Anchoring to the Living Conqueror of Death, Part 2
I have always loved the Chronicles of Narnia and read all seven books through nearly every summer when I was young. But there were parts of the story that really bothered me. Like the fact that, in the final book, The Last Battle, Susan doesn’t come back into Aslan’s country.
When asked about his sister’s absence, Peter speaks first.
“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”
“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”
“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”
Polly’s explanation of the change that came over Susan has stayed in my memory all these years—the idea of rushing to grow up to a certain age of privileges and experiences and then to try to stay that age as long as you possibly can.
But this approach to life is common in our culture. One of the evidences is the social-historical conversation that has been taking place for a number of years about why twentysomethings are “growing up” much slower than in previous generations. In this economy almost any diligent young adult can make a decent salary that allows plenty of time to pursue personal interests and pleasures and purchases. Why spoil it so soon with marriage and children and other adult responsibilities? But this stereotype is part of a larger, overarching trend that is consistent no matter what generation you live in. Namely, people yearn to experience the best life that they can while they live on this earth and to stay in that life as long as they can.
And, really, you can’t blame them if this little time on earth is all we have to live.
Yet it’s not all the time we have to live. In fact, this very short time on earth will soon be a distant memory to all of us, much sooner than we know. Because there is another place that we will live forever. And unless we believe this and live according to our belief we cannot have a grown-up view of our life now.
What is worse, if our ultimate goal is to make the best life for ourselves here, then we make death our greatest enemy. For death is the evil culprit who will slowly smother us anyway, or suddenly catch us unawares and snatch our life on this earth away.
But even for those of us who are growing up in Christ, who have an eternal view of life, death still makes us nervous. Death is not something we necessarily look forward to, the experience of leaving everyone and everything we know and stepping into the unknown. In fact, it can still be frightening to us.
This is why, in the book of Revelation, Jesus personally addresses the persecuted believers in the churches, many of whom faced the real possibility that their life on earth would be cut short, for they would die as martyrs. And when he speaks to them to strengthen their resolve and to encourage their faith, he does not begin by reminding them that he will keep them safe or that he has promised them eternal life. He first declares to them who he is. Because they did not need to anchor to an idea or a promise as much as they needed to anchor to him.
In fact, when it comes to death, the description of Jesus in Revelation 1:5 offers believers two bold assurances. Because John says that he is “the firstborn of the dead,” or the firstborn from among the dead.
As I said in the previous post, the word “firstborn” (prototkos) can mean first in rank, first in position, first in authority. Jesus holds the authority over life and death. He declares that he holds the keys of Death and Hades (Rev 1:18). So knowing Jesus is knowing the one who has our time of death completely under his control. And that gives us great confidence.
But there is a second bold assurance that the prototokos of the dead gives us.
Not only does Jesus hold the authority over life and death forever, but also,
Jesus is the prototype of those who live forever.
You know what a prototype is. It’s the first model or example of something that all of the others are copied from. When they build a new car, they first build a prototype. Once the manufacturers are happy with the prototype, they retrofit their assembly line to create thousands of other cars just like that first one.
When Revelation 1:5 says that Jesus is the firstborn from the dead, it implies that there are those coming after him. That there will be a second born and a third born, and a fourth, and fifth, and a 100th and a 1000th and a 10,000th and a 100,000th, and so forth.
Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people who have put their faith in him, who will one day die and yet be alive forever more—just like Jesus died and is alive forevermore!
He is the prototype of those who die and come to life again.
Now, you might think, “Wait a minute! I know there are other people who were raised from the dead in the Bible before Jesus died and rose from the dead. What about them?”
Well, you’re right. During his ministry on earth, Jesus raised three people from the dead that we know of (though the Gospels suggest there were many more). There was Lazarus, the widow’s son at Nain, and Jairus’s daughter.
But these people who were raised from the dead did not conquer death. Eventually, all of them died again. Martha and Mary buried Lazarus a second time. There was second funeral, most likely, for the woman’s son. Jairus’s daughter no doubt grew into womanhood, married, had children, and was eventually buried in an expensive tomb.
But Jesus Christ is the first of the human race in history to actually conquer death—to come back from among the dead never to die again. And that is what the resurrection is all about.
Jesus and Jesus alone can say, “Fear not. I am … the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore.”
He is the first-born from the dead. And, the fact that He is the first-born implies that there are more to follow.
We are the second-born from the dead, but only if we are united to Christ.
The church to whom Jesus specifically presented himself as “the first and the last, who died and came to life” (Rev 1:8), is the church at Smyrna. This church suffered severe persecution. In fact, among its membership was Polycarp, who was burned alive for his faith in Christ only a few decades after John delivered the book of Revelation.
Polycarp was ordered to deny Christ and sacrifice to the emperor or face the flames. And Polycarp famously spoke these words:
“For eighty-six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who has saved me?”
“You threaten with fire that burns for an hour and after a short while is extinguished; for you do not know about the fire of the coming judgment and eternal torment, reserved for the ungodly. But why are you waiting? Bring on what you wish!”
And as they started his execution, the account says that Polycarp cried to God,
“Lord God, Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed child Jesus Christ … I bless you for making me worthy this day and hour, that I may receive a share among the martyrs in the cup of your Christ, unto the resurrection of eternal life!”
What gave Polycarp such bold assurance? He knew the One who died, but is no longer dead. He knew the firstborn from the dead. He knew the one who has the authority over death. May God give us grace to anchor our minds and hearts to the Living Conqueror of Death. And, in knowing him, may we receive from him the bold confidence that allows us to truly mature and live in this world as his people.