You are here

9. Die with Christ, Raised with Christ

Chapter 9

Die with Christ, Raised with Christ

Easter Camp, Montreal, April 5, 1998

The hard part is removing the old

In the past few days, I have been doing some house repair. Our house is getting a bit old, so all kinds of things don’t work properly. The faucets are dripping because the washers have been worn out. Whenever I change a washer, it would be corroded to the extent that the metal would crumble in my hand. Calling for a plumber is ex­pensive these days, so I decided to have a go at plumbing even though I had not done it before.

Here is what I discovered: The easy part is putting in something new, the hard part is taking out the old. Removing the faucets from the sink is a big problem because everything is rusted together into one lump, and I need to cut the metal pipes to take out the faucets. If I cannot do that, I would have to change the whole basin. Cutting a metal pipe is not easy for most of us. Some of you may have tried doing this with hacksaws.

Take a look at this gadget I am holding. It has no jagged edges, and is not even made of metal. It is flexible. There is a base under­neath it, a fiber mat with a rough coating. Do you know that this simple device can cut through steel? It has no teeth, but you will be amazed at how quickly it can cut through a metal pipe. Of course you don’t just slide it back and forth like a saw, but attach it to an electric drill. It is advisable to put on a pair of gloves since what you want to cut is a metal pipe, not your fingers. When I attached this thing to an electric drill, it went through the pipe in a few minutes. Look, I can run my hand over its perfectly smooth edge, and it won’t even cut my finger. But if I attach this soft object to an electric drill and apply it to the metal pipe, it will cut through the pipe in a few minutes!

After cutting the pipe, I still have to remove the faucets, but the nuts are so corroded that you cannot remove them. Here is another tool, a black and silver gadget. It is a simple device, yet it can cut through a metal nut in a short time. After cutting the pipe with the first tool, you would loop this gadget around the pipe and slide it up to where the faucet is fastened with the nuts. Then you tighten this loop by tightening a screw; it has a sharp point that will crack the nut under the faucet, allowing you to remove the faucet.

Why am I saying all this? Because as I was working on the house, I was thinking about God and His creation. When God created man, every­thing was good. Then something corrupted man, just as a once beautiful faucet got corroded and had to be replaced with a new one at great effort.

Because man was corrupted by sin, we are suffering its conse­quences to this day. So God has to re-create man. Hence the Bible speaks of regeneration, about being born again or born anew. The old is removed, the new is brought into place.

But removing the old is a difficult chore. God’s chosen instrum­ent for removing the old is the cross, which is analogous to this tool that can cut through metal. Don’t be deceived by the tool’s delicate appearance because it can cut through the steel plate of a door. Similarly, the cross looks simple and is an emblem of weakness and suffering, yet it is God’s power for salvation and a transformed life.

Three Spiritual Principles

Principle 1: We don’t understand something until we experience it

Today I would like to share with you three fundamental principles. The first principle is this: We don’t truly understand something until we have experienced it.

Today we are celebrating the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Since resurrection presup­poses death, if there is no death, there is no resurrection. How many of you have ever died? Can you please raise your hands? It seems nobody. Since you have never experienced death, you only know death as a definit­ion. You may have seen a dead person at a funeral, but that doesn’t mean you know what death is, for you have not exper­ienced it yourself.

I was 12 years old when I grappled with death for the first time, looking at my grand aunt lying motionless. I had spoken with her only a few days earlier. They called me into the room and said, “Your grand aunt has died.” I kept looking at her lying there, and was trying to understand what had happened.

If we don’t know what death is like, how can we know what resur­rection is like? We have no experiential know­ledge of death or resurrection. If we don’t understand something, we could end up talking nonsense when we speak about it.

For example, how many of you have been to heaven? Nobody? What about hell? Nobody? So when we talk about heaven and hell, we are talking about things that we have no experiential knowledge of, and there is a high risk of talking nonsense. What is heaven like? Some Muslim friends have told me that Paradise has trees, flowers, streams, and beautiful virgins. Paradise seems to be male-centric, so it might not appeal much to women.

