Autumn and the Beauty of Death for the Christian

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(Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash)

I am a pastor in New England, and let me tell you–there is a reason people come from all over the country to see the Fall foliage. Here in New England, we call them “leaf peepers.” During peak leaf season, our sleepy tourist town of 5,000 goes into traffic-jam mode on the weekends. And with good reason. In our part of Vermont, we are surrounded by the Green Mountains on either side of the large valley we live in. When Fall really hits, there are a couple of weeks when the Green Mountains become the Orange, Red, and Gold Mountains.

We are currently easing into leaf season. There are bright bursts of brilliant crimson and orange on certain trees, but there is still plenty of green foliage that will have the chlorophyll leaving soon. Many leaves, however, are already floating to the ground. When a leaf falls to the ground, it is dead. The beauty of Fall foliage is death.

The Beauty of Christian Death
As I have watched the breathtaking hues begin to appear this Fall, I keep thinking about the fact that sometimes death is beautiful. In fact, for those who belong to Jesus, for those who are “in Christ,” death is always beautiful. “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). If the LORD calls the death of those he has saved “precious in his sight,” then it is beautiful.

I am a pastor. I am not naively saying that the death of those who are in Christ is without sorrow, or always happens painlessly in our sleep. Just this week I visited a member in a hospice home, suffering under the ravages of Alzheimer’s. I have sat and cried with spouses and children moments after their loved one has departed this earth, sometimes after a terrible battle with death. I have visited church members in the hospital who are in excruciating pain days before their death. Accidents happen to saints and sinners alike. Cancer can visit us all. The Apostle Paul calls death the “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

No, I am not talking about Christian death being beautiful because it is somehow less physically painful or less final on this side of eternity than non-Christian death. I am talking about Christian death being beautiful because the gospel gives us God’s perspective on even our final enemy, death.

Going Home–The Joy of Jesus’ Presence
Last night in Prayer Meeting we sang, “When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” Great gospel truths like this one from “How Great Thou Art” can become white noise to us if we don’t stop and think about the wonder of death being the door through which we are usually “taken home.” In 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul reminds us of the joy of Jesus’ presence that awaits us by exclaiming, “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Death for the Christian is beautiful because it brings us to the place we were made for. We are only pilgrims now. We will finally be home with the Lord either when Jesus returns, or on the day that we die. This is why there is beauty in Christian death.

But there’s more. Four verses earlier in 2 Corinthians 5 we are told why the day of our death is the day of our greatest joy: “…so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4). We think that we are really living life here and that one day we will die, but one reason that the death of the LORD’s saints is precious in his sight is because he knows that our death day is the day that we pass from mortality to life. The beauty in Christian death is that it is when we begin to really live, with the One we were made to live with, our Savior–not to mention saved family and friends who will meet us there. In Jesus, it is not death to die. This is why King David can sing, “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). It’s like arriving home to the family you love after a long trip–only a billion times better.

The Beauty of Fall and The Hope of Resurrection
Every time that I officiate a Memorial Service for a believer in Jesus, I feed my soul on 1 Corinthians 15 in the days leading up to the service. We need to weep as Jesus wept. We need to feel that death is so final on this side of eternity. But we need to remember that for the Christian, their death day was the most beautiful day they ever experienced.

And there is coming a day when Jesus will reveal that beauty to all of us. For on the day that he returns, the resurrection body given to each believer will be imperishable, glorious, and powerful (1 Corinthians 15:42-43)! “We shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

The beauty in Christian death is hard to see sometimes. Winter can be long and bleak. After the leaves fall, our trees will be barren here for over 6 months.

But lift your heads, brothers and sisters, because Spring follows Winter. It may be Fall now, but Spring time–and Resurrection Morning–is coming.

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“Who Will Roll Away the Stone for Us?”

The Empty TombHindsight is always 20/20.  Over 2,000 years ago the pressing question for a group of Jesus-worshiping ladies Sunday morning was, “Who will roll away the stone for us?” (Mark 16:3)  It was a great question.  They wanted to anoint Jesus with spices to show honor and respect to Him but they didn’t know how they were going to get to Him.

If you have ever seen a rolling stone tomb from the first century (picture to the left), you can immediately feel their anxiety.  Joseph of Arimathea had rolled the “great stone” to the entrance of the tomb (Matt. 27:60), and they had watched him do it (Matt. 27:61).  The flat stone blocking the entrance would have been on a sort of rough “track” so it could be rolled back and forth as needed, as most of these expensive tombs would have entire families buried there.  But it was a large stone–probably even with a mechanism to make it harder to open than it was to close, as was common–and these women, going alone early in the morning, were not sure they could budge it.

