Every day in the United States, 140,000 people die. What makes that more than just a statistic is that sometimes, the person who dies is our father or our mother or our husband or our sister or our brother or our child. When our parents die, they take the past with them. When our children die, they take the future with them. When any loved one dies, they take part of us with them. C. S. Lewis’s celebrated marriage to Joy Davidman has been chronicled in a popular play and then in a movie entitled Shadowland. The relationship was short-lived, for cancer took her life. When she died, Lewis said that the pain of her loss was not localized in certain places or at certain times but that ”her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.” Every death is a loss and loss always brings pain. The pain caused by death is in fact the price we pay for loving someone.
Death not only comes to others we love; death will also eventually come to each of us. Popular writer and teacher Leo Buscaglia used to say, ”Remember, no one will get out of this world alive!” That’s the truth.
I heard a wonderful legend about the servant of a wealthy merchant who was in a marketplace of Baghdad securing provisions for his master when he had the most frightful experience of his life. When he rushed into his master’s house a few minutes later, his color had drained completely from his face.
”What is the matter with you?” the master inquired.
”Master,” the servant replied, ”I just now have seen Death in the marketplace, and when he saw me, he raised his arm to strike me. Please master, I am certain he means to take me. Loan me your fastest horse so I can get away.”
”But where will you go?” asked the merchant. ”I will go to Samarra,” explained the servant. ”Death will not find me there.”
So the merchant gave his servant the fastest horse in the stables, and the servant rode swiftly off to the city of Samarra where he hoped to hide.
The merchant went to the market to get his own supplies and while there he saw Death too. So he inquired of Death, ”Why did you raise your hand to strike my servant here a little while ago?” Death replied, ”Actually I meant him no harm at that moment. Raising my hand was a gesture of surprise. You see, I didn’t expect to find him here, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
The servant of Baghdad would discover that no matter how fast the horse nor how far the journey, he could not escape his appointment with death.
When God created humankind and placed us in the garden, He gave this command. ”Do not eat of the fruit of the tree in the center of the garden or you will surely die.” They did … and they did. And so will we. And so will those we love.No one will get out of this world alive. Because of that, coming to grips with the reality of death is one of the major tasks facing us today. Do we have a word from Scripture that will help? I believe we do, in our text. Listen to this word from the pen of the apostle Paul:
”This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Jesus, the Bible declares, ”has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” That is a powerful promise. However, the phrase on which I want us to focus our attention this morning is the one that describes what Jesus did to death. The Bible says Jesus ”has destroyed death.” The word can be translated ”abolished.” Jesus abolished death. The Greek word means ”to make thoroughly inactive.” Jesus did not do away with death. He just did away with the impact of death. We still have to go through death, but Jesus deactivated death’s impact on our lives. Jesus abolished death.
How Did Jesus Do That? How did Jesus do that? He began by experiencing death. Like every human who lives on the face of the earth, Jesus knew the experience of death. That it was no antiseptic experience for Him is clearly revealed in the agonizing prayer in Gethsemane — ”My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me” (Matthew 26:39) — and in the despairing prayer at Golgotha — ”My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus’ life began in a womb and ended in a tomb, just like all of our lives do. He knew the reality of death. The difference is that Jesus came back to tell about it. The death of Jesus was interrupted by a resurrection. Jesus came back on that third day and presented Himself alive to the disciples so they would know He had abolished death.
Romans 6:9 says, ”For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.” Jesus abolished death by winning the victory over it. But there is more. Jesus changed death, not just for Him but also for us. As Romans 6:4 puts it, ”We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Jesus abolished — made thoroughly inactive — not only His death but ours as well.
What Does It Mean? What does it mean for us today that Jesus abolished death?
For one thing, Jesus took the mystery out of death. In life, we learn primarily from experience. The lessons we learn from experiences — good and bad — prepare us for the next encounter with that experience. However, with death there is only one time. When we go into the darkness of death, we do not return to talk about it. That’s what makes it so mysterious. Yet, what we cannot do, Jesus did. He experienced death and then came back to tell us about it. And what He told us was this: death is nothing to fear, for it simply brings us into the presence of God.
I often illustrate this truth by comparing death to what sometimes happened to us as children. Do you remember coming home from a vacation as a little child? You did not arrive home until late at night. You fell asleep in the back of the station wagon long before you arrived at home. But then, the next morning, you woke up in your own room, in your bed.
How did it happen? When you arrived home, your mom or your dad would pick you up from the back of the station wagon, take you into your room, take your old clothes off, put on your pajamas, and lay you gently in the bed. And when you woke up the next morning, you were home! Death is like that. Somewhere in the journey of life, we too will go to sleep. But our loving heavenly Father will take us in His arms and carry us to the place He has prepared for us. He’ll take off these old clothes and clothe us with our heavenly garment and put us in our room. And when we wake up in the morning, we will be home! When Jesus abolished death, He took the mystery out of it. In addition, Jesus took the finality out of death. Why do we fear death so much? Because we usually think of death as an enemy who brings an end to life. And this concept of death is deeply rooted in our early life experiences.
My earliest experience with death that I can remember was when I was eleven years old. My family moved from Ganado in South Texas to Rogers in Central Texas. It’s hard for an 11-year-old to move, primarily because we leave behind our friends. My two best buddies were Calvin and Danny. Both lived in the country. With both I enjoyed riding horses. Both were good friends. Not long after I moved, my friend Danny was trying out a new horse and somehow the horse stumbled, fell on top of Danny and killed him. Although I never articulated it, what I felt on the inside was that this enemy called death had destroyed my friend.
That view of death also prevailed in the world into which Jesus came — death as a destroyer. But the Bible says Jesus has abolished death. He showed us that death is not a destroyer but a rearranger.
I often illustrate this truth by comparing what happens to us at the beginning of life with what happens to us at the end of life. Life starts for us out of two tiny cells in our mother’s body, and from such a beginning we grow into the complexity of a human life. We are comfortable in the womb. All our needs are met. That is life as we know it. Then comes a trauma of disruption as, through the process of birth, we are thrust out into the world. From the vantage point of the womb, it looked like a death — it seemed like the end — for the child was wrenched away from all the sources that had nourished it. But, then we discover that this was not the end; it was simply a new beginning. It was not the end of life; it was in reality the beginning of life. From that moment of birth, we grow into the complexity of an adult human being. We are comfortable living in this world. We find out how to have our needs met. We enjoy life as we know it. Then comes another trauma of disruption — this time not the experience of birth but the experience of death. From our perspective it seems like the end; it appears to be the annihilation of personhood. Then we will discover this is not the end. It is a new beginning. When Jesus abolished death, He took the finality out of it.
Tommy Dorsey, jazzman and gospel song writer, was singing in a revival meeting in St. Louis when he got the awful news. This young performer was handed a telegram which read, ”Your wife is dead.” He had left her back home in the last month of pregnancy. The last look into her face was Nettie sound sleep. All seemed well. Now, she was dead. She had given birth to a son, but within a day he died, too. Both were buried in the same casket. Tommy fell apart in his soul, his inner peace shattered, his faith shaken.
The following Saturday he meandered close to a piano, sat down, and started to fiddle with the keys. A melody appeared in his hands. Lyrics formed in his mind, and out of the sorrow of death, came these words of faith we still sing today:
”Precious Lord, take my hand, Lead me on, let me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night Lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me Home.”
That’s our faith. And here in our text is the reason for our faith: ”This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
Because Jesus ”destroyed death” we will be able to face the apparent mystery and finality of death, with this song in our heart. ”Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home.”