Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
" EVEN IN DEATH CHRIST DOES NOT DESERT HIS OWN ."
57. Q. What comfort does the
resurrection of the body offer you?
A. Not only shall my soul after this life immediately be taken up to Christ, my Head, but also this my flesh, raised by the power of Christ, shall be reunited with my soul and made like Christ's glorious body.
 Luke 16:22; 23:43; Phil. 1:21-23.  Job 19:25, 26; I Cor. 15:20, 42-46, 54; Phil. 3:21; I John 3:2.
1 Corinthians 15:35-58
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
The Lord God has given a certain number of persons to the Son (John 17:2). These persons the Son gathers into His church, and there bestows on them specific gifts – gifts He obtained on the cross. We discussed the one last week, the glorious gift of forgiveness of sins. Today we discuss a second, the resurrection of the body.
The resurrection. Obviously, one cannot be raised from the dead unless one has first died. Death was not part of the world God had created in the beginning; death came into the world as a result of our fall into sin. Through His atoning work on the cross, Christ has paid for sin – and so taken away the cause of death. Still, we said in Lord’s Day 16, we all need to die, not to pay for our sins but –says the Catechism- death "puts an end to sin and is an entrance into eternal life." So, despite the gift of forgiveness of sins, you and I (like all people) shall one day die (unless the Lord returns first). But, says the Lord, we shall also one day arise. So: death is not the end! That is the gift of which we may make confession today.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
EVEN IN DEATH CHRIST DOES NOT DESERT HIS OWN.
1. What happens to the soul?
Death comes to all people. There are today some 6 billions individuals on the face of the earth. In the next 100 or so years, every last one of them will die. That’s an awful lot of deaths! And it’s not just strangers who will die, but each and every one of us in this church building today will die also, with no exception.
What happens, brothers and sisters, when one dies? One breathes one’s last, gives up the spirit, and what happens next? If I were to close my Bible, I could not answer that question. As we on this side of death try to peer through that wall called Death to discern what’s on the other side, we find we can’t see through that wall; it’s impenetrable and does not give up the secrets of the other side. Over the years, millions upon millions have died before us, including persons we have dearly loved, but not one has come back to report what it was like on the other side. Even Near Death Experiences, persons who stood at the door of death, were even declared clinically dead but were revived, cannot tell us what there is on the other side of that Great Divide. Death, the other side: it is hidden from us, obscure.
Yet all must die, and human nature is curious to find out what is on the other side. So people have come up with particular theories. Yes, in our culture there are vestiges of the Christian faith, and so many people believe there is an after life, where the soul goes to be with God a heaven. There are also numerous in our society who insist that after death there is nothing; they see no difference between the death of a dog and the death of a person – and in truth that’s the logical consequence of evolutionary thinking. If man is no more than a glorified frog or ape, why should death be different for a man than for a frog? The frog dies, and that’s the stone end of it; so also man dies, and that’s the stone end of man – after death there’s nothing. In that line of thinking there’s plenty of room for euthanasia and abortion, for death is simply the end anyway and so why frown upon it…. It’s a way of looking at death that is growing in our secularized society. And let us face it: it’s so difficult to argue against it this perception, for this is exactly what the eye of man sees. As Solomon put it: "all go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust" (Ecclesiastes 3:20).
The last number of years has also seen the emergence of a belief called reincarnation. This belief holds that the soul is immortal, is locked for some years in a particular body, and at death is set free from that body in order to start again in other body – be it this time perhaps a horse or a rat. This is typical Hinduism, and (like yoga and transcendental meditation) has made ground in our culture in the last three or four decades. This line of thought produces the phrase ‘in my previous life’ – a reference to the time when you were married to a prince, or were a horse running the race at the Melbourne Cup, or something like that. There are those who say they can remember bits and pieces of their earlier lives…. And who can argue against this perception? You can’t disprove it, no more than you can prove it – for the human eye and the human mind can find is no evidence one way or the other…. For we can’t peer through that wall called Death to determine what happens on the other side. The only way to find out is for one to go and come back, and relate…. But even that doesn’t happen. Even Lazarus, a man who was dead for four days, provides us with no account of what the other side was like.
