Mark 15:37 “Jesus breathed his last.”
We are all told often enough that Christ died for our sins, but rarely are we reminded that Christ was also dead for our sins. So today I don’t want to speak of the dying of Jesus as much as the death of Jesus for our sins.
1. WHY SPEAK ON DEATH?
There are various important reasons. Imagine never mentioning death; as though Christians, of all people, had nothing to say about it, were embarrassed or afraid about death and so we became mute. Christians don’t evade the fact of death. We have much to say that is liberating and joyful about death. The Bible says it is better to go to a funeral than a feast. The risen Christ enables us to taunt death – “O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?” We can boast in the good news that the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Remember a famous episode of Fawlty Towers when a party of Germans come to stay at the Torquay hotel and Basil, the owner, goes around telling his staff , “Don’t mention the War! Don’t mention the War!” while Basil himself talks of the War incessantly with a triumphalistic gleam. We will not be silent as Satan and the world desires. “Don’t mention death!” says the world. “Don’t preach about death!” says Satan, as they pressurize people to contemplate suicide. I refuse to listen to them. God himself frequently mentions this subject. God mentions ‘death’ 450 times in the Bible. God says ‘dead’ 314 times in the Bible. God says the word ‘die’ 600 times in the Bible, and are we never going to mention it?
Death is inescapable. It is the one certainty about the future of everyone here. The one fundamental fact of human existence remains, one man one death. Your philosophy of life must make room for that fact, and give you understanding of it. Sir Jimmy Saville has raised millions for charity. He is a disc jockey and a friend of Margaret Thatcher. He has spent many New Year’s Eves in the Prime Minister’s mansion, ‘Chequers’. He also works regularly as a volunteer porter at Leeds Infirmary. He says, “Occasionally I wheel away someone who has just died, and I’m filling in the mortuary book, writing their final epitaph, as it were. It puts everything into perspective.” This is where, one day, Sir Jimmy Saville himself is going to end his brief life, and you, and me. That is what I want you to do by this consideration of the death of Jesus Christ. Please put your life into perspective. My speaking about death today will not bring your death one second closer, but it might give you information about what it is, and where to find hope as you face it. Today a sermon on Jesus being dead might become the most vital, life-transforming experience of your life if you’re praying as you hear it that God will seal it to you and give you understanding. Shouldn’t you know what lies before you and prepare for it? Shouldn’t you know deliverance from its dread? Isn’t it crucial? Is death the ultimate reality? There is no greater question you can ever consider than that. Who can supply the answer? Jesus Christ says that he can! Shouldn’t you listen and understand? If there is a real entity, eternal life, shouldn’t you possess it? Remember Christian in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress fleeing from the City of Destruction crying, “Life! Life! Eternal life!” Wouldn’t you be wise to sell everything you have that you might possess life?
I want it to awaken some of you who sleep. Hasn’t the sudden fear of dying become a blessing to Christian people? Here is a church member who has done well in the world. He has made a lot of money and gained a reputation for himself, but his love for Christ has waned. He has become lukewarm, neither cold nor hot in his discipleship. He has marginalised the living Christ whom he once professed to be his God and Saviour. Then one day he suffered a major heart attack, or perhaps someone else in his family had a serious accident. There were days spent in an Intensive Care Unit and much prayer was made. This encounter with the enemy brought him to seek his Best Friend, the living Christ, with a repentant heart and new zeal. God healed his backsliding. God, I say, can use sickness and death very much to remind people of the fickleness of all that this world has to offer. “What will it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” Christ asks. Death’s nearness gives that question a deep personal importance. So let the church speak of death, let me speak of it, and please listen because it is the only important subject a man should consider; it is an inescapable reality in our lives and this theme has been the means of causing many people to cry for the gift of eternal life. The world has nothing at all to say on this subject. Doctors, and professors, and scientists, and psychiatrists, and philosophers are all mute about this reality which is hurtling towards them.
How different the Christian. At death every Christian meets with Jesus Christ face to face. The dying thief is told by Christ that that very day of his death he would be with our Saviour in paradise. The apostle’s hope was that to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord. Paul hoped soon to depart and be with Christ which was better than anything this poor world had to offer him. Should we Christians be afraid of death? Should we fear to meet our Saviour who has done so much for us, taking away all our sins, every single one of them, even the prayerlessness, and lovelessness, and coldness of heart, and hypocrisies of our daily existence. All the divine handwriting recording all our sins has been written on Christ and he has entered Golgotha ’s divine shredder for us. They are all gone; every one of our sins has been destroyed in their power to condemn us. This loving Saviour is the one whom we shall meet at the moment of death. He is the one who loves us more than our parents, more than our husbands and wives, and he longs to receive us, transformed and glorious, to be with him for ever. How can we refuse to think of that glorious day when we shall personally say thank-you to him? When we come to the banks of that river he says he’ll be there waiting for us, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” Why have you been afraid of death? Because you’ve been thinking about a Christless death. But for the Christian there is no Christless life and there is no Christless death. The answer to the fear of the grave is to be joined to the conqueror of the grave.
