More Than Conquerors
James C. Denison
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.