Jesus Broke the Power of Death

This morning, I want us to take a break from our study through the New Testament.  Next Sunday, we’ll pick back up with 2 Corinthians.  But this morning is Easter morning, and I want to spend some time reflecting on the significance of what happened some 2,000 years ago.

            I heard about a Sunday school teacher who asked all the children in her class to write one sentence on “What Easter Means to Me.”  One of the children wrote, “Easter means egg salad sandwiches for the next two weeks!”

            Fortunately, Easter means much more than that, because our hope as Christians is centered on what happened early that Sunday morning. If Jesus was nothing more than a man and if he never rose from the dead, then we have no hope at all.  And, as Paul said in I Corinthians 15, “we deserve more pity than any other people.” (I Corinthians 15:19, GW)

            But the good news is that the tomb of Jesus is empty.  We know that he died on Friday afternoon.  He wasn’t partly dead or mostly dead, like Westley in The Princess Bride.  Jesus was dead. 

            They buried him on Friday evening, but by Sunday morning, his tomb was empty.  And this is the gospel, this is God’s good news – that death could not hold him, that the grave could not keep him, that Jesus is the Lord of life, the immortal and eternal King.  

            But, without the empty tomb, Jesus becomes nothing more than just another man. Because thousands of Jewish rebels were crucified and buried –- but only one of them came back from the grave.  That’s what makes Jesus unique.

            Years ago, the story was told that the Soviets wanted to bury the body of Nikita Khrushchev in Israel.  The Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, warned them, though, “Our country has the world’s highest resurrection rate.”  And it’s true.  Israel has the highest resurrection rate in the world; it has exactly one – Jesus Christ. 

            And the resurrection of Jesus is at the very center of our faith.   I noticed something a while back that I had never noticed before.  And I always feel just a little bit stupid when I read a verse that I’ve read hundreds of times before and I notice something for the very first time.

            In Romans 10:9, Paul said, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9).

            I want you to notice that Paul didn’t say, “In order to be saved, you must believe that Jesus was born of a virgin.”  He didn’t say, “If you want to be saved, you must believe that Jesus walked on water or that Jesus healed the sick.”  But, Paul said, if you want to be saved, you must believe with all your heart that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.  Because it is the resurrection that makes Jesus totally unique among all the people who have ever walked on this earth.

            And, in a world that is filled with death, we need that reminder.  Every day in this world, more than 160,000 people die. And what makes that more than just a statistic is that sometimes, the person who dies is a loved one – a father or mother, a husband or wife, a brother or sister, a son or daughter.  And when a loved one dies, they take a part of us with them.  Every death is a loss and loss always brings pain.

            But death not only comes to those we love; death will eventually come to every single one of us.  I don’t know if you’ve read the latest statistics on death, but you might want to write this down:  One out of every one person dies.  You’ve heard the saying, “There are only two things that are certain: Death and taxes.”  Well, the truth is, there are some people who manage to get out of paying their taxes, but nobody escapes death.

            In fact, our death is so certain that an entire industry has been built about the expectation of your death.  It’s called life insurance.  The only reason you buy life insurance is because you know that someday you are going to die.  If you lived forever, you wouldn’t need life insurance.  But you buy life insurance precisely because you know the certainty of your death, you just don’t know yet the time of your death.

            There’s a legend that’s told about the servant of a wealthy merchant who was in a marketplace in Baghdad buying some provisions for his master, when he had the most frightful experience of his life.  He rushed back to his master’s house, color had drained completely from his face.  His master asked him, “What’s wrong?”

            His servant said, “Master, while I was in the marketplace, I saw Death, and when he saw me, he raised his arm to strike me.  I am certain he means to take me.  Please loan me your fastest horse so I can get away.”

            The merchant said, “But where will you go?”  He said, “I will go to Samarra.  Death will never find me there.”

            So, the merchant gave his servant his fastest horse, and the servant rode swiftly off to the city of Samarra where he hoped to hide from Death.

            The merchant then went to the marketplace and while he was there, he also saw Death.  So, he asked, “Why did you raise your hand to strike my servant?”

            Death said, “Actually, I meant him no harm.  Raising my hand was a gesture of surprise.  You see, I didn’t expect to find him here, because I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

            The merchant’s servant would soon discover that no matter how fast the horse or how far the journey, he could not escape his appointment with death.  Nor can we.  The Hebrew writer said, “it is appointed and destined for all men to die once.” (Hebrews 9:27, AMP)

            When God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden, he gave this command. “Do not eat of the fruit of the tree in the center of the garden or you will surely die.”  But they did eat … and they did die.  And so will we.  And so will those we love.

            And so, because of that, it is important that we all acknowledge the reality of death.  Which brings us to our text this morning, 2 Timothy chapter 1:

            “[God] has saved us and called us to a holy life — not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.  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.”  (2 Timothy 1:9-10, NIV).

            Did you catch that phrase in there?  Jesus Christ has “destroyed death”.  Some translations say that Jesus has “abolished death”.

