No matter how you slice it, death stinks! Or, as Scripture says, “Death stings!” The human psyche is repulsed by it, yet it is one of the unavoidable universal experiences common to every living, breathing being.
The fact that we spend much of our lives in denial of mortality and sometimes spend our fortunes trying to postpone the inevitable suggests that perhaps it isn’t what we were originally intended for. The futile search for the “fountain of youth” is more than a fairy tale. It is, in some sense, a striving to recover our primal design.
The fact of the matter is that if you were to reduce the Bible (God’s design manual) to the first two chapters of Genesis and the last two chapters of Revelation, you would discover a world without death, a world in which life pulsed in every atom of the universe. Also, if you were to focus on the life/death issue as addressed by Jesus (God in human flesh), you would see a Message intent on life, a death-conquering life.
Jesus declared, “I came so that they could have life – yes, and have it full to overflowing.” The most famous Scripture reference, John 3:16, targets this issue head-on: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
The apostle Paul was inspired by God to declare that death was, in fact, the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor 15). Romans 6:23 confirms what Genesis 3 described: death is the direct consequence of sin. So it is evident that death (and the ills that lead up to it) is not what our Maker meant for us.
In light of all this, what should the attitude of a follower of Christ be toward death? It’s one thing to celebrate the promise of “eternal life,” but quite another to face the grinding, debilitating, all-consuming onset of death in our bodies (or those of loved ones). We read of miraculous “resurrections” in the Bible and even down through history as God intervened by raising up one who was clearly dead. But we must quickly point out that these “healings” were merely temporary as every person (i.e., Lazarus and Tabitha) had to face death again at some point. Only Jesus Christ experienced a permanent resurrection, which, by the way, He promised to all who follow Him.
This brings us to the strange statement John made in the final story recorded in his gospel. Jesus and the disciples have just finished a “men’s breakfast” beside Galilee. Jesus pulls Peter aside to commission him as a shepherd of Jesus’ “flock.” Then He gives Peter a heads-up about the end of his life when He says, “… when you are old, you’ll stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you up and take you where you don’t want to go.” By way of explanation, John says, “He said this to indicate the sort of death by which Peter would bring God glory.”
In what amounts to an aside in the grand story of Jesus, we are handed this new pair of glasses – a very different way to see death, “by which Peter would bring God glory.” Suddenly everything looks different. Jesus’ own gruesome death wasn’t an unfortunate tragedy, it was a carefully planned means of “bringing God glory.” Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, sees glory as the stones crush his life out of him, and a collaborator in his murder, Saul, witnesses first-hand a death “bringing glory to God.”
Saul, renamed Paul, would later write concerning his own life, “Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” Then, after years of history-making service, Paul writes biographically, “. . . the strategic time of my departure is already present. The desperate, straining, agonizing contest marked by its beauty of technique, I like a wrestler have fought to the finish, and at present am resting in its victory. My race, I like a runner have finished, and at present am resting at the goal. The Faith committed to my care, I like a soldier have kept safely through everlasting vigilance, and have delivered it again to my Captain.” 1 Timothy 4 (Wuest tr.)
Taking our cues from David in Psalm 23, those who have made the Lord their Shepherd can pass through the valley of the shadow of death without fear. Some, like Stephen in Acts 7, find themselves suddenly translated to Glory while in the prime of life, while others live well into their eighties and nineties. Those of us who get a terminal prognosis “prematurely” are tempted, like Peter, to ask “what about so-and-so?” That question is always met with the same question Jesus posed to Peter, “If I want him/them to live forever, what is that to you?” Bottom line: we must live our life, not someone else’s.
Where do you find yourself today? Have the doctors given up on you? Maybe you’ve been given six months or a year, what do you do with that? Perhaps it is a loved one who is facing death. Take heart, this too can bring glory to God. Let that vision settle into your innermost spirit. Thank God that “whether by life or by death” you know that “goodness and mercy will follow you ALL the days of your life and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
J. Dan Small
April 13, 2015