There is, then, but one way alone to find out what happens when we die, and that is to ask Him whose eye oversees everything that happens on this side of that Great Divide as well as everything on that side of that wall – Him, whose hand controls all things on both sides of that Great Divide. And see, He has been pleased to tell us in the pages of His Word what happens at death, to tell us too what happens in the days and years following death (cf Luke 16:29ff). The question is whether one will believe His Word….
What happens on the other side of Death? The Lord is emphatic: people do not sink into a big nothingness, as if there is nothing on the other side. He is equally empathic: people do not at the finish line of life go back to the start and come back as another creature. Instead, as soon as one dies, you appear before the judgment seat of God, and on the basis of whether there was faith in Christ crucified or no faith in Christ crucified, one goes to one’s eternal home in heaven or in hell. I say this on the authority of such passages of Scripture as Luke 16. Jesus speaks of two people who both died, with the one being "carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom" (vs 22 – an obvious reference to heaven) and the other (vs 23) waking up in hell. The Bible in more places speaks about the believers going to heaven immediately after death (I’ll come back to that in a moment), while it says very little about the unbelievers going to hell directly after death. Even so, we have in Luke 16 one instance, and that is enough to lay the link between death and hell for all those who do not acknowledge the Lord in faith (cf 2 Peter 2:9).
Luke 16, then, confronts us with a challenge, a responsibility. Hell is a place of torment (vs 24) of anguish, of weeping and gnashing of teeth. That is what it is after the final judgment on the Last Day; that is equally what it is directly after a sinner dies. So it needs to be fixed in our minds, brothers and sisters: sinners are but one heart beat from torment, from hell with its flame and its suffering! That is why one needs today to heed the voice of the Lord, repent of sins and believe in the only Savior. One heartbeat is a small thing and a small moment; death can take us at any time, and for the unbeliever the other side of that wall is horrible. The decision needs to be made today; do not delay!
The Lord tells us much more about what the believer experiences after death? To put the question differently: what is the gift that the Lord has prepared for His church? In what circumstance are we to imagine our loved ones who died in the Lord? What may we expect to experience when we die?
The criminal beside Jesus on the cross asked the Lord to remember him when He came into His kingdom. Jesus replied with these words: "Assuredly, I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:42f). Jesus’ words reveal a number of points that bear on our subject this afternoon.
The criminal would be with Jesus. Just where would Jesus be? In His prayer before He was arrested (John 17) Jesus had asked the Father to glorify Him "with the glory which I had with You before the world was" (vs 5). More, Jesus said in that prayer that He was leaving this world and coming to the Father (vs 11). That glory to which Jesus is returning is the world of Ezekiel 1, where God is enthroned in majesty with countless angels doing His bidding. It is the world of Isaiah 6, where seraphim sing unceasingly their "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty." That is the environment in which Jesus lived "before the world was," and that’s environment to which He will return after His triumph on the cross. Now He says to this criminal: "Today you shall be with me in Paradise." What shall happen to this criminal, then, after he succumbs to the murderous intent of crucifixion, crosses the Great Divide known as death? This: he, with Jesus, shall enter into the glory of the Father, where also the angels live!
In the second place, note that Jesus describes this heaven, this glory, with the word ‘Paradise’. The term comes from the Garden of Eden, that time in the beginning when God visited man and man was not afraid of God at all. It was a time of peace, of closeness between God and man. There was no anger from God, no judgment; there was only blessing and favor. Jesus describes the environment into which this criminal would come as ‘Paradise’, and that’s to say that this criminal would experience God’s nearness as a blessing, as favor; even in God’s presence there would be no place for any fear for him – despite his earlier criminal activity! Here is the blessed fruit of forgiveness.