            There’s only one problem with that.  Death doesn’t appear to have been abolished.  In fact, if death has been destroyed, then somebody forgot to tell the undertakers.  People still die every day.  Cemeteries fill up and new ones open.  There’s no end of cancer, strokes, heart attacks, and sudden accidents.  If you don’t believe me, just pick up the newspaper and read the obituary section.

            But the Greek word that is translated here as “destroyed” or “abolished” more accurately means “to take away the power of”.  The NET Bible, in fact, translates this verse to say that Jesus “has broken the power of death.”   

            It’s the same word that’s used in Romans 6:6 where Paul says that “our old man was crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away with.”  When we were baptized, our former body that used to sin was “done away with”.  It wasn’t destroyed, it wasn’t abolished.  But it no longer has any power over us because now we live for Christ. 

            Jesus didn’t do away with death, but he took away the power of death.  He did that in two ways:

1)         Jesus showed us that death doesn’t have the final word.

            In Romans 6:9, Paul says, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”  And this is what puts the resurrection of Jesus in a class all by itself.  In the Bible, we read about several people, like Lazarus, who were raised from the dead.  But every single one of them died again.  Jesus was the only one to be raised never to die again.

            When Jesus rose from the dead, he broke the power of death forever.  And, one day, death itself will die.  Paul tells us that in I Corinthians 15:26, “The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.”  Until then, death takes on a new meaning for those of us who are Christians, because Jesus shows us that death doesn’t have the final word.   We still have to go through death, but Jesus has taken away the finality of death.

2)         Jesus showed us that death is nothing to be afraid of.

            When you get right down it, that’s what the power of death is.  Its only power is fear.  And when Jesus took away the fear of death, he took away its power.

            In Hebrews 2, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)

            I don’t need to tell you that most people are afraid to die.  Have you ever thought about why death provokes so much fear?  I think the Russian writer Dostoevsky nailed it.  When he was 27 years old, he was sentenced to death in Russia and stood before a firing squad.  He was delivered at the last possible moment, but he later said, “The certainty of inescapable death, and the uncertainty of what is to follow are the most dreadful anguish in the world.”

            I think he correctly identified the reason that most people are afraid of death.  It’s not death itself, but “the uncertainty of what is to follow.”  Without the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have no idea what lies beyond, or even if anything does lie beyond.  And it is this unknown factor that makes most people afraid.

            But the resurrection of Jesus assures us that if God can raise Jesus from the dead, he can do the same for us, and the fear of death is removed.  And without fear, death has no power over any of us.

            This is what changes our whole outlook on death.  That’s why the early Christians, as they contemplated their own approaching death, did not feel terror in their hearts.  They had no fear of death, but could say, as Paul said, “O death, where is your sting. O grave, where is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)

            So, that’s what it means that Jesus abolished death.  It means he took away the power of death by showing us that death doesn’t have the final word, and that death is nothing to be afraid of. 

            But what does that mean for us?  How does that affect our lives?  Again, let me suggest two things.

1.         It means that we have hope for the life to come

            Four thousand years ago, Job asked this question, “If a man dies, will he live again?” (Job 14:14a).  That’s one of the most important questions that has ever been asked.  When we stand over the body of someone we love, we feel helpless, angry, defeated and afraid.   Deep in our hearts, we want to know what happens next.

            There a humorous story told about Albert Einstein as he was traveling on a train.  The conductor came around to punch the tickets, but the absent-minded Einstein couldn’t find his ticket.  He felt in his coat pockets, then his vest pockets, and his pants pockets, but no ticket. The conductor said, “Dr. Einstein, we all know who you are, and I’m sure you bought a ticket, so don’t worry about it.”  Einstein nodded and said, “Thank you.”

            A few minutes later, the conductor walked by and he saw the great scientist on his hands and knees searching under his seat for his ticket.  The conductor said, “Dr. Einstein, I told you not to worry about your ticket.  I know who you are, so it’s okay.”  Einstein is reported to have said, “Young man, I, too, know who I am.  What I don’t know is where I’m going.”

            For those of us who have our faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we not only know who we are, but we know where we’re going.

            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, it only happens one time. When we go into the darkness of death, we do not return to get a second try at it. That’s what makes it so mysterious.

            But what we cannot do, Jesus did.  Jesus experienced death and then came back to tell us about it.  And what he told us was this: death is nothing to fear, because it simply brings us into the presence of God.

            Jesus took the finality out of death.  One of the reasons why we hate death so much is because we usually think of death as an enemy that brings an end to life.  We lose a loved one, a parent, a sibling, or friend, and we see death as the end of their existence.  But I like how someone has described it by saying that death is not a destroyer but a re-arranger.

            Think about it in terms of what happens to us at the beginning of our lives.  Life starts for us in the mother’s womb, and in that womb, we grow and develop physically.   We are comfortable in that womb.  All of our needs are met.  And that is life as we know it.  But then there comes a trauma of disruption as, through the process of birth, we are thrust out of the womb into the world.