However, there was an even more daunting problem that they may have been unaware of.  On the Sabbath, the day after Jesus had died and was buried, chief priests and Pharisees had received permission from Pilate to use Roman soldiers to not only guard the tomb, but also to seal it (Matt. 27:66).

The religious leaders were concerned with somebody stealing the body and lying that Jesus had risen.  Those leaders were preoccupied with somebody going into the tomb, when they should have been preoccupied with Somebody coming out.

Meanwhile, for the women the question remained as they walked there together that morning: “Who will roll away the stone for us?”  But then it happened.  There was a great earthquake.  An angel of the Lord descended from heaven and rolled back the stone for them–and us–to see that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead!  This rolling away of the stone was so powerful and dramatic, and the appearance of the angel was so radiant, that the soldiers commissioned with guarding the tomb fainted (Matt. 28:3-4).

Large stones are heavy.  Guarded, sealed tombs are impenetrable.  But they can’t contain the risen Christ!

If you will allow me to help you apply this without being overly metaphorical, what is the stone in your heart right now?  What is it that is getting in the way of your saving belief in the risen Christ?  Assuming that you know Him as your Savior and Lord, what is it that is currently getting in the way of you living like your King truly is the risen and reigning Jesus?  Ask the Holy Spirit right now to help you see past the large stone and into the empty tomb.  For Christ is risen, He is risen indeed!

Our King is Humble Yet All-Powerful

One of the things that I love about Jesus are the truthful paradoxes that I see in Him as I read the Gospels.  He is full of grace, yet truth.  He is fully God, yet fully man.  He is gentle, yet bold.  He is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, yet He is the Lamb of God.

tissot-the-guards-falling-backwards-746x560Jesus’ closest disciples got a front-row seat to another seeming paradox the night that He was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It is one of my favorite accounts in Jesus’ Passion Week because it reminds us of Jesus’ humility and submission to the Father’s will as an obedient man, yet of His sovereignty and power as God (I have posted more extensively about John 18:3-6 here).

The beloved Apostle, moved by the Holy Spirit, remembered that night: “So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons.  Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to Him, came forward and said to them, ‘Whom do you seek?’  They answered Him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’  Jesus said to them, ‘I am He.’  Judas, who betrayed Him, was standing with them.  When Jesus said to them, ‘I am He,’ they drew back and fell to the ground.” (John 18:3-6)

Judas showed up to betray Jesus with a kiss, by bringing a “cohort” of Roman soldiers along with officers, chief priests, and Pharisees.  They had lanterns, torches, and weapons including clubs–and no doubt the regular weapons that Roman soldiers would carry.  These were not only angry religious leaders who were boldly breathing murder, these were also highly trained soldiers in an army that had battled the most powerful armies on earth and won.

But when Jesus spoke a word–when Jesus said His Name, the Name of God, “I am”–hundreds of skilled soldiers and fuming Pharisees fell to the ground.

Jesus didn’t exclaim, “See?  I am God’s Son!  I am the Messiah!  I just knocked you to the ground with my all-powerful voice, the same voice that created the world!”  Jesus was on a rescue mission.  He had just begged His omnipotent Father to remove the cup from Him.  To not place the sin of the world upon Him, to not be separated from His Father for the first and only time in all of eternity, to not be beaten and placed on the cross as an innocent man who would experience Hell in a sense for three hours.  The Father had said no, and the Son had said yes.  Jesus had declared through sweat drops of blood, “…not my will, but yours, be done.”  Nothing would deter Jesus from redeeming His people.  He would allow Himself to be arrested and the chain of events that He could already see to begin (John 18:4).

Jesus effortlessly knocked hundreds to the ground with His voice, reminding them and us of His power, but then moments later He humbly allowed them to arrest Him, reminding them and us of His saving purpose.

As we approach Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Resurrection Sunday, will you gaze at Jesus with me?  Oh, that we would not have hard hearts and go through the motions during another Easter season!  The soldiers and religious leaders that night not only saw Jesus’ power, they felt it like cold hard ground.  But their hearts didn’t melt before the King.  Oh Jesus, just as You later saved some of those same religious leaders and soldiers, warm our hearts to You, and help us to see You for who You really are!

Our Resurrection, Eternal Life, and Union with Christ

Romans 8 has long Kilimanjaro_Sunrisebeen one of my favorite passages of Scripture, both in happy and hard times.  As I read the incredible truths all throughout Romans 8 in happy times, it only adds to my happiness and praise of what God has done and is doing for me and those He loves–and in hard times it adds to my joy in and worship of our good and sovereign God, even if that joy is not a feeling at the moment.

