Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brother: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable… For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable 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?”
(1 Corinthians 15: 49-50, 53-55)
As I sat on my back porch looking out at the sunlight shining on the new green leaves, I was struck by how lovely and beautiful is the world that God created. And then like a wave, the present circumstance washed over me, and I saw for a moment how everything in this world is shot-through with sadness and sin. Nothing is as it should be. All of life is inescapably linked to death.
While many of us go through our lives trying to ignore the reality of death, reality cannot be ignored indefinitely. Death is the reckoning of all flesh with the impermanence of life. It is the ever-present reminder that what we have is temporary. Death haunts life for those who are sensitive to its presence. Times like these confront us with our mortality and drive us to consider life afresh. Now is indeed the right time to ask the question, “What is most valuable in life?”
Many of us have been asking this question of late, even if not in so many words. There are many different answers that people have given over the years. Some say that you must live every day as if it was your last, enjoying as much of life as you can. In this view, death renders life ultimately meaningless, and so as an act of rebellion against its finality we ought to have a laugh and drink up. Others come to the conclusion that life is a gift to be savored. We must be as attentive to every moment as we can because some day it will come to an end. The great sin here is to let life pass you by. Many think life is about building a legacy that will outlive you in the memories of those who come after you, and life is the rush to get as much accomplished as you can. Still others think we’re altogether off base. Death is not an enemy, but a friend who ushers you into the great beyond.
When we look at the biblical account, we get a different picture of life and death. God created life good, and intended for it to go on forever. It was sin that careened life off the course God intended. God might have simply eliminated his creation and started again. But he didn’t, because God loves life. How much does God love life? He was willing to die for it. We see the true value of life in the death of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
But what then do we make of death when we see the great lengths to which God went to preserve life? Death is revealed to be an enemy, the ultimate enemy. An old English pastor grasps it firmly. Scott Holland preached in 1910 at the funeral of King Edward VII. He said death was “so inexplicable, so ruthless, so blundering…the cruel ambush into which we are snared… It makes its horrible breach in our gladness with careless and inhuman disregard.”
Christianity’s assessment of death is sober, reckoning it to be a cruel thief to be hated, resisted, and fought. But it is the follower of Jesus that knows that though death wins the battle against every man, the war has been won by Christ our King, who was raised again from death “because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24). Death speaks even now, but he will not have the final word.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places. But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.” The beauty of life, though mingled with grief, remains a true pointer toward the ultimate triumph of love over death. For Jesus Christ was raised bodily from the grave. God did that because it wasn’t merely about preserving “life” as an abstract notion. But as he stayed his hand when Adam fell, so now he preserves the life that he made because he loves this life, the same beautiful life that I can see from my back porch. God loves this world. God loves this life.
So then, what we learn from the death and resurrection of the Son of God is that all that is beautiful and lovely and good will all be preserved. Only it will be purified and purged of the taint of death. No longer will life be mingled with death and grief. Life will be free to be all that God has intended for it. And those who cling to that hope through Jesus, who are united to him in his death—we, too, will be a part of that life.
So grieve at death’s victories, but do not despair. Look for the beauty of life and of love which points the way to what God has guaranteed in the resurrection of Jesus. For now, we bear the image of the man of dust. But then we will bear the image of the man of heaven. Then death will be swallowed up in victory once and for all.
O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth. When I look at the beauty and the grandness of your creation, I am stunned that you would count me as anything. And yet, you showed us how much you love us in the death of your Son. You went to such great lengths to preserve our lives and to defeat our enemy, death. But Lord, death still prowls and steals from us, an ever-present blight on the beauty of what you have made. So we pray, Lord Jesus, come again and finish what you began so long ago. Make this mortal flesh to put on immortality, and let death be put away forever.
In Jesus’ name,