April 11, 2004 1 Corinthians 15:19-26
If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. 20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Are you one of those kinds of people who like putting things to death? When you see a squirrel or rabbit or cat crossing the road, do you speed up to try and hit it? That might seem a bit extreme to you, but there are some things that all of us like to kill. We love killing germs and bacteria. Most of us rejoice when the Pest Control comes and kills the ants and cockroaches and termites around our homes. With joy most of us swat mosquitos off of our arms and laugh in it’s face. There’s nothing more satisfying than slapping a deer fly between your hands and watching it squirm on the floor for life - only to then squish it beneath your foot.
There are other things that all of us would like to put to death - but don’t have the ability to as of yet. We’d love to declare that cancer is dead. We’d love to declare multiple sclerosis is dead. Thousands of dollars are being invested into trying to put AIDS to death. But more than anything, mankind would love to declare that death is dead. With DNA and all of the advanced medicine, man is trying his hardest to achieve this. What they don’t realize, is that death is already dead. This Easter morning, we are going to celebrate -
The Death of Death
I. Death was born in Adam
In order to cure AIDS, the medical profession first tried very hard to figure out where it came from. They figured if they could find it’s source, they could find it’s cure. I don’t know if this is true or not - but the history of the disease ended up being very ugly, supposedly originating back to a man having sexual relations with a monkey. The history of death - where it came from - is also an ugly history. It goes all the way back to Genesis chapter 3. In it we find an ugly and vengeful creature by the name of Satan - inhabiting a snake - and telling lies about our God - accusing Him of trying to hold something back from Adam and Eve. What is just as ugly is seeing Adam - who was supposed to be protecting his wife, just sitting there and allowing her to be led into temptation and sin. It’s sad to see him and Eve then try to run and hide from God - covering themselves with leaves and causing the death of the first animal so that they could cover themselves. God’s Word declared in Romans 5:12 sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned. When we track the path of death - it was born when Adam and Eve sinned. That’s what Paul told the Corinthians when he said, death came through a man . . . in Adam all die.
From that point on - it only gets uglier. The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:22) Cain kills Abel. The flood comes. The Israelites turn into a murderous and idolatrous group. As time goes on - and the child of sin grows and grows in the womb of the earth - this death gets worse and worse. In the Bubonic Plague of 1350 as much as half of the population was wiped out. The Black Death was far worse than any scare from the AIDS epidemic. Wars have claimed the lives of thousands of men and will continue to do so for the rest of time. America is up in arms over the five hundred plus young men and women that have died in service over in Iraq. Yet more deadly than that - thousands are dying every day with heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and accidents throughout the world. No matter what the reason, everyone is going to die. The reason is simple. Paul told the Romans - Death came to all men, because all sinned. He told the Corinthians - IN Adam all die. Since you are born as a descendant of Adam - you too will die. You can’t escape it - not any more than you can escape the physical characteristics of your immediate parents.
You might be thinking that this is sure a lousy thing to be hearing on Easter Sunday. Instead of being a day of joy and happiness - this sounds more like gloom and doom. This has to be done. You have to see how hopelessly lost we are as mere men - that we are all doomed to die. No matter how pretty your dress is or how much makeup you’re wearing or how much candy you eat - all of these things are bound to pass away with time. Modern inventions and creature comforts have not been able to waylay the inevitable death that all of us will have to face. You have to see this - if you want to find the true joy of Easter - that beyond death - there is life.
II. Death Died in Christ
Every year thousands of people climb a mountain in the Italian Alps, passing the “stations of the cross” to stand at an outdoor crucifix. One tourist noticed a little trail that led beyond the cross. He fought through the rough thicket and, to his surprise, came upon another shrine, a shrine that symbolized the empty tomb. It was neglected. The brush had grown up around it. Almost everyone had gone as far as the cross, but there they stopped. We’ve climbed up a different hill this Lent season - it was a bloody hill - an ugly hill - a hill full of death - called Mount Calvary. We’ve seen what happened there - the nails, the mocking, the crucifixion, the hell and death that Jesus went through. At the cross we see the most ugly death of all - the death of God Himself. Far too many have only gone to the cross - and felt the heartache and despair over the fact that Jesus died because of our sins. They haven’t gone any further. It’s three days after Good Friday. And so it’s time for us to take the less traveled pass - and find the empty tomb. It’s only here that we finally see the Death of Death.