2. WHAT IS DEATH?
Some of you don’t even know what death is. Two negatives; firstly it is not a process, it is an event. “Man is destined to die once,” (Hebs. 9:27). There is no reincarnation; there is no transmigration of the soul. On the Mount of Transfiguration God brought from heaven Moses and Elijah to meet with Jesus and three men. Moses and Elijah had not undergone many reincarnations since they walked this earth. They had remained as people with their own unique memories and personalities and identities. They will be just Moses and just Elijah for ever. They were each given a temporary glorified body for this time on the mountain with Jesus – just like angels can be given bodies for a special task, or as the Son of God was enfleshed for special visitations during the old covenant period. So it is one life only and one death only. Death, I assure you, is not a process; it is a single momentous event.
Secondly, death is not annihilation. Our lives are not snuffed out like a candle flame. On Tuesday January 10 this week the medical magazine called the Doctor carried an article on faith in God amongst doctors. Half the consultants the magazine interviewed said they believed in God. General Practitioners are even more God-fearing than their consultant colleagues, 61 per cent of them believe in God. Then listen more carefully to one of the leading medical men of the twentieth century speaking on death; “The common view held by the world is that death is just the end of life. Death means, it is said, cessation of existence. A man exists; he dies; he is no longer existing and that is the end of that. But that is not the biblical teaching at all. In fact, biblical teaching is the exact opposite. Bible writers are very anxious to assert and to emphasize that death does not mean the cessation of existence . . . Now I could give you many texts. Two very important ones clinch the whole matter. The first is Luke 12:4-5. Here our Lord says to his disciples, ‘Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But . . . fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell’, or, as we read in the parallel passage, Matthew 10:28 ‘him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.’ There are some people who can destroy the body. Don’t be afraid of them, our Lord says. The one to fear is the one who can destroy the soul as well as the body. And our Lord’s teaching in Luke 16 about Lazarus and Dives obviously teaches the same thing. The rich man, Dives, dies; the poor man, Lazarus, the beggar at his gate, also dies. They both leave their bodies behind, but their souls are there, existing in another realm” (Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Church and the Last Things, Hodder, London, 1998, p.61).
So what is death? It is simply the rending apart of the soul and the physical body. Consider the great picture of man’s creation from Genesis two. God made man from the dust of the earth. There he lay before God, a body, but a cadaver, a body without a soul. Then God came near and he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and that body became a living creature. Man was no longer body alone; he was also soul. Do you understand? Let’s start here; you are body; your finger prints are unique to you, so are your ears and your eyes. You are in fact altogether unique as a person. You may be a twin but even physically you are not exactly the same as your brother or sister. I recognize your face, and your shape, and your walk, and your voice. You are certainly body, but then there is more.
You are also soul. You have a personality, an emotional and intellectual identity. You have passions, loves and enthusiasms. You have intelligence; you have convictions; you have gifts and abilities. You can speak sometimes profoundly and sometimes foolishly; you have a conscience and know the difference between right and wrong. You will suffer for those you love. All that we call the ‘soul,’ or, when we speak of your relationship with God we call it the ‘spirit’ but it is the same non-body dimension we are referring to. You are not like an animal which only has a body. You drive north from Aberaeron on the cliff-top road and see the sun setting over Cardigan Bay and the sheep and horses and cows in the fields. They are not conscious of the sight before them in all its divinely created glory. A sheep does not call its lambs and point out to them the view. We could never kill and eat them if they did. They are body alone. They bury their mouths in the grass and focus on the herbs and eat all day and every day. We are not like that; we are soul as well as body.
Angels are the very opposite to animals; they are pure spirit. They have no bodies, but man is body and man is spirit. He is a dual nature, spirit is united to body, and we have no idea how the interfaces of body and soul operate. How do our physical ears hear the word of God and our souls respond, rejoicing or mourning? We don’t know. That they do so we can all bear witness to, but we’re not given the details of how this is done. The spirit also influences the body, our desires and appetites and hungers and longings and fears, and then the body is the means by which the spirit is purified and sanctified.
So I am body and I am spirit because I am a living person, but at death that union is broken. It is torn apart, and you look at the next words of Mark. Aren’t they significant? We are told that Jesus breathed his last and then that, “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mk. 15:38). That is a picture of death. Soul and body, one indivisible union for 33 years, and then death comes and they are torn apart. The body lies buried in the ground, while the soul is confronted with an open-ended encounter with God. That is death. This body of mine is something I love and care for. I have a little sore that doesn’t heal and so I go to the doctor and he tells me that it must be removed. I have a pain in my chest and I go to the doctor and he tells me I must have by-pass surgery. I watch over my body. I wash it and stand in the shower until all the sweat and dirt is removed. Then I spray it with deodorant and cover it in sweet-smelling lotions and after-shave, but one day this body is going back to the earth from which it was taken. It has over thirty different chemical elements and it will be buried, and worms will eat it up. You can fight against the aging process with plastic surgery and look years younger than you are, but you cannot fight against the moment of your death and what follows. Our souls and our bodies will be torn apart; that is death. It is not extinction at all; it is not a process, it is an event of separation at many different levels and relationships, and the most foundational is the separation of the soul from the body.
3. WHY DEATH?
Listen again to that renowned medical doctor; “Why do we die? Why is there such a thing as death at all? The popular view here, the popular philosophical view, is that death is inherent in life, that death is a part of the life process. Life comes into being: there is a beginning, a sprouting. And that is followed by a movement: life develops, it blossoms, it matures, it attains its full maturity, and then it begins to decay. Why? It is because life is meant to go so far but no further and when it reaches its peak it begins to go down the other side of the hill. So the teaching is that as life was constituted, it had within it this germ, this seed, of death.
“But that is again far from being biblical teaching. According to the Bible, death is not a part of life, it is not something inherent in it, but is the punishment for sin. It was introduced because of sin. You will find this in Genesis 2:17: ‘In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die’ — or, ‘dying thou shalt die’. You find the same teaching exactly in Genesis 3:19. And it comes in the New Testament in Romans 5, where the apostle Paul shows how death entered in because of the sin of Adam: ‘Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned’ (v. 12). Death, you see, came by sin.
“There is another very interesting statement of the same teaching in the epistle of James: ‘Every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death’ (Jas. 1:14&15). So the biblical teaching is that death was introduced as God’s punishment for sin. There was no death until man sinned and there would have been no death if he had not sinned. This is a vital biblical principle and it cuts right across the popular modern philosophy which controls the teaching of the vast majority of people” (op cit, pp. 61&62). We are saying that death is not part of the natural process of our human existence. It is the judgment of God on sin.
4. THE LORD JESUS CHRIST DIED.
Our text, Mark 15:37, says, “Jesus breathed his last.” Remember who Jesus was. Mark’s gospel starts with these words, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” John’s gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” Christ was the Son of God, the eternal Word, made flesh. When he came to earth he did not cease to be God. He was as completely God as if he were not man; but since his conception in the virgin’s womb he was as completely man as if he were not God. Two natures were joined together in him, in one person, never to torn apart. He was the complete man; the pure man, the perfect one in whom God was pleased. How beautiful he was; he is very beautiful; he is most beautiful; he is always beautiful; he is altogether beautiful, and he was also utterly consistent in everything he did. He lived what he preached and he preached what he lived.
The Lord Christ is also God without any qualification except this that his glory was veiled when he was on earth, yet he is God. He has all the names of God, all the titles of God, and all the attributes of God, and all the prerogatives of God. He creates; he sustains; he saves; he resurrects; he judges; he glorifies. And all those divine capacities can be seen in his life in the four gospels, and they are all wonderfully restrained, and yet what God alone can do Jesus does. As a true man Christ needs the Holy Spirit; he prays; he suffers; he weeps; he feels alone, but he is not as a humanized God experiencing all this, any more than he was a deified man. He was God, and at the same time, in the same being, he was man, and he was one person. He was not half a God and half a man. He was perfectly God and perfectly man. This is who this one is who experienced death on Golgotha .
Again, think of what this Christ did. He once met a funeral procession in a place called Nain and he halted the corsage and he raised to life the body of the boy who was being taken to his grave and restored him to his widowed mother. There were scores of witnesses. Again, he went with a synagogue ruler named Jairus to his home where his twelve year old daughter was dead, and he took her hand and said to her, “Little girl get up,” and he took her from the realm of death and brought her back to life. There were five witnesses. There was also a family he knew, two sisters called Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. The brother became seriously ill and though they sent for Jesus he delayed his arrival until three days after Lazarus had died. Jesus raised from his tomb this dead man before the eyes of his reproachful sisters and many witnesses. This is what this Christ did, the one who later breathed his last breath and died. He was greater than death; in all the history of this universe Jesus Christ is ultimate reality, not death. Yet he is the one who hangs dead on the cross and is buried.
Again, think of what Christ claimed, for example, that he was the resurrection and the life, that the water Jesus gives will become in the believer a spring of water welling up to eternal life; that just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he will; that a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live, for as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. These are some of the claims of the Son of God. This is the one of whom we are told that he was dead. Isn’t it amazing? Why should the one who had authority over death die? Why should he who said that no man could take his life from him freely lay down his life?
Isn’t death the wages of sin? Doesn’t death pass on all men because they’ve sinned? But where was this man’s sin? He had none. He asked people which of them accused him of any wrong doing and no one did. His Father said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Yet he died. Think of how this refrain runs through the New Testament. Consider I Corinthians 15, the great chapter on the resurrection of the body. It begins with the summary of the gospel, “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried . . .” Why does Paul emphasize that Christ was buried? Because he was truly and officially dead. Then as the chapter goes on the great theme is that Christ was raised from the dead, verses 12, and 15 and 20. Or think of how the epistle to the Galatians begins, “Paul, an apostle – sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” Or think of the emphasis of Paul in Romans 6:10 referring to the death of Christ, “The death he died, he died to sin once for all.” Or there is that remarkable phrase of Jesus before the Transfiguration when, referring to it, he tells his disciples that some of them will not “taste death” before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom (Matt. 16:28). Death has a taste; it is the bitter taste of grief, and loneliness, and fear, and divine judgment and so on. Then in Hebrews 2:9 we are told that by the grace of God Christ “tasted death” for everyone. He, the Prince of life and Lord over death, tasted it and he did it for us! The Christian will say, “I can face death. I can taste it because Jesus has tasted death for me. He asks me to taste nothing more than he has tasted first.”
The suspicious tyrant will employ the royal taster. This man is the guinea pig. He first tastes everything the tyrant is about to eat to ensure that there is no poison in it. If he swallows it down and licks his lips with no ill effects then the tyrant will do the same. Jesus has tasted death and where is he today? Risen and highly exalted and in God’s presence in the joy set before him. We surely can taste death too! Or there are those remarkable words of Paul to the Colossians 1:21&22, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight.” This physical body of ours is extraordinary. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and yet it lets us down at times we seem to need it most, but even at those times, as they come hurrying into our lives, we have hope through Christ’s great reconciling work in his body and by his death. We hope in a resurrection body. We’re reminded of a conversation someone had with the former U.S. president John Quincy Adams. One day in his eightieth year as he walked slowly along a Boston street he was accosted by a friend who said, “And how is John Quincy Adams today?” He replied, “Thank you, John Quincy Adams is well, sir, quite well, I thank you. But the house in which he lives at present is becoming dilapidated. It is tottering upon the foundations. Time and the seasons have nearly destroyed it. Its roof is pretty well worn out, its walls are shattered, and it trembles with every wind. The old tenement is becoming almost uninhabitable, and I think John Quincy Adams will have to move out of it soon; but he himself is quite well, sir, quite well,” and with that the old man, leaning heavily upon his stick, went on his way.
5. WHY MUST CHRIST EXPERIENCE DEATH?
It is all to do with the effect that sin has had in the world, that He came into this groaning world determined to deliver us from the power of sin while we are alive by becoming our Lord and Shepherd, but also after we have died he has also changed our deaths. In the New Testament it never reports a Christian as having died but that the Christian sleeps in Christ. That is what the death of Jesus has accomplished. In other words, Christ has warmed the bed of death for us; he has entered that cold grave and changed the bed. What does it mean? Three things;
i] The last enemy has been overcome. We have many enemies lying in wait for us this week. Do you see a long line of them all waiting to have a go at us? We have to enter the lists and take on every one of them. The first is now crouching at the door ready to pounce. There are our own powerful temptations, our doubts and lusts and that old ego. How we hate that especially. What familiar internal enemies to our happiness they are. Then there are more, our spiritual enemies – principalities and powers and rulers of the darkness of the world, Beelzebub, and Satan. How they will throw their fiery darts at us this week. But then at the end of the line, bringing up the rear of our enemies, there is the last enemy and that is death. We will enter the final illness from which there will be no recovery. We will say good-bye to every scene and person that is delightful to us. This monstrous enemy will remove us from all that is dear. But as we approach him we must remind ourselves that that enemy has been conquered and killed; there is the death of death in the death of Christ. Death has been changed by Christ. Death has come under the dominion of Jesus. Even death can only do to us what Jesus permits. The first face we shall see in death will be his face. The first voice we will hear will be his. He has overcome our last enemy. So we rejoice, “O death where is your victory? Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
ii] The sting of death has been removed. A father and son were sharing a tent on a camping holiday. The son had a violent allergic reaction to bee stings. They could even kill him, but into that tent one evening a bee flew. The boy went hysterical and there was nothing at hand to kill the bee, and so that father cupped his hands and caught the bee and crawled out of the tent with it. In the process the bee stung him, and the bee died as the sting refused to come out of his father’s hand; the boy was spared. So Christ has taken into his own body the sting of death. It has buried itself in his heart and death has died in this way that death can never sting a Christian again as it stung Christ. Our death and condemnation as sinners has been borne by him; we have hope and peace in death because of his death. There is no sting of death to them who are in Christ Jesus.
