Topical Scripture: Romans 8:35-39
This week a dear friend told me a story which immediately became my Easter sermon introduction. It seems that a Middle Eastern sheik grew old and temperamental. One day, on an angry whim, he condemned his longtime personal servant to death. The man was led to the execution platform, bound to the post, the hatchet raised. The sheik asked his onetime friend if he had anything to say.
The man quickly replied: “If you will spare my life for one year, I will teach your white stallion to talk. If at the end of that year I fail, you may boil me in oil.” The sheik considered the offer. He loved his white stallion above all his other possessions, wives, family, friends. So he said, “I have always wanted to talk to that horse. You seem sincere. I cannot see what I have to lose.” So he granted the man his request.
As the man walked away, a friend came up to him and said, “Are you crazy? Being boiled in oil is much worse than beheading. Do you realize what you’ve done?” The condemned man replied, “Let’s think about this for a moment. A year is a long time. The sheik once loved me–he may love me again. War may come and the sheik will forget about me. In a year the sheik may die. I may die. The horse may die. And who knows? The horse may learn to talk.”
Easter was like that for me growing up–a wonderful story I hoped was true. What do we have to lose by coming to the celebration today? Glorious music; beautiful services; no persecution for attending worship; no real down side. An annual tradition with your family and friends. And who knows? It may be true after all.
I have been sent by God today to tell you that it is true, and to show you why an empty tomb still matters. Why it matters more than any event in human history, in fact. Why it is the only hope you have for life and life eternal. Why an empty tomb makes you more than a conqueror right now. This is the best news in human history. It is a great privilege for me to share it with you today.
How we know that God loves us
We have been traveling through Romans 8 this spring, culminating on Easter Sunday with my favorite paragraph in the word of God. I first learned it in the King James Version when I was in high school. I didn’t try to memorize it–one day I realized that I could quote it. I have been quoting it ever since.
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” The Greek can be translated, “What can put a space between us and the love of Christ? Now Paul gives us seven options. Remember that seven is the biblical number for completeness. The apostle’s list spans the entire spectrum of enemies which can attack us:
“Trouble” translates thlipsis, the crushing weight used to grind grain into flour; it could be rendered “pressure.” What pressure do you find yourself under today?
“Hardship” translates the Greek for “a narrow place.” What is squeezing you this morning? What problem has you trapped, stuck?
“Persecution” was the common lot for followers of Jesus in the Roman Empire.
“Famine” often resulted from persecution. Christians lost their jobs, were driven from their homes, had no relationship with their families. They could easily starve to death.
“Nakedness” points to the person who is so poor he cannot afford anything more than the most basic underwear and clothing; truly and terribly impoverished.
“Danger” means to be exposed to peril of any kind.
“Sword” refers to the dagger used by assassins, and points to sudden ambush and murder.
Granted, in this world “we face death all day long” and are considered by the world to be no better than “sheep to be slaughtered” (v. 36). We might say, “cows to be butchered.” Paul includes himself in the “we”–every believer is subject to these trials and tests.
But here’s the remarkable good news: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (v. 37).
“No” is the strongest kind of denial.
“In all these things”–not despite them but in their midst.
“More than conquerors” translates “hyper-conquerors.” The Caesars gained their power by conquering their enemies; now we conquer them.
“Through him who loved us”–past event with ongoing relevance. He loved us and loves us today. Because of his love for us, we are more than conquerors.
Now the climax: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vs. 38-39).
Ten is the other biblical number for completion. Here Paul cites every possible force which could defeat us:
“I am convinced,” absolutely persuaded.
Neither “death” in all its tortured forms; nor “life” with all its problems.
Neither “angels” who, according to Jewish legend, resented humans and their salvation; nor “demons,” fallen angels.
Neither “the present nor the future, nor any powers”–anything that can happen to us today or tomorrow.
“Neither height nor depth”–a reference to the stars at their zenith and lowest points in the sky, thus all the created universe.
“Nor anything else in all creation”–including all that exists in all the universe.
None of this can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing can make God love you any more than he already does, or any less. It would not be long before Roman Christians would face the full hatred of the Empire. Their blood would stain the Colosseum’s sandy floor; they would be eaten by beasts, torn apart by wild animals, slaughtered by gladiators, used as human torches to light Nero’s garden parties at night.
Whatever part of the Roman Empire has found you today, you are more than a conqueror through him who loved us. No matter what has you worried, burdened, upset, fearful, ashamed, stressed, anxious–it cannot keep God from loving you. Nothing in all of creation can.
This is the promise we can claim today.
Why we know that God loves us
So we are promised that we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. This is the only the last of the remarkable promises of Romans 8.
Here we learn that there is no condemnation for us (v. 1); we are set free from the law of sin and death (v. 2); the Spirit of God lives in us (v. 9); we are the much-loved children of God (vs. 15-17); the present sufferings cannot begin to compare with the glory to be revealed (v.18); God is redeeming all that he allows to make us more like Jesus (vs. 28-29); he spared not his only Son, for he will give us all we need (v. 32).
Now, how do we know that any of this is true? That these promises are not religious superstition and wishful thinking? Because of the fact of the resurrection. Here’s why.
