A few years ago my wife and I had the chance to spend Easter weekend at Colonial Williamsburg. We got to see the restored buildings, the actors in character doing 18th century jobs, and what life was like for European colonists in the early years of Virginia.
For me the highlight was attending Easter morning service at Bruton Parish church, the old Episcopal church in the center of Williamsburg. We sat in the same church and took Communion at the same rail as countless others had done for centuries. And many of those former parishioners were still leaving their mark; for as we left we walked through the graveyard surrounding the church.
Many people mark major milestones in their lives inside a church. Child dedications, baptisms, marriages, and deaths; North Baptist has seen them all. Perhaps you have experienced some of these celebrations; and we will all one day experience the final one.
Death is the great equalizer. Rich or poor, slave or king, criminal or righteous man, death comes for us all. It comes quickly and unexpected for some, slowly and deliberate for others. Mankind has created terrifying ways to bring wholesale death, while at the same time doctors are seeking ways to prolong life as long as possible. Yet they are just delaying the inevitable: all of us will die.
Death is the great enemy of mankind, the one that is coming for us all. And the tentacles of that sinister enemy reach all the way back to the dawn of time, and her story continues until the end.
Death first makes an appearance in the Bible in Genesis 3. The man and woman disobey God by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge. Their sin has devastating consequences: broken relationship with God, removal from the presence of God, and death.
The first victim of this enemy is found in the very next chapter of the Bible: in a fit of jealousy, one brother kills another brother. Thus we see the ruinous effects of death: the loss of life, brothers killing one another, and further damage to the relationship with God. Just a few chapters later, death spreads exponentially. All mankind is destroyed in a catastrophic flood, with Noah and his family the only ones who lived to tell about it.
In these primordial stories found in the first few chapters of Genesis, we see see the destructive power of death. It rips apart families, tears apart society, and breaks the relationship mankind has with God.
Rest of the Old Testament
Death features prominently in the rest of the Old Testament. Whether by natural causes, at the hand of an enemy, or struck down by God, death comes to virtually all the characters in the Old Testament. This is an accepted fact: all will die, and there is nothing man can do to stop it.
The Teacher in Ecclesiastes 9 describes the certainty of death and the pointlessness in trying to stop it. In one of the most depressing—yet realistic—chapters in the Bible, the Teacher tells the reader to enjoy life while you have it, because one day you will be dead, and everyone will forget you. For the Teacher, the one who could have it all and experienced it all, death was the one force he couldn’t conquer.
God was seen as the master of death, using it against his enemies at will. He harnessed it to kill the firstborn in Egypt (Exodus 12), to destroy the 185k in the Assyrian army (2 Kings 19), and to punish the rebels led by Korah (Numbers 16). Even the threat of death was used by God, as seen in the prophecy of Jonah in Nineveh (Jonah 3).
God seems to have spared Enoch and Elijah from this cruel enemy, but they are exceptions to the rule. For the rest of the Old Testament, death is the giant enemy that swallows up everyone eventually.
Yet there were some glimmers of hope. God did have control over death, and the prophets hoped he would one day reverse this curse of death. In Isaiah 26:19, the prophet calls for mankind to rejoice over the resurrection of the dead:
Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead. (Isaiah 26:19)
In Ezekiel’s vision in chapter 37, the dry bones coming to life signifies the restoration of Israel after the exile. But it also does highlight the life-giving breath of God, who brings dead bones to life. The underlying hope of the Old Testament prophets is that God would do this for real.
Finally, in Isaiah 25:8–9 the prophet describes a day when God will conquer death forever:
He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.
It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” (Isaiah 25;8-9)
God is portrayed as a deliverer, as one bringing salvation to his people. And one way he does this is by swallowing up death, causing it to disappear forever.
