Life After Victory
Life After Victory
Early in his career, the great American playwright Eugene O'Neill wrote an imaginative play called "Lazarus Laughed" about Lazarus's life after Jesus raised him from the dead. Near the beginning of the play, guests from Bethany are gathering for a banquet in Lazarus's honor. They are all desperate to hear what Lazarus has to say about his experience. One guest says, "The whole look of his face has changed. He is like a stranger from a far land. There is no longer any sorrow in his eyes. They must have forgotten sorrow in the grave." Another guest, one who had helped roll the tombstone aside, recalls the scene after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead: "And then Lazarus knelt and kissed Jesus' feet, and both of them smiled, and Jesus blessed him and called him 'My Brother' and went away; and Lazarus, looking after him, began to laugh softly like a man in love with God. Such a laugh I never heard! It made my ears drunk! It was like wine! And though I was half-dead with fright I found myself laughing, too."
It does make you wonder what Lazarus was like after Jesus raised him back to life. We assume he eventually died again, mortal as he was, but I wonder how Lazarus's life was different knowing with the certainty that Jesus really is "the resurrection and the life." As Christians, we believe that Jesus rose from the dead and that he now holds the keys to death's dungeon. For several weeks we have been studying some of what the Bible teaches about the significance—the meaning—of the Resurrection for our lives. I've been trying to help us move this central tenet of our faith to the front and center in our thinking. As we come to the end of our study in 1 Corinthians 15, we have one verse of Scripture that tells us how believing the Resurrection should affect the way we live now.
1 Corinthians 15:58 reads: "Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain." There are two effects our belief in the Resurrection ought to have upon us as Christians.
Stand firm in your faith.
"Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you." I was reading an article on CNN.com entitled, "Former fundamentalist 'debunks' Bible," about a guy named Bart Ehrman, a best-selling author and a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The article said, "he delves into the past to challenge some of Christianity's central claims." The article also said this:
His claims … take on some of Christianity's most sacred tenets, like the resurrection of Jesus. Ehrman says he doesn't think the resurrection took place. There's no proof Jesus physically rose from the dead, and the resurrection stories contradict one another, he says. He says he doesn't believe the followers of Jesus saw their master bodily rise from the dead, but something else. "My best guess is that what happened is what commonly happens today when someone has a loved one die—they sometimes think they see them in a vision," Ehrman says. "I think some of the disciples had visions."
There are all kinds of threats to our faith, but nothing would so thoroughly empty our Christian faith as throwing out the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As I said a few weeks ago, if you take the resurrection of Christ from Christians, you take all we have. Paul here has argues for three non-negotiables:
First, Jesus was dead and buried, and then God raised him from the dead—literally and physically. He was seen by all kinds of witnesses in various places (which argues against the idea of grief stricken people having some kind of wishful visions)—all this in accordance with the promises of redemption and victory in the Old Testament. His resurrection vindicates him as God's Son and as the Lord of all, before whom every knee must bow.
Second, Paul says, Christ's resurrection guarantees every benefit the gospel promises us: the Son of God lives and reigns in power forever, King of kings and Lord of lords; our sins are forgiven completely through Christ and his resurrection guarantees us life now and forever; God raised Christ from the dead because he accepted Jesus' sacrifice for sin, which is why Romans 4:25 says that Jesus "was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification"; Satan is defeated, and Christ has seized from him the keys of death and hell; the kingdom of God will come on earth—the earth will be renewed and Christ will reign over it; and those who have died in the Lord are safe with him right now, and we shall soon join them. There will be a wedding supper of the Lamb and his Bride, the Church, and we shall be there.
The third thing that Paul assures us of here is this: When Jesus returns at the trumpet call of God, those whose faith is in Christ will be changed. We will be given pure hearts and imperishable, immortal bodies. These new bodies will be perfectly suited for our endless life in God's new heaven and new earth, where there will be no more tears and no more night.
What do we do with all this? Hang on to it tightly. Don't give an inch. Don't move off that center. Don't let doubters and mockers, no matter what their credentials, undermine your confidence in the historical event of Christ's resurrection.
At my pastor's prayer group this week, one of the guys asked if we'd heard of the famous British atheist, A. N. Wilson. He explained that early in Wilson's career, many had hoped this brilliant philosopher might become the next C. S. Lewis, but then he publicly repudiated his Christian faith and became a mocker of Christianity. Wilson wrote that in his "young manhood," he "began to wonder how much of the Easter story [he] accepted." By his thirties, he had lost all religious belief. He became a harsh and cynical critic of Christianity, indeed, of any faith in God at all. Just five years ago he wrote a book claiming Jesus was a failed messianic prophet.
But a month ago, on the Saturday before Easter, he wrote an extensive piece in London's prestigious newspaper,The Daily Mail. He said he had participated in Palm Sunday services the week before. He wrote,
When I took part in the procession last Sunday and heard the gospel being chanted, I assented to it with complete simplicity. My own return to faith has surprised no one more than myself. Why did I return to it? Partially, perhaps it is no more than the confidence I have gained with age. Rather than being cowed by them, I relish the notion that, by asserting a belief in the risen Christ, I am defying all the liberal clever-clogs on the block …. But there is more to it than that. My belief has come about in large measure because of the lives and examples of people I have known—not the famous, not saints, but friends and relations who have lived, and faced death, in the light of the Resurrection story, or in the quiet acceptance that they have a future after they die ….
