Woody Allen said, 'I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying.' He also said, 'I'm not afraid of dying. I just don't want to be there when it happens.' Nobody wants to die. I remember hearing an old soldier talking about his comrades in arms who had been killed. He was resisting the idea that soldiers willingly lay down their lives. 'None of them wanted to die,' he said. Dylan Thomas wrote to his dying father:
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.
We see death as moving from the light of this life into permanent darkness - the blank void beyond. So we think.
But our purpose this evening is to take a few minutes to listen to a different perspective - the perspective of the Bible. Why listen to it? Because it is the voice of God. Or so it claims and so we believe, with good reason. Why listen to it? Because through it God tells us how to live for ever. The comedian Vic Reeves, when told on Desert Island Discs that he would have the Bible with him on his desert island, said, 'Why would I want that? I don't want the Bible. I suppose I could use it for firewood.' But what if it is what it says and it gives what it promises - life for ever? Then failing to listen - throwing it on the fire - is a catastrophe.
Mind you, taking the Bible seriously is a big deal, because it completely turns our thinking on its head. So, for instance, we think we're alive and threatened by approaching death. The Bible says no - in fact we're already dead, and Jesus offers life. I saw a film recently in which the central character only realises at the very end that in fact he's been dead all along. And it's subtly done, so as you watch it, you only realise that he's a ghost at the same time he does, at the very end of the film. It's a shock. But that's what the Bible does - only for real. It's only as we find everlasting life through Jesus that we finally realise the truth: we were dead before.
Let me explain by focussing on one bit of the Bible. It's from the First Letter of the Apostle Paul to the Church in Corinth - 15.1-11..
If you want to know how to live for ever, the answer is here. It comes in four parts. Here they are. First, we need to be saved from death. Secondly, we are saved by the gospel. Thirdly, the gospel is good news about Jesus. And fourthly, Jesus gives us everlasting life when we believe in him. Let me take you through that step by step.
First, WE NEED TO BE SAVED FROM DEATH
Look at the first paragraph here. So this 15.1-2:
Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you take your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
We'll come on to exactly what this 'gospel' is in a minute. But for now I want you to see that little phrase:
By this gospel you are saved…
You need to be rescued. But from what? The Bible makes it clear: we need to be saved from death.
The day will come when we stop breathing and our hearts stop beating. We would love a way out of that. And God is giving us a way out. But there's more to death than that. From the Bible's point of view, death comes in three phases, and physical death is just the middle phase.
Before physical death comes spiritual death. That's what I meant when I said that we're already dead. Of course we're not physically dead. Some of us are more conscious of the decay of our bodies than others - but we're all physically alive. But what the Bible says is that until Jesus comes into our lives, our spirit is dead. What is your spirit? It's the part of you that relates to God. It's the part of you that loves God and wants nothing more than to know him and serve him and worship him.
Without Jesus our relationship with God is dead. We don't know him, or love him, or serve him, or worship him. That's death phase one. And God rightly holds us responsible for killing our relationship with him. He is rightly angry with us - and puts us under sentence of death. And that death sentence is the second and third phases of death. The middle phase is our physical death. But the Bible is clear that's not the end of us. The day will come when God will hold us to account for wishing him dead. And then the shock and awe of his anger will hit us. And we will get what we asked for - an eternity with him as our enemy. That's what Jesus called 'hell'. And that's the third phase of death that awaits us without Jesus.
So what we need saving from is death in all three phases: phase one - spiritual death - a dead relationship with God our maker; phase two - physical death; phase three - eternal death, when our chickens come home to roost and God holds us to account for our treatment of him. What's it going to take to rescue us from all that? We need a new relationship with our creator. We need physical resurrection. And something must happen to clear our account with God and turn his anger away.
How can we live for ever? First, we must realise how serious our situation is. We have defied God. We are dead to him. He is camped on our borders. The threat of physical and eternal death hangs over us. We need to be rescued.
If we don't see that, than all this stuff we've been singing and hearing this evening about the death and resurrection of Jesus is meaningless, and Easter really is no more than an excuse for more chocolate.
How can we live for ever? Answer part one: we need to be saved from death. Then here's answer part two:
Secondly, WE ARE SAVED BY THE GOSPEL
That's what Paul is saying here, isn't it? 15.1-2 again:
… I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you have received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
If this gospel is going to rescue us from spiritual, physical and eternal death, we'd better figure out what it is and what we need to do with it - fast.
Well, Paul's clear what we have to do with it. We have to listen to it - it's a vital message that's spoken to us. We have to receive it - in other words, believe it wholeheartedly. If it goes in one ear, that's all well and good. But if it just goes out the other ear, we're back where we started - dead. We have to take our stand on it - build our whole lives on it, make it the foundation of our existence. And we have to hold firmly to it - be ready to resist whatever attacks are made against it and whatever tempts us to let go of it and go after something else.
We have to listen, receive, take our stand, and hold firm to this gospel. If we do that, it saves us. But what is it?
It's good news about certain events and their significance - that's basically what the word 'gospel' means.
It's the message that the apostle Paul preached. Paul couldn't imagine anyone less deserving of the privilege than he - but God gave him the message.
