AN EASTER SERMON
by David N. Samuel
Revelation 1:17, 18.
“Fear not; I am the first and the last:
I am he that liveth, and was dead;
and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen;
and have the keys of hell and of death.”
‘Fear not’ were words that Jesus used often in his earthly ministry. He said to Jairus, the distraught father, whose twelve-year-old daughter lay dead, “Fear not: only believe.” To the anxious disciples, “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” And when they were afraid of persecution: “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul.” These words, ‘Fear not’, were familiar to them. They knew the tone of voice and the way in which he said them. They could not fail to recognize who it was who spoke to them.
The scene we have here before us now is of John the aged disciple, in exile on the island of Patmos; sent into isolation for his faith in Christ, and on that memorable Lord’s Day hearing behind him a great voice, saying, “I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last.” The voice and the vision that he sees are overwhelming. He falls to the ground as one dead, and then hears the familiar words, that he had heard so often before from the lips of Jesus, “Fear not”. Did they not immediately bring reassurance and comfort? They are words which sum up and epitomize the Easter message. They are the words of the Risen Christ, not just to John, but to the church of God and the people of God in every generation.
There was a tendency to talk a little while ago as if fear were a thing of the past. This was back in the nineteen-sixties when a liberal elite were changing our society. It was said that “man had come of age”. He was taking control of his life and his future, and leaving behind ignorance and fear. But now, forty years on, that view does not seem very credible. There is a great deal of fear about today. Men’s hearts are failing them for fear of the things that are coming upon the earth. There is fear of terrorism, fear of disease, fear of the future and fear of life itself. And leaders and politicians seem to have little to say that can calm those fears. That is because they are not really in control of events. They wish to appear to be in control; they promise, but they cannot deliver.
If one studies history this becomes very clear. We see just how helpless politicians and statesmen have often been in the face of events. Harold Macmillan was once asked what a politician had most to fear. And his answer was one word, ‘events’.
Now fear arises from two things: uncertainty and unpreparedness. Uncertainty, because we cannot know what the future holds; what will happen from day to day or hour to hour. And unpreparedness, because while we may make some provision for the future, we cannot cover all contingencies and circumstances which might arise. This makes us all vulnerable and exposes us to fear. There is only one certain answer to this problem which is part of our human condition – it is to trust in the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. He, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the summation of all things. He is the first and the last, the beginning and the ending. He is the Lord of life, and has the keys of hell and of death. He reigns over the seen and the unseen, all things in heaven and earth are subject to him. Therefore, trust in him, and do not be afraid. That is the great message of the Risen Christ.
First, the Risen Christ takes away the fear of life
This may be a strange thing to say, but life, as well as death, brings with it its fears and anxieties. Many people today do not know what they are living for, except perhaps the momentary pleasure or diversion. There seems to be no real purpose to human existence.
They hear what the savants, the scientists and philosophers have to say about life and the world – that this planet is like a speck of dust in the universe; that life arose on the earth by accident – and there seems to be no object or purpose to human existence. What is it all for? What does it matter in the end what you do with your life?
If people really want an answer, they must listen to the words of the Risen Christ. “Fear not, I am the first and the last.” He is the One who was there in the beginning of all things, and will be there in the end. He embraces and embodies the whole meaning and purpose of life. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.” I defy anybody to read these words and not be moved by them. Here is a profound affirmation that life is not meaningless, cannot be meaningless, because Christ is the origin and meaning of it.
The ‘Word’ in this passage – “In the beginning was the Word” – can equally well be translated ‘reason’. That is, Jesus Christ is the reason why all things were made. He is the one by whom and for whom all things were created. He is the source and centre of life. “In him was life; and the life was the light of men.” Here is the light of life, the reason for life. And if people affirm that life has no meaning, it is because they do not look for it where it is to be found.
When there was gross darkness over all the land of Egypt, there was light in the homes of the Israelites. There may be gross darkness over the world today, and many may profess that they are in darkness, and can discern no meaning or purpose in life; that, indeed may be true of them, but it is not absolutely or universally true. “I am the light of the world,” said Jesus, “he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). We must follow him and believe in him if we are to have and experience the light and true meaning of human life and existence.
Our Lord demonstrated in his whole life and ministry that he is the Lord of life. When he fed the multitudes in the wilderness, when he healed the sick, made the lame to walk, the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak. When he stilled the storm, and raised the dead. All were life-affirming acts demonstrating that he was the Lord of life.