In the third place, Jesus says that this criminal would enter Paradise with Jesus "today". That is, both Jesus and the criminal would today cross that Great Divide and enter the realm on the other side – die. More: as Jesus and that criminal entered the realm on the other side of that wall called Death, both would go to the same place, straightaway. It’s not so that a period of days or months or years or centuries would lie between the moment of entry into the realm of the dead and the moment of entering the presence of God; no, both Jesus and the criminal would enter Paradise ‘today’.
Jesus’ words to the criminal on the cross, congregation, were not for the ears of the criminal alone – as if that criminal received special treatment. The apostle Paul writes to the Philippians these words: "I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better" (1:23). "To depart": that’s a reference to dying. He wants to cross that divide because, he says, to be on the other side is to "be with Christ." You notice: Paul states that what Jesus promised to the criminal would be true for Paul also! To die would mean for Paul too that he would "be with Christ" – and that’s to say that Paul would enter the glory of Christ in heaven, that world around God’s holy throne where the angels sing God’s praise and do His bidding. Such a world, Paul adds, would be "far better", and that addition catches what Jesus said to the criminal when He used the word ‘Paradise’. To be with Christ is "far better" because there would be no judgment from God upon Paul, but there would be only grace and peace and favor and blessing – without a trace of pain or tears or brokenness. That is what Paul expects to experience on the other side of the Great Divide!
And again, beloved, this promise is not limited to the criminal and to Paul. This is standard fare for all God’s people; why would God make an exception for those two?! In fact, the criminal and the apostle would both go immediately into the glory of God’s presence precisely because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross! He paid for their sin, more, He reconciled to God all whom the Father had given to Him, obtained for God’s people the favor of God, and so all God’s own are heartily welcome in the presence of holy God Himself! Every saint experiences at death the same thing as Jesus promised to the criminal and as Paul claimed for himself; all are –in the words of the Catechism- immediately taken up to Christ the Head. No wonder the voice from heaven declared blessed those who die in the Lord! (Rev 14:13).
This gospel, congregation, tells us so much about our God. Is He our God only for the short period we live on this earth – be it a couple of years, 30 years, 70 years, perhaps 90 years? Is Death able to separate us from the love of this God? That is: can Death, that King of Terrors (Job 18:14) that takes our life away, stop God from loving us? See here, beloved, how great and how mighty your God is! People can do so much –just look at the technology around us- but against Death we’re ultimately powerless; every one must die, none comes back, we all have to concede defeat in our battle against this enemy. But God is mightier than Death! What happens to God’s own once they’ve passed that Great Divide? Why, they enter God’s very presence! Such is the love of God for His own, and such is His power; even Death cannot snatch us from God’s hands, even Death cannot prevent God’s love from reaching us! Here is the wealth of Lord’s Day 1: I belong, with body and soul, both in life and in death¸ to my faithful Savior. Death is ultimately no enemy!
We move on to our second point:
2. What happens to the body?
The soul, then, is at death immediately taken up to Christ the Head. That’s a most glorious future! But what about the body?
The body. We see with our own eyes what happens to the body at death. A few long days after death, the body of the loved one is buried. Then we see no more of the loved one, but we know very well what happens to that body; it decomposes, it returns to the dust from which it was taken. In the words of Job: "the worm feeds sweetly on him" (24:20). We find it so humiliating…. God has created us in His image, redeemed us in Jesus Christ, renewed us through His Spirit – and our bodies are left to decompose…? We find that there’s such an enormous contrast between what happens to our soul and what happens to our body.
