Death the Intruder, Christ the Victor

Death is an intruder. And everything that leads to death—sickness, pain, old-age, heart-attacks, high-blood pressure, brain aneurisms, and cancer—are also all intruders. We live in world that is not the way it’s supposed to be.

But even before any of these intruders entered our existence there was a more primal intruder: sin. It was sin against God that brought about not only physical suffering like cancer and migraines, but inter-personal and social trouble as well. Broken relationships, divorce, hate, murder, racism, bitterness, family disputes, bullying, and betrayal all flow from the same source: sin. What happened?

In the Beginning
The God who created this breathtaking universe and abundant earth also created man in his image (Gen 1:1; 1:26-27). Sadly, God’s first image-bearers, Adam and Eve, though originally created without sin, soon turned from obedience to and trust in their Creator to disobedience and rebellion. The first man and woman each took and ate fruit from a tree from which they were forbidden (Gen 2:16-17). They had believed the lie of God’s arch-enemy Satan who had told them they would not die if they took from the forbidden tree; a direct contradiction to what God had previously told Adam (Gen 3:4).

As the Genesis narrative explains, that day in the Garden of Eden, mankind fell into sin and ruin, and the effects of their disobedience were immediate. Adam and Eve were, for the first time, ashamed of their nakedness. Recognizing that something wasn’t right, they attempted to cover themselves with self-made loin coverings. The man who was expected to lead and protect his wife yet who sat passively by while she was beguiled by Satan, now blames her (and ultimately God, for he had given her to Adam) for their mess.  The woman, also not willing to share any of the blame, points her finger at the serpent (Genesis 3:8-13).

As a result and reminder of their sin, God cursed the entire creation, including the man and the woman. Difficulty, stress, and futility would now attend work; pain would now be a regular aspect of child bearing. Man’s proclivity to passivity and the woman’s desire to rule over her husband would now constantly threaten to undo the harmony of the family structure (Genesis 3:16-19).  Soon, envy, hatred, and murder would enter God’s world through Adam and Eve’s children (Genesis 4:1-16). And, even if you could avoid murder from an angry neighbor or relative, you would eventually die (Genesis 5:1ff).

How Do We Deal with Death?
What are we to make of this? How do we deal with death, this unwelcome intruder? At the death of loved ones, do we mask our deep anguish with plastic smiles and vague talk that “so-and-so is in a better place?” Do we pretend that death isn’t actually real and embrace the unsustainable position that it is merely an illusion? Do we construct a complex philosophy that removes the possibility of an afterlife so that we do not have to think about what our consciences tell us every day: that judgment is indeed coming and that we must soon give an account to our Creator?

No, none of these options can satisfy the human longing for a truth that allows one to face reality with honesty and courage; that allows us to grieve deeply at the loss of a loved one, while simultaneously rejoicing in the solid and sure hope of eternal life. Only Christianity can satisfy the soul. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can enable us to grieve with hope. Only the Bible can offer a satisfying answer to death: that it is an unwelcome intruder into God’s good creation that robs families of husbands, wives, dads, moms, grandpas, grandmas, brothers, and sisters, and robs friends of a faithful and gracious companions. But that death is now, through Jesus Christ, also an entrance into eternal life and unceasing joy in God.

The Promised Deliverer
See, even after Adam and Eve’s sin, mercy would prevail. Even before the pronouncement of the curse, God promised the man and woman that he would send another man—the offspring of a woman—to crush the serpent. The rescue mission, however, would be costly and the one tasked with crushing the serpent would suffer. Yes, he would be victorious—he would destroy the serpent—but he would not escape the fray unscathed. The serpent would, as the Bible says, “bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). Deliverance from sin and its dreaded effects was certainly on the way; but even here, in the earliest chapters of the Bible, we find hints of a suffering Savior.

God would carry out his promised deliverance over many centuries, first by drawing specific people to himself (like Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), then by rescuing an entire nation from the clutches of Egyptian slavery so that they would be his people and he would be their God (Jeremiah 32:38).

As His chosen people, God provided the nation of Israel with a multitude of pictures—all embedded into their religious and civil life—of a coming Deliverer.  Israel needed an upright king would to lead them (2 Sam 7:1-17), a sinless high priest to intercede for them (Psalm 110:4), a selfless shepherd to protect them (Ezekiel 34:15-23), a trustworthy prophet to speak God’s words to them (Deuteronomy 18:18), and a righteous substitute to die for their countless transgressions (Isaiah 53:1-12). Not only this, but Israel also looked forward to the time when God himself would come down from his heavenly throne and fulfill the many promises he had made to His people over the past several centuries (Isaiah 9:6; 64:1).

In the Fulness of Time
Finally, at the perfect time, He came. The Deliverer God had promised entered into the world through the womb of a virgin. Only the very Son of God could fulfill the numerous roles described above, so God’s Spirit fell upon Mary, a young Jewish girl in the line of David, and she conceived a child. The eternal Son of God, formally enthroned in glory with his Father from all eternity would become a human being and enter the world through a miraculous conception (Luke 1:26-2:6).

