How you think about what happens at life’s end and what happens afterwards shapes how you think about life here and now, doesn’t it? The value and the importance of life, in no small measure, depends on your view of things like death, judgment, heaven, and hell. And so for the next few weeks we are going to take time to consider together the Bible’s teaching on those vitally important themes beginning this morning with the subject of death. In a moment we’re going to read a portion of Holy Scripture that speaks to that issue. Before we do that, it is our ordinary custom here at First Presbyterian Church to preface the reading of Scripture with a prayer asking for God to help us understand and believe His holy Word. Let me therefore invite you to bow your heads with me as we pray together. Let’s pray.
Our Father, we pray that as we consider the message of the Scriptures together now, would You send to us the Holy Spirit to illuminate our understanding. We pray that listening to Your Word we would hear You addressing our hearts and calling us to Jesus and we pray that You would enable every one of us to answer that call and to come to Him who is the resurrection and the life that we may have life, believing in Him, and never die. For we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.
In the pew racks in front of you, you will find copies of the Bible. Let me ask you now to take one and turn to page 942; page 942. We’re going to read a section of a letter written by the Apostle Paul to believers living at Rome. Page 942. If you’ll look at the right hand column, at the top, you’ll see verse 12 of Romans chapter 5. We are going to begin reading there to the end of the chapter. Romans 5 at verse 12:
“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned - for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Can We Have Hope?
Some of you may have seen the fascinating interview in The New York Times recently with Larry King in which King spoke about his fixation with death. In the course of the interview, for all his eccentricities, and we’ll come back to a few of those for no other reason than at least for the entertainment value in a few moments, but for all his eccentricities he voiced a feeling that I rather suspect is one many of us share and can relate to. He said this, “I can’t get my head around one minute being there and another minute being absent.” Can you relate to that? The reality of death - one minute you’re here and then you’re not. “I can’t get my head around it.” That was his response. Making sense of death is a struggle that many of us, all of us one day, will have to face. Of course when he was asked by CNN anchor, Leon Harris, about his own demise at a live event one evening, King explained that he is planning to avoid death altogether. Apparently, quote, “He takes four human growth hormone pills every day. But in case of death, King has arranged to have his body frozen and then thawed out when researchers discover a cure for whatever killed him.” The so-called cryonics approach. Although King later told his interviewer that he thinks the people behind cryonics are, quote, “all nuts.” At least if he knows he will be frozen he will die with a shred of hope. “Other people,” said King, “have no hope.”
Now we chuckle at King’s eccentricity, don’t we, but there’s some poignancy to what he has to say, tragedy even. He doesn’t want to be buried; he wants to be frozen. It’s creepy and hilarious all at the same time; I guess a bit like Larry King himself. But let’s not be too hard on the man because the truth is, we all struggle to face death and make sense of life in the light of death, don’t we? The inevitability of it, the unwanted intrusion of the death of people we love punctuating our lives with sorrow; it all makes death and dying an inescapable fact from which we cannot easily hide. What are the two proverbial inevitabilities of life? What is it they say? What are they? Death and taxes, right? You can’t escape. There’s inevitability about it. And so our question really needs to be, “Where can hope be found when death waits for us all?” Where can hope be found when death waits for us all? Larry King, for his part, thinks he’s found an answer to that question. His hope lies in human growth hormone pills and the cryonic preservation of his remains. “Other people have no hope,” he says. Is that true? Is he right? Is that the best we can do?
Well let me direct your attention to the passage that we read a moment ago because it is one place where the Apostle Paul helps us answer that question with substantial, real hope. Let’s look at it please. Romans chapter 5 verses 12 to 21; page 942. I want you to see three things in the passage here. First of all, the reach of death. The reach of death. Everybody dies and the Bible faces that fact and wants us to face that fact squarely. Secondly - the reach of death - secondly, the reason for death; the reason for death. We need more than the scientific facts about the process of dying. We need existential answers. We want to know why, why death. And then thirdly, the removal of death. Is death the final period at the end of the long sentence of our lives? In the grammar of the Christian Gospel, according to the Apostle Paul in our passage, there is no period at the end of the long sentence of the Christian life for those who believe in Jesus. The reach of death, the reason for death, the removal of death. That’s our outline. I promise the alliteration is not simply to facilitate the rolling of my “R”s! The reach of death, the reason for death, the removal of death.