That is why, brothers and sisters, we do well to note how the apostle speaks about death and burial in 1 Corinthians 15. Our Savior does not forget our souls when we die, but takes us up immediately to Himself into heavenly glory. But, beloved, He does not forget our bodies either! For the Savior shed His blood not just for the soul, but also for the body. So the body is as precious to Him as the soul. Then Yes, the body is laid to rest in a grave and there it decomposes so that it returns to dust. But the apostle knows that God has a program not just for the soul but also for the body. So, when he writes about death and burial in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul casts the whole matter of burial into a most positive light. For he speaks about burial in the context of gardening. Notice the references here to sowing, to seed, and therefore to a crop. The gardener puts a wrinkled, dried out bean seed into the ground, and he knows that this exercise of sowing the seed contains within itself, under the blessing of the Lord, the promise of a crop. Sowing is a positive thing, hopeful, full of expectation. No gardener plants his seeds in the expectation that nothing more will happen.
That, now, is the vocabulary the apostle uses to describe a funeral. He doesn’t deny that burying a loved one is difficult, and he doesn’t deny either that burial has something distinctly dishonoring about it; it is shameful that people created in God’s image need to be buried. But we fell into sin, and every time we bury a loved one we are confronted –to our shame- with that fall. But, says Paul, though "the body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption" (vs 42). And: "it is sown in dishonor, [but] it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body" (vss 43f). Notice the repetition of the word ‘sown’; that’s what the cemetery is, the grave of the saints: it’s a garden, a garden sown, and it’s only a question of time before the seed sprouts and the crop appears. When Christ returns, "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet," the dead will be raised (vs 52). Then instantly the crop will be ripe, and this corruption will put on incorruption and this mortal will put on immortality (vs 53). The point? Even in the grave we are not forgotten! As the bean seeds buried in the garden remain under the watchful and caring eye of the God of all life who ensures that the seed germinates, develops, grows so that a plant appears above the soil and continues to grow, so the human seed buried in the grave –that body of the child of God now returning to dust- remains under the watchful and caring eye of his faithful Father in heaven till the day of Christ’s return in glory. Forgotten we’re not; in life and in death we remain the precious property of our faithful Savior! Christ gave His blood also to redeem our bodies, and that is why even something so humiliating as burial is cast in Scripture in a positive light. The dead body is seed, and therefore to be buried in the expectation of growth, a crop, a harvest!
That reality, brothers and sisters, casts its own particular light on cremation – that practice now growing on our society. Every gardener knows that if he wants a crop he must not burn his seeds, but must sow his seeds. The child of God has heard his Lord speak of the dead body as a seed, and so in faith he sows the seed – and does not burn it. No, with this I do not say that there is never place for cremation. I can envisage in times of plague that it is necessary to destroy corpses in order to contain a plague. But a child of God who has understood the word of the apostle in 1 Corinthians 15 will avoid cremation, and will insist instead on burial. For burial expresses confidence in the Lord’s promise, the promise of a harvest, the promise of a resurrection.
For yes, that is the promise. At death soul and body go their separate ways, one to heaven to enjoy the glory of the Father’s holy presence together with the Son, the other into the ground as a seed to await the last trumpet. And once that trumpet sounds, the seed shall be instantly mature, shall arise from the dead a glorified body, to be united once more with the soul – God’s child glorified! Then that body –today, in this life, I need to fight against my sinful nature, for my flesh lusts against my spirit to make me do what I should not do- then that body will be completely and perfectly under the dominion of the Holy Spirit –does the Bible not call it a "spiritual body"? (1 Cor 15:44)- so that we do only what pleases our God and Maker.
Death: it entered the world as a result of our fall into sin. The human eye cannot peer through that wall called Death to discern what it’s like on the other side. But the Lord our God has told us of the triumph of Jesus Christ on the cross, how He paid for sin and so reconciled sinners to God. Through His sacrifice He has taken away the cause of death, and that’s to say that the body now buried in the dust of the earth will one day arise – and be transformed into something fully under the dominion of the Holy Spirit! Body and soul united and perfected, to the greater glory of the God who deserts us never (not before death, not in death, not even after death!) – for that day we earnestly long! Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.