But He wasn’t what Israel expected. He didn’t descend upon the earth in a glorious entourage of angels, ready to defeat Israel’s earthly enemies in one victorious flash. He came as a baby, a baby born in a dirty stable suitable only for animals and feed—the most unlikely of places for a triumphant king. And His name would be Jesus, for he had come to save his people, not from earthly enemies, but from that which had cast the world into ruin many centuries ago; he had come to save his people from their sin.

Despised and Rejected
But Jesus didn’t fit the description of what many of the Jews expected of their coming king and savior, so he wasn’t warmly embraced by the religious leaders. Besides, not only did he not fit the Jews’ notion of what their deliverer should look like, he further aggravated their discontent by challenging their spiritual apathy, confronting their hypocrisy, and denouncing their self-righteousness. He called for repentance from self-reliance and self-justification, and he offered salvation to any one who came to him looking for rest from the burden of religious requirements to earn God’s favor. Jesus was their King. And just like David, Israel’s famous monarch of old, suffering would come before glory.

Neither Jesus’ message of true righteousness nor his plan to suffer on the behalf of his people sat well with the Jewish leaders. While some appeared to believe in him on a superficial level, most of them joined in a conspiracy to kill this itinerant preacher. After three years of teaching, healing, and disciple-making, Jesus’ time had come.

One of his twelve disciples, Judas, having feigned loyalty during the entirety of Jesus’ ministry, finally ended his façade and sold his Master to the religious leaders for thirty pieces of silver. A covert arrest, a set of false charges, and a mock trial would eventually land Jesus into the hands of Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea. Caving to the pressure of the religious leaders and buckling under his fear of Caesar, Pilate acquiesced to the demands of those who sought Jesus’ demise.  “Crucify Him,” the fickle mob cried only days after many of them had cordially greeted Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. Pilate complied. Having already been scourged and beaten, Jesus would now be nailed to a cross alongside two criminals outside Jerusalem’s city limits.

What the religious leaders couldn’t see, blinded as they were by their own rage and self-righteousness, was that the God whom they claimed to worship had brought about the entire ordeal. Although the people who conspired against Jesus and lobbied for His execution were guilty of great sin—for they had acted freely out of their own evil desires—it had been God who planned from before the beginning of time that his Son would die in the place of sinners. It would please the Father to crush His Son because His Son’s willing death would secure the salvation of God’s people while simultaneously upholding God’s righteousness.  God would remain just while justifying those who put their faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).

Our Sinless Substitute
By living a life of flawless obedience to his Father as their representative and taking the punishment they deserved, Jesus had landed a decisive blow to Satan, for the adversary could no longer accuse God’s people of their unrighteousness.  Those who believe the gospel now possess a perfect righteousness that is found, not in themselves, but in Christ alone.  Plus, by freeing his people from the condemnation they had incurred for breaking God’s law, Jesus removed the dominion of sin over their life.  At the cross, sin was soundly defeated because sin’s power, the condemnation of the law, had been dismantled by Jesus’ substitutionary death.

All this is possible because Jesus didn’t merely die.  He rose again from the dead.

The Power of the Resurrection
From the moment that Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s commandment in the Garden of Eden they were subjected to physical and spiritual death. Death was God’s penalty for disobedience, and in their refusal to trust God’s good word, the first man and woman opened the floodgates of mortality upon the entire human race. The promised Deliverer, then, in order to crush the serpent and rescue mankind from eternal misery, had to bring death to a complete end.

So, in another garden, approximately two-thousand years ago, a few of Jesus’ closest disciples would discover an empty tomb. And not only an empty tomb, but Jesus himself. The Savior was no longer dead; He was alive!  Jesus had completed His mission by taking the place of His people, fulfilling every righteous requirement of the law in their place, bearing the penalty of their sin by dying on the cross, and rising bodily from the grave.

Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the grave serves as the precursor to and guarantee of the Christian’s resurrection. Our bodies, though racked with disease and pain, will someday rise from the grave, as God reconstitutes our earthly body, forming it into a new, incorruptible body that will resemble his Lord’s glorious body (Phil 3:21). See, the Christian hope is a holistic hope. Christ didn’t come merely to save the soul, but to redeem the body as well. Christians don’t look forward to heaven alone, but to a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1).

A Call to Repentance and Full Pardon
Now seated at the right hand of His Father, Jesus calls sinners to receive a sure and irrevocable pardon from heaven. He calls you to stop using sophisticated excuses to hide from God. He pleads with you to be done with your attempts to mask your sin with the threadbare coverings of religious ritual and good works. He invites you to trade an unfulfilling life of self-indulgence for the satisfying life of faith in Christ and ministry to others. He commands you to repent from your hypocrisy, self-righteousness, self-seeking, and self-reliance and believe in a gospel of grace and truth.

If you place genuine faith in Jesus Christ, you will find in him a complete salvation. You will find justification, forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God, hope for the future, power over sin, strength for ministry, and wisdom for living a life that truly pleases God. And, although you will inevitably face trials and persecution for your allegiance to Jesus, don’t worry.  The troubles of this life are but a mere moment when compared to the eternity of unspeakable joy that Christ has in store for those who love him.

Photo: Kimber Shaw

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