Death with Christ:
The Path to Life
An Easter Message by Pastor Eric Chang Delivered on April 12, 1998 in Christian Gospel Church, Montreal, Canada
These last two days I have had to do quite a lot of work in the house. Our house is getting a little bit old. You know that in old houses all kinds of things stop functioning properly, for example, the faucets. What happens is, first, it starts dripping because the washers are gone. You can change the washers but then you will discover that the whole thing is corroded. It is all simply rotting away so that when you apply a little pressure, the metal will just break up in your hand. So I had to try my hand at plumbing - something I had not done before, but then these days plumbers are expensive, about as expensive as seeing a doctor. So, I decided to have a go at it myself. Now, putting in something new is the simple part; taking out the old is the big problem. The whole thing is corroded so it is all stuck together. Just getting the faucets off the sink is a problem because it is all rusted into one lump. So, in places I had to cut through the metal to cut the pipes away. Then you have to try and get the faucets out; otherwise you have to change the whole basin because you cannot get the faucets out. So what you do is to cut the metal pipes.
Cutting a metal pipe is not, for most of us, a very simple thing. Now, some of you may have tried this before, and of course you use different types of saws - a hacksaw for example. Many of you may have seen something like this. [At this point, a round flexible metal-cutting disc was held up for everyone to see. The disc is about the size of a round waffle or large biscuit.] There are no teeth on it; no jagged edges. This thing actually is not even made of metal; it can bend. If you look carefully, there is a base of a kind of fiber mat underneath. Then on it there is a coating of some kind that is somewhat rough. Do you know that this innocent-looking thing can cut through steel? No teeth on it - you do not see any saw - but how quick this can cut through a metal pipe is astonishing. Of course, I do not mean that you are going to take hold of this and move it back and forth [like a normal saw]. You are going to attach this to an electric drill. You would also be safer if you put on a pair of gloves, since what you want to do is cut through the metal pipes and not your fingers. When I put this thing onto the electric drill to cut the pipe, it went through the pipe in a few moments. And yet I can run my hand over it; it will not even cut my fingers. How does it do it? What seems to be so weak and soft actually can go through a metal pipe in just a few moments.
So having fixed the pipes, I still had to take the faucets out because underneath, all the nuts are corroded. Look at this rather nice-looking thing - silver and black. [At this point, a special steel nut-spitting tool was held up for everyone to see.] Now this other innocent-looking thing can cut through a steel or metal nut in a very short while. So what you do when you have cut the pipe is you slide this up along the pipe to where the faucet is, where the corroded nut is. When you get it up there, what you do is you start tightening this thing, this screw here. Then you will see here a sharp point. And as you tighten this, it will simply split anything apart - even a metal screw - it will split it all apart. And then when that is cracked, of course, you can lift the faucet off.
Now why am I telling you all this? Because while I was working on all this, I was thinking about God and His Creation. When God first made His creation, when God first made man, everything was beautiful; everything was fine. Then something came in and corroded, corrupted the whole thing. What was once a beautiful faucet in the beginning is now all corroded. And then I have to replace it. Now I have a beautiful new faucet in place. But what an effort one has to go through to renew, to remake the whole thing. Man was corrupted by sin and this gave rise to all the things we have to suffer as a consequence of sin. The result is that God has to remake everything again. That is why Christians speak of something called regeneration, or being born again, born anew. The old has to be removed; the new has to be brought into place. But removing the old is not that simple. It is a major problem to remove the old. And the instrument that God uses in the first place is the cross. And the cross, when you look at it, seems rather like this thing - a rather weak and harmless instrument. But the power of this thing is quite amazing. Look how light it is, how smooth it is. Do not be deceived by what it looks like; this thing can cut through a steel door, with no exaggeration. A steel plate - it will go right through it. Look at the cross, it looks so light, so simple - an instrument of weakness. But Paul says, it is the power of God unto salvation. What one experiences of it is what transforms one’s life. So today I want to share very quickly with you basically three fundamental principles.