Death is the great enemy. The mortality rate is still 100 percent. No human has conquered it; no one can.
Ever since Juan Ponce de Leon came to Florida seeking the fountain of youth in 1513, we’ve sought it. We spend $9.4 billion on cosmetic surgery every year, more than $6 billion on diets and diet products.
But we begin to die from the moment we are born. You and I are one day closer to death now than we have ever been. Death is the unconquerable enemy of life. No one has the power to defeat it.
No one except God. The resurrection of Jesus Christ proves that God has power over death–that he can defeat the grave, destroy its shackles, and free its prisoner.
When Jesus came out of that tomb on Easter Sunday morning, shoving aside the rock as a pebble before the Rock of Ages, he proved that God is the Lord of the universe, the One with the power over all the universe.
If he has power over death, he has power over “trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword.” He has power over death and life, angels and demons, the present and the future, height and depth, and all creation.
He has the power to keep his promises. Power to set us free from sin and death; power to reward present suffering with future paradise; power to redeem all he permits; power to make us more than conquerors. We know it is true because of Easter. If he could defeat the grave, he can do anything at all.
And defeat the grave he did. Easter is not something that may be true–it is an absolute fact of history. I won’t take the time to show you all the evidence in the case for Easter, but remember at least the short version:
We know Jesus existed without even opening a New Testament: from the witness of Suetonius, Mara bar Serapion, Pliny the Younger, Josephus, and Tacitus we can prove that Jesus of Nazareth lived, that he was crucified by Pontius Pilatus, and that his followers believed him to have been raised from the grave and worshiped him as God.
We have no explanation for the empty tomb except the resurrection. The Christians didn’t steal the body and then die for a lie; the authorities didn’t take it, for they would have produced it; the disciples didn’t go to the wrong tomb, for the Romans would have shown them the right tomb. And Jesus didn’t swoon on the cross, survive three days in an air-tight burial shroud, shove aside the stone, walk through locked doors, and do the greatest high jump in history at the ascension.
We have no explanation for the transformed and empowered lives of the disciples except that they met the risen Christ. When I wondered in college if it was all true, if Christianity was worth my life, it was the fact of Easter that brought me back. It is the fact of Easter that keeps me preaching this book. It is the fact of Easter that makes Christianity true and Jesus worth my life.
And it is the fact of Easter that proves the relevance of God’s love for you today. If he can defeat death, what can’t he do for you? What problem can’t he help you solve? What sin can’t he forgive? What burden can’t he lift? What future can’t he see? What can’t he do for you today? He promises that nothing can separate you from his love. And Easter proves that he keeps his promises.
Today is the best day of the year to give him your life. Not just your Easter Sunday or worship attendance or occasional time in Bible study and prayer. Not just your belief in him–your life entrusted to him. The Easter Christ wants to empower you, use you, guide you, bless you. He wants to make you more than a conqueror. But he can use only what you’ll give him, and bless only what you’ll put into his hands.
If your relationship with Jesus is only for Easter, you’re missing the best parts. You’re missing all he wants to do with and for and through and in and by your life. Easter proves that he is worthy of your trust and your life. Give them both to him today.
On Thursday, as I was praying about this Easter message, I sensed the Spirit’s direction to close in a very different way than I had planned.
I had a wonderful story which I don’t get to tell today. There is no pain like that of an undelivered address–maybe next year. Instead, I feel myself under order to call you on this Easter Sunday to the highest and greatest commitment of faith I have discovered outside the pages of Scripture.
These words challenge and inspire me every time I consider them. They were sent to me years ago, and immediately arrested and captured me. They were found in the journal of a young pastor in Zimbabwe who was martyred for his faith. I have shared them often since I first received them, and have been led by the Holy Spirit to share them with you today.
Let’s make this confession ours right now:
I am part of the “Fellowship of the Unashamed.” I have Holy Spirit power. The die has been cast. I’ve stepped over the line. The decision has been made. I am a disciple of His. I won’t look back, let up, slow down, back away, or be still. My past is redeemed, my present makes sense, and my future is secure. I am finished and done with low living, sight walking, small planning, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tame visions, mundane talking, chintzy giving, and dwarfed goals.
I no longer need pre-eminence, prosperity, position, promotions, plaudits, or popularity. I don’t have to be right, first, tops, recognized, praised, regarded, or rewarded. I now live by his presence, lean by faith, love by patience, live by prayer, and labor by power.
My face is set, my gait is fast, my goal is heaven, my road is narrow, my way is rough, my companions few, my guide reliable, my mission clear. I cannot be bought, compromised, detoured, lured away, turned back, diluted, or delayed. I will not flinch in the face of sacrifice, hesitate in the presence of adversity, negotiate at the table of the enemy, ponder at the pool of popularity, or meander in the maze of mediocrity.
I won’t give up, shut up, let up, or slow up ’til I’ve preached up, prayed up, paid up, stored up, and stayed up for the cause of Christ.
I am a disciple of Jesus. I must go ’til He comes, give ’til I drop, preach ’til all know, and work ’til He stops.
And when He comes to get His own, He’ll have no problems recognizing me—my colors will be clear.