For this reason the power of death and the grave could not hold him. “Whom God raised up,” said Peter on the day of Pentecost, “having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it.” (Acts 2:24). Jesus Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the whole meaning and purpose of human life and existence is only found in him. We shall look in vain elsewhere for it. And therefore he takes away the fear of life. He gives us the power and the courage to be and to live. “I am come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”
That was why Paul was able to utter that memorable expression, “For me to live is Christ.” And again, he declared, “The life that I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” True life, real life, is unthinkable apart from Jesus Christ.
Thou of life the fountain art,
Freely let me drink of thee:
Well thou up within my heart,
Rise to all eternity.
Secondly, Christ – the Risen Christ – takes away the fear of condemnation
The Bible speaks very plainly of the Day of Judgment. Our Lord himself warned of it. “Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.” (Luke 12:4, 5). Again in the Epistle to the Hebrews we read, “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” And John in the Book of Revelation writes of the Great White Throne, and of the dead great and small, standing before God, and the books being opened. This is an awesome picture, and if men do not fear the Day of Judgment, as many appear not to do today, then they might.
But for the believer, the Risen Christ banishes the fear of judgment and that awful day. How does he do this? By displaying the wounds in his hands and feet and side. These are the tokens of his sufferings for his people. He has suffered and died in their place, as their substitute. He has taken the place of his people and borne the wrath of God upon their sins. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). “He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation.” No wonder the first words of the Risen Christ to John on the Isle of Patmos were, “Fear not”.
The Resurrection does not mean that the cross is now forgotten and put away. It is, on the contrary, still the great central, pivotal event in salvation history. “We preach Christ crucified.” His death is “the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2). The resurrection of Christ sets the seal upon that, and shows that it is accepted by God the Father. “He [Jesus Christ] was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.” (Romans 4:25).
Christ Jesus wears those marks of his sufferings in heaven now. He pleads his merits and atoning death for his people. “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father”. (1 John 2:1). When we come before God, we plead Christ’s merits, his atoning death. When, eventually, we appear before the judgment seat of God we shall have the same invincible plea.
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyelids close in death,
When I soar through tracts unknown,
See thee on thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee.
And, when the Lord Jesus Christ shall come again at the end of the world for judgment, he will wear those same marks of his passion. But then they will serve to condemn those who would not believe. “Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.” (Revelation 1:7). The unbelieving will have their portion with those who despised him and set him at nought.
Thirdly, he takes away the fear of death
Death is the last enemy. It still bars the way, and shakes the self-confidence of modern, secular man. It checks his arrogance, and reduces all his boasts and pretensions to nothing. What happens after death? Nothing, people say. But how can they possibly know? There is the well-known story of Paulinus, who went from Kent to convert the tribes of Northumbria. He came to King Edwin and asked for an audience. The King consulted his counsellors. Should he hear this Christian or no? One of them said, “To what shall I liken the life of man? It is like that bird which has just flown into this hall from the darkness. It is here for a brief moment, and then flies out again. If this Christian can tell us anything of what happens before and after this life, let us hear him.”
The Risen Christ gives us the word that we need, “Fear not… I have the keys of hell [or Hades] and of death”. Hades is the place of the departed, the unseen world after death. The Lord Jesus Christ is in charge, has authority over all that region.
I remember many years ago an Any Questions programme. The question was, “Who are the happiest people?” There was a man on the panel who said, “The happiest people are those who are not afraid of death, because they know what is going to happen afterwards.” It was a good answer, much needed in our times.
We have the words of the Risen Christ. We need not be in suspense. The invisible world is in his power and control. He says, “All power in heaven and earth is given unto me.” Again he says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man [or thing or power] is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.” (John 10:27-29). When we die, we do not go out into the darkness.
Dylan Thomas wrote a very moving, but very sad and despairing poem about death. Its refrain was an exhortation to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Do not go gentle into that good night.” I suppose that must be the only option open to those who reject the light of Christ; the only message about death from an unbeliever, to an unbelieving generation, such as ours now is.
But how different is the message of the New Testament, which rests upon the fact of our Lord’s Resurrection. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3, 4). Or as Paul puts it, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21).
The Risen Christ declared to John on the island of Patmos, “Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that liveth and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.” Christ alone holds the keys to the meaning and purpose of life. They are found only in Him. “In him was life; and the life was the light of men.” He takes away the fear of life, and through him we have “life more abundant”.
He takes away the fear of condemnation. He shows us his wounded hands and side, which testify to the fact that he has suffered in our place. “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him.”
He takes away the fear of death and the unseen world, for he who once was dead is alive for evermore, and has the keys of hell and of death.