I remember my wife and I reading Romans 8:31-35 with a high school girl in our youthgroup years ago who was struggling with depression over an abortion she had had before she was a believer:  “…If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?  Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?…Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”  The answer, of course, was that since she was now in Christ, even in the face of great regret, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1)

Romans 8 has been the solid rock that the Holy Spirit has been using in my heart this week as our church goes through a time of great mourning.  The same chapter that comforts the repentant sinner also comforts the bereaved.  Romans 8:10-11 teaches that our resurrection and the hope of our eternal life is just as sure as the resurrection of Christ, because of the work of the Holy Spirit.  For those who are in Christ, for those who have the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9), we have this blessed assurance: “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” (Rom. 8:11)

When God saves you, He gives you His Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9-10a).  We usually think of the Holy Spirit as being the agent of our regeneration and sanctification.  In other words, He is the member of the Trinity that gives us a new heart at salvation and brings us from spiritual death to spiritual life (Rom. 8:2).  The Holy Spirit continually works in the lives of those He has saved to transform them more and more in practice into who they are spiritually–children of God (Romans 8:29; 8:16-17).  But don’t forget, brothers and sisters in Christ, that the Holy Spirit does not leave us when we die.  The Holy Spirit who actually resides in you not only is with you to the brink of eternity, He continues the spiritual life He had begun in you (2 Cor. 5:4-5) and ushers you right into Heaven!  Those who had God dwelling in them on earth will then dwell with God in His home (Rev. 21:3)–through the power of the Holy Spirit.  God will never forsake His own, just as He would not and cannot forsake Himself (2 Tim. 2:13).

Your resurrection–and the resurrection of those brothers and sisters in Christ whom we love–is just as sure as Jesus’ bodily resurrection.  The Spirit of Christ has united us to Jesus so closely that we cannot fully comprehend it this side of Glory: “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.” (Rom. 6:5)  What a joy that brings, even through tears.

What Does the Resurrection Have to Do With Ministry?

picture 18I have a friend in Juarez, Mexico who is a native Mexican pastor of a small, poor church in the outskirts of the city.  He and his beautiful family have gone where most would fear to live and have planted a thriving church that loves the Lord and that loves to share the Gospel.  I had the privilege of visiting him often when I lived in Albuquerque, and there was one verse that we would often remind each other of as an encouragement when ministry was hard.  First Corinthians 15:58 declares, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”  Even now I can hear him responding, “Amen!  Amen!”

There is a great truth that drives Josue and all of us as we seek to serve the Lord day in and day out.  It is the simple but earth-shaking truth of the Gospel.  One of the first principles of Bible study when you read a verse that says, “therefore…” is to see what the “therefore” is there for.  In 1 Corinthians 15:58, Paul has just finished an extensive chapter all about the resurrection.  He begins by reminding us “…of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you…” (1 Cor. 15:1-2)  This includes the death of Christ on the cross for our sins, but also His burial, resurrection, and appearances before His ascension which proved and confirmed that He was truly risen from the dead (1 Cor. 15:3-8).  Later the apostle defends the bodily resurrection of believers, based on the fact that Christ has risen.  He points out that if we don’t have the hope of the resurrection, then our faith is futile and we are still in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17), and that there is no real hope in Christ if we only have hope in this life (1 Cor. 15:18-19).  Then Paul brings us back to this glorious, life-changing reality:  “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…” (1 Cor. 15:20)!

Because Christ has been raised from the dead, we are to live our lives in light of eternity (1 Cor. 15:32-34), knowing that we serve a risen King who has all authority in Heaven and on earth.  Because Christ has risen, we have the sure hope of the glory of Heaven (1 Cor. 15:42-49) and the confidence that in Christ even “death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54).  The truth of the Gospel–that in Christ my sins are forgiven and I am reconciled to God–and the reality of the resurrection, are all the motivation we need to be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord!  What does the resurrection have to do with ministry?  Everything.

Jesus Lives!

It is amazing how our hope is tied into the fact of Christ’s resurrection.  As Christ Himself taught, “…I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.  Do you believe this?” (John 11:25b-26)  He could actually call Himself THE resurrection before He had died or been raised.

He had just been discussing resurrection with Martha, because her brother Lazarus had died, and she had pointed to the Old Testament hope of resurrection.  He lovingly pointed out that there is no resurrection outside of the Son of God, Himself.  Then He proved it by raising Lazarus from the dead.  Martha got it right when he asked her if she believed this: “She said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.” (John 11:27)  Have you made this confession (see my earlier post, “What is the Gospel?”)?  If you have, then you can be abounding in hope because of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:19-20).

This Resurrection Sunday may you rejoice in Christ and in our hope that is in Christ, because He is risen!  I have recently been moved by the words of a song called “Jesus Lives” from Risen, a Sovereign Grace Music CD that is completely about the Resurrection.