            Now, from the vantage point of the womb, that looks like death — it seems like the end – because the child is torn away from all of the sources that nourish it.  But we soon discover that this is not the end; it’s simply a new beginning.  It’s not the end of life; it’s actually the beginning of life.

            Then. from that moment of birth, we continue to grow physically, mentally, intellectually into an adult human being.  We’re comfortable living in this world.  We figure out how to have our needs met.  We enjoy life as we know it.  And then comes another trauma of disruption.  This time, it’s not the experience of birth but the experience of death.  And, from our perspective, it seems like the end.  But we will soon discover that this is not the end.  It is merely a new beginning.

            That’s why, for those who believe that Jesus rose from the dead, there is no fear in death.  Death for a Christian means to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.  And, as Paul says in Philippians 1:23, “To depart and be with Christ is far better.”  Through his resurrection, Jesus took away the sting of death and removed its fear.  So, death becomes merely a moment of transition from this life into the next.

            Hermann Lange illustrates what I’m talking about.  Lange was a young German preacher who stood among the Christians who spoke out against Hitler.  Like many others, Lange was arrested, interrogated, tried as a criminal, and condemned to be executed.  On the last day of his life, he wrote this letter to his parents:

            “When this letter comes to your hands I shall no longer be among the living. The thing that has occupied our thoughts constantly for many months…is now about to happen.  If you ask me what state I am in I can only answer: I am, first, in a joyous mood and, second, filled with a great anticipation.

            “As regards the first feeling [of joy], today means the end of all suffering and all earthly sorrow for me – and ‘God shall wipe away every tear’ from my eyes.…

            “And as to the second feeling [of anticipation], this day brings the greatest hour of my life!  Everything that till now I have done, struggled for, and accomplished, has…been directed to this one goal…

            “For me, believing will become seeing; hope will become possession, and I shall forever share in Him who is love. Should I not, then, be filled with anticipation? …Today is the great day on which I return to the home of my Father.  How could I fail to be excited and full of anticipation?”

            What does it mean for us that Jesus abolished death?  It means that we have hope for the life to come.  But, more than that, it means that…

2.         We find meaning in this life

            Let me ask you a question — Do you want to make a difference in this world?  And I ask that question because not everybody does.  There are a lot of people in this world who don’t care whether they make a lasting difference for something great or not.  They’d be perfectly satisfied if they could just have good job with a good wife and a couple of good kids and a nice car and long weekends and a few good friends.  That’s pretty much all they want out of life.

            But there are some people who want more than that, who want to come to the end of their lives feeling like they made a difference.  And you don’t have to have a high IQ to make a lasting difference in this world.  You don’t have to have good looks or a lot of money, you don’t have to come from a nice family or a good school.

            But what you do have to have is an understanding of what really matters, and then be willing to live and die for it.

            John Piper tells about Ruby and Laura, two women who lived in Cameroon, West Africa.  Ruby was over 80 years old.  She had been single all her life, and had spent her life sharing Jesus Christ with the unreached, the poor, and the sick.  Laura was a widow, a medical doctor, pushing 80, who served with Ruby in Cameroon.  One day in April 2000, the brakes in their car failed, their car went over a cliff, and both were killed instantly.

            Piper raises the question, “Was that a tragedy?  Two lives, driven by one great passion, namely, to be spent in unheralded service to the perishing poor for the glory of Jesus Christ—even two decades after most of their American counterparts had retired to throw away their lives on trifles.” And his answer is, “No, that is not a tragedy. That is a glory.”

            He goes on to say, “I’ll tell you what a tragedy is.  [Reading] from Reader’s Digest, ‘Bob and Penny… took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51.  Now they live in Florida, where they cruise on their 30-foot boat, play softball and collect shells.”

            That’s the American Dream: “Come to the end of your life—your one and only precious, God-given life—and let the last great work of your life, before you give an account to your Creator, be this: playing softball and collecting shells.

            Piper says, “THAT is a tragedy.  And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream.”

            Now that’s not to say that in order not to waste your life you’ve got to go into some form of “full time” Christian ministry, or travel to some far-off country.  But it is to say that if you don’t want to waste your life, you have to live it in view of the shortness of this life and the reality of eternity.  

            And that means that you must live in such a way that your life makes no sense if there is no heaven or hell.  When people who do not know Jesus Christ look at how you spend your time and money, they ought to think, “This guy is nuts!”  Because they don’t take eternity into account, but you do.

            And you know something they don’t – that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and that means that we’re going to be raised one day as well.  That gives a special meaning to our lives right now.

            Listen to Paul’s words again — [God] has saved us and called us to a holy life — not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.  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.”  (2 Timothy 1:9-10, NIV).

            Knowing that Jesus was raised from the dead changes our perspective.  It takes away our fear, it gives us hope for the future and it gives meaning to our lives right now.  This morning, do you truly “believe in your heart that God has raised Jesus from the dead”?   Because if you do, it changes everything.

            And if you truly believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, it will lead you to want to be baptized, because baptism is the point at which we connect with Christ and his resurrection.  Listen to Paul in Romans 6:

            “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:3-5) 

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