I. The Reach of Death
Let’s think first of all about the reach of death. Look at the passage please. Who dies according to Paul? Verse 12, “death spread to all men.” Verse 14, “death reigned.” Verse 15, “many died.” Verse 17, “death reigned.” Who dies? Well, everyone dies, Paul says. Death reigns. It is a dreadful, terrible dictator, a tyrant who holds absolute sway. You are going to die; I am going to die. It is tragic, wounding even, but nonetheless certain. And in some ways that may seem to us a terribly obvious point to make. As a congregation over the past few years we’ve had to face death, haven’t we, in some of its most heartbreaking manifestations. People we love deeply have been taken from us, often as it seemed to us at all the wrong times and in all the wrong ways. And so we want to say, maybe even with some frustration, “Well of course death is universal! You don’t have to tell us of all people!” And while I understand the rawness of our loss, I nevertheless think it really does very much need to be said for this reason. We live in a culture that is haunted by the constant attempt to evade death, don’t we? While perhaps for our grandparents or great-grandparents death was a familiar presence, in our heavily medicalized and increasingly youth-centered society, growing old and dying are unacceptable intrusions into the way we think things ought to be.
An article for The Washington Post entitled, “The Human Upgrade,” reported that a gathering of biologist, computer scientists, and researchers funded by Silicon Valley Tech billionaires kept returning, and I’m quoting here from the article, kept returning to one subject - “Was death an inevitability or is it a solvable problem?” The entrepreneurs are driven, the article goes on to say, “by a certitude that rebuilding, reengineering, regenerating, reprogramming patients organs, limbs, cells, and DNA will enable people to live longer and better. The work they are funding includes hunting for the secrets of living organisms with insanely long lives, engineering microscopic nanobots that fix your body from the inside out, figuring out how to reprogram the DNA you were born with, and exploring ways to digitize your brain based on the theory that your mind could live long after your body expires.”
The truth is, we are a death haunted society. Oh to be sure, we deny death, we reject death, we sanitize death, we even are desensitized to death by turning it into entertainment on our TV screens and in computer games. But no matter how hard we try, whatever Silicon Valley Tech billionaires come up with to the contrary, we cannot escape death. And when it breaks in upon us, the harder we’ve tried to deny it and negate it, the more it robs us of our ability to make sense of our world and it seems to shake us to the foundations, which is why I want to suggest that embracing Paul’s insistence on the universality of death and especially facing the inevitability of our own mortality is so very important. And I’m not suggesting, I don’t mean that you merely consent to the common, abstract proposition that “We’ve all got to go sometime.” No, Paul wants us to face the fact that we are going to die; you are going to die. You cannot avoid it. You cannot escape it. You have to face it and you must, you must get ready for it. The reach of death - it is universal, so get ready.
II. The Reason for Death
And before we begin to think about how to do that, there’s another matter we have to address first. The reach of death, then secondly, the reason for death. I rather suspect part of the reason death is so offensive, so uncomfortable for us, is our inability to adequately answer the “Why?” question. “Why death?” Of course we can offer medical reasons for a particular instance of dying. We can explain the physical mechanics of death. That’s not really what we’re asking though, is it? We have an instinct, don’t we, that death ought not to be. It’s an intruder. Interestingly, that’s a perspective, a point of view, that the Bible itself also shares. Death, while universal and inevitable, is wrong. It should not be. When Jesus stood at the graveside of His friend, Lazarus, in John 11 verse 33 we are told there He was “deeply moved and greatly troubled.” That’s a weak translation of the language. Actually the Greek there is much stronger. It means something like He was agitated; He was angry, indignant even. Now why is He so angry? We know He’s not angry at the mourners grieving over the loss of a loved one. The text goes on to say that Jesus wept in compassion for them. A little later in the story His frustration is aroused because He’s surrounded by unbelief. People mock Him as He declares His purpose to intervene. But that’s not what’s happening here. In verse 33 He simply arrived at the tomb and He takes in the scene. The mourners; He stands at the graveside of one whom He has loved and He is gripped with anger, frustration, indignance.
