THE MYSTERY OF DEATH
By Pastor Glenn Pease
A librarian commented concerning a woman just leaving her desk that she could get more out of a mystery novel than anyone she knew. "How is that?" asked her co-worker. She replied, "She starts in the middle so that she not only wonders how it comes out, but also how it began." This illustrates what a great many people are doing with life today. They have no idea how things began, or of how things will end up. All they look at is the middle of the story. They see the contemporary scene only, and the result is that they have too much mystery on their hands, and life is confusing. They have what we could call spiritual amnesia, which leaves them stranded in the present with no roots in the past, or goals in the future. Mystery in itself is not only valuable, it is essential for making life an adventure, but to live in this much mystery is to be miserable. One has to have some basic answers.
When mystery reigns fear is on the throne as well. Henry St. John said, "Plain truth will influence half a score of men at most in a nation, or an age, while mystery will lead millions by the nose." The unknown is always frightening and so it becomes an ideal basis for controlling people and their money. Religion in general and cults in particular take full advantage of people's ignorance about life after death. Since people do not know the unknown it is impossible for them to prove any claim to be false, and so in fear they bow down to those who speak with authority. The witch doctor had such power over whole tribes because of his claim to know something about the darkness, which the masses do not know.
One is always at a disadvantage when he is ignorant of the enemy. Nations know this, and that is why the intelligence forces our vital to survival. We try and find out every possible move of the enemy. We use spies and reconnaissance planes to keep current of enemy movements. Not to do is to give the enemy the advantage of surprise. Death is an enemy, and we ought to know all that can be known about this enemy, and not be content with leaving it as a total mystery. In order to protect believers from being at the mercy of mystery mongers who sell their ignorance God has given, through Paul, some clear answers concerning the mystery of death. They are not answers reserved for the elite and spiritually superior. They are public information for the benefit of all.
There is so much revealed in I Cor. 15 alone that it would take a whole series of messages to expound it. This does not mean that there is no more mystery. There will always be some mystery simply because we are finite and cannot comprehend infinite truth. Some poet has written,
Shall my gazes see with mortal eyes,
Or any searcher know by mortal mind?
Veil or after veil will lift-but there must be
Veil upon veil behind.
As long as we are in these bodies there will be veils, but it is our responsibility to lift those veils and remove them where God has given knowledge. There is no merit in being ignorant of that which God wants us to see concerning death. Paul begins the final paragraph of his long discourse on death and resurrection by saying in verse 51, "Behold I show you a mystery." Henry Vaughn wrote,
Dear, beauteous death, the jewel of the just,
Shining nowhere but in the dark;
What mysteries do lie beyond the dust,
Could man outlook that mark!
Paul is saying that is exactly what we are going to do. We are going to look beyond the dust into the realm of ultimate destiny. Not, however, because we have any faculty capable of grasping the unknown and reducing it to the known, but because God has revealed it. It is a mystery that Paul is going to show us, and a mystery is a truth that cannot be known except by revelation. In other words, if it is not revealed it will remain in the realm of the unknown beyond the powers of man to discover.
The first aspect of the mystery is that we shall not all sleep. Not all Christians will die. There will be those who enter the realm of eternity directly from this life without going through the valley of death, just as Enoch and Elijah did in the Old Testament. In the case of the Christians, however, it will not be because they are such unique servants of God, but simply because they live at the end of history. The pattern of what is normal is not followed at the beginning or the end. The first of God's children on earth, who were Adam and Eve, were not born, and the last of His children on earth will not die. Both are dwelt with by God directly and uniquely. He is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. He is the source of life and the goal of life. In between the beginning and the end God established a pattern guided by natural law. All people come into the world by birth and leave it by way of death. Only the last generation will leave this world without sleeping the sleep of death.
The New Testament often refers to death as sleep, and this is a real revelation of the Christian attitude. Sleep describes death as simply becoming unconscious to this world. Byron wrote, "Death, so-called, is a thing which makes us weep, and yet a third of life is past in sleep." Natural sleep, however, is pleasant even to the beholder, for one knows the sleeper is at rest gaining strength to rise again and be active. Death is a sleep from which the body does not recover, and so there is no more communication. Even the certainty of seeing them again does not eliminate the fact of a real temporary loss. Therefore, though death is sleep for the Christian, it is still a sad lost for those who are left behind.
