Virgil, considered by many to be the greatest of the Roman poets, wrote, ‘Death twitches my ear. “Live”, he says; “I am coming"’. Death is part of human existence. We may prefer not to talk about it. We may wish it was absent from the human situation. Even when we refuse to attend a funeral, we know death has been present. The Book of Common Prayer reads, ‘In the midst of life we are in death’.
Death comes so quickly. There is still so much to accomplish, so much to enjoy. Many easily identify with Sir Winston Churchill’s strong comment, ‘Curse ruthless time! Curse our mortality. How cruelly short is the allotted span for all we must cram into it!’1
In his confusion and anguish, Job describes in beautiful prose the apparent contrast between trees and human beings. ‘For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its tender shoots will not cease … But man dies and is laid away; indeed he breathes his last and where is he? … man lies down and does not rise. Till the heavens are no more, they will not awake nor be roused from their sleep’, Job 14. 7-12.2
In dramatic contrast to this sombre language, Paul states God’s answer to the apparent finality of death, ‘God, who has saved us … has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel’, 2 Tim. 1. 8-10. That is the good news about the triumph of Christ’s death for our sins.
In our ecclesiastical background we have reduced rituals to a bare minimum. Yet forms and ceremonies are important. We would be wise not to minimize the importance of these occasions as they are moments when we come together to recognize that something of permanent consequence has happened. Often a precious, lifelong relationship has been broken. Someone has left us that we will never see again in this world.
Funerals are often devoid of all hope. Expressions of grief may be frightening! Is a funeral a celebration? If so, what are we celebrating? Are we celebrating the deceased’s life? Yes! A eulogy centres on the life of the deceased. We remember a life that touched us with grace, love and service. It is true that on occasions a eulogy is an exaggeration, and sometimes it is completely false.
Are we as Christians celebrating the deceased’s hope of eternal glory? Yes! The Christian hope is centred in God, not on the deceased. This celebration highlights what God has done for us in His Son, Jesus Christ. God created the human being for life, not death! Paul states, ‘(we) rejoice in hope of the glory of God’.
Are we celebrating the deceased’s death? Hardly! Job refers to death as the king of terrors. In the New Testament, Paul speaks of death as the last enemy that will be destroyed. It is true that for Christians, the sting of death has been removed and the victory is sure. ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? … thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’, 1 Cor. 15. 55-57. We face death with the assurance that Christ has already tasted death for us.
The death of someone close to us is a very personal experience. If the body is ravished by disease, if the mind has disintegrated, if the death is sudden, or unexpected there is deep grief. Dr. Samuel Johnson commented, ‘While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert it only irritates’. Shakespeare wrote, ‘The worst crudity is to patch grief with proverbs’.
A funeral is undoubtedly an expression of grief. Paul recognizes this when he states, ‘But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope’. The apostle is not saying that we do not sorrow; rather he emphasizes that our sorrow is not a hopeless grief. He recognizes the reality of such sorrow when he writes concerning Epaphroditus, ‘For indeed he was sick almost unto death; but God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow’.
Paul would have grieved greatly had the illness of his friend led to death. He refers to the sorrow he experienced at the very serious illness of Epaphroditus and, should he have died, his death would have been sorrow upon sorrow. One thing is certain, Paul shares with us that death is the source of real sorrow.
What does death signify in the case of human beings today? After their creation, Adam and Eve were carefully told that they were not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Disobedience to God’s wise counsel would surely lead to death. Physical death would eventually be the result of disobedience, but physical death was inevitably preceded by spiritual death. Adam and Eve were no longer capable of a warm, friendly relationship with God. They were now afraid of God and they hid from Him. Before the fall, they would have looked forward each day to the stroll through the garden with God. To walk with God would suggest fellowship (sharing, talking, learning). The expulsion from the garden indicates powerfully a broken relationship with God.
Eventually, their lives would come to an end by physical death. In the language of the New Testament, ‘it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment’, Heb. 9. 27. Disobedience results in a life (existence?) without God that invariably leads to judgment.
With incomparable love, God passionately works to bring men and women back to Himself. God sends His unique, His only Son, to personally deal with the problem of our rebellion and to bring us back into His family as children. God provides a solution for human beings who are spiritually dead. John wrote that the Lord Jesus ‘came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name’, John 1. 10-12.
The apostle also refers to Christ as ‘the life … that eternal life which was with the Father … which … we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ’. This is truly life! We are no longer spiritually dead.
God’s plan for human beings includes resurrection. Paul affirms dogmatically, ‘For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed’.
Almost three hundred years ago, Edward Young, an English poet, asked two questions; ‘Seems it strange that thou shouldst live forever? Is it less strange that thou shouldst live at all?’ Let’s remember that we are not biological accidents! The very fact we are alive is evidence that God wants us to live for ever.
In the Bible, resurrection is just as real as death. It is not true that death is a fact, but resurrection is just a myth to brighten our grief. It is not true that death is real, but resurrection is only a metaphor for some ambiguous hope. It is not true that death is permanent and that resurrection is merely a pretence to eclipse for a moment the finality of death.
The Bible not only states in the words of Ezekiel, ‘The soul who sins shall die’, or in Paul’s language, ‘the wages of sin is death’, but it also affirms categorically the fact of resurrection. The Lord Jesus said, ‘Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation’. Paul asserts forcefully, ‘the dead in Christ will rise’.
Resurrection only has significance against the background of death. Resurrection is God’s gracious and powerful answer to the fact of death! A poem on a tomb in Scotland ends with the following lines:
Were not a Hereafter Man’s
Man’s Destiny would be to revel
and to rot,
Nature’s Shame and Foulest Blote.3
In the face of death we wait for resurrection, a vital element in the fullness of that life that awaits us beyond death. God has spoken on both issues, death and resurrection. The poet Virgil’s words from ancient history are all too true, ‘Live … I am coming’. Yet we are not afraid for we know that God has already triumphed over death by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the face of death we sing our response with confidence and joy.
Jesus lives, and so shall I:
Death thy sting is gone for ever!
He for me hath deigned to die,
Lives the bands of death to sever,
He shall raise me from the dust:
Jesus is my Hope and Trust.4
1 Sir Winston Churchill in The Book of Positive Quotations, compiled and arranged by John Cook (Minneapolis: Fairview Press, 1997), p. 205.
2 Scripture references in order of their appearance: Job 14. 7-12; 2 Tim. 1. 8-10; Rom. 5. 2; Job 18. 14; 1 Cor. 15. 26, 54ff; Heb. 2. 9; 1 Thess. 4. 13; Phil. 2. 27; John 12. 24; Gen. 1. 29; 2. 16f; Heb. 9. 27; John 1. 10ff; 1 John 1. 1-4; 1 Cor. 15. 51f; Ezek. 18. 4; Rom. 6. 23; John 5. 28f; 1 Thess. 4. 16. Unless otherwise stated, quotations are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Copyright © 1992.
3 Cryptic 18th century inscription in MacKenzie of Coul burial enclosure, Fortrose Cathedral, Fortrose, Ross-shire, Black Isle, Scotland, United Kingdom.
4 Christian F. Gellert; translated by Philip Schaff.
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