Here is the music, but if you don’t listen then check out the words below:

I no longer fear the grave

Christ has come

Took the sting of death away

Through His saving blood

Though my body fails and my flesh grows weak

Till my final breath, to this hope I’ll cling

Jesus lives and so shall I

I’ll be raised from the dust with Christ on high

Jesus lives no more to die

And when He returns, with Him I’ll rise

Jesus lives

In this fallen world I cry

For the day

When Your glory splits the sky

And you come to reign

All creation waits for that promised hour

When the saints of God are revealed in power

Not death nor any power of hell can separate me from

The love, the love of my Savior

(Words by George Romanacce and Bob Kauflin, Copyright 2011 Sovereign Grace Worship)

Thursday Night of “Passion Week”

It is Thursday night of “Passion Week.”  We all know that Christ died on Friday and rose on Sunday, but what happened on Thursday night?  He washed His disciples’ feet.  He taught His disciples in the Upper Room.  He transformed the Passover meal into “The Lord’s Supper” commemorating His death.  He cried out to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane until He sweat drops of blood.  He was betrayed with a kiss.  He was arrested.  And He knocked a large detachment of Roman soldiers to the ground with His word.

The beloved Apostle, moved by the Holy Spirit, remembered that night: “So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons.  Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to Him, came forward and said to them, ‘Whom do you seek?’  They answered him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’  Jesus said to them, ‘I am He.’  Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.  When Jesus said to them, ‘I am he,’ they drew back and fell to the ground.” (John 18:3-6)

Judas, along with the religious leaders, had organized a detachment of soldiers to come and arrest Jesus in the garden.  The word translated “band” of soldiers in the ESV is a “cohort” of Roman soldiers that would normally number 600 men.  However, depending on the circumstances it could be up to 1,000 or as little as 200.  Given that there were extra Roman soldiers on duty for the Passover Feast, as well as the fact that the other Gospels indicate that there were others besides the soldiers in the crowd who carried clubs, it is no exaggeration to say that there was a minimum of 300 men there that night if not the full 1,000 given Jesus’ popularity just a few days before on “Palm Sunday.”  This would be at least 15 times more armed men than are in the picture at the top of this post.

Jesus decimated them by simply answering “I am” to their question.  These trained killers fell to the ground at the word of our Savior!

It is mind-boggling how some commentators will try to explain away this profound moment before Jesus was arrested.  It is another display of His authority before He would let them arrest Him, and we are reminded once again that He is the incarnate God before He humbles Himself to the point of death on a cross.  Before His greatest humility, He once again displayed His power.  Yet some will say things such as that they fell down because they expected to find a meek peasant and instead were met in the dim light by a majestic person.  Ludicrous.  Others say that those in the front were startled when Jesus appeared out of the shadows, which in turn knocked down those behind them like dominoes.  Nonsense.  Roman soldiers were highly trained and had taken over much of the world.  They battled against the most powerful armies on earth and often won.  They did not easily spook and fall down like children when somebody emerged from a dark garden that was now lit up with their torches.  But, they did fall down when Jesus said “I am.”  As John MacArthur explains, “All Jesus had to do was speak His name–the name of God–and His enemies were rendered helpless.” (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, John 12-21, p. 308)

It is no wonder Peter was emboldened to cut off the ear of the slave of the high priest!  Christ quickly reminded Peter right in front of the soldiers that if He wanted to, He could ask the Father to send 72,000 angels that He could then command (Matt. 26:53).  What was a detachment of Roman soldiers compared to His power?     

This was a foretaste of Christ as sovereign LORD even though the cross was looming on the horizon.  The same Apostle John who wrote the Gospel of John later saw Christ exalted and described Him: “…from His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and His face was like the sun shining in full strength.  When I saw him, I fell at His feet as though dead.  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.‘” (John 18:16-18)

Just as He laid His hand on John to show His grace, how He loves you and me!  That He would place Himself into the hands of these soldiers to obey the will of the Father, to be crushed on the cross as He paid the awful and incomprehensible price of sin when He could have stopped it all in an instant, with a word, needs to move us!

Even when they fell down at His word, the soldiers in the garden that night didn’t recognize Him as God.  But it may have contributed to God’s work in some of their hearts as later some soldiers would believe in Christ as the Son of God and Savior even at the foot of the cross the next day.  As you celebrate Good Friday and then Resurrection Sunday, remember that our King was not a victim of an evil plan (although it was evil, Acts 2:23), but rather the triumphant Victor of the Plan that had been made before the foundation of the world (Acts 2:23).  Thank You Jesus for Your power, and thank You for Your grace!