As for hell, I cringe when I hear people des­cribe hell. There is the familiar presence of Satan, often cartoonishly depicted as a horned person holding a pitch­fork, whose job is to barbecue people who arrive in his domain, for eternity. We don’t even know how to understand eternity. It is hard enough to under­stand a hundred million years or a billion years.

Then all kinds of questions come to our minds. Where is the justice if one is tormented for eternity for living in sin sixty years? We would think that he ought to be barbecued for sixty years, not for eternity.

All this may sound lighthearted, but if hell is a place where sin is dealt with, then the whole matter is dead serious. It doesn’t make sense to us that one is punished for eternity in hellfire on account of sins committed in a human lifespan. If we start talking nonsense, nobody will believe in hell anymore.

And if heaven is a place with trees and flowers, why don’t we just take a stroll in the park? How is heaven of interest to us? Some of us have hay fever, so will we get eternal hay fever from the trees and flowers? We reduce important topics to the ridicu­lous because we don’t know what we are talking about.

Physical resurrection and spiritual resurrection

What is resurrection? We don’t know what it is because we don’t know what death is. In asking if anyone here had died, I was not being facetious because some living people have experienced death, having been pro­nounced clinic­ally dead because their hearts had stopped. I think this is something well known to doc­tors. Some peo­ple have died and come back to life, sometimes a few minutes later, sometimes a few hours later, sometimes a few days later. They have died and come back to life, so it is called a “near-death experience” (NDE). If they hadn’t come back to life, it would be “permanent” death, not “near” death. If you have exper­ienced NDE, you would have had a taste of death. And by coming back to life, you would have had a taste of resurrection.

The Gospels mention three persons who were brought back to life after having died: Jairus’s daughter; the son of a widow in Nain; and Lazarus, all of whom were raised by Jesus (Mk.5:22-43; Lk. 7:11-15; John 11:1-45). These three experienced death in a much deeper way than we have, even if they hadn’t yet known about Jesus’ coming resurrection.

We must distinguish between two types of resurrection. One is resurrection from physical death as in the case of Lazarus: after you are brought back to life, you return to the same prior conditions in which you lived before. There is no fundamental difference in your physical condition before you died and after you are resurrected. After Lazarus was raised by Jesus, he had the same kind of body he had before.

But the resurrection of Jesus is different because his resurrected body had undergone a change in nature. It could now go through walls. When the disciples were gathered in a room, Jesus suddenly appeared to them even though the doors were locked (John 20:19).

Yet at the same time, Jesus’ resurrected body was not an ethereal body. He could eat (Luke 24:42-43) and people could touch him (John 20:17,27). Most importantly, his body will never die again whereas Lazarus would later die again. The people who were raised to life in the gospel accounts, apart from Jesus, later died again. But when the New Testament speaks of resur­rection, it is not referring to that type of resurrection but a resurrection to an incorruptible body that will never die.

Jesus says, “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:26). Today I don’t have time to expound the depth of that statement. Yet we can, here and now, experience death and resur­rection such that we may understand the reality and the meaning of Jesus’ death and resur­rection.

Paul says something that many Christians find puzzling: “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellow­ship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death.” (Phil.3:10)

What does Paul mean by “conformed to his death”? This state­ment is not something that we can understand by reading books on Jesus’ death, but only by exper­ien­cing death. So our first principle is that you only understand spiritual things in proport­ion to your exper­ience of it.

By the way, when I asked, “Has anybody here experienced hell?” I was not joking either. All of us have had experiences so joyful that we would describe them as “heavenly,” but also terrible experiences that we would describe as “hellish” or “hell on earth”.

A few years ago, God gave a woman an actual experience of hell by taking her there. It was not a momentary experience but some­thing that carried on for several months. Day after day, God would take her into hell, bring her back home, and then repeat the cycle. She wrote a book which I can tell you about later, if any of you are interested. Part of her description of hell conforms to our notions of hell, but on some other points it is unlike our notions. God gave her that experience to warn people about hell, to tell them that it is not some kind of joke about people being fried like sausages.