The paradox of the sleep of death is that though it appears to be a permanent sleep to those alive, it is really the end of all sleep for the one who is dead. It is the last sleep from which one wakes to sleep no more, for never again will there be a need for daily recuperation. The paradox is that all our lives we are dying, but at death we cease to die if we are in Christ. The unbeliever has another death to die called the second death, which is the death of the spirit when it is eternally banished from God's presence.
A German proverb says, "As soon as we are born we are old enough to die." All our lives we are dying even as we live. About every 7 years we have an entirely new body. The old one is dying and disappearing on a daily basis. Our baby body dies and is replaced by the body of youth. It dies and is replaced by the body of adulthood. It dies and is replaced by the body of old age. When this last earthly body dies then we receive a body that is immortal, and which shall never die. Death for the Christian is the end of death and the beginning of life without death. John Donne wrote, "One short sleep past, we wake eternally, and death shall be more; death thou shalt die."
This is the experience of all believers until the second coming, but those alive then will not need to die, for Paul says they too along with the dead must be changed. Death is not essential to entering the kingdom of God, but a transformation is essential, and so every believer living and dead will be changed when Christ comes again. Paul had just stated in verse 50 that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Those who felt that the Lord might come in their lifetime could fear that it would be to their advantage to die first less they get caught in their immortal bodies, but Paul assures them that there is nothing to fear, for all will be changed.
Paul goes on to stress that when this change takes place, and we have all put on immortality, then death shall be swallowed up in victory. It is significant that Paul uses the word victory three times in this context dealing with death, and never once uses it in all his other writings. Paul is making it clear as possible that death is an enemy, and a very powerful one, but that in Christ we can gain the victory over this most monstrous of foes. Back in verse 26 Paul says that death will be the last enemy to be destroyed. I emphasize Paul's strong language because lack of understanding on this point has caused Christians to think of death in a strange way. Paul does not stand shaking hands with death as a friend, but he stands in Christ victorious over it as a defeated fiend. It is the enemy of God, of Christ, and of man.
The Christian, like anyone else, can see the blessing of death in many situations. A person lingering in great and incurable pain is blest by the relief of death. But to build our theology about death around some of the benefits it can bring is foolish, and it leads to all kinds of superficial ideas that make death the loyal and obedient servant of God rather than His enemy. Any time you automatically use the cliché, "It was for the best, or his number was up, or God took him," you substitute sentiment for the clear Word of God. Many Christians act and talk as if they were pagan fatalists when it comes to the matter of death. This ought not to be, for it does great harm to our concept of God. Many people who hear the statements, when they have lost a loved one feel anger that God would act like a cruel tyrant in taking their loved ones. Many people would rather be lost than worship a God who twists people into knots of pain and crushes the life out of them. If you are promoting such an image of God by conveying the idea that all death is His will, then you should do it in the name of some other god rather than the God of Scripture, for He is the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort.
God does not will all death. If that was so, what is all the fuss about in trying to blame tyrants for their atrocities. If God alone is the author of all death, then He has determined that people will die at the hands of cruel tyrants. They are merely His servants fulfilling His will if this view is true. Why blame Hitler for killing six million Jews if it was God's appointed time for them? This is horrible theology, but Christians promote it because they do not stop to think of the implications of what they say when they claim all death is God's will.
If you study death through the Old Testament you will discover that much death is not God's will and that His laws are often designed to prevent death when it would be certain without these laws. We need to recognize that death is truly an enemy and that it is the wages of sin. It is part of the kingdom of evil, and that is why it will have no place in God's eternal kingdom. We can only face it with a positive spirit because Jesus has conquered it and promised to bring us all out of the realm of death into His Father house. Death is a defeated foe, but it is still an enemy. This is not a mystery, but a clear revelation of God through the Apostle Paul in this chapter.