Death’s Precarious Toehold

by Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison

In a beautiful treatment of the resurrection of Christ, Luther compares the resurrection to a birth:

Christ, our head, has arisen. But now that the Head is seated on high and lives, there is no longer any reason for concern. We who cling to Him must also follow after Him as His body and members. For where the head goes and abides, there the body with all the members must necessarily follow and abide. As in the birth of man and of all animals, the head naturally appears first, and after this is born, the whole body follows easily. Now since Christ has passed over and reigns above in heaven over sin, death, devil, and everything, and since He did this for our sake to draw us after Him, we need no longer worry about our resurrection and life, though we depart and rot in the ground. For now this is no more than a sleep. And for Christ it is but a night before He rouses us from the sleep (Luther’s Works, vol. 28, p. 110; Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15).

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The hard part is done. The walls of the fortress of death, sadness and gloom have been breached—yes, razed at the foundation! Says Luther, because of Christ’s resurrection, “all the hold death still has on us is by a small toe!” In Baptism, we’ve been united with Christ. So we shall go where He goes. Through cross, trial and into death? Yes . . . but with Christ through death to life and resurrection (Rom. 6:1ff.).

That’s the secret to a joyous life, come what may. Read the Book of Acts, and you will quickly find that the powerful evangelistic preaching of the apostles was very simple. This Jesus is the Christ, foretold by the prophets (Acts 2:25ff). “You crucified and killed [Him] by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). “God raised Him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24).

It was a straightforward message of (1) prophecy fulfilled; (2) stinging Law directed full force, right between the eyes; and (3) sweetest Gospel. Believe and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins. By faith, all that is Christ’s is yours. In Baptism, you are connected with Him, and both His death for sin and resurrection to life are yours. We depart from this type of evangelistic preaching (Scripture/Law/Gospel/Resurrection/Baptism) at our own eternal peril, to the detriment of the Church.

Too simple? Hardly. It’s God’s apostolic outline for preaching—for reaching the lost and forgiving and empowering the baptized (however creatively applied!). And note how utterly objective it is! Notice who the actor is! God promised this Christ in the Scriptures! God’s Law damns you! God’s Gospel of the resurrection—of Christ put to death for our transgressions and raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25)—forgives you! The hard part is done! “It is finished” (John 19:30). Believe it, and it’s yours! There is nothing to do. Only receive! Joy!

This is the resurrection source of the apostles’ joy—a joy that would not whither, even under the whip (death’s toehold). “They beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they [the apostles] left . . . rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 2:41). “Reconciled by His death,” “saved by His life,” “we rejoice in God!” (Rom. 5:9ff). Trials (pinched toes) push us to repentance, which is the path to joy (Psalm 51). And so the apostles and prophets bid us rejoice in trials (1 Peter 1:3–6). They point us to Jesus in every tribulation, all purposefully sent by God for our good (Rom. 8:37ff), “who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross” (Heb. 12:1–2). The apostles invite the baptized to “suffer together” and “rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26) for a more fulsome joy!

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The very resurrection of Christ—come home to us in Baptism (Col. 2:12)—frees us to breach the walls of pride and hatred and envy. We are freed to not expect those around us to be anything but sinners in need of Law/Gospel and love, just like we are (1 Tim. 1:15)! We are freed to rejoice in family and friends. We are freed to face death, even death, with the resurrection resolve that has grabbed hold of us in Christ. He’s been through it all. He knows the way. He is the way.

Sin, death and the devil still pinch toes. They’ve got a toehold to be sure . . . but only a toehold! And not for long.

Blessed Easter!

Pastor Matthew Harrison
“Let’s go!”
Mark 1:38

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