What is going on? Jesus is angry at death itself. He is the Lord who has made all things and death is an intruder that He has come to overthrow and undo. And here it is in its ugliness and horror confronting Him and He knows death ought not to be and He knows that He has come to undo it. We have a sense of exactly that same emotion, don’t we, when someone whom we have loved is taken from us. “It shouldn’t be this way. It ought not to be.” And so we want to know why death intrudes into the world the way that it does, into our lives the way that it does. And what’s the reason for death that the Scriptures give us? Look at the passage. What does Paul say? Verse 12, “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Stop right there. Do you see part of the answer to our question? Why death? We die because of sin, Paul says. Death came through sin. There’s a fundamental link between sin and death. We die because we are sinners. Paul makes that point over and over in the verses that follow, doesn’t he? Verse 15, “many died through one man’s trespass.” Verse 17, “through one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man.” We die because of sin. Here’s the message now; here’s the takeaway. The inescapable, universal problem of death should remind us of the deeper, inescapable problem of sin. You die because you are a sinner. Our death problem rests on our sin problem and we will never resolve the former until we deal with the latter.
But as soon as we have said that we need to be careful. Paul does not mean that death is simply the result of bad behavior. That’s sometimes how we think about sin, isn’t it? Bad behavior; misconduct. And so deal with the bad behavior, you deal with sin. But that’s not how Paul thinks about sin here at all. Sin is a much more fundamental, much more profound problem than can be addressed merely by behavior modification. No, for Paul, the roots of sin lie not in us but in our first parents. Adam - do you see that in the text? Verse 12, “Sin came into the world through one man,” Adam, “and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” All sin so all die because Adam sinned and therefore died. There is a connection, a solidarity. Adam is acting not only for himself but for his posterity. All mankind descending from him by ordinary generation sinned in him and fell with him in his first transgression. There’s a connection between us and Adam. That’s Paul’s argument.
Now how does that work? Well, it’s important that we understand that Paul is saying much more than that we simply inherited a propensity to sin from Adam. That’s true, but more is being said here than that. Sin is not a recessive gene like red hair or blue eyes or the ability to roll your tongue. Sin is more than a kind of spiritual DNA sequence that causes and breeds in us the family characteristic of sinfulness. That’s true as far as it goes but Paul is saying more than that. Look at verse 19. “By one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners,” or better, “the many were constituted sinners.” In Adam’s sin, every one of us was constituted guilty and sinful. We were designated, defined as existing at enmity with God. That is the terrible fate into which Adam’s first transgression has plunged the world. His sin is our sin; his guilt is our guilt. There’s a solidarity with us in Adam. And so we are condemned with the guilt of Adam’s sin. Verse 16, “The free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation.” Verse 18, “One trespass led to condemnation for all men.” The way God executes His just judgment, His condemnation, Romans 6:23 - “The wages of sin is” what? “Death.” And so because we are constituted guilty in the sight of God with the guilt of Adam’s sin, as verse 15 puts it, we all died “through one man’s trespass.” We all die through one man’s trespass.
