Precious in the Lord
If, as Paul tells us, “we shall not all fall asleep” (1 Cor. 15: 51), it is equally true that not all of us shall “remain to the coming of the Lord” (1 Thess. 4: 15). Our hope is the Lord’s return—a hope that ought to govern the way we lead our lives—but we also need to be prepared for death. Of course it is very easy to say ‘to be saved is to be ready’ (and this is blessedly true), but when actually faced with the cold, harsh reality of life’s end (whether in ourselves or others), we find that things are never that simple. Like Israel on Passover night, some are more ready than others—all were safe because all were under the blood, but some had more peace of heart. The Christian’s attitude to death, and to those who have died, is thus a very practical and important matter, and one that deserves our thoughtful consideration. God Himself takes a very deep and personal interest in the death of the believer, for “Precious in the sight of Jehovah is the death of his saints” (Ps. 116: 15). It is very touching, for example, to see that God personally buried Moses (see Deut. 34: 6), and that every Christian that passes through the article of death, is said to have “fallen asleep through Jesus” (1 Thess. 4: 14)—the epitome of restfulness and peace, whatever the practical circumstances.
Yet how can God allow His creature to fall asleep in Jesus when the express testimony of Scripture is that death is the deserved penalty of sin—a judgment no less? The first man transgressed, and by his action “sin entered into the world” (Rom. 5: 12), with the inevitable result that death passed upon all his posterity, believers included. Paul’s concise summary is that “the wages of sin [is] death” (Rom. 6: 23). “Dust thou art; and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen. 3: 19)—whether low–born or high–born, death is no respecter of persons. Thus in the book of Adam’s generations (see Gen. 5), each entry bar one closes with the solemn words “and he died”.
The one exception is Enoch: “By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him” (Heb. 11: 5). His translation without seeing death is a foretaste of that great translation to come, when the Lord shall descend from heaven with an assembling shout, and the dead in Christ shall be raised and “we, the living who remain, shall be caught up together with them in [the] clouds, to meet the Lord in [the] air; and thus we shall be always with [the] Lord” (1 Thess. 4: 17). But how can this be, if “it is the portion of men once to die, and after this judgment” (Heb. 9: 27)? Death is no longer an inevitable necessