April 4, 2021
Life is short, and death is the inescapable reality for us all. Our souls will not cease to exist after death; rather, we will stand in judgment before God. As Alistair Begg explains, Christ’s death and resurrection are incomparable works that reconcile repentant sinners to God. A risen Lord is the indispensable foundation of our faith. Thanks be to God, who grants us victory through Christ!
And we read together once again from, this time, the letter of Paul to the Corinthians—just two brief sections from the twelfth verse. First Corinthians 15:12:
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
And then, in his closing verses: “When the perishable,” verse 54, “puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Well, let’s pray together once again:
Father, as we turn to the Bible, what we know not, teach us; what we have not, give us; what we are not, make us. For your Son’s sake. Amen.
Well, we turn to the Bible this morning, on a morning where the latest Gallup poll has made its way into the press—a Gallup poll of the present religious persuasion and participation of men and women in the continental United States. And no surprise at all, it confirms the minority status of those who are members of the church of Jesus Christ. I think it began in the ’30s, but dating from 1945, in the nation, 75 percent of people would have identified themselves in membership or in attendance with a church. As of today, that is now 47 percent. In the same time frame, those who never attended would have identified themselves making up 9 percent, and today that number has risen to 30 percent.
Statistics can prove all kinds of things, but I was struck by an article that was sent to me from the Los Angeles Times that bore the heading “Why [America’s] Record Godlessness Is Good News for the Nation.” And the article was a somewhat understandable and yet cynical piece concerning the secularization of our country. As I read it, I said to myself, “But, of course, we know that Jesus will build his church,” and I found myself humming along to myself at least the words of Luther’s great hymn,
And though [the] world, with devils filled
Should threaten to undo us
We will not fear, for God ha[s] willed
His truth to triumph through us.
And it is with that conviction that we come to a morning like this—a morning that, again, as we’ve said, is shared by people around the world. And the world has been echoing today and will echo today the angels’ Paschal greeting. So, for example, I believe in Serbia they’ve been saying to one another, Hristos vaskrse! In China—you ready for this?—Helisituosi fuhuole! You can believe that if you like. In the Ukraine, Khristos voskres! In Spain, Cristo ha resucitado! In Romania, Hristos a inviat! In Denmark, Kristus er opstanden! I can even understand that one, can’t you? “Jesus is standing up.” I love that! Kristus er opstanden! In France, le Christ est réssuscité! And in Italy Cristo è risorto! Veramente è risorto!
Or my very favorite, which takes me back to nearly forty years ago, at a service of Easter in the west of Scotland, where a number of people had recently been converted. And one of them, a man who had his life completely revolutionized by the gospel—he had lived in a flophouse; he was under the bondage of alcohol and other things. His name was Jimmy. And I had the privilege of baptizing this man, well into his fifties, perhaps into his sixties, although he looked older. And as people worked with him and tried to encourage him and get him ready for his first Easter, they were explaining to him, you know, “Probably what’ll happen is somebody will say to you, ‘Christ is risen!’ And if they say that to you, Jimmy, what you say is ‘He is risen indeed!’” And so he said, “Okay.” He was a wonderfully nice man. He was a fairly simple man.
And so, Easter came around. And it happened that one of my friends, another Alistair, encounters him as he comes into the church. And he says to him, “Jimmy, Christ is risen!” And then there was just a long pause, and Jimmy says, “Ay, he is, son—nae doot aboot it!” And I thought, “That is just absolutely perfect.” He couldn’t come up with a standard reply, but he was in no doubt: Jesus is alive. There is no doubt about it. He was a living testimony to the transforming power of Jesus.
Now, it is on the basis of all that the Bible explains to us that we are able to take our stand on the truth of the gospel, and particularly to pay attention to the matter of Christ’s resurrection. I want to approach it by using three words. I’ll tell you what they are, and then we’ll proceed: incomparable, indispensable, inescapable.
And the first of these is incomparable. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is incomparable. In other words, there is nothing that can compare with it. A bright person may say, “But weren’t there others? Wasn’t the daughter of Jairus raised from the dead?” Yes. “Wasn’t Lazarus?” Yes. But in each case it was a resuscitation, insofar as it only prolonged their natural life for a while, only for them then again to face death.
But the resurrection of Jesus Christ is incomparable. He is the one who declares, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He is the one who says, “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore.” And so it is that the Bible, the Gospel records and into the Letters too, are very, very clear in emphasizing this fact. And that’s why we read from Mark’s Gospel and the brief statement that he provides for us there. And as it was read for us by Michael, we had occasion to rehearse it in our minds.
Let me point out to you just a number of things regarding this description. First of all, it is a description of these ladies, a description of unashamed devotion. Unashamed devotion. It is a testimony to their loyalty. It is a testimony to their bravery. Quite fascinatingly, they are going to anoint a body. It would be strange if the body had not yet already been anointed. In fact, we know that that had taken place. But love will make people do strange things—things that seem over the top. And it was for them to be an over-the-top kind of morning. The practicality of the female mind was in anticipation of what they would encounter. And so they’re saying to one another, “Well, who’s gonna handle the stone when we get there?” Well, of course, their unashamed devotion gave way to what we might refer to as an unexpected discovery. Because when they got there, the thing that they feared they need not have bothered about, because the stone had already been rolled back. That was the first part of their discovery.
It wasn’t rolled back, incidentally, so that Jesus could come out. It was rolled back in order that others could go in and see that he was no longer there. After all, Jesus had come through, miraculously, through the grave clothes, which were all in an absolute perfect position in the tomb, recorded for us. And if he was able to do that, it would be very surprising if we found him waiting on the inside for an angel to come and roll the stone away to let him out. It really beggars the imagination, doesn’t it? No, the angel was there. He’s “a young man,” as described by Mark, and in one of the other Gospels he’s described as sitting on the stone—a wonderful picture of triumph. And in this encounter, the opening phrase from him to the ladies is “Don’t be alarmed.” “Don’t be alarmed.” To which they might have said, at least under their breaths, “That’s easy for you to say! I mean, we came here not expecting anything along these lines.” And he goes on, and he says to them, “I know that you’re looking for Jesus. But you’re too late. He’s not here. He is risen. Why don’t you check out and you can see where he was?”
Actually, in one of the parallel passages, the encounter contains the earlier part of the conversation, “Why do you [look for] the living among the dead?”—which, of course, they weren’t doing. They weren’t looking for the living among the dead. They were looking for the dead among the dead. They had brought the spices in order that they might anoint a dead body. They were not there in order to meet a risen Christ.
And then they’re given what is a very straightforward and unmistakable assignment. He says to them, “What you should do now is go. Go and tell the disciples and Peter.” It’s quite wonderful, isn’t it, that Peter gets a special mention? If there was one of the disciples in particular who would want to know that Jesus was alive, who would want to know that everything had not collapsed, who would want to know that his final, bitter experience wasn’t to deny the Lord Jesus Christ, then surely Peter would be top of the list. And so the disciples are to know, and Peter will know, and they make their departure very quickly. They “fled” out of the place. They got out of there.
Well, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because they were afraid. They didn’t say anything to anyone, at least until they went and told the disciples later. But they were just astonished. They were “trembling.” “Astonishment had seized them,” had turned them almost like into clay. Well, what had happened to them? They had encountered a moment in history that was gonna change history forever.
And the charge that was given to them is the charge that is essentially given to the church: “Come, first of all, and see that Jesus is the risen Lord. And then go and tell. Go and tell people. Tell them humbly. Tell them clearly. Tell them simply. Tell them boldly.” Why is it that the church doesn’t do this? You say, “Well, we did.” Well, I’m not asking about what you did. I’m saying, why doesn’t the church do this? Why are we not largely known, in our minority status, in our increasingly secular environment, for making simple, clear, bold declarations that Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior, risen from the dead?
Let me tell you why we don’t, in part: because of people like me. Better still, because of people in the positions that are akin to my position. “What do you mean by that?” I mean simply this: that so many people, clergy, instead of accepting the record as stated, have decided, for whatever reason, to compromise the straightforward expression of its truth on the basis of intellectual confusion, in order to cater to people’s emotional convenience. And so what happens is the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, and guess what? The people do not go out to battle. If it was really the responsibility of the pastor to demythologize the gospel, if it was really the responsibility of the Bible teacher to psychologize the whole thing, to sentimentalize it, to domesticate it, that would be one thing. But it isn’t. No, the charge is the same charge.
As I was thinking along those lines, I reminded myself of a book that I’d read by Robert Harris as part of the trilogy on Cicero and Julius Caesar. And I was able to find it. And it’s actually a fictitious piece. It involves a cardinal in this conversation, Cardinal Scavizzi. Okay? Cardinal Scavizzi. Okay. And he is having a conversation with the people in the context of Rome. And he says to them, “Every day, some new ‘ism’ arises. But not all ideas are of equal value. Not every opinion can be given due weight. Once we succumb to ‘the dictatorship of relativism,’ as it has been properly called, and attempt to survive by accommodating ourselves to every passing [idea] and fad of modernism, our ship is lost.” And then he says, “We do not need a Church that will move with the world but a Church that will move the world.” The only church that will move the world is a church that is absolutely convinced that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a veritable fact and that it is incomparable.
Secondly, it is indispensable. Indispensable. The resurrection is not a kind of theological appendix—you know, nice to have, but you can actually easily live without it. No, when we read the Gospel records and into the Letters, we realize that Christ’s death and his resurrection are interwoven. What we mean by that is straightforward: one does not exist without the other. So, when the apostles begin to preach at the birthday of the church, you will notice, if you read their sermons, they are always moving from the death of Christ to the resurrection of Christ in one complete sweep. They’re not doing one on one day and another on the other. No, they say, “He was buried, but he was raised. He died, but he is alive.” As we saw on Good Friday, some of us, as Paul puts it, he was “delivered [over] for our trespasses” and he was “raised for our justification.”
Paul begins his massive chapter on the resurrection with just that expression, and it’s striking. He says, “I [want to] remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you …. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins [according to] the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day [according to] the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, [and] then to the twelve.” So you see the emphasis? Death, burial, resurrection, and appearance.
Now, why is this of significance? Well, because to make these claims is not to invent something, but it is actually a logical deduction from our discovery of who Jesus is. That is why the apostles then said there is no salvation for sin unless there is a living Savior. There’s no salvation for sin unless Jesus is alive—hence the emphasis on the resurrection. But a living Lord can only be a Savior because he has died for our sins.
Now, when we begin to think about this, we realize there’s no surprise in it that Paul took an entire chapter to bring this home. And I read a little section of it from the twelfth verse, where he says, “If there’s no resurrection, then Christ himself wasn’t raised.” Now, if you think about this, you think, “Well, isn’t he saying that upside down? Shouldn’t it be ‘If Christ is not raised, there is no resurrection’?” But that’s not actually what he’s saying. He’s saying the reverse of that.
Now, what does that mean? Well, it means this: that there would have been some of the people in the Corinthian context who were prepared to say, “Well, I guess it’s okay to believe in the resurrection of the Messiah,” but they were very, very unclear about the possibility that that resurrection would involve the followers of Jesus. And so, four times in the section that I read, Paul shows that those who deny the physical, bodily resurrection of believers also deny the resurrection of Jesus, even if they say it’s true!
And he presses them on this. This is not, as I say to you, some piece of theological lumber that you’ve had up in your attic for a few years, and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s there or whether you bring it down or pay any attention to it at all. No, it’s at the very heart of things. It is indispensable. Indispensable. And he says, “If you want to understand just the extent to which the consequences will be upon you,” he points them out: “If Christ, then, is not raised, our preaching is useless.” Useless!
I don’t understand people who preach who don’t believe that Jesus is alive. That’s phenomenal to me. That is… That is bizarre to me. I mean, you stand up there, and you don’t even believe the foundation of the Christian faith, and yet you preach? What do you preach about? Presumably about yourself. Or presumably about Newsweek magazine. Or presumably about an idea that you’ve had. Or perhaps you preach about the goodness of people and tell them they’re a wonderful group, and try their best, and be nice to people, and put blankets over old ladies’ legs, and do various things, and do this, and do that, and do the next thing. Your preaching is futile! It can’t do anything. “And your faith is without a foundation,” he says. “And guess what? You’re still in your sins. And furthermore, those who have died in Christ have perished. And if all we have is our best life now, then we are to be pitied.”
Now, you read the chapter for yourself. I assign it as homework. And when you consider it and you get to the close, you realize the wonder of what I read at the beginning, in Isaiah chapter 25. Because there in 25, Isaiah writes, “He will swallow up death forever.”
And I imagine him writing that and then going in for a coffee, as I often do, and his wife says to him, “So what were you writing now?”
“Well, I was writing about the mountain of the Lord, and how the Lord will provide a great feast, and they will drink to their contentment, and so on. And he will swallow up death forever.”
And his wife said, “And how is he planning on doing that?”
And Isaiah said, “Well, I’m not sure yet. I don’t know.”
But here’s the answer. Here’s the answer, right here: “O death, where’s your victory? O death, where is your sting?” How can you ask that, rhetorically? Because of what he says: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” What Isaiah said would happen has happened because death has been crushed to death, in the death of Jesus.
Now, it is important, when we consider these things, to understand what the Bible teaches us about death. Because what our culture teaches us about death is largely so far removed from what the Bible says as to bear no resemblance to it at all—and that not just because of the last twenty-five or thirty years of influence of Buddhism and Eastern mysticism and religions. With that or without it, by and large, people do not know.
Let me tell you what the Bible says.
One, death is not natural. Death is not natural. Death is the penalty for sin. If there had been no sin, there would have been no death. “As in Adam all die…” In the sin of Adam, all of us are brought down. And then you will notice that sin, he says, derives its power from the law: “The sting of death is sin, … the power of sin is the law.” The demands of the law of God, the demands of God’s nature that intersect with our reason, that engage us at the level of conscience, that appeal to us with a sense of oughtness—those things are exacerbated. Because at the most simple level, take your children out for a walk in the park and watch what happens when they see a sign that says “Do not walk on the grass.” Why is walking on the grass such a great idea when we have already asked you not to walk on the grass? Well, you see, the law—the power of sin is in the law: “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and so on. And the law confronts us. And none of us stands guiltless before it. If your windscreen is broken in an eighth of an inch, your windscreen is broken. The law of God confronts us in this way.
And what do we do about it? Well, we try our best, don’t we? We try self-discipline. We try and make sure that we can sacrifice ourselves or do something for somebody. We try and make sure that we can strive to be our best—until, perhaps, one day the penny drops. And then, with the hymnwriter, we say,
Not the labor of my hands
[Could] fulfill your law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
[Jesus,] you must save, and you alone.
And, of course, that’s the point that Paul is making: “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Notice the verb: he “gives” it. It isn’t earned. The “wages of sin” are earned: “death”; the “gift of God is eternal life.” The wonderful story of the gospel is not, again, as many of us have been brought up to believe, that somehow or another, if we will do our best and clean up our act, maybe God will accept us. But in fact, it is the reverse of that: that Jesus has done for us what we can’t do for ourselves. He has obeyed God’s law perfectly, and he has borne the punishment for being a lawbreaker entirely.
“But you just said he bore it perfectly, and now you said he bore the punishment for being a lawbreaker. But he wasn’t a lawbreaker. Why did he bear the punishment?” You got it! That’s it. “Oh, you mean, for us? For all us, standing on the grass? For all of us, parking on the double yellow lines?” Yeah! The only way to deprive death of its terror is freedom from sin. And that is found in Christ alone.
Spent longer on that than I intended. We’ll catch it up under the third word. This resurrection is incomparable. It is indispensable; you cannot remove it like an extraneous, vestigial organ. And it is inescapable. It is inescapable, insofar as it makes clear that eternity is a reality for us all. Eternity is a reality for us all. We don’t have to go very far through the Bible to be confronted by that again and again: “It is appointed unto man once to die, and after this comes judgment.” We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. God has set eternity in the hearts of men and women in order that we might and try and find out what he is doing.
No, this, you see, is inescapable. You say, “Well, I know a lot of people who have escaped it. They just say they don’t believe it.” Did they escape it? You think because you’ve decided that you don’t believe something, it no longer exists? Unless, of course, you know, facts have to be subverted to our feelings. Unless we’re going to go down the road of Meghan Markle, where she apparently has her own truth, and “This is my truth.” So, we’re just all going to get our own truth, are we? What about the one who is “the way, … the truth, and the life”?
I found a classic illustration of it. I wasn’t looking for it. I was doing something else, and it popped up on my phone. And what popped up on my phone was an interview involving Ricky Gervais, the comedian and self-stated atheist—an interview that he gave with Scandinavian TV. And it was directly related to a series that he has, which I have not seen, called [After Life]—ironically called [After Life]. And as they’re discussing the nature of this, he identifies a scene that took place in one of the episodes: a scene in a graveyard where a man encounters a lady who is at the grave of her husband. And she says to this gentleman, “Well, it is all very sad, but I would rather live missing him than to think of him living, missing me.”
So, Gervais is recounting this, and then he says to the interviewer, he says, “But I’m too selfish. I don’t believe that at all. No. I want to die first. I want to die first,” he says twice. And the interviewer says, “But wait a minute,” he says. “It’s normal to fear death. It’s normal to fear being dead.” To which Ricky replies, “I don’t fear death. I won’t know about it. That’s the best thing about being dead: you don’t know about it. It’s like being stupid: it’s only painful for others.” Now, that is a funny line, right? You see? You see how humor softens us up? “I don’t believe in the afterlife. So I don’t think there’s anything to fear after death. That’s just, you know, my belief. You know?” At that point, there’s the only crack in his armor, when he says that: “That’s, you know, my belief. You know?” Yeah, I know. But can it face the enormity of death? Can it handle it?
Now, humor is actually a feeble shield against that reality. What he’s actually doing is what we’re told we all do, and that is, we suppress the truth of God. You say, “Well, we came here. We thought it was a nice morning. Are you really going to end confronting us with death?” Yes. Absolutely, I am. And I want you to understand this: that to the guilty—which includes us all—to the guilty, death must be and ought to be the ultimate terror. The ultimate terror. I think you could make a very strong case that all fear is somehow or another directly tied to that ultimate fear—that men and women know that this is an eventuality. And that is why the glorious news of someone who has faced death, triumphed over it, and made it possible for others to triumph over it ought to be out on the streets, ought to be making known to our world: “Listen to what Jesus has done! He has assumed our nature in order to rescue us by his death. By embracing death, by taking it to himself, he destroyed the devil’s hold on death, and he freed all who are struggling through life, scared to death of death.”
Well, let me close in this way. Life is short and uncertain. To act as if it is otherwise is folly. Time and decisions in time will determine our eternal destiny. Aware of life’s brevity, rapidity, and uncertainty, there is not a person listening to me now who does not understand the viability and the common sensibility of making provision for eventualities—hence life insurance policies; hence plans for your will; hence plans for the transition of income and so on. Yes and yes, and all understandable.
But let me ask you a question: Have you prepared for your final appointment? Have you prepared for your final appointment? You see, that’s often the missing link, isn’t it? “Just leave them laughing when you go. Don’t upset them. Goodness, Alistair! It’s a lovely day out there.” But listen, let me tell you: death will separate us from the world. Death will separate us from the world. Don’t believe any of that stuff you get when they give you those little things in funeral homes, that little thing you’re supposed to read to make you feel better. If you got half a brain, it shouldn’t make you feel better—that poem about “I’m not gone, I’m only in the next room.” No, he’s not in the next room! I’ve been in the next room, and he isn’t in there. He is not in there. Death will separate us from the world. Our souls will not cease at death. They will not cease to exist, and they will be conscious.
Therefore, Ricky is wrong. Ricky, I need to tell you: you will know about it. You will know about it. And so Paul says to the intelligentsia in Athens, he says—and let’s just finish in this way—“God has set a day when he will judge the world, and he has given proof of it by raising Jesus from the dead.” And what was the response? Some said, “You’re crazy,” and laughed out loud; some deferred for a later date, and a few believed.
Well, here you are this morning. I speak to you as a dying man, as M’Cheyne would say, to dying men and women. I urge you, I beseech you: do not put this off. “The wages of sin is death, but the … gift of God is eternal life [through Jesus Christ] our Lord.” Receive the gift. Believe on Christ. Consecrate your life to Christ. And tell everyone else about Christ.
A brief prayer:
We bow down before you, our good God, asking that you will write your Word in our hearts, that we may find ourselves trusting in nothing and no one other than your beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
 Jeffrey M. Jones, “U. S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time,” Gallup News, March 29, 2021, https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx.
 Phil Zuckerman, “Why America’s Record Godlessness Is Good News for the Nation,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2021-04-02/godlessness-america-religion-secularization.
 Martin Luther, trans. Frederic H. Hedge, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (1529, 1853).
 John 11:25 (ESV).
 Revelation 1:18 (KJV).
 See Mark 16:1–8.
 See Luke 24:12; John 20:5–7.
 See Matthew 28:2.
 Luke 24:5 (ESV).
 Robert Harris, Conclave (Vintage: New York, 2016), 156–57.
 Romans 4:25 (ESV).
 1 Corinthians 15:1, 3–5 (ESV).
 Isaiah 25:8 (ESV).
 1 Corinthians 15:22 (ESV).
 Exodus 20:14–15, 17 (paraphrased).
 Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages” (1776). Language modernized.
 Romans 6:23 (ESV).
 Hebrews 9:27 (paraphrased).
 See Ecclesiastes 3:11.
 John 14:6 (ESV).
 Acts 17:31 (paraphrased).
 See Acts 17:32–34.
 Romans 6:23 (ESV).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.