iii] A new door has been opened. Every death is a door somewhere. On one door the word ‘HEAVEN’ is written and on the other door, ‘HELL.’ For every unconverted unrepentant sinner the door of death they enter has the word ‘HELL” upon it. Every one! But Christ has opened the door of glory by his death, and all who are joined to Christ in life and death go to be with him. In other words, God himself requires nothing more to be done in order for sinners to go to Paradise than to trust in his Son alone. Christ need do nothing more for the salvation of sinners than to have tasted death for them. You can do nothing more to be delivered from the pain of death than commit your life into the hands of Jesus Christ. “I am the door,” says Jesus. Be joined to Christ now by faith and face death itself with peace because of the Saviour’s finished work.
6 WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES FOR EVERY BELIEVER THAT CHRIST WAS DEAD FOR US?
i] It is a privilege for the Christian to die as his Saviour died. Sometimes you hear Christians say that they want to stay alive until the second coming and be caught up in the air to be with the Lord and so never die. That might be the privilege of some, but I want to follow my Saviour in life and death. I think it a very great honour to breathe my last as he breathed his last; to grow cold and lifeless and be wrapped in a shroud and be buried as he was cold and buried, and to wait for the resurrection as he did. I want to depart. Remember the last day of school at the beginning of the long summer holidays, how you ran home light of step thinking of all the delights that lay before you? That is how we look forward to heaven. The shadowland days all over; the real life of God begun. We watch the boat that leaves Aberystwyth harbour for Rosslare as it goes to the horizon. “There it goes!” we cry. In Rosslare harbour they look out to sea and then catch a glimpse of a sail appearing on the horizon. “Here it comes!” they cry. So as we bid farewell to our loved ones as they leave this world those who are in glory are waiting for us, “Here she comes . . . here he comes . . .” they cry in anticipation.
ii] Now I want to say the very opposite, that I dread death. I want to see my loved ones for many more years; I don’t want the ties between me and my family broken. I am afraid of death at this moment. I am a Christian, and I should exercise faith and be completely at peace, but I must be honest with you and say the thought of dying today fills me with dread. But I am not going to die today, and so I am not being given dying grace. I am being given living grace, preaching grace, ministering grace, serving grace. But one day all that must end and there will be nothing left for me to do but to die, and then, I believe, grace will be given to me and to all who love me who are in Christ. We will have grace to say good-bye to one another, and shed our tears, and say that we wish we had been kinder and better people. I expect to have grace to depart and go to Christ, but I fear death today, because today is not yet my time.
iii] Let us be busy in all our duties. How would you want to spend the time if you knew that tomorrow would be your last day on earth? Would you need to spend it asking for that forgiveness of sin which you should have asked for long ago? It is, of course, infinitely better to make a deathbed repentance than not to repent at all. But many who put off until the last moment the matter of getting right with God find themselves unable to repent at that time. Entrust yourself to Christ today. Believe in him now. Today is the accepted time, the only time you can guarantee is this time. Believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ! Then it is important that when we come to die we have nothing else to do but to die. Then you can calmly wait for death, knowing that your sins are forgiven and that all will be well when you face the Judge of all the earth. The Judge will be the Saviour who tasted death for you. If you want to die the death of the righteous you must live the life of the righteous.
John Wesley was once asked, “If you knew that you would die at twelve o’clock tomorrow night, how would you spend the intervening time?” “Why,” was the answer, “just as I intend to spend it. I would preach tonight at Gloucester and again tomorrow morning. After that I would ride to Tewkesbury , preach in the afternoon and meet the society in the evening. I should then repair to friend Martin’s house, as he expects me; converse, pray with the family, retire to my room at ten o’clock, commend myself to my Heavenly Father, lie down to sleep and wake up in glory.”
“So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him . . . Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”
15th January 2006 GEOFF THOMAS