This week we continue to roll out great Easter resources to help inspire ideas for your own preaching. Below is a sermon by Donald Sunukjian that explores the implications of one very important sentence found in the middle of one of the Bible's most powerful chapters on the resurrection of Christ, 1 Corinthians 15.
On this wonderful day of resurrection, with its promise of eternal life, I want to look at one of the grandest and most intriguing sentences in the Bible. It's the sentence that comes at the end of our text for today, 1 Corinthians 15:20-26: "The last enemy to be destroyed is death."
I want us to see what the Bible means when it says that. Very simply, I want to talk about three things: our enemy, death; its destruction—how that comes about; and the significance of death's destruction, which affects us in two totally different ways.
Our final enemy, death
First, let's talk about our enemy, death. Death is your enemy—an enemy that is coming after you. It takes you a while to realize this. For the first twenty or thirty years of your life, you never think about it. Every year you get stronger and stronger, and smarter and smarter. You get better looking—more beautiful, more handsome. You get more competent in your job. The fullness of life is ahead of you. Death is an unreal concept. You never think about it. But somewhere in your mid-thirties, you get a little hint that death is your enemy, that death is after you.
The realization that death is coming after you might come about because of something as simple as playing shortstop in a softball game. There's a grounder over second base. You dig the cleats into the ground, you lower your body, you move toward second base with your glove stretched out. You're gonna grab that ball, pivot, and throw the runner out at first base. But to your utter amazement, the ball goes three inches past your glove into centerfield. What? How did that happen? I always get those grounders over second base. How did I miss that one? Ah! Your mind wrote a check your body couldn't cash. You've slowed a step.
Or maybe the hint comes when you look in the mirror and see the lines in your face, the grey in your hair, the wattles in your neck, or the ridges on your elbows.
Or maybe it sinks in when you watch your parents die. When they're no more a part of your world, you suddenly begin to realize that your time too will come.
Perhaps this sense of death coming after you hits you most strongly when someone your own age gets sick and dies—someone you grew up with, someone you went to school with, someone who was in your wedding, someone who raised their kids the same time you did.
At some point, for various reasons, a troubling thought begins to nag at the corners of your mind: I am going to die, too. I only have so many years left, and then I will be no more.
Most people can't cope with this realization. It's too much to handle, so they just don't think about it. They put it out of their minds. They go on as if it's never going to happen. Ignoring it is a nice strategy, but it doesn't seem to do much good. William Saroyan was a famous Armenian writer. During the last weeks of his life, as cancer spread through his vital organs, he said, "Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?"
Others try to cope with the thought of death through humor. They joke about it, so that it doesn't get too near them. Take Woody Allen, for example. The famous director once said, "I'm not afraid of dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens." Or perhaps you've heard this line before: "When I die, I want to go peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather—not screaming in terror like the passengers in his car." One of the syndicated columnists in the Orange County newspaper once wrote, "Once I realized how expensive funerals are, I began to exercise and watch my diet." But the only benefit of exercising every day is that you die healthier. Eat well, stay fit, die anyway. Humor—we use it to block out the thought of death or blunt the reality of it.
But there are some who look death in the face and try to fight it. They meet it head on, and dare it to do its worst. It's the 80-year-old who's determined to keep up with the rest of the hikers, no matter how high or how far they're going. It's the 80-year-old who will grab the heaviest suitcase to unload the car. It's the 90-year-old who will fly 8 hours across the country to visit you. These folks will never give in, never quit, never retire. They repeat to themselves the words of that famous poem:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
But regardless of how we react to death—whether ignore it, put if off with humor, or fight it—it remains a relentless, inevitable enemy. It keeps coming closer and closer, until finally it wins. Ultimately we have no power against it.
Why do we have such a relentless, unstoppable, unbeatable enemy? What did we do to deserve this? The Bible says it's because of sin—sin throughout the whole human race and sin as part of our lives.
Death became our enemy when Adam sinned. When Adam sinned, death entered his body and the unstoppable deterioration began. Ever since Adam, we have shared his sinful DNA. We have been born with an inclination to sin, and we have acted on that inclination again and again. Now the inescapable consequence of death is in our path, ready to swallow us.
This is the point of the opening verses of our text: death has entered the human race through Adam, and because we share his DNA, we suffer the same consequence. We are now powerless against a relentless, unstoppable, inescapable, universal death.
The destruction of death
The good news is that someone has stepped in front of us to destroy this seemingly unstoppable enemy. Now we come to the second thing we want to look at: the destruction of death.
Our text tells us that while one man's sin created the enemy, another man's sacrifice destroys it. Death makes the initial claim, but Christ wins the ultimate victory. Look again at verses 21-22: "For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive." What Adam brought on the entire human race, Christ removed from the entire human race. Because of Adam, all die. Because of Christ, all will be made alive.
Did you hear carefully what I said? Because of Christ, all will be made alive—the whole human race. Every person who ever lived and died—every person—will be made alive again. Death is destroyed, not just for believers, but for the entire human race. In Adam all die. In Christ, all will be made alive. Christ has destroyed death for everyone.
It's important to get a hold of this, because sometimes we Christians have the wrong idea. Sometimes we think that it's just believers who are going to be raised from the dead. That's not the case. Unbelievers are also going to be raised from the dead. Buddists will also someday be resurrected. Muslims will someday be resurrected. Atheists will someday be resurrected. Just as Adam universally brought death on everyone, so Christ will universally make everyone alive. The issue is not whether everyone is going to be resurrected. The issue is what will happen to them after they're resurrected. We'll get to that in a moment, but for the time being, we want to be clear: death is going to be destroyed, and everyone who has ever lived is going to be raised from the dead and made alive again.