Did Christ really rise from the dead? In 1885 a tomb was discovered which is now known as the Garden Tomb, or Gordon’s Tomb. The British General Gordon was convinced that this was indeed the tomb in which Christ had been buried. It was outside of present day Jerusalem - and it looks much like the one described in the Bible. It had been hidden for centuries, covered with rubbish 20 feet high. When they first cleared the area, they gathered all the dust and debris from inside the tomb and carefully shipped it to the Scientific Association of Great Britain. Every bit of it was analyzed, but there was no trace of human remains. If this is the real tomb of Christ, then Jesus was the first, and probably the last person to be buried there. If they had found any human remains in the rubbish you can count on it, they would not be from Jesus’ body because Jesus came back to life. Regardless of what he found, the truth is that Christ did rise from the dead. This is what Paul declared to the Corinthians in today’s text when he said - Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
It isn’t so important as to WHERE Christ was buried, but it is important to know and believe that He truly was raised from the dead. I don’t think it’s possible for us to imagine the pain and despair the disciples must have felt on Friday evening and going into Sunday morning. Jesus - their Messiah - was dead. Nobody had ever raised themselves from the dead before. The only one who could raise the dead was Jesus - but now He - the life-giver - was dead. Even though Jesus had predicted His own resurrection - and His enemies knew this - the disciples didn’t seem to really grasp that this could actually happen! Perhaps if we were there we would have a stronger reaction on Easter. There was a Romanian woman a few years ago who fainted when she opened the door and found her husband standing there. The Romanian weekly Tinerama reported that it all started when her husband Neagu choked on a fish bone. He stopped breathing and collapsed. The family doctor knew he also had a heart condition and didn’t think twice about proclaiming the 71 year old man dead of a heart attack. But three days later, grave diggers at the cemetery heard someone knock on wood. They opened Neagu’s coffin to find him surrounded by wilted flowers but very much alive. When Neagu arrived home - his wife, fearing he was a ghost, barred him from spending nights at home. It took Neagu three weeks to convince the authorities to cancel his death certificate from their registers. The disciples had a similar reaction when they saw the risen Christ. They too, thought that Jesus was a ghost. One of the disciples, Thomas, thought the news of his resurrection was too much to believe. Until he saw Jesus with his own eyes and could have reached out and touched his body, he could not believe. The idea of someone coming back from the dead - especially after the way Jesus died - there was no doubt he was dead - was too good to believe. It sounds impossible - and it is - but Jesus did it. It’s also impossible to believe, and yet the Holy Spirit has enabled us to believe that Jesus truly did rise from the dead.
What is even more important than where or what is the reason WHY Jesus rose from the dead - because it gives us HOPE - bringing both present and eternal importance to us. People are constantly trying to avert death. Death is that great, frightening thing that no one can conquer. No doctor, no matter how talented he is, can prevent death from coming. Eventually every one of his patients die, or else the doctor himself dies. Richard Simmons can exercise his heart out, Tony Banks can TaiBo his legs off, but they’ll both die some day. John Madden can drive around this country in his huge motor home because he is afraid of flying. What he’s really afraid of is dying. But on day John Madden will be dead. It may not be from an airplane crash, but he will die. No one can escape it no matter what kind of shape they’re in or how many precautions they take. Death is that great enemy that no one can overcome - except Christ.
That’s what makes his resurrection so important. Paul calls Jesus the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. . . So in Christ all will be made alive.” Paul uses some beautiful terms here to connect the resurrection to US. He says that when Christ raised - he was the FIRSTFRUITS. Back in Exodus 23, God declared that the Israelites were to have a Feast of Harvest. In it He said, Celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the firstfruits of the crops you sow in your field.. . . . “Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God. (Ex 23:16-19) So when Paul here calls Christ the “firstfruits” - what He is saying is that He is the first and the best of a crop that was just beginning to be harvested. In other words, when Jesus rose from the dead - many more would follow. Those who are IN CHRIST - those who believe in Jesus as their Savior - will rise from the dead. When their bodies are buried, it is much like when you kiss your children good night - you know that they will wake up in the morning.
Paul received all of this comfort from Christ Himself. We see these promises throughout His very words in the Gospels. John 3:16 declares, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus said, “because I live, you also will live.” (John 14:19) God’s Word shows us why Jesus’ resurrection is so important to us. It proves to us that God accepted Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. It assures us that we also will rise from the dead. As Paul says, each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Co 15:23-27) If we know that we will rise from the dead on Judgment Day - it means the death of death. It means that instead of living in despair because of death, we live in hope because of the resurrection.
Just recently a new TV show came out that was named the Swan. In it they took some people that considered themselves to be ugly - and gave them a makeover - operating on their noses, mouths, getting them in shape - and having them participate in a beauty pageant. I’m kind of curious to see how they do - if they can turn someone into “the Swan.” The American Bat Conversation Society has been trying to do the same thing with the bat - so they recently came out with an Easter Bat. What they did was produced some solid milk chocolate bats, and filled their ears with chocolate - in the bopes that people would think of them as nice creatures instead of blood sucking vampires. I haven’t seen one - but I don’t think I’ll ever look at bats as being “cute.” They’re just too ugly.
Death is an ugly thing. It makes your body decay. It makes your skin crawl with worms and stink to high heaven. There’s nothing pretty about it - no matter how we try to gussy it up in our funerals and all. It is a vicious, rotten, and consuming enemy of man. You can’t put a flower on it. You can’t train it. All we can do is hate it and wish for it to die. In Christ, God has done the impossible and answered our prayers. In the death of Christ, He put us to death. After the ugly death of Christ - He empties the grave. In the resurrection of Christ - He says to us, “in Christ all will be made alive.” With that declaration - death dies. With that declaration - death becomes our way to life. God does the impossible with death. He puts it to death, and He brings us to life. He makes death into a wonderful passage to life - bringing hope from despair. That is what Easter is all about. Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift. Amen.