Ministry of Jesus
When Jesus comes onto the stage, death is still reigning over mankind. Yet in his 3 years of ministry, Jesus provides some more glimpses that death’s reign may be drawing to a close. Jesus spoke of a kingdom where the former rules no longer applied, a kingdom where he was king and death no longer ruled. And Jesus’ miracles pointed to the power of this new king.
In his miracles, Jesus shows a remarkable power over sickness, demons, and even nature—all powers given to the prophets by God. But it is in his power over death that Jesus shows his true power. What was once lifeless—Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus—breathed again. In these stories, the touch or even voice of the king can conquer death. This is powerful; people don’t come back to life after they are dead. Dead things stay dead. Yet these powerful demonstrations of Jesus’ power are temporary; Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus would taste the bitter sting of death yet again. Jesus gains these victories over death, but death still reigns supreme over mankind.
And then death get its most important victory yet: Jesus.
Death of Jesus
Today we are here to celebrate death’s greatest victim: Jesus Christ. We remember the cruel, painful death of an innocent man, whose death was inflicted by the Roman Empire’s most savage instrument of torture and death.
For many who viewed Jesus’ death that day, his death was a colossal failure, a down note at the end of his ministry. This was the perspective of the depressed disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). Here’s how they described the events from that weekend:
“Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened.” (Luke 24:19–21)
To them, the death of Jesus was a failure; they couldn’t figure out how it was part of God’s plan. Even the empty tomb was unexplainable; perhaps they viewed it as someone stealing the body. Either way, they are depressed at the fact that Jesus died.
Yet the death of Jesus is not depressing; it is life-giving!
Through Christ’s death and resurrection, he destroyed death! The empty tomb does not point to grave robbers, but to the destruction of the thief that only comes to steal, kill, and destroy. The empty tomb points to God raising Christ from the dead, to show his victory over the grave. Paul describes this victory in Romans:
We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. (Romans 6:9)
And in turn, his conquering the grave leads to a greater hope for us: that as Christ was raised, so too will we defeat death. Paul describes this in 2 Timothy 1:10:
“our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
Death of Death
In the rest of the New Testament, death still rears its ugly head, but it has lost its sting. Death is defeated, but the victory is not yet consummated. Stephen is brutally stoned to death, but he is described as “falling asleep” (Acts 7:60). Paul actually sees death as beneficial, as it will bring him closer to Christ (Philippians 1:21–23). To the rest of the New Testament authors, death is viewed as a conquered enemy, and Christ will strike the final blow in the end.
The end comes in the book of Revelation, John’s account of visions he saw while in exile. In Jesus’s first words to John as recorded in the book, Jesus brags about his victory over death: But he laid his right hand on me, saying,
“Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:17–18).
Jesus finally finishes the job in Revelation 20. Death—the enemy that has swallowed up every human to walk this earth—is thrown into the lake of fire. No more can death affect mankind, for it has been destroyed.
And when we arrive at John’s description of New Creation in Revelation 21–22, death is nowhere to be found.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3–4)
Death is put to death, mankind is freed from its devastating bond, and man is again able to walk in the presence of God.
All this happens because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we gather together to celebrate Good Friday and Easter, and when we gather to celebrate Communion, we are rejoicing in the fact that death has been defeated, and that Christ has killed it. Jesus did what we could never do, and he did it for us. His perfect life of obedience, his sacrificial death on the cross, and his triumphant resurrection that first Easter morning—all were done so that we could be with God. Undoing the effects of sin and death, we can now enter the presence of God.
As we are people living in between Christ’s first and second advents, we still have to experience death. We are still mortal beings, and we will still face the discouraging medical diagnosis, the cancer treatments, and the loss of loved ones. We have not yet experienced the full victory of Christ’s death.
1 Corinthians 15:54–55 describes what it will be like when we experience Christ’s full victory:
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)
We may be still mortal, but we worship an immortal invincible God. The God who puts death to death. The one who swallows up death in his victory, so we can be with him forever.
[This is a modified version of a sermon given at North Baptist Church on Good Friday 2015).