1. Understanding Something Requires Experiencing It
First, we do not really understand anything properly until we experience it. When we speak about the resurrection, we have to speak about a death. If there is no death, there can be no resurrection. Resurrection presupposes death. How many of you have died here before? Could you raise your hand? It looks like nobody here has died before. Nobody! Therefore since you never experienced death, you only know death as a definition. You may have seen somebody else die. That does not mean you know what death is. You have not yourself experienced it. I remember the first time I saw my grandaunt. I had talked to her one or two days before, and then they pulled me into a room and said, “Your grandaunt has died.” I remember seeing her lying there. As I looked at her, I was trying to understand death - what is it? I talked to her only a few days ago. And now she is lying there - she does not move, she does not speak. I was only 12 years old then. I kept looking at her and thinking, “Well, I have heard of the word ‘death’, I know what the word ‘death’ means, but I look at her, I do not understand what exactly happened here.” Now if we do not know what death is, how do we understand what resurrection is, because resurrection means coming back from an experience of death. This means that we do not know experientially what death is or what resurrection is. And if we do not understand a thing properly, then we will be in danger of talking nonsense when we speak about it. Unfortunately that is often the case, especially in the church, when we speak of high and lofty things that we end up talking nonsense. The reason why we talk nonsense is because we do not really understand what is involved. I am one of those people very fearful of talking nonsense. When we start talking about things we do not really know, or we do not really experience, we can do just that.
For example, how many of you have been to heaven? Nobody! How many have been to hell? Nobody! So when we talk about heaven and hell, we talk about things we have no experiential knowledge about. So you can see how great is the danger that we will end up talking nonsense. What is heaven like? Some Muslim friends tell me that heaven is a place with lots of trees, lots of nice streams and flowers. And of course, for them, it is very important that there are lots of pretty girls around. The problem is that for girls, that picture may not be that very interesting, because it did not say that there are lots of nice boys around. It seems to be a male-oriented sort of heaven. The result is that we are talking nonsense, for how do we look at this thing called heaven? The same thing with hell. I sometimes cringe when I hear some things said about hell. Why? Because what you have is a picture which includes a horned animal which is supposed to be the devil. He is there with a kind of pitchfork in his hand, and his job is apparently to barbecue all those people who arrive in his domain. I am even told that this will go on forever. So hell is a place where, if you are unfortunate enough to land in, you are going to be barbecued for who knows how long eternity means. Notice that we do not even know what eternity means. Is eternity then a hundred million years? A thousand million years? Who knows how long is eternity? We do not even know what a hundred million years means! Then, of course, all kinds of questions come to our mind? If this unfortunate piece of barbecue had lived his life in sin for, say, 60 years or 70 years, you would think that if his sins spanned a duration of 60 years, he should be barbecued for 60 years. It is not very clear to us why 60 years of sin should result in six thousand million years of barbecue.
Now all this sounds somewhat humorous, but if hell is a place where sin is dealt with, then the whole question is no longer humorous, because it is not beginning to make any sense. If we start talking nonsense, nobody would want to believe in this thing anymore. Anyway if heaven is a place with some nice trees and flowers and whatnot, I mean why not just take a walk in the park. Why should heaven be of any interest to you and me anyway? And some of us have hay fever. If heaven is just flowers and trees, are people with allergies going to have eternal hay fever? What happens is that very important subjects are reduced to the ridiculous because we do not understand what we are talking about!
So what about resurrection? We do not even know what death is. There are some people who have gone through a death experience. So when I asked if anyone had died here, I was not really joking. Some of you may have heard of NDE, that is, Near-Death Experiences. This phenomenon refers to people who were pronounced as medically dead, i.e., in the sense that their heart stopped and no more functions were to be seen [and they had come back to life]. I think this is something well known to physicians. Somebody may have died and actually have come back to life, maybe a few minutes later, sometimes a few hours later and sometimes even a few days later. Since they had gone through a death and had come back, so they call it a ‘near-death experience’. If they did not come back, it would not have been termed ‘near’; it would have been ‘permanent’. Now if you have gone through such an experience, you will have had some sort of taste of death. And if you came back from such an experience you will have had some sort of experience of resurrection. In the Bible you have one or two people who went through this kind of experience, of having died for a time and coming back to life, such as the widow’s son that Jesus raised, or Lazarus. These people died and came back to life. They understand death in a much deeper way than we would do. And yet, they do not know what Jesus’ resurrection was about.
