“Here Endeth the First Lesson”
September 17, 2021
By Dr. Hal Brady
Cannon Dick Sheppard was the minister at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in the heart of London right after World War l. It is reported that when he died, quite suddenly, one of the morning newspapers printed a large photograph of his pulpit. There it was, the same as ever, but empty. However, the Bible on the pulpit was still open with a ray of light across it. Beneath the picture were these words: “Here endeth the first lesson.”
The implication here, and rightly so, is that there is another lesson to follow. As someone observed, “So, is death when we go to sleep? Or is death when we finally wake up?”
The Apostle Paul addresses this subject of the “second lesson” (resurrection hope and life after death) when he says, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (l Corinthians 15:20). Notice that Paul doesn’t say that Christ is the “only fruit” of those who have fallen asleep but the “first fruits” of those who have fallen asleep. Stating it another way, the first fruits are always a sign of the harvest to come.
So, why this article on the “second lesson” or resurrection hope and life after death?
First, as a corrective to some modern-day excesses! While scripture teaches that eternal life begins in the present, it also teaches that it continues after death. Consequently, there is a present and a future aspect to God’s great promise.
But, for the most part, modern American Christendom seems to stress the present aspect of the continuum only. Certainly, we must be concerned with faith in the present – especially as we consider the nature of God’s call and the precarious nature of our world. Let us make no mistake – this is our primary mission and concern.
However, I ask you: does this negate the importance of also stressing the reality of faith’s deeper levels, of stressing the reality of eternal communion with the One who lives on both sides of the grave? In other words, can we carry out the social mandates of the gospel while at the same time affirming our personal resurrection hope? For me and numerous others, the answer is “yes.”
Second, as a pointer to the biblical witness! Right at the outset, let us be very clear about something! As the late Bishop Earl Hunt observed, “The New Testament itself gives us no blueprint of heaven…we possess only the beautiful phraseology of pictures, or as another described it, ‘Appetizing hints’ about the life to come.’”
Someone once asked a well-known minister, “Why didn’t Jesus tell us more about life after death or for that matter why doesn’t the Bible tell us more about it?”
The minister replied with two answers. First of all, he said, “If life after death is so amazing and humans knew of it, they might be tempted to go into it by their own act before they had usefully finished life here. And second, he said, “We just don’t have the capacity to understand what it is like.”
For believers, heaven is where the Master is. While we may not know what is beyond the grave, we do know who is beyond the grave, and that is sufficient.
Third, as a hope and comfort to people of faith! When all is said and done, our faith in the “second lesson” comes down to these things.
Our conviction about God and the nature of God! Because we believe in God’s infinite goodness, love, and justice, we must believe that in other spheres God will straighten out the injustice and irregularities of earth. “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?”
I like the way Philip Yancey expressed it. He said, “I believe in the resurrection primarily because I have gotten to know God.” Divine love will always find a way to overcome.
Our faith in the witness of Jesus! Our ultimate assurance of the reality of eternal life comes from one intentional act, faith in the fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And then our faith in the witness of the church and the testimony of the ages! Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis on Sunday, April 9, 1945. As he was being taken from his cell, he reportedly said, “This is the end, for me the beginning of life.”
Fourth, as a strength to our present-day ministries in the world! One of the reasons for the accelerated collapse of character in our time is that the concept of the hereafter has been largely dismissed.
In our revolt against selfish, individual and escapist “pie in the sky by and by,” we’ve allowed “the pie in the sky” to drop from the consciousness of modernity to the detriment of the whole of human society.
Hear me now! If a human being is destined for a life beyond this one, if indeed this world is a “training ground for eternity…” then immediately all our conduct comes up for fresh evaluation. A person who is destined to live forever simply cannot escape the consequences of his or her life. Thus, in this light, the question of right and wrong takes on much added significance. So, what really matters now is to live a life of grace and good will.
As the words beneath that empty pulpit stated it, “Here endeth the first lesson.”
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).