away" (John 14:2-5, 12, 18-19, 28)
B. Death is universal (Revelation 6:1-8)
1. Literature, authors of the world reflect inevitability of death
a. Gray’s "Elegy in a Country Churchyard"
II. Unbelieving world sees nothing beyond the grave
A. We are not going on; we are going out
B. Life has no meaning and purpose
III. Some a fleeting, feeble concession
A. George Elliot: "Living again in lives made better by our presence."
1. This but magnifies victory of the grave
IV. The triumphant Christian faith (1 Corinthians 15:20-23, 25-26, 55, 57)
A. Purpose of the coming of Christ
1. To save the soul, sanctify the life
2. To redeem the body, open door for new life in heaven (Luke 24:39-43)
B. The order (1 Corinthians 15:23)
1. Jesus is preparing a place for us (John 14:2-3)
2. When we die we are immediately in His presence (Luke 23:43, Acts 7:56, 2 Corinthians 5:8)
3. The final consummation where Christ returns (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
a. Those that have fallen asleep
b. We who are alive