The Two Kinds of Resurrection
There are two kinds of resurrection, which we must clearly distinguish in our minds. One kind of resurrection is the kind where you physically die, like Lazarus did, and you are brought back to life and you return to the kind of life you lived before, to the same conditions in which you lived before. This kind of resurrection does not involve any change in your physical condition before death and after resurrection. Lazarus had the same kind of body he had before he was raised by Jesus. But the resurrection of Jesus is different, because when He rose again, His body was not the same body as what He had before. His was a body that could go through walls, so that when the disciples were gathered in a room, Jesus suddenly came into the room even though all the doors were locked. Yet His body was not a kind of misty, cloudy sort of body; He could eat with that body too. He could touch people; people could touch Him. They could feel His presence. The fact is this body never dies again. As for Lazarus, of course, he died again later. All those people who were raised back to life in the OT, for example, they died again later. But in the NT when it speaks about the resurrection in the NT letters, it is not talking about that kind of resurrection. It is talking about the resurrection in which when you are raised again, your body is incorruptible; it will never die.
That is why Jesus said, “He that believes in Me shall never die!” Now the death of death I have no time to expound today, so I will just stay with this first principle, which I hope you will keep in mind, because I want to say something more than that. And that is, that we ourselves will experience something about death and resurrection here and now in order that God will help us to understand the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus. If you have not experienced death and resurrection, you obviously do not know what Jesus’ death and resurrection means. That is why I seldom hear anything significant said about the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is in connection with this fundamental principle I have mentioned, that Paul makes a statement that many Christians do not understand. In Phil. 3:10, Paul says, “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection....” How? In “...the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.” You see, to be “conformed to His death.” Why does Paul say that: “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection”? Because that is how you get to it - not by reading books - but by experiencing it, [i.e., to experience the power of His resurrection life, we need to experience first His death].
When I asked if anybody had experienced hell, I was not joking. In fact, we all have had a little bit of experience that we can describe as so pleasurable as to be heavenly. And we have often also experienced something that we can call hellish. Sometimes we say, “It is like hell on earth.” A few years ago, the Lord gave a certain lady an actual experience of hell. He actually took her into hell. This was not one momentary experience; it was an experience that she was given over a considerable period of time, in fact, several months, if I recall correctly. Day after day, the Lord would take her into hell, bring her back home, and then take her back into hell. This lady wrote a book describing her experiences of hell which causes us to realize that hell is, in some points, what we thought it was like, and in other points, quite unlike what we thought it was like. So here was somebody that God gave the experience of hell to. The purpose was to tell people what it is like to be in hell; to warn people about it; to tell them that it is not just some kind of a joke in which people are fried like sausages.
2. Spiritual Life Begins with Death
The second important principle to understand I will put forward through a question: how does our physical life begin? I am sure you know how to answer the question. When did your physical life begin? You would say, “Of course when I was born.” Since we have so many Christians here, if I ask you when and at what point your spiritual life began, I wonder what you would say? “Ah,” you would say, “that’s simple. Regeneration.” We reel off these kinds of terms. And if I asked you what does regeneration mean? Then the answer might not come quite so fast. If I ask a few more questions, I might not get any answers at all. If I told you that spiritual life begins with death, you might have a shock. And yet that is the biblical teaching. Regeneration is not like a physical birth; it is not even comparable to it. That is why when the Lord Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, the Pharisee, about regeneration, he thought it was a matter of going back into the mother’s womb and being born again. How ignorant! The Lord did not even bother to reply to that question. The Lord simply said, “Are you a teacher in Israel and you don’t understand these things?” [Jn. 3:10] I wonder how many of our teachers know these things. How many of you know that spiritual life does not begin with a birth; it begins with a death? And may be that is why there are so few real Christians around.
So we have a distressful situation in our churches today. We have a lot of friends who talk a lot of nonsense, and of course, these drive away any reasonable-thinking persons, and so we have a lot of people in the churches who do not even bother to think. Because the only people who accept nonsense as reality are those who never bother to think. The result of this is also the second point: there a lot of Christians who actually never died! I am sure everybody read Romans 6. What does Rom. 6 say? Where did our spiritual life begin? At baptism. Not just an external ritual of baptism, but at a baptism in which we actually died with Christ, and then rose with Him. How many of you know what it is to die with Christ? How many of you know, in your experience, what it is to die with Christ? If you have not died with Him, how do you rise with Him? No death, no resurrection! What kind of a Christian are you and am I? Have we died with Him?
