Talk 5 - Death
"An Unnatural Enemy" (Death)
shaken to the core
I have this little joke with my boys, “I was dead once, but I got better”. They think it’s funny. It’s much easier to joke about death than face the cruel reality. For many years Selwyn Hughes wrote the devotional material called “Everyday with Jesus”. Before he died, he quipped they’d write these words on his headstone, “Gone to another meeting”. A lot of Christians I know could have that inscription. My uncle was not interested in the gospel. But as he moved toward his own death he felt insecurity and fear. One day he asked me, “what does the church think about death”? Fear of the future. And what did Kerry Packer say after one of his heart attacks, “I’m not ready to go yet”. What a brave statement. As though Kerry Packer is larger than death.
For most people death comes as an intruder, uninvited and unwelcome. No matter the brave face, inwardly most people feel a sense of isolation, panic and despair. Most of my friends are unable to cope with the reality of death. The writer to the Hebrews describes unregenerate people as those who “all their lives are held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb 2:15). All the world knows death by its description in the Book of Job as “the king of terrors” (Job 18:14). All ages and cultures find the thought of death traumatic: it shocks, upsets, unnerves and shakes people to the core. Nineteen times the Bible calls the prospect of death its “shadow” for it looms ahead of us as a dark threat. Death casts a shadow before itself, streaking our sunniest moments with a dark chill. Soon we shall pass into its darkness.
What lies beyond the darkness? When this life stops – what starts?
In one sense we who come to church talk about death every week – the gospel tells us how in Christ Jesus we conquer death. Easter is about the death and resurrection of Jesus and how by faith alone we are united to Christ in his death and we share in his glory. The church is a community of people who understand death because in Christ death has been conquered and nothing can separate us from the love of God – even the valley of the shadow of death. We sing words such as these, “where is death’s victory, where is death’s sting”? But even so, I fear many Christians are scared of death not unlike the culture around them.
What lies beyond the darkness? When this life stops – what starts?
the nature of death
The Bible teaches us that all death is unnatural. Death is the unnatural enemy. Our instinctive feelings are confirmed – death is an intrusion. Ecc 12:7 describes our mortality in these terms, “the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it”. This verse echoes the creation story. As in the beginning God made man by breathing life into a thing of dust (Gen 2:7) so now in death he partly un-makes him. In death God severs the two realities he originally joined together. This is why corpses look vacant – body and spirit have been separated. It is the emptiness of a body that is unnerving – the spirit has gone – no-one is home.
not annihilation but judgment
Some people think about death in terms of annihilation. This means that as you were before conception, so you are after death. Non-existent. But the Bible everywhere takes personal survival after death for granted. Paul says in 2 Cor 5 that death for the Christian is the “unclothing” of a person by dismantling his earthly tent and then being clothed with “an eternal house in heaven”. Death is a change of wardrobe. 2 Cor 5:4, “For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wished to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling”. Throwing off the old and temporary – putting on the new and permanent. Death is not the end of personal life – all people live on – the person in Christ looks forward to shedding what is mortal and being clothed with heavenly realities.
The Old Testament pictures death as going down to the place called Sheol or Hades. These are alternative words for “grave”. Turn with me to Job 13:14. Job says to God, “if only you would hide me in the grave and conceal me to your anger has passed”. In my Bible the word “grave” has a footnote which says “Hebrew Sheol”. Sheol is not the same place as hell – nor is it the final place for the dead. Sheol is the grave and the Bible looks forward to an emptying of the grave when the dead are raised for judgment at Christ’s return.
John’s vision in Rev 20:11-13 is helpful here, “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done”.
Those whose names are written in the Book of Life will rise from the grave and are welcomed into their heavenly home.
The rest will rise and experience the force of God’s anger – not extinction – but the far worse prospect of an endless awareness of God’s just and holy displeasure. Using the full weight of Jewish imagery, the Bible describes an endless hell as an “unquenchable fire” (Matt 3:12) – the place where “the devouring worm never dies” (Mk 9:47f) – a place of “whaling and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 25:30) – “eternal punishment” (Matt 25:46) – “eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess 1:9) – “the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Rev 21:8). An endless hell is as part of the Scriptures as an endless heaven. For Christ-less people physical death which is the first death does not mean extinction but only the unending pain of the second death. Jim Packer says the godless person dimly senses the second death and so he fears to die. In the New Testament death is primarily a spiritual state – the state of mankind without Christ – the state of separation from God, cut off from his favour and fellowship.
death and sin
Both the physical and spiritual aspects of death are God’s judgment upon sin. Ezek 18:4 says, “the soul who sins is the one who will die”. Later, the Apostle Paul says in Rom 6:23 that “the wages of sin is death”. Back in the garden of Eden God warned Adam, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of God and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen 2:16-17). This is in part a reference to Adam’s physical death as suggested by Gen 3:19 where Adam is told that he will return to the ground “since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return”.
