Part of a series based on The Cross of Jesus by Dr Leon Morris audio (6.5MB)
At the start of this year, Sarah forced me to do something I've never done before. It was a completely new experience, one that I didn't feel entirely comfortable with, and still struggle to believe has happened. Sarah made me join a gym. Before this year, I'd never even stepped foot in one, now I'm a paid up member of our local sweat club. Although I have to confess I'm a sporadic attender! I only joined reluctantly, having accepted that I needed to drop a few kilos and get a bit fitter to keep up with the kids at Tom’s Crew. But on that first visit, the manager was in full sales mode, promoting all the benefits of joining the gym. The sales pitch made the gym sound like the great preventive and cure for all manner of ailments. The gym not only helps strengthen the muscles and lungs, improves the cardiovascular system, boosts one's immune system. It helped me to see that all those people, pounding out a furious rhythm on the treadmills are really just running away from sicknesses, trying to outrun death.
Of course it's not just the poor unfortunate souls in the gym that are in this race. Our world strives, with all it's might to avoid sickness. There's almost nothing in this world that we try to avoid more. We might welcome the odd ‘sick’ day here. We kind of look forward to being that little bit sick. Sick enough to miss school or work, but not so sick that life’s miserable. But we don’t want anything more than that. After all, being really sick is no fun at all, it robs us of the joy of life. But it's more than that. We don't even like to think about being sick and not just because of the discomfort. Being sick robs us of our freedom, our control. And there are few things that we cherish more than our freedom.
This is my Nan, my Dad's mother. This is the earliest photo I could find of my Nan. But I don’t really remember her like this. Every year when we would drive down to Sydney to visit, she was a little worse off. I remember her zooming around in her electric scooter. And then one year she wasn’t zooming in quite the same way, as she was driving one handed. And then finally she couldn’t manage that any more and was confined to bed. Nan had multiple-sclerosis, MS. Her body was slowly attacking itself and each year she lost a bit more of her freedom. Her condition was a vivid illustration of how sickness can rob us of our freedom, physically, socially, mentally, emotionally. We might never succumb to something as terrible as MS, but every time we’re sick we suffer a loss of freedom. And so we fear sickness and we strive to avoid it.
And the ultimate loss of freedom comes from death. So it’s no surprise that the one thing we try to avoid more than sickness, is death. There's no quicker way to kill a conversation than to bring up the topic of death and dying. We don't like talking about it, let alone thinking about it, or planning for it. If this wasn't the case wouldn't we all have filled out those little blue cards that Chris has? Sarah and I found it took us almost two years to get our wills sorted out after we were married. Even after the boys were born, when it became even more important that we provide for them, it took several months to get the paperwork filled out. Every time we sat down to go through it, we'd find some excuse to do something else. With something so important why did it take us so long? Because, just like everyone else we didn't want to think about our own deaths! It's the least fun thing we could think to do, the one thing we want to avoid more than anything else.
The terrible thing is, when we are faced with the problem of sickness and death, our world has no real solution. Our modern world doesn't have any satisfying answers to why disease and death exist in the first place. For Darwin, and his successor Dawkins, they're just part of our natural world. There’s no explaining them, let alone escaping them. Sicknesses is normal, it's the way the world weeds out the weak. Death is just a reality that we should just accept and try to live with. And so for most of our world the only hope for a lasting cure lies in science and medicine. That given enough time someone will discover a cure for everything. If not today, then tomorrow there will be the magic pill to wipe out cancer, the common cold and the flu. And of course if tomorrow is too far away, then there's always the option of cryogenics. Why die when you can just have yourself frozen until there's a cure for whatever you have? It's the ultimate attempt to avoid death, to escape it.
Is this search for an answer to sickness and death wrong? That’s the dilemma of the modern world isn’t it? We have this strong compulsion to avoid them but we’re told they’re unavoidable, they’re just part of life. If we’re honest we accept that science and medicine won’t provide any real lasting solution, at least not in our lifetimes.
But the truth is this search for an answer isn’t wrong. The truth is sickness and death don't belong in our world. They're not natural. Genesis tells us that God created the world, including our bodies, and that it was good. Disease and death had no part in the world that God originally made. Indeed, in the centre of the Garden of Eden was the tree of life, the very antithesis of death! The problem is Adam and Eve ate the fruit of that other tree! Their rebellion lead to the world coming under condemnation. While they might not have died that very day, the seeds of death were planted in their bodies. From that moment, not only did our relationship with God, each other and the world begin to breakdown, but so too did our very beings. And so the search for an answer to sickness and death is part of our desire to return to the way God created us to be. Not only in perfect community with God and each other, guiltless and connected, but also to be whole and healthy.
But the question is, how do we do that? I can’t, can you? We can't deal with our guilt or isolation ourselves, neither can we deal with death on our own. No matter how smart we are, no matter how much time we put in, this isn't a problem we can solve ourselves. We're simply not powerful enough. But just as Christ came to deal with our guilt and isolation, he also came to deal with our illnesses, our disease, to deal with death.
Have you noticed that this is one of the most prominent features of the gospels? They’re full of reports of Jesus healing people. Encounter after encounter Jesus deals with people’s diseases, they’re illnesses. Time and time again his ministry involves conquering sickness. In the case of Lazarus and a few lucky others, Jesus even demonstrated his power over death! In some ways this is the most visible, most tangible thing that Jesus did while he was on earth. But this wasn’t because it was just the nice thing to do. Jesus didn’t heal people just because he loved them.