Now this is a fundamentally important question. Our churches are filled with people who never experienced death with Christ. Do you know what I am talking about? No! Not unless you have experienced it! Now you see the illustration of my first point. What you do not experience, you do not really understand. You have not died with Christ and you do not know what I am talking about. Even worse, you do not know what the Bible is talking about. You do not know what Paul is talking about in Rom. 6. That means you do not really know what baptism is about, even though you were baptized. The church is full of people who have been baptized but have not got a clue what happened then. We have all kinds of Christians who say, “I have been baptized.” So what? What is baptism? Baptism means dying. If you say, “I do not know what dying means”, that means your baptism is meaningless. There are two kinds of Christians. What kind of Christian are you? The kind of Christian who says, “Oh, I believe. I am saved by faith.” I have already said that I am tired of listening to nonsense - nonsense in relation to the definition of faith. You are saved by faith, would you tell me what faith is? You are saved by faith - tell me what is the faith you have. “Oh,” you say, “Easy! I believe. I believe there was such a person called Jesus Christ.” You are doing well. “And this Jesus Christ got crucified.” Not bad, so far! “And then this Jesus was raised from the dead.” Wonderful! “I believe all that. So I am saved!” I say, “Sorry, my friend. What you believe the devil also believes. Of course the devil believes; he knows all these to be true. Why should he not believe in it? These are simply facts. But the fact that Jesus died does not mean you are saved, even if you believe it to be historical fact. Jesus died for us - but we are not saved until when? Until we have died with Christ, and we are raised with Him. Is that what I said? Is it something I invented? No! It is all in that elementary chapter of Rom. 6 which nobody seems to understand. That is the second principle.
3. Death and Resurrection with Christ
This is the principle I have just mentioned: that spiritual life begins with death! ‘Death’ here does not mean just any kind of death, but ‘death with Christ’. Death does not save us. Lots of people die! What did Christ die to? Anyone who has been to Sunday school would know the answer to that. In Rom. 6, it says, Jesus, “died to sin once for all.” And with it, He died to the world, as a system dominated by sin. The world in the Bible does not mean the sun, moon and the earth as a globe. But it refers to the world as a system, a human system dominated by sin. So, when it says, “Do not love the world” [1 Jn. 2:15], it does not mean, “Do not love the flowers and the trees”. But what it means is not to love the world’s system as dominated by sin. So, if Jesus’ death was a death to sin, and if you have died with Christ, then like Him and with Him, you have died to sin. With that, you have also died to the world’s system of sin. You have died to what the Bible calls the flesh, because that element of flesh is what stands in opposition to the spirit. And that means if you have died with Christ, there is a total change in your way of thinking. So, have you experienced this? Can you say, “Yes, that has happened to me. My whole life has been changed”? If that has happened, then you realize now we are on our final point.
I said in the first point that we must experience something to understand it. This applies specifically to the spiritual life. The second thing I said is that the spiritual life begins with death. And I have already come to the third point, that this is not any kind of death, but ‘death with Christ’. What happens when we die with Christ is that we are also raised with Him. That means here and now we are experiencing the reality of His death to sin and the power of His resurrection life. That makes you a very different kind of Christian. Now you begin to understand statements like what Paul said, which otherwise are incomprehensible. For example, he said in Gal. 2:20, “I am crucified with Christ.” I am dead with Him. “Yes,” he says, “I am crucified with Christ, but now I live in the power of Christ.” Is this your experience?
Now today is Easter. And Easter will be just another Easter Day in which everybody says all the right things at Easter. But unless you experience the reality of God’s life operating in you, you have not experienced the meaning of Easter. To experience Easter is to experience the reality of becoming a new person, something new, having a newness of life. Again, in Rom. 6:4, it says we have died to sin in order to “walk in newness of life.” Paul says this, “If any man is in Christ...; the old things have passed away (because you have died); behold, all things have become new.” [2 Cor. 5:7] I took off the old faucets - all those rotten, corroded things. Now we have new shiny taps there, functioning perfectly. There is a sense of newness. How do you feel? Do you experience something new? The Lord has called me to a task, to a ministry, and one of the heaviest burdens in my life, and I share with you from my heart, is that I see often very little newness. I see people who say that they have become Christians. They have been baptized. But they were the same as what they were before. I do not see a fundamental change, not after one year, not after 5 years, not after 20 years. They are the same people, with the same bad habits, the same unpleasant characteristics as they had before. There is Paul’s statement, that if you are a Christian - being in Christ means you are a true Christian - “the old has gone, the new has come.” I only see the old. It is hard to see anything new. I ask myself, “What have I worked for all these years? For what have I labored my life long? For what have I sacrificed my health? For this? I have more pleasure changing faucets. Why? Because you see something new in front of you. All those drippy faucets are no more; these gleaming well-functioning faucets now stand in front of me. All those hours of work were worth it. Have you tried changing faucets? Working under the kitchen sink is something, I can tell you, because there is not any space to work with. The bottoms of kitchen sinks are all encased in cabinets underneath. You have to climb underneath there, and your back will be hurting after all this. You do not even know where to put your head underneath there. It is such a tiny space; it is difficult to get at this thing underneath. So, when I come out of there, I am stiff and aching. But when I look at this nice faucet on top functioning perfectly, I say, “It’s worth it.”
