The death of Jesus on the cross defeated death.
The resurrection of Jesus on the third day defeated death.
Death is “the last enemy to be destroyed,” on the day Jesus returns in glory to judge both the living and the dead.
The assigned readings for Series C already dipped into 1 Corinthians 15, and the Craft of Preaching blogs for Epiphany 6 and Epiphany 7 provide a good backdrop for our Easter Day Epistle lesson (if you do not want to repeat any of the verses from February, steal the reading for Easter Sunrise, it is still 1 Corinthians 15, but does not overlap any of the verses).
Paul’s vivid language of death as the last enemy to be put under Jesus’ victorious feet is a strong assurance of the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus and a powerful promise of the physical, bodily resurrection we look and long for. The Resurrection of Our Lord is certainly the right Sunday to proclaim both the victory of Jesus over death on the third day and the victory of Jesus over death on the Last Day. You might consider adding one more victory to your Easter sermon, however (one not included in this reading, but definitely in your hearers’ theology and recent experience): The victory of Jesus over death on Good Friday.
Now, I have always been one to let Easter be Easter and Good Friday be Good Friday. In other words, I like to preach the actual resurrection of the dead as the Gospel promise on the Sunday of the Resurrection. And I think you should do that, too. But I am beginning to suspect Good Friday can sometimes drown out Easter Sunday in the hearts and ears of our hearers. We have some good, theological reasons for emphasizing the death of Jesus on the cross, but sometimes that emphasis manages to detract from the promise of the resurrection. So, addressing the promise of Good Friday might actually be a way to help your hearers experience the fullness of the Easter promise.
I recently received a concerned response to a devotion I wrote in the When from Death I’m Free hymn journal for Holy Week. The phrase which really bothered the good, Lutheran woman who wrote to me was this: “His [Jesus’] work is not fully finished. His victory is not yet completely complete.” My new friend put those words of mine next to John 19:30 and Jesus’ cry, “It is finished!” In Series C, this is the last verse we read on Good Friday. So, your hearers may also have those words ringing in their ears.
If John 19:30 is the context, I would never say Jesus’ work is not finished. When Jesus says, “It is finished!” on the cross, Jesus is done with the role of Suffering Servant. The work of forgiveness won by His blood stands forever in a permanent, completed state. You do not need to (and, in fact, cannot) add to the fulfilled sacrifice of Jesus. You can be confident you are forgiven and take comfort in the fact that you are saved by grace as a free gift, without adding to Jesus’ work on the cross. The sacrifice is complete.
You can be confident you are forgiven and take comfort in the fact that you are saved by grace as a free gift, without adding to Jesus’ work on the cross.
With that sacrificial lens in mind, the author to the Hebrews can even call the death of Jesus a kind of victory: “He [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the Devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).
So, if you want to know if the price for your sin has been completely paid, or if the debt you owe to God has been completely done away with, or if your sins are completely forgiven, then turn to John 19:30 and trust Jesus when He says, “It is finished!”
The story is not over, however, when they put Jesus in the tomb. The sacrifice is complete, and Jesus is still active. Of course, Jesus is going to rise again on the third day. The resurrection was not yet complete in John 19:30, but the “IT” in “It is finished” has to do with suffering and sacrifice in a way the resurrection does not. So, in John 19:30, Jesus’ suffering and sacrificial death are complete. In John 20, Jesus rises from the dead. The work of the cross is finished, and Jesus is still at work, for us.
On Easter, we want to elevate the work of Jesus in His resurrection. In fact, Paul can go so far as to say, if you only believe Jesus died for you and not that Jesus rose again for you, you do not actually have the full story: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:12-14, 17; English Standard Version, ESV).
1 Corinthians 15 would not be the right context to say everything Jesus did was completed on the cross, because some of the people in Corinth were taking this to mean Jesus did not rise, and the resurrection of the dead is unnecessary. I am fairly sure Paul believes John 19:30, and yet he can say the resurrection of Jesus is still important for your salvation. That does not mean 1 Corinthians 15 is refuting John 19. It just means we want to read any Bible verse in its context.
Instead of preaching 1 Corinthians 15 but ignoring John 19, perhaps your Easter sermon could invite your hearers to take comfort in the fact that the sacrifice of Jesus was complete on the cross and they do not have to add to it. Then invite them to take comfort in the fact that Jesus rose from the dead for them, and their victory over death is assured. Finally, invite your hearers to take comfort in the fact that Jesus is coming again for them, and the dead will rise, and they also will see that final victory over death with their own resurrection eyes.
1 Corinthians 15:24-26 was the context of my words in the devotion: “So as long as any human body of someone Jesus loves lies in a grave, Jesus is not content. His work is not fully finished. His victory is not yet completely complete.” I even quoted those verses. But John 19:30 was still a more relevant text for the woman who emailed me. I understand where she is coming from. We do need to find ways of expanding the hope and promise our people get used to hearing. But Paul says the final victory is not yet won until the last enemy, death, is destroyed. From this perspective of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, that ultimate, final, consummate victory does not come at the cross or even at Jesus’ empty tomb, but when death is done away with forever on the Last Day.
Paul says the final victory is not yet won until the last enemy, death, is destroyed.
Paul is not contradicting Hebrews 2:14-15 which called Jesus’ death a victory over death. Nor is 1 Corinthians 15:26 (the Last Day victory over death) contradicting 1 Corinthians 15:21, where Paul says the resurrection of Jesus on the third day means the resurrection of the dead has already come to all humanity.
So, preach all three victories together, as a way of making the three of them clear:
(1) The death of Jesus on the cross defeated death.
(2) The resurrection of Jesus on the third day defeated death.
(3) Death is the last enemy to be destroyed, on the Day Jesus returns in glory to judge both the living and the dead.
If you are suffering from a guilty conscience and you want to know if you can possibly do enough to be worthy of forgiveness, I want you to be confident that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is complete. You do not have to add anything to it. You cannot add to what Jesus did. Jesus is finished with His work. You are forgiven. You are free.
But if you are grieving, or if you or someone you know has received a terminal diagnosis, if you are standing at the graveside of someone you love, I want you to be confident in the fact that Jesus is not yet done working. Take comfort in the fact that death is not the final word. Jesus loves your body. Jesus died for your body. Your body is going to rise. Jesus will not stop His work until the last enemy, death, has been destroyed once and for all.
John 19 (read on Good Friday) and 1 Corinthians 15 (read on Easter Day) are not contradictory views: Both are true words of comfort for different contexts. We would not want to tell a repentant sinner the work of Jesus is not finished. In the same way, we would not want to tell a grieving widow Jesus is done working, and there is nothing left for her.
The sacrifice of Jesus stands completed, once for all, and we believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Both bring immense comfort. Preaching them together on Easter might add both clarity and confidence to those who have good theology about the cross, but sometimes lose sight of the promise of the End Times Resurrection of the Dead. We need both.
After all, Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” So, preach the completed work of Jesus on the cross, and teach people to look for the completion of Jesus’ work when He comes again in glory. “For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (verses 25-26).
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in 1 Corinthians 15:19-26.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 1 Corinthians 15:19-26.