Philippians 1:20–21 (ESV) as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
The subject of Christians dying came up at a recent pastors’ prayer meeting. The concern was how to help certain people who were struggling to come to terms with the deaths of some prominent people in their church community recently. In their grief, some expressed anger at God and others declared, “God doesn’t hear our prayers”.
I remember as a young man during a particularly intense prayer time, I was challenged with the question of trusting Jesus with my life. My sincere response was, ‘yes!’ The Lord then asked if I was prepared to trust Him with my death, a trust that I realised was quite different. The living can proclaim trust of life but being prepared for a death that may not be within the sphere of our preference (i.e. of old age surrounded by loved ones) is something different.
I was learning that living by faith meant that if my life was in His hands then so was my death. If The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ wants me to live, then no power on earth can take my life. Conversely, if God wants me to die (go to be with the Lord) then no power on earth can keep me alive.
The older I get the closer to death I come (a stunning realisation I know). As I look back there have been many times in my life that I have escaped certain death by God’s grace. So, I’m not really closer to death but have always been close – as the Psalmist wrote, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” There have been many ‘divine life-saving intervention’ events. For example, moving a few paces from a street lamp I was sitting against and having a car hit the post and destroy it; surviving a devastating cyclone; an aircraft engine exploding in mid-air; vomiting up nearly 4 litres of blood from a tear in my duodenum, just to name a few. So when I die (as put-out as I will be :)) it is the times I was rescued from death that count. I should have died at ages 8, 14, 15, 17, 18, 21 (those were busy times for angels I guess), a few more followed with the most recent at 54.
Surely, all whose lives are in Christ have experienced the hand of God at work throughout their own history? There are certainly tragedies we find hard to understand and no amount of reason will change that. This is why we require faith, just like those described in Hebrews chapter 11. By faith, death is not to be feared, rather it is a time to remember and celebrate a life lived.
(Let me point out, no matter what extreme positive thinkers say [they are not true faith preachers], if Christ does not return in your life time, you will die. Sickness is not sin but incipient death. Because of sin, sickness and death came into the world. Our sins are forgiven, sickness and death are passing away like this world. Can we see the sick healed in Jesus name? Yes! Can the dead be raised in His name? Yes! Will they be healed or raised from the dead, today? Maybe yes, maybe no. Two apostles in prison, one is guided out by an angel, another is beheaded. Each had a different life in which to glorify God.)
The Psalms are filled with the lament of saints struggling to understand the ways of God.
Psalm 80:4–6 (ESV)4 O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? 5 You have fed them with the bread of tears and given them tears to drink in full measure. 6 You make us an object of contention for our neighbours, and our enemies laugh among themselves.
Yet the Psalms also cry out:
Psalm 116:15 (ESV) Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.
We live in a world that is enslaved by the fear of death. We have legislation telling us what we can and can’t eat, for our own safety. A terrorist act brings death, we lose our freedom. A person gets old, we hide them in a hospice. Many people today so fear death they are unable to live freely. Unless we have a sound faith-filled theology of death, we will struggle to speak to a society enslaved by the fear of death.
In speaking of the Work of Redemption Hebrews says:
Hebrews 2:14–15 (ESV) Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
So, let’s not fear death and in so doing fear to live. Let’s not rail at Christ for not giving us more life when we have already received so much more life.
Ecclesiastes 2:24 (ESV) There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God,
At my death, rather than tears of despair let there be tears of separation. At my death, let there be marvel that God’s hand kept me so long, rather than anger at a life now ended. At my death, let the sorrow be tempered with the celebration of a life well lived in Christ.