Monday, January 28, 2008

The Final Word on Death

By Rich Richardson @

Last month while Christmas shopping, a middle-aged woman in our church died unexpectedly of a heart attack, and our church suddenly and painfully had to grapple with how the gospel functions in death. How were we supposed to help a family dealing with the lingering pain of life without their mother-wife-grandmother?

Without a thorough understanding and application of the gospel, our response to death can be reduced to a collection of well-meaning clichés rather than the sturdy, life-giving hope intended for those left behind.

Too often, we Christians seem to be content with quips and phrases that work well for bumper sticker slogans but don’t carry meaningful weight in real life. The blunt force trauma of death means that gospel application must be sturdy enough to function in those moments of quiet (or perhaps vocal) despair.The gospel will not disappoint. What Paul delivered as of “first importance” is our best tool in this unholy business of death.

Jesus was overrun with death so we don’t have to be. While death will always be a heartbreaking reality, Jesus and the gospel deliver unbridled hope.

Death is a paradox of sorts because it is both unavoidable and unnatural. We know by experience that it is unavoidable—the human mortality rate is 100 percent. Live long enough and you will have to deal with the reality of facing life without someone you know. But that death is also unnatural is found in the account of mankind’s origin in Genesis 1 and 2. Each time God surveyed his creation, the refrain is repeated “And God saw that it was good.” But have you looked around lately? The world is decidedly not good now. What happened? Sin happened. When Adam and Eve ate that fruit to try to be like God, sin came and began to wreak havoc. But sin did not come alone—it brought an unholy companion that would touch all of humanity: death. Paul says in his letter to the Roman church, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). God did not create mankind to die. This is why when we encounter death, we weep and mourn and feel a sense of loss.

What should we do with these two aspects of death? If we only believe death is unavoidable, we will become comfortable with it. But Jesus wasn’t comfortable with death. He responded to death like the unnatural enemy it is. In John 11, Jesus came to Bethany after his friend Lazarus died. After interacting with Mary and Martha over the timing of his visit, Jesus surveyed the scene. Verse 35, the shortest verse in the Bible, captures his response: “Jesus wept.” Seeing the suffering of humanity because of sin and death, Jesus responded emotionally right there outside Lazarus’ tomb. Though in just a moment he was going to call Lazarus back from the dead, he still wept—perhaps he was thinking about the day that Lazarus would die again (big speculation). Sin and death were on display, and as Jesus took it all in, he didn’t attempt to hide his emotions. He hated what death was doing to mankind.

Jesus didn’t get used to the ravaging effect death had on people and neither should we. Death is unnatural. There should be something in us that is revolted at the thought of children without parents, parents without children, and people facing their twilight years alone. Death is here because of sin, and we should hate this unholy pair with all we are.

Faithful gospel application, however, is not complete if we just contemplate how much we should hate death. We should also celebrate the fact that the threat of death (separation from God—really dying) no longer looms for Christians. In dying and rising again, Jesus defeated death once and for all. On that glorious Easter morning when Jesus emerged from the tomb, he not only sealed the forgiveness of our sins, but he also forever removed the hazard of death for all believers.

Paul explains it this way: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:22–23). Christ is alive and that means all believers who die will not experience the bitterness of death but instead will experience the gloriousness of life with Jesus. This truth informs our grief. We grieve but know that there are no wasted tears for the Christian. The gospel says we weep now, but not without hope. Even though we can’t see our friend/parent/sibling/cousin/child, we know they are not dead in an eternal sense.

Because of this eternal life with Christ we are free to hate death, but not fear it. We and all believers exist outside death’s jurisdiction. Paul even goes so far as to mock death. He literally ridicules death in 1 Corinthians 15:55 saying, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” We too can look death in the eye because death has been reduced to merely a physical reality with no spiritual danger anymore.

Donald Grey Barnhouse, a preacher and pastor from the last century had a wife who died in her mid-thirties of cancer, leaving their three young children without their mother. On the way to the funeral service Barnhouse said to his daughter, “Tell me, sweetheart, would you rather be run over by that truck or its shadow?” The little girl looked curiously at her father and said, “By the shadow, I guess. It can’t hurt you.” Dr. Barnhouse said quietly to the three children, “Your mother has not been overrun by death, but by the shadow of death. That is nothing to fear.”

Jesus was overrun with death so we don’t have to be. While death will always be a heartbreaking reality, Jesus and the gospel deliver unbridled hope! Genesis 3 shows us that death is unavoidable, but the story doesn’t end there. Revelation tells us what the end of all things will be like: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Until that happy day we will have many sad ones. But in our sadness we have gospel hope. As we anticipate the day when all pain is removed, the gospel tells us the pain we feel is temporary. The shadow passed over a godly woman in our church recently and we miss her greatly. But make no mistake, death has not won her soul—Jesus did when he emerged from that tomb long ago.

Jesus—not death—has the final word.

Rich Richardson is the senior pastor of Sovereign Grace Church in Gilbert, AZ.

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