Sadly, [the secularists] have all but accepted that only stupid people actually believe in Christianity, and that the few intelligent people left in the churches are there only for the music or believe it all in some symbolic or contorted way which, when examined, turns out not to be belief after all. As a matter of fact, I am sure the opposite is the case and that materialist atheism is not merely an arid creed, but totally irrational.
Materialist atheism says we are just a collection of chemicals. It has no answer whatsoever to the question of how we should be capable of love or heroism or poetry if we are simply animated pieces of meat.
The Resurrection, which proclaims that matter and spirit are mysteriously conjoined, is the ultimate key to who we are. It confronts us with an extraordinarily haunting story.
J. S. Bach believed the story, and set it to music. Most of the greatest writers and thinkers of the past 1,500 years have believed it.
But an even stronger argument is the way that Christian faith transforms individual lives—the lives of the men and women with whom you mingle on a daily basis, the man, woman or child next to you in church tomorrow morning.
Our faith in the Resurrection is not something we admit to reluctantly. It is the rock on which we stand.
Throw yourself confidently into serving the Lord.
The second effect our belief in the Resurrection ought to have on us is this: "Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."
It was ironic that I had this verse before me to preach this week, because this week I didn't feel very motivated to throw myself into anything. Do you ever feel that way? But I had to preach on this verse! "Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord." "Very funny," I prayed.
You may think that "the work of the Lord" is what pastors and missionaries do. But that's not it. When you pray, that is the Lord's work. When you trust God for what you need or for an open door or for strength to do right—that is the Lord's work. When you obey a command that God sets before you, when you give someone a cup of cold water in Jesus' name, when you bear suffering for Jesus' sake, when you talk to someone about Jesus, when you confess your sins, and when you give up something here so that you might store up treasure in heaven—that is doing the Lord's work. When our energy or enthusiasm for the Lord's work runs low, when we would rather just give it a rest, the Resurrection gives us reason to renew our efforts for Christ.
For one thing, the Resurrection gives us "boundless and endless power for work" (Leon Morris). "O Lord," we can pray, "I'm tired. I'm out of gas. I don't want to be good today. I don't want to take up this assignment. I don't have it in me. Please bring to me the power that raised Jesus from the dead. Please strengthen me for the work you've put before me." My own experience is that I don't always get the feeling of some surging inner power, but that it is there, quiet and sure, and if I trust God for his power, he gives it every time.
Another reason we have to throw ourselves into the work of the Lord is that we are not afraid of dying. I don't mean the dying of when our hearts stop beating. I mean the dying that the Christian life constantly requires of us now. To throw ourselves into the work of the Lord means we have to constantly die to our pride, to our own agenda, to our selves, even to our weariness. The humility, the selflessness, the servanthood required of Christians is a constant cycle of dying. Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." Dietrich Bonheoffer summarized: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." Paul said earlier in 1 Corinthians 15:31, "I die every day—I mean that, brothers." But that dying is always part of a Christlike circle of life. Whenever we die for Christ, there is always follows the life of Christ—a kind of inner power that we did not have before. And all that dying and living leaves a mark on us. We more and more take on the character and beauty of Christ himself. So give yourselves fully to the death-and-life work of the Lord.
Third, we know that, thanks to the Resurrection, things are not always as they seem. We may pour prayers and efforts into some task that seems like a black hole, into some life that seems beyond reach, into some dream that seems as dead as a doornail, but with the God of the Resurrection, things are not always as they seem.
Finally, the Resurrection is the reason we believe that life now is an investment in the future. Without it the only sensible thing to do is live for the moment, as it says in verse 32: "If the dead are not raised, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'" It would be enough on that day when Jesus returns just to meet the Lord in the air. It would be more than enough to find ourselves clothed in new immortal bodies with hearts that are as pure and good as Christ's. It would be enough to find ourselves finally home in a kingdom beyond our imagination. All that would be enough! Far more than enough! But the Lord promises that on top of all that, we shall also be rewarded for our faith and faithfulness here. We will be welcomed into eternal dwellings, Jesus said, by those in whom we have invested here. We will hear our Master's "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your reward." We will be honored by Christ himself! We will be crowned with honor! So let us always give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord. Or as Paul put it in Galatians 6:9, "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up."
I mentioned before that I had been reading a couple of funeral sermons by the Puritan pastor Thomas Brooks. On June 28, 1651 (almost 360 years ago), at the funeral of Mrs. Martha Randall, Brooks must have had this verse in mind when he said:
See that you build upon nothing below Christ! See that you have a real interest in Christ; see that you die daily to sin, to the world, and to your own righteousness. See that conscience is always waking, speaking, and tender. See that Christ be your Lord and Master. See that all reckonings stand right between the Lord and your souls. See that you are fruitful, faithful, and watchful—and then your dying day shall be to you as the day of harvest to the farmer, as the day of deliverance to the prisoner, as the day of coronation to the king, and as the day of marriage to the bride. Your dying day shall be a day of triumph and exaltation, a day of freedom and consolation, a day of rest and satisfaction! Then the Lord Jesus shall be as honey in the mouth, ointment in the nostrils, music in the ear, and a jubilee in the heart.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.