All of that to say this - death’s reach is universal because sin’s guilt is universal which means that death is much more of a problem than you may at first have realized. It is a reminder from God of our accountability before Him. We die because of sin and we will stand before Him to answer for our sin. And now suddenly dealing with death becomes a matter of urgency. If we are to deal with death, we must deal with sin. If we are to find hope that transcends death, we need an antidote that undoes sin. But sin, remember, isn’t a matter merely of our behavior. If that’s all it was we could deal with it with some hard work, a bit of elbow grease, maybe a good incentive. But a mere change of behavior just will not do since the roots of sin don’t lie in us at all, they lie in Adam. They are out of our reach. However will we deal with sin now? It’s out of our reach; it’s in Adam. How are we going to hope to face death now that sin is not something in our capacity or power to deal with?
III. The Removal of Death
Well that brings us to the last point - the removal of death. Death’s reach, death’s reason, death’s removal. You saw how often Paul repeats himself over and over in these verses. Did you also see how each time he repeats the message about Adam’s sin and its universal consequences he also sets up a contrast every time between Adam’s disobedience and its consequences and another man’s obedience and its consequences? Look at the passage beginning in verse 15. Listen out for the contrast. “If many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” You see the contrast? “The free gift” - keep reading - “The free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.” There’s the contrast again. “If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” There is it again. When Adam sinned and died, we sinned in him and because liable to death and judgment and so we all die.
But here’s the good news - Jesus Christ has acted also as a public figure, a representative figure, and His obedience, His whole life of obedience climaxing in the obedience to a death, even the death of the cross, His obedience, Paul says, secures righteousness not for Himself but for unrighteous sinners like me and like you, right standing in the courts of heavenly justice; justification is Paul’s word. Christ has obeyed and bled and died and risen. Death couldn’t hold Him because sin found no purchase in Him, and because He lives Paul is saying we can live too. Because He obeyed, we can be counted righteous in the sight of God. And most astonishing of all, did you see, running like a refrain throughout the passage, how Paul characterizes the righteousness that the obedience of Christ has won for sinners? He calls it a “free gift.” A free gift!
Where is hope to be found in the face of death? Not in pretending that we’ll live forever - the common sin of youth. Not in escapism; not even in medical advances. Certainly not the desperate hope of Larry King and his frozen remains or the sci-fi dreams of Silicon Valley billionaires. No, the hope, the only hope available to you in the face of death is found in the free pardon of your sin, won for you in the only one who has ever defeated death, the Lord Jesus Christ. If you want hope for life and hope for death and hope for after death, pin your hope to the only one who has broken the bonds of death and brought life and immortality to light. Pin your hope on Jesus. Pin your hope on Jesus. That day at Lazarus’ graveside Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die. Everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” That is Paul’s message too. Jesus came to undo death and He did it by defeating death. He obeyed, He died Himself, and He rose a righteous Savior for unrighteous sinners. And you take hold of it all as a free gift merely by trusting Him.
Maybe you’re visiting here this morning. We’re so very glad that you’ve come. As you’ve listened, it may be that you have found you have more questions than answers and you want to talk to someone. Maybe you want to explore the Christian message further and engage. Or it may even be that you would like to understand how to become a follower of Jesus Christ for yourself. In the bulletins, as Wiley said earlier, you will see a perforated response panel. You could fill that out and leave it in the baskets at the exits as you leave and we’ll get back to you quickly. But please understand this, Jesus Christ is asking something of every one of us in this room this morning. It’s not to fill out a card. It’s not to pray a prayer or perform a ritual. That will not do it. No, He’s asking you to trust Him to rescue you from sin and death and judgment. He’s asking you to trust Him to save you from condemnation that is the consequence of Adam’s disobedience and your rebellion. And so let me urge you, before we come to the Lord’s Table, to be sure first that you have come to the Lord. Here is your only hope in life and in death, that you belong to your faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. Cast all your hope on Him. He lives. He has triumphed over the grave and everyone who lives and believes in Him will never die.
Let’s pray together.
Father, we praise You for Your holy Word. We pray as we prepare our hearts to come to Your Table that You would first bring us all, whether for the very first time or anew, on bended knee to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Help us to trust Him, and trusting Him to enter life. For we ask this in His name, amen.
©2015 First Presbyterian Church.
This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.