Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

Boosted by a fresh dose of resurrection hope coming out of Easter Sunday, we are talking about death on the podcast this week. We are free to speak openly about dying in hopeful ways the world cannot speak of, free to say that what is sown into the soil “does not come to life unless it dies” (1 Corinthians 15:36).

In that hope, we started the week with the story of V. Raymond Edman, a preacher who died in the pulpit, an event from Pastor John’s very formative years at Wheaton College and one he almost never talks about. But he did on Monday. And today we read about death in the Navigators Bible Reading Plan. It comes in the context of Paul talking about division and jealousy in the church, in 1 Corinthians 3:1–23. And there Paul gives us this amazing motivation for not getting jealous in this life. And that motive is the gift of death. He says, “Death is ours.” And that has led to many emails over the years asking what in the world Paul means that death is a gift to us, specifically there in 1 Corinthians 3:22. How, Pastor John, would you explain the divine gift of death here in this context?

Well, I love this text, 1 Corinthians 3:21–23. Tony, it’s very hard for me to talk about this without raising my voice with exuberance, and I will try to restrain myself. But hundreds of realities are thrilling in the Bible. This one is off-the-charts, unspeakably amazing. Let me read it for our friends so they know what we’re talking about.

Let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:21–23)

End of Boasting

So, Paul is trying to get the Corinthians to stop boasting in human beings. That’s the agenda. Back in 1 Corinthians 1:11–12, they were saying, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas.” In other words, they were exalting themselves over others by borrowing significance from their favorite teacher or orator or intellectual, claiming to be superior to others because they were in the Paul group or the Apollos group or the Cephas group.

And basically, Paul says (in 1 Corinthians 3:21–22), “You’re insane. You’re crazy for thinking like that.” Why are you crazy? And he gives them the reason. “Let no one boast in men,” and here comes the reason: “[because] all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future.” Everything is yours.

So, Paul exposes the craziness of the Corinthian boasting by turning their words upside down. They were saying, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas.” And Paul says,

No, they belong to you, you idiots. All things are yours. Paul is yours. Apollos is yours. Cephas belongs to you. And by the way, so does the world and life and death. All things are yours, you crazy Corinthians. Come on, wake up to who you are. You belong to Christ. You are fellow heirs with Christ, and he is the heir of God, and God owns everything. Get it? Come on.

So stop acting like idiots, Corinthians. Stop trying to prop up your significance in this world by boasting in your favorite teacher. You own everything. The poorest Christian among you, the poorest Christian on this planet, is richer than the richest unbeliever.

Death Is Your Servant

Specifically, then, what does it mean that death is yours, along with everything else? “You own death. It’s your possession. It doesn’t possess you; you possess it.” What does that mean? Now, I’ll give you my understanding of that statement, and then I’ll take you to several passages of Scripture that support this understanding.

“The poorest Christian on this planet is richer than the richest unbeliever.”

When Paul says, “Death [is] yours,” he means, “Death is your servant — not your master, your servant.” It does for you what you need to have done. If I say, “The food in my refrigerator is my food; it’s mine,” I mean, “I can eat it without stealing, and it serves me; it strengthens me to do what I need to do.” If I say, “This car is my car,” I mean, “It serves me; I use it. It doesn’t use me; I use it. It gets me where I want to go.”

So, I’m saying that Paul means, “Paul is your servant” (in fact, he says that earlier in 1 Corinthians 3:5). “Paul is your servant. Apollos is your servant. Cephas is your servant. The world is your servant. Life and death are your servants. You don’t serve them; they serve you. You don’t exist for their benefit; they exist for your benefit. In the end, they will do for you exactly what you need to have done. Death will do for you what you need done.”

All Things Serve God’s Children

Now, here are some biblical pointers to that understanding. Psalm 119:90–91 says,

Your faithfulness [O God] endures to all generations;
     you have established the earth, and it stands fast.
By your appointment they stand this day,
     for all things are your servants.

Everything in the universe serves the purposes of God — everything. There are (as R.C. Sproul used to say) no maverick molecules. Every bird that falls, every hair that turns white, is of God. Everything serves the purposes of God. We are God’s children, and it would make no sense if God said, “Well, all things serve me, but when it comes to my children, I just have no idea how to make all things serve them.” That is crazy. It’s not only crazy; it’s blasphemous. If all things serve our omnipotent, all-wise, all-caring Father, then all things serve us.

More Than Conquerors

Which brings me, then, to Romans 8:28. “We know that for those who love God all things [including death] work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” In other words, all things, including death, serve the children of God, serve their good, do for us what we need to have done.

Then Paul lists all the things that might “separate us from the love of Christ” (Romans 8:35), and included in that list is “danger” and “sword,” which means danger and death. We used swords to chop off people’s heads in those days. And we know that because, in the next verse (Romans 8:36), it says, “We are being killed all the day long.” Christians are dying for their faith every day, even today. Somewhere in the world, some Christian’s life is being threatened for his faith. And Paul says, “Death is yours. It serves you.”

How does he say that right here in Romans 8:37? This is the really amazing part. He doesn’t just say, “Death cannot separate us from the love of Christ.” He says that. It’s not all he says. He says, “No [no!], in all these things” — not in spite of them, but in all these things, including death, danger, sword, peril, famine, nakedness — “we are more than conquerors.” You could translate it “super-conquerors.”

“Life and death are your servants. You don’t serve them; they serve you.”

So, if death takes your life (which he says it does in Romans 8:36), how are you, in that moment when death has taken your life, more than a conqueror? How does it serve you? You’re not just a conqueror — it doesn’t just lie there conquered at your feet. It is “more than a conqueror.” It gets up; death gets up. After you’ve slain death, it gets up and serves you. Death does what you need doing and takes you where you need going.

Two Powers Dethroned

So, if we really believed — O God, help us. Every time I work on this text, I just shake my head and think, How in the world can this text go out of my head? How can I not live in the light of this text? And it happens. It’s just a horrible thing how it happens to us Christians. This text just goes out of our head.

If we really believe this text (what the Bible says about us in 1 Corinthians 3:21–23) — namely, that all things are ours, including the finest intellects on the planet and the best orators and the richest people and life and death and the world and the present and the future — if we really believed that these things are our servants, two powers would be dethroned in our lives. First, we would no longer desperately try to find our significance in this world by being superior to others or by lining up with people who are superior. We would see that as insane. And second, we would stop fearing death. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). It’s gone. It’s not only gone — it comes back around and becomes our servant.