After a big day healing people, Luke tells John the Baptist’s disciples to report back what they had seen:
22And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. (Luke 7:22)
The implication is that John would know that these weren’t just amazing miracles. Delivering people from sickness and even death was a sign of who Jesus was, and what he had come to do. Matthew picks up on this when he writes this was to fulfill what Isaiah had prophesied the Messiah would do:
17This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah,
“He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” (Matthew 8:17)
Remember the story of the paraplegic man who was lowered through the roof by his friends? After pronouncing the man’s sins were forgiven, Jesus asked the scribes and the Pharisees:
23Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? 24But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the one who was paralyzed—“I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.” (Luke 5:23-25)
Jesus makes it clear that the miraculous healings substantiated who he was and what he had come to do. They are pictures of the deeper spiritual reality. The very fact that God had come into our world, saw the beginning of our world being healed. But this wasn't enough. Jesus miracles were just a foretaste of what was to come. On their own they weren't enough. After all, even Lazarus, as fortunate as he was, just got to die twice!
These miraculous healings were like treating symptoms without treating the underlying illness. It’s just like if you went to the doctor every day with a sore arm. He could prescribe you panadol and rest, but until he recognizes you’ve got a broken arm and sets it the pain, and the problem, will still persist! In the end, unless you deal with the root cause of the disease it's just going to keep coming back.
That’s what Jesus miraculous healings point to. They’re a sign of the real answer to sickness and death, the Cross. There Jesus dealt with the cause of all disease, even of death - our rebellion. The passage that Matthew quoted from Isaiah goes on to say:
5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)
In his own suffering and death upon the Cross Jesus provided the only true answer to the problem of sickness and death. On the Cross Jesus completed God’s plan to redeem and restore the world. This includes the defeat of illness and suffering. We might not fully experience this victory in our own lives, just as we don’t with the problem of guilt and isolation, but we can have complete confidence that they have been conquered by the Cross. On the last day, when Christ returns they will be completely done away with. As we heard from 1 Corinthians 15 before, Paul tells us that death has been destroyed through the Cross. And through Christ’s resurrection we can be confident that we too will be raised. And in the resurrection our bodies will no longer be susceptible to illness, to weakness or death. But this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. Likewise the picture of heaven that we’re given in Revelation is that it’s a place where sicknesses and illness will be no more, even:
“Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” (Rev. 21:4)
What does all this mean for how we face sicknesses and death today? How does the Cross impact our experience of illness and mortality?
Well, as we’ve been saying the first thing it does is give us confidence. We can be completely confident that in the Cross, Christ has defeated sickness and death. After saying the last enemy to be defeated is death, a little later on in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul reminds us done just that. Death has been completely vanquished;
54“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
and so Paul goes so far as to taunt death, asking it:
55“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 15:54-57)
Paul shows us the kind of confidence that we can have in the face of death. When our time comes we need not fear it.
More than that, we need not fear what comes after death. For the Bible teaches us that Dawkins and his like are wrong, death is not the end of the story. After death we must face our maker. And so without the Cross death is something to fear for:
it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment (Heb. 9:27)
But on the Cross, Jesus has not only defeated death, he’s also dealt with death's sting - sin. Without sin, without the fear of judgment and punishment, death becomes nothing to fear. And it was on the Cross that Jesus dealt with these things. Death isn’t the end of life, nor is it the entrance to judgment and eternal death. Death is simply the end of this mortal existence and the gateway to heaven.
That’s why we can face death confidently. Indeed, it’s why Paul proclaims in Philippians 1 that he is hard-pressed deciding whether to live or give up his struggles and to die. He says, to die is gain, knowing that when he departs from this world he will be with Christ and that is far better. Death becomes completely different through the Cross. It’s one reason that a funeral for a believer is often so different. It’s because through the Cross we need not fear death.
But that’s not to say that we just roll over and die. That the best thing to do after deciding to follow Jesus is to check out of this world. No, Paul decided that the better thing to do was to strive on in this life, to continue producing fruit for the gospel. But the Cross changes the way we face death.
The Cross also changes the way we face sickness and illness. We don’t have to accept sickness as just part of our natural world. And just as we seek to relieve injustice and isolation while we await Christ’s return, it’s right to seek the end of disease and suffering. We can visit our doctors, and we should pray that God would work through our medical staff to heal us or our loved ones. And because through the Cross the Holy Spirit enters into our lives, we can also pray that God might work miraculously to bring healing as well.
But while we trust in him to deliver us, we shouldn't be disheartened if healing doesn't come. After all, Paul prayed repeatedly that he would be relieved of his ailments, his thorn in the flesh. But that relief never came. Instead he was reminded to trust in God’s grace and care. So we too shouldn’t be surprised if God chooses not to heal us. And we shouldn’t claim, as some spuriously do, that a lack of healing indicates a lack of faith. The reality is, just as God hasn't stopped all sin in the world just yet, neither has he brought an end to all illness and suffering just yet. We need to remember that the ultimate answer to all our ailments comes on the Cross. Because of the Cross we should be alert, but not alarmed when our bodies succumb, when they start to fail us. We know that sickness and death isn't the end. Rather, because of the Cross they will come to an end.
The bad news, for me at least, is that it’s OK to keep visiting the gym. Indeed, I should do so, being responsible for the body that God has given me. But as I sweat it out on the treadmill and the bike, strain to lift the dumbbells, the important thing to remember is that this is not the answer. The real answer to sickness and death is the Cross.