It's passed from person to person. Do you see that in verse 3?
For what I received I passed on to you…
To use computer language, it's 'shareware'. It's free, and freely available. Pass it on. That's what God wants.
So this gospel is a message of good news passing freely from person to person. But what's it about? Well, that's part three of the answer to the question, 'How can I live for ever?' So far we have part one - we need to be saved from death; and part two - we are saved by the gospel. Then:
Thirdly, THE GOSPEL IS GOOD NEWS ABOUT JESUS
There is in fact a one word answer to the question 'How can I live for ever?' Or rather, it's a one person answer: Jesus. The gospel that saves us from death is everything we need to know about Jesus. What's that?
First, we need to know that Jesus is Lord. Look at verse 3 there, at the start of the second paragraph:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died…
Just hold it there. This is all about Christ. Who's that? We're talking about Jesus of Nazareth who died on the cross. What does 'Christ' mean? It means King. And not any old King - but the King who has all the authority of God himself to rule over everything for ever - every nation, every life. Jesus is the Lord of lords and the King of kings. And that means, of course, that he's your Lord, and my Lord. So how should we relate to him? With obedience, service and worship. Jesus is Lord.
Secondly, we need to know that Jesus died so that we can be forgiven. This is how verse 3 goes on:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried…
Jesus was killed on that cross, and laid in the tomb. Why did he die? For our sins. Because of our rejection of God, we deserve physical and eternal death. Jesus died to take on himself all of the just anger of God against us. He paid the price of our rebellion. He took the punishment that we deserve.
Jesus is Lord. Jesus died for our sins and was buried. Then the third element of the good news about Jesus is that he was raised from the dead. How can we be sure? Paul spells out just part of the evidence. It's there in verses 4-8:
… that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep [that is, he's saying, 'If you want to go and talk to them about it yourselves, plenty of them are still around - you can go and find them - this is real']. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also…
Jesus is alive. It's true. And now Jesus is at the right hand of God his Father, ruling as Christ and King and Lord.
That's the gospel that saves us from death.
A while back there was a report of a man cut off on the beach between an unclimbable cliff and a rising tide. In the end, he drowned. Imagine you were trapped like that and someone threw you a lifeline. You'ld take hold of it. That's what the gospel is like. There is no need for any of us to be drowned by death.
The gospel is the good news about Jesus. He is Lord. He died so that we might be forgiven. He was raised from death. He destroyed the power of death in our lives.
So we now have the first three parts of the Bible's, and therefore God's, answer to our question, 'How can we live for ever?' One: we need to be saved from death - spiritual, physical and eternal. Two: we are saved by the gospel. Three: the gospel is the good news about Jesus.
And finally, part four of the answer is simply this:
Fourthly, JESUS GIVES US EVERLASTING LIFE WHEN WE BELIEVE IN HIM
Paul himself is the case study here. Look at the transformation in his life - this is from verse 8:
… last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them - yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
Paul had been a hater of Christians and of Christ. He was a religious fanatic - a proud, violent persecutor of the church. But then he met the risen Jesus. And he submitted his life to him. He found mercy and forgiveness from Jesus. The Spirit of God was poured into his heart. He came alive to God. He had a new purpose and a future secure for all eternity.
Paul spent the rest of his earthly life persuading others to accept that same new life for themselves - and today it is still available to each one of us, for the asking.
How do we live for ever? We've heard the answer from God through Paul. We must acknowledge that we need to be saved from death. We must understand that we are saved by the gospel. We must believe the good news about Jesus. He is Lord. He died so that our sins could be forgiven. He was raised from the dead to rule our lives. We must ask Jesus to give us - in place of the death we deserve - everlasting life. A new life now, following him and loving God. And a certain hope of life for ever in the future. Please don't leave here this evening without taking a step towards him.
Paul urges us to listen to the gospel; to receive it; to take our stand on it; and to hold firmly to it. Which of those is the most direct challenge to you this evening?
Do you need maybe for the first time in your life to begin to listen seriously to what the Bible teaches? There are many different ways we can help you do that here. Please keep coming, and find the opportunity that suits you best. One example is our short 'Christianity Explored' course. There are leaflets about that you can take.
Or are you at the point where you've done your listening, and you know it's time to receive the message for yourself, but you haven't yet done so? If that's you then please take one of these 'Why Jesus?' booklets from the back. In it you'll find a simple explanation of one way you can take that step, in the privacy of your own home. But if you do that, don't keep it private - tell a friend.
Or have you already taken that step, but you realise that you can't any longer be half-hearted, and you need to take your stand on the gospel, and make Jesus the very centre of your existence? Then talk to him directly, and in all your decisions start making pleasing Jesus the top priority.
Or are you a believer at heart, but you can see that you've drifted from Jesus? You're not holding firmly to the gospel. Jesus wants you back by his side. Get back in step with his Spirit.
Woody Allen said, 'I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying.' Of course, there's a typical Woody Allen note of despair there, because he knows he can't achieve that. None of us can. But Jesus has achieved it, on our behalf. Life without Jesus is living death. But with him, we live for ever.