Principle 2: Spiritual life begins with death

I now introduce the second principle by way of a question to which you already know the answer: When did your physical life begin? You will say, “When I was born, obviously.” Since there are many Christ­ians here, we can ask another question: At what point did your spiritual life begin? You may say, “That’s simple, at regenerat­ion!” We sure know how to reel off Bible terms! But if I had asked, “What does regeneration mean?” the answer might not come quite so fast. If I asked a few more questions, I might get no answers at all.

Some of you may be shocked if I tell you that spiritual life begins with death. That is the clear Bible teaching. In this respect, the new birth is unlike phy­sical birth. When Jesus told Nicode­mus about regeneration, Nicodem­us asked how is it possible for one to go back into his mother’s womb to be born again (Jn.3:4). Jesus didn’t even bother to give him an answer, but simply said, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?” (v.10) I wonder how many Bible teachers understand these things.

How many of you know that the spiritual life begins with death rather than birth? That may explain the church’s dire situation today, in which many Christians have not actually died.

Romans 6 says that the starting point of the spiritual life is at baptism, not baptism as an external ritual but a baptism in which we die with Christ and are raised with him. How many of you, in your experience, know what it is to die with Christ? If you have not died with him, how can you be raised with him?

The churches are full of people who have never experienced death with Christ. You can’t truly under­stand what you have not experienced, so if you haven’t died with Christ, you wouldn’t know what Romans 6 is talking about, not even if you have been baptized. The church is full of baptized people who don’t have a clue about what hap­pened to them at their baptism, and don’t know that baptism means to die.

Some Christians simply say, “I believe, so I am saved.” I hear so much nonsense about the meaning of faith. If you claim to be saved by faith, what is the faith that you have? You may say, “That’s easy. I believe that there was a person called Jesus Christ.” Fine, you are doing well.

“And this Jesus got crucified.” So far so good.

“And he was raised from the dead.” Wonderful!

“I believe all that, so I’m saved.”

I am sorry, my friend, because the devil also believes what you believe. The devil knows that all these statements are true. He is not ignorant of these basic facts.

You are not saved just because you believe that Jesus died as a historical fact. Christ died for us, but we are not saved until we die with Christ and are raised with him. This is not a teaching that I invented, but something that is taught in Romans 6, a fundamental chapter that few understand.

Hence our second principle is that spiritual life begins with death. It is not death itself that saves—people die all the time—but death with Christ.

Here is another basic question: What did Christ die to? Anyone who has attended Sunday School would know the answer. Romans 6:10 says that Christ “died to sin once for all.” And with that, Christ died to the world which is dominated by sin. “World” does not mean an orbiting sphere in the planetary system such as the sun, the moon, and Earth, but the human system dominated by sin. When 1John 2:15 says, “Do not love the world,” it doesn’t mean that we don’t love trees and flowers, but that we don’t love the world system dominated by sin and pride.

Since Jesus’ death was a death to sin, you cannot die with Christ unless you too have died to sin. And with that you also die to the world’s system of sin. You also die to what the Bible calls the “flesh,” the element that stands in opposition to the Spirit. If you have died with Christ, there is a total change in your way of think­ing. Have you experienced this? Can you say, “Yes, my thinking has changed totally, as also my whole life”?

Principle 3: Die with Christ, raised with Christ

This takes us to our third and final point: If we have died with Christ, we are also raised with him. It means that we can, here and now, exper­ience the reality of his death to sin and the power of his resurrection. That makes you a very different kind of Christian. You will begin to understand some of Paul’s statements which are other­wise incom­pre­hensible, for example, Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me.” Paul says that he has died with Christ, and he now lives by God’s power in Christ’s life. Is that your experience?

Today is Easter Sunday. If you haven’t experienced the reality of God’s life working in you, then you haven’t experienced the meaning of Easter at all, namely, becoming a new person who walks in newness of life (Romans 6:4). Paul reiterates this in 2Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Behold, new things have come.”

Back to my story: I removed the faucets with their corroded nuts and washers, and now we have shiny taps that work perfectly. There is a nice feeling of newness. Have you experienced anything new as a Christian?

