Sober Thoughts About Death.
Serving a congregation with several older people means you must always be prepared to conduct a funeral at a moment’s notice. But nothing could have prepared our pastoral team for the onslaught of funerals we have been called upon to do lately. It seems as if we have had one a week for a year! And not only were these services for seniors, some of those who passed on were in the prime of life.
So it is not surprising that the reality of death has been much on my mind lately. Familiar Scriptures on the topic have yielded fresh meaning. The reality of life after death for believers has, out of necessity, been a constant topic of meditation. And with it, the sweet promises of life after the grave has come home with new power.
One of the things I’ve noticed though is that many Christians exhibit the same attitude towards death that unbelievers do. I’m not saying that because they grieve for those they have lost. Paul tells us that believers who lose loved ones and friends are expected to grieve (I Thessalonians 4:13). We grieve because these loved ones are no longer with us and we will not see them again until we cross over. I get that.
What I mean though is some Christians grieve like unbelievers who have no hope. They act as if a terrible tragedy has occurred, when in fact, when a Christian dies, he or she has reached the goal. Elsewhere in another letter, the apostle Paul actually wrote to a church conveying his own deep desire to depart (die) to be with Christ (Philippians 1:21-23). He decided that it wasn’t yet time and that the church still needed him, but that was his desire. Far from shunning death, Paul actually longed for it.
I have concluded many Christians need to once again be reminded of the basic truth of the Gospel. While it is true God gives us many blessings in this life, it is only after we after die we receive our true reward. This is called in Scripture the ‘blessed hope’, not the blessed wish. Peter calls it a “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (I Peter 1:3). Because Jesus rose from the dead, a fact testified to by many witnesses, means that since he now lives beyond the grave, so those who believe in him will live on as well. No wonder Peter calls it a living hope! It is a hope that is alive because the One who promised it is alive.
Since this is true, believers no longer (or at least shouldn’t) view death as the world does; as a crushing defeat and the end of our existence. Rather, they should view it as it is in reality—the achieving of the goal every true believer longs for. While believers may and often do question why a person was taken at a certain time, they cannot grieve as others since they no longer (due to the resurrection) view death as the end but the beginning. That is why so many Christians joyfully gave up their lives as martyrs in the early centuries of Christian history. Being fully aware that their real lives are those they live beyond the grave, they gladly gave up their lives in this life for life in another. While this did at times get out of hand with people so longing for death they ceased living fully in this life, the martyrs demonstrated that faith in Jesus empowers believers to live in the light of the reality of life beyond the grave. It is there that true life exists.
While I don’t, in general, enjoy doing funeral services where I am charged with the task of bringing comfort to devastated family members, I especially savor presenting the hope that believers in Jesus have as opposed to the hopelessness of those who have no hope beyond the grave. It is a powerful witness to unbelievers and affords me the opportunity to set on display the Christian hope. If there is anything that displays more sharply the difference between the biblical worldview and the secular, it is in their attitude towards death. One is hopeless seeing nothing beyond the grave while the other is victorious, welcoming believers into an eternity of bliss as well as being rejoined to their resurrected bodies at the Lord’s appearing,
And that is one of the reasons I count it a privilege to perform funeral services. It allows me to talk about a subject rarely discussed anymore in Christian circles—the resurrection from the dead. The Christian hope is not that we will live as forever as disembodied spirits, floating in the clouds strumming harps, but that we will one day be reunited to our physical bodies which will be glorified. So important is this doctrine, the apostle Paul devoted an entire chapter in the Corinthian letter (chapter 15) to make sure the church there properly understood it. Have we given the same importance to this glorious doctrine that the apostle does?
I am often asked where a person’s loved one is after they die. If they are in Christ, the answer is clear: “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5:8). But that is a temporary dwelling while we wait for our permanent dwelling: our glorified body. Heaven is not our final home; it is the place where our treasure is reserved (I Peter 1:4). One day the Lord will leave his place in heaven and return to earth, resurrecting the bodies of both dead and living saints (I Thessalonians 4:13-18).
What a blessed hope! Can anything compare to this glorious promise given by Jesus Christ Himself that the dead really only sleep and will one day be awakened to receive their new bodies? No other worldview holds out such incredible hope for those who believe.