We have a Saviour who abolishes physical death. Jesus rose from the dead and many will share in his resurrection. The stench of death is not the final word. Graves will one day be empty. When God drove Adam and Eve out of the garden they also suffered a spiritual death – no longer walking with God in the cool of day - fellowship with God was broken – they were driven away from the tree of life and the flaming sword stopped them from returning. We have a Saviour who abolishes spiritual death. Through his death the penalty for sin is paid and we are acquitted by God – justified by faith – declared righteous and free to fellowship with God and eat from the tree of life. The final vision in Revelation sums it up, ”Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev 21:3).
the decisiveness of death
The world sees physical death as final closure, a meaningless end to a person’s life. At funerals I usually say this, “Death is not like a railway line – you come to the end of line and there’s no where to go. Death is better pictured as a valley – a valley that people cross to go from one place to another. Jesus was the first one to successfully cross the valley of death and rise again to new life”. And so death is a beginning – the opening of a door where one reaps what one has sown.
At the moment of death it is too late to change – after death there is a great gulf between those whom God accepts and those whom he rejects (Luke 16:26). The time of choice has passed. All that remains is to receive the consequences of that choice. There is nothing arbitrary about eternal punishment – it is in essence God respecting our choice throughout eternity. And so we should set ourselves to live in the light of eternity. Well did the psalmist pray, “Teach us to number our days aright, so that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12). Well did Murray M’Cheyne paint a setting sun on the dial of his watch to remind him how short time is. All of us need a quickened sense of the shortness of our time and of the significance of the present moment.
the conquest of death
The gospel is about the mastering of death – the death of death in the death of Christ. Christ’s resurrection was not a temporary resuscitation as were the raisings of Lazarus and the widow’s son of Nain. We read in Rom 6:9, “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him […] he lives to God”. And in Rev 1:18, the glorified Son of Man says, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!”
The rising of Jesus ensures our present forgiveness and justification. Our sins are forgiven and God treats us just-as-if we never sinned. The rising of Jesus ensures we have a new spiritual life right now. And so we live as people throwing off the old self and putting on the new self because we are raised with Christ into a new life. And if we are alive when Christ returns then we shall experience a physical transformation, if we are dead then we shall be re-clothed in resurrection glory. Christ’s return means the final destruction of death – no more shall it be a hostile and destructive intruder into God’s world.
For the Christian the dread of the consequences of physical death is abolished. It is no longer a gateway into the unknown or a door into suffering and judgment. The verses we know so well, “Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:55-56). Physical death is now a “sleep” in Jesus – rest and refreshment as suggested by Rev 14:13, “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on’. ‘Yes’, says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them’”. Then a rise from sleep on resurrection day.
We may rightly think of our death day as a date in Jesus’ diary. When the appointed time comes the Saviour will be there to lead his servants into his eternal presence. However hard and hurtful death is in physical terms, it becomes a journey into joy. Once fellowship has began with God on earth it never ends – Christ is always with his people and that is life eternal. This is why Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die”.
One pastor proudly said of his congregation, “my people know how to die well”. Corrie Ten Boom wrote the well known book called “The Hiding Place”. When she was a little girl in Holland her first realization of death came after a visit to the home of a neighbor who had died. It impressed her that some day her parents would also die. Corrie's father comforted her with words of wisdom. "Corrie, when you and I go to Amsterdam, when do I give you your ticket?" "Why, just before we get on the train," she replied. "Exactly," her father said, "and our wise Father in heaven knows when we're going to need things too. Don't run out ahead of Him, Corrie. When the time comes that some of us will have to die, you will look into your heart and find the strength you need--just in time”.
Hudson Taylor who found the China Inland Mission, in the closing months of his life said to a friend, "I am so weak. I can't read my Bible. I can't even pray. I can only lie still in God's arms like a little child and trust”.
However old or young you are, one secret of inner peace and living to the full is to be realistically prepared for death – packed up and ready to go. It is not absurd that we remind each other of this fact. These days healthy-minded Christians seem not to think too much about death – but it hasn’t always been that way. Puritan instruction on the art of dying turns out to be an approach to the art of living. To be prepared for death is to be prepared for life.
How many Christians live their life packed up and ready to go? Be wholly committed to Christ’s service each day. Don’t touch sin with a barge pole. Think of each hour as God’s gift to you. Plan your life for seventy years, understand that if your time proves shorter this is no more than a rapid promotion. Live in the present. Gratefully enjoy its pleasures and work through its pains with God, knowing that both the pleasures and the pains are steps on the journey home. Open all your life to the Lord Jesus, spend good time in his company, basking in and responding to his love. Say to yourself that everyday is one day nearer.
A dear, elderly Christian friend of mine went to be with the Lord a couple of years ago. One of the most faithful men I ever met. And he said to me one day after a meeting something like this, “Mark, I’m a little fearful of how I will die … the pain and the physical descent. But .. Ron said … I have no fear of death for I am in Christ and he is mine”. That conversation has always stayed with me. It is human to feel a sense of uneasiness about the process of death. But Ron taught me to cling to my Saviour and he will see me home.
If you cannot make sense of death then you cannot make sense of life. “Lord help us not to think about death like this world, but to rejoice because we are united to Christ by faith and death has been conquered”.