When I am working in the church, what do I find? I am on the telephone for hours. As I say sometimes, how come I am like a stockbroker? I have one phone in this hand and one phone on the other hand. “Ah, excuse me,” I say. “I’ve got a call coming on the other line.” I have to talk on this phone and then the other phone. It looks so ridiculous. I think I would be better off at the stock market, because at least, sometimes you get the news that says, “Oh, your stocks have gone up.” But I can tell you in my work, few people ever call me to tell me some good news. They have this problem here and they ask, “How do we deal with this one?” Another would call, “I’ve got a problem here, how do I deal with that?” After several hours of this, sometimes I have to say, “Excuse me, I have to get a drink. I haven’t had a drink yet for a while.” I can tell you this thing can ruin your health; it is hazardous to your health. I used to tell those people in full-time training: “I tell you this ministry is a very tough ministry.” Sometimes they think I am exaggerating. Just ask them now, after they have worked for a couple of years.
We do not mind dealing with problems, but the question is, what if you keep on dealing with problems but you do not see the newness, the transformation? I can tell you, you are left tired and discouraged. Human nature is something we have to deal with all the time in the ministry. And human nature, I can tell you, is something that dies hard. We have to keep using the cross, because the cross can destroy the old in you, if we let it. But if you do not want to become new, then the cross will not do anything to you. So you will hang on to the old - your old habits, your bad temper, your irritability. The reason is we do not let go [and so the new cannot come]. For this Easter, my prayer is this: that each one of you may desire the new things that God has for you. And let God, with His cross, cut away the old. And no matter how hard all that is - it may be hard as steel, the cross will just cut it away - the new life of God will come into you.
I heard a TV interview where a famous pianist (I will not mention his name because I do not want to insult the pianist) - a famous modern-day concert pianist - was describing his life and his character. He said something at one point in the interview, which stuck in my mind, that goes: “I have a characteristic about me that in every silver lining, I see a cloud.” This you have to understand is an English proverb that actually says, “In every cloud, there is a silver lining,” which means there is hope, even in the worst situation. But this pianist says that he sees in every silver lining, a dark cloud. In other words, you can see he has a very negative disposition. And yet, many people are like that. I meet people like this all the time. I would say, “Here is a wonderful situation.” And just when you are happy, they say, “Ah yes, but...”. Or, “There is this problem, and that problem, and the other problem.” By the time they finish, all the joy you had would have been washed away. If you have one or two people like this around you, I can tell you your life will be lived in constant dark clouds. It is amazing - this old mentality which is always living in gloom and darkness. You wonder why they like to live in the darkness and unhappiness. Is it something they enjoy?
Resurrection is the Triumph of Life over Death
But resurrection is about the triumph of life over death. It is darkness being overcome by light - light overcoming darkness - and that means, unhappiness being overcome by happiness. Because Paul lived in the resurrection life, he was able to say, “Rejoice always!” [Phil. 4:4] He always was happy. If you live in happiness, you know you are living in newness of life. Because this happiness is not from the earth; it is something that God gives to us. It is always like that well-known account that made such an impression on John Wesley’s mind. He was crossing from Britain to America way back in his time, some 200 years ago on a wooden sailing boat (as in those days), and it was caught in a storm. I can tell you a storm in the Atlantic is terrifying. Again, I speak from experience. I was in such a storm; so this is not just head knowledge. The ship was in danger of sinking. What so transformed John Wesley’s mind that he became a great preacher later on was that he saw a group of Christians in the ship. All the other people were panicky. Death was staring them in the face, but this group of people was so peaceful and so happy. There was not a sign of fear in them. The women with their children around them made sure that the children also looked at their parents. And so, since the parents were not frightened or panicky, [neither were the children]. It was wonderful! When John Wesley looked at them, he could not believe his eyes. This was a victory over death! There was a peace and a joy that came from within. Does your life make an impression on your colleagues at the office or at the college? Is there that new quality in your 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