Death is Swallowed Up in Victory

At Easter, we especially think about Jesus’ resurrection, though it should always be front and center in our minds. As incredible as His incarnation was — the infinite God taking on the likeness of sinful flesh, not just human flesh, but fallen, sinful flesh… As incredible as His willing offering on the cross for sinful man was… the resurrection is the capstone of it all. The resurrection puts the final exclamation point on the declaration that God has stepped into human history and redeemed His people. The resurrection is a total game changer. Without it, we are hopeless.  And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! (1 Cor. 15:17) In His resurrection, Jesus makes all things new. He is doing the ‘new thing’ promised in Isaiah 43. He is undoing the curse of the Fall. And the final victory on our behalf is over death itself.

Death — that terror of terrors — holds no more power over us in Christ. In a sense, death has become our friend — because it is only in dying that we truly live. Jesus tells us — unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24-25) In a sense, our whole Christian life is a process of dying to self and sin and the world so that we can truly live. …always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. (2 Cor. 4: 10) Our life in this world is a constant putting to death of this old man who will not go quietly, and we feel weighted down by the body of this death that encumbers us (Rom. 7). 

For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven,  if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. (2 Cor. 5:1-4)

We do not long to be free from the body, but to be clothed in a better body, in immortality. So Death loses its terror and becomes our greatest victory — it takes us finally into the presence of God as perfect, whole people, at last free from all the struggles of this life. Our lifelong campaign to be rid of the Old Man that weighs us down is ended in an instant as we are clothed with immortality, freed at last from the ravages of sin, and ushered into a new life in the presence of God forever. The Enemy’s worst threat has become a sweet release from all our struggles. Jesus truly makes ALL things new — even death.

Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed— in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.  For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”    (1 Cor. 15:50-54)

Getting the Gospel

I remember exactly the moment I ‘got the gospel.’ ‘Getting the gospel’ wasn’t exactly a thing then, but in retrospect that is what happened. I was twenty something, out of college, but still in my college town and church. I had been a Christian from childhood — not sure exactly when — but I still had lots of daddy and abandonment issues. On this significant day, I was talking with one of our elders, feeling wretched because I felt like a drain on their time, emotions, families… My elder was assuring me that they were totally committed to me and my spiritual growth and didn’t consider me a burden at all. It was a beautiful expression of total commitment and acceptance regardless of my neediness. I should have melted, but here’s what I said — out loud (!): I know you love me, but I wish you could like me. (I wanted to be the person they wanted to be around and took on vacation to help out with kids.) If God ever spoke to me in a voice, it had to be then, because I immediately heard, “Do you hear what you just said? You’re rejecting the gospel.”

It was true. I wanted so much to be liked that I would trade that total commitment and undeserved love for any reason to think that I was somehow lovable. But the gospel comes to us when we least deserve it. The Father loved us and chose us when we were alienated from him, and the Son died for us when we were still sinners. Nothing we receive is deserved, and it takes real humility to accept that gospel. Giving up my insane need to be liked was my induction into the gospel — that grace wherein we stand. Grasping the difference between God’s unshakeable love for us and his being ‘pleased with us’/liking us (which for me meant clinging to some worthiness) is foundational to my relationship with him. Believing the gospel means I am confident in his love even when I am unlovable. The bedrock of my faith is this confidence that he will never leave me or forsake me because he has proved his commitment to me by his death on the cross — for me. It all starts there, and we can never forget that.

Now that I am in Christ though, the gospel takes on a new aspect. The gospel changes everything it touches, and I find that I am a different person in a different kingdom altogether. Sin still clings to me, but it is no longer who I am. I still live in this fallen world and constantly need to come to the cross for forgiveness, but in Christ I am different. I think more about the gospel of the kingdom and what that looks like. It’s not all about forgiveness. I want to know his ways, understand what he is doing, love what he loves, hate what he hates, do what he would do, feel what he feels… I am a different person because of the gospel. I think many of us live our lives identifying with the old man and constantly feel defeated because we see ourselves as coming to God over and over again as sinners who will never be any different. Jesus makes all things new. I identify with him in his death and am raised to a new life – still tainted by sin, but that sin is not me!

I guess I have come full circle, and now my focus is on pleasing God. Now – again — I want him to like me, but it comes from a heart that is already secure in his love – not my desperate need for affirmation. Sometimes I feel the separation that sin brings between me and him even as a Christian, but at root I know he loves me and never leaves me. The whole debate about whether as Christians we can always say that God is pleased with us vexes me. I know I sometimes seem to be nitpicking when I insist on making a distinction between God’s love for us and his being pleased with us or liking us. I realize that sometimes our language is imprecise and maybe we’re all just talking about God’s love and commitment to us using different terms, but there are times when it seems evident that the desperate desire to know that God is always pleased with us has led some to deal with sin inappropriately. Going immediately to ‘yes, I slept with my boyfriend, but I’m so glad to know that God is still pleased with me in Christ’ seems so misguided. Yes, our position in Christ is secure, but the goodness of God leads us to repentance, not presumption. It’s a bratty kid who says to his father, “I know you told me not to do that, but you have to be supportive because you’re my father, and that’s what good fathers do.”

So because I ‘get the gospel,’ I’m secure in the relationship even though I know I don’t always please him. Ironically, I come back to the place where my concern is that God ‘like me’ and ‘be pleased with me.’ Only now it’s all different – it’s not this desperate need to feel good about myself. I simply want real relationship with the one who has given all to save me. Positionally, nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ. But relationally, there is variation day to day as I work out my salvation with fear and trembling in a fallen world.

I view it like marriage. The marriage is all about total commitment no matter what. We take vows, and feelings and circumstances can’t change those vows and our commitment to each other. That is the real security. We love each other — but sometimes we don’t like each other! At root, our commitment is central, but day to day, what makes a good/pleasant marriage relationship is ‘getting each other,’ sharing life, and enjoying each other. With our commitment as a given, now it can actually mean more to me to hear and be able to say, ‘I like you’ than ‘I love you.’ Lovers don’t forever gaze into one another’s eyes and say ‘I love you.’ At some point, love starts to show itself in ‘like’ kinds of ways. We start learning about things the other person likes. Our tastes change and start to line up more closely. We know what each other is thinking. And I find it true also in my relationship with God – love is the basis of it all, but day to day, I think more about pleasing him, knowing him better, being his friend, growing in grace… Maybe this is what sanctification is all about!

So my life is a life of pursuing a goal that I will never attain in this world – truly knowing God and becoming like him. I fail all the time and come constantly for forgiveness. My works will never be perfect, but I know that he accepts my efforts because I am in Christ, just like a mom is pleased with her child’s efforts to make breakfast on Mother’s Day even if the toast is burned. And I live for the moments of grace when I feel like Eric Liddell – “when I run, I feel his pleasure.” It’s a taste of heaven when I can feel like I am doing exactly what I was made to do, and that God is truly pleased in the ultimate and eternal sense , and his will is being done on earth as it is in heaven.