Our text and other passages from the Bible tell us that there will be a sequence to how these resurrections happen. The resurrection of the dead will happen in stages. Paul gives the stages in verses 23-24: "But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power."
When Paul says "each in his own turn," he's talking about a sequence, a progression, stages. "Each in his own turn" is a military phrase used when wave after wave of troops is striking at an enemy. It's the idea of advancing companies of the army, one after another, brought forward for one telling blow after another until the enemy is destroyed. First Christ strikes, and then the firstfruits.
With "firstfruits" Paul switches from a military image to an agricultural one. He speaking of the sequential, progressive blossoming of the harvest. Christ is the firstfruits, the first to emerge in this spiritual harvest. He is then followed by the firstfruits of "those who have fallen asleep." Just as a plant or rosebush lies dormant for a while, quiet in silent sleep, soon the buds begin to come out, one at a time. So goes the sequence of the resurrection. Christ is the first. That's what we're celebrating today. Christ is risen—the firstfruits from the dead, and the first telling blow against the enemy of death. Christ is the first sign that our great enemy is going to be destroyed.
After an interval, a second blow to death will come. Some day Christ will return to earth. The Bible says a trumpet will sound, and we who belong to him will be raised to eternal life—we who have trusted him as our Savior. Death will not be able to hold us in the grave! Death will not have the power to keep us down! We will, and as we rise we'll shout the words of that great Easter hymn: "Jesus lives, and so shall I! Death, thy sting is gone forever."
Let's sum it up so far: First Christ, then, after an interval of time, he will come again, and those who belong to him will follow. Then, after another interval of time, the events of the end will take place. The rest of humanity will be made alive. The third wave of resurrections will occur when all unbelievers are brought back to life. At this point, final judgment begins. This third wave of resurrections is briefly described in verses 24-26: "Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority, and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death."
Paul says that during these end events, Christ will destroy all dominion, authority, and power—all opposition, all rebellion, every force that would come against him, whether human or demonic. This is to fulfill God's eternal purpose for his Son to rule over all the universe, with all enemies under his feet.
It's important to note that after these final end-events take place, death will be destroyed. It will cease to exist. There will be no such thing as being dead any more. Everyone who has ever existed will be alive, living eternally in one condition or another.
In the Book of Revelation, we get a fuller picture of how all humanity is brought back to life, and death ceases to exist. In Revelation 20:1-3, we learn that when Christ comes, Satan will be bound in a pit for 1,000 years. Verses 4-6 say that when the 1,000 years start, those who belong to Christ are raised to rule with him. This is what Paul was talking about in our passage for today. The Book of Revelation calls this the first resurrection, since it's only looking at the two resurrections of humanity—those who belong to Christ and those who are unbelievers or enemies. The first resurrection is our resurrection. (In our passage, it's the second wave of resurrection, after Christ's own resurrection.)
We learn in Revelation 20:7-10 that at the end of the 1,000 years, Satan will be released for one last-gasp rebellion. This is when Christ defeats him for all time. Satan will be sent to the lake of fire where he is tormented forever. After this final defeat, the last wave of resurrections takes place. This time it's all those who have resisted Christ over the years. The rest of the human race is now brought back to life. All unbelievers—all those who refused to believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior—will be brought back to life to face their eternal judgment.
Two books guide the judgment of these unbelievers. First, the book of their works will be opened. This lists everything they have done—their sins, their lies, their lusts. It lists all the things for which they deserve judgment. Then another book is opened, the Book of Life. A search will be made to see if their name is in the book—to see if they ever trusted Christ as savior, if they trusted his death as the payment for all their sins in the other book. If their name is not in the Book of Life, these resurrected unbelievers and enemies will join Satan in the lake of fire where they, too, will live in constant torment forever. There will be no escape from it, for dying and getting out of it is impossible. Remember: there is no such thing as death any more. Death is thrown into the lake of fire and destroyed. At this point, a new kind of death takes over—a spiritual death, which is a conscious, eternal torment apart from the presence of God.
The significance of death's destruction
This brings us to the third thing we want to look at: the significance of these events for our lives. Really, it's obvious: of which resurrection will you be a part?
In this life, death is our enemy. But this enemy is going to be destroyed. Everyone—believers and unbelievers—are going to be raised back to life, never to die again. When this happens, of which resurrection will you be a part? The first one—those who belong to Christ, those who will rise at his coming to live with him forever? Or the second one, the one at the end of the 1,000 years—those who refuse to submit to him in this life, those who resist him, those who will be resurrected to live in a place of conscious torment, day and night, forever and ever?
The Bible says, "Blessed are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death holds no fear for them." My friends, be part of that first resurrection. Put your trust in Jesus Christ. Believe that he died to pay the penalty of your sin. Believe that all your sins are taken care of, not because they are overlooked or because you have balanced them out, but only because he paid the penalty for them. Trust him as the only one who can bring you into God's salvation and eternal life.
Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." This, my friends, is why we celebrate Easter.
To see an outline of Sunukjian's sermon, click here.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________
On this wonderful day of resurrection, with its promise of eternal life, I want to look at one of the grandest and most intriguing sentences 1 Corinthians 15: "The last enemy to be destroyed is death."