The burden in my heart

God has called me to the ministry, yet it is one of my heaviest bur­dens in my life. Let me share with you from my heart that I see very little newness in Christians. I meet people who say, “I am a baptized Christian,” but they are the same as what they were before. I see no fundamental change, not after one year, not after five years, not after twenty years. They are the same people with the same bad habits and the same unpleasant character that they had before. Despite Paul’s declaration in 2 Corinthians 5:17 about the new creation in Christ, I hardly see anything new, just the old.

I asked myself, “What have I labored all my life for? What have I sacrificed my health for? For this?” I get more satisfaction from changing faucets. That’s because I see these gleaming, functioning faucets in front of me, and no more dripping. All the hours of work are worth it! Have you ever tried changing faucets? It is hard to work under the sink to change the faucets because there is little space for you to work in. You have to go into the cabinet under the sink to reach the faucets. After I am done with the repair, my back is aching. But when I look at the nice faucets working perfectly, I would say to myself, “It’s worth it!”

When I do church work, I am often on the telephone for hours. I’m like a stockbroker who holds two phones, one in each hand. I would say, “Please hold, another call is coming in.” After switching to the other line, a third call comes in. I would be better off working in the stock mar­ket because at least you some­times get good news about your share prices. But in my church work, few people call me to tell me good news. They bring up a problem and ask, “How do we deal with this?” They bring up another problem and ask, “How do we deal with that?” After several hours of this, sometimes I would say, “Excuse me, I need to get a drink. I haven’t had water for a while.” This job is hazard­ous to your health!

I used to tell those in the full-time training, “This is a very tough ministry.” Sometimes they think I’m exag­gerating. But ask them about it now, after they have served a couple of years.

We don’t mind dealing with problems, but if you keep on deal­ing with problems without seeing newness or transformation, you will get tired and discouraged.

In the ministry we have to deal with the human nature all the time. I can tell you that the human nature is diehard in the sense of being hard to change. But the cross can destroy the old nature if you allow it to. But if you are unwilling to be a new creation, the cross won’t do anything for you. You will simply hang on to the old things, your old habits, your bad temper, your irritability.

My prayer today is that each of you will pursue the new things that God has in store for you. Let God cut off the old by means of the cross. The old may be as hard as steel, but the cross will cut it off, and the new life of God will come into you.

The new life: Joy and peace!

I recently watched a TV interview with a famous concert pianist. I won’t mention his name because I don’t want to denigrate him. He was sharing about his life and his character. What he said at one point in the interview stuck in my mind. He said, “There is one thing about me: I see a cloud in every silver lining.” To understand his statement, you have to understand the English saying, “In every cloud there is a silver lining”: there is hope even in the worst of situations. But this pianist said the opposite, that he sees a black cloud in every silver lining. In other words, he has a negative and pessimistic disposition.

I see such people all the time. I would say, “This is wonderful!” but they would say, “Yes, but there is a problem here and a pro­blem there.” And by the time they finish, all the joy in you has been zapped away. If you have one or two such people around you, you will be under a dark cloud. The old way of thinking tends to live on in gloom and darkness.

Resurrection is the triumph of life over death, light over dark­ness, and joy over unhappiness. Because Paul lived the resurrected life, he was able to say, “Rejoice always!” (1Th.5:16) He was always rejoicing! If you live in joy, you are living in the newness of life, for this kind of happiness is not from the world but something that God gives you.

We are reminded of the well known story of John Wesley who was sailing from England to America over the Atlantic some two centuries ago. The wooden ship he was sailing in was caught in a storm, and was on the brink of sinking. I know from firsthand experience that an Atlantic storm can be terrify­ing. What trans­formed Wesley’s life and made him a new person was that he saw a group of Christians on the boat who were joyful and at peace while the others were panicking in the face of death. But among this group of Christians, there was not a hint of fear. The women held their children, and the children felt assured because they saw their parents in peace. Wesley could not believe his eyes when he saw their victory over the fear of death, and their peace and joy.

Does your life make an impression on your colleagues at the office or your classmates at your college? Is there a new quality of life that speaks to the people around you? Not unless you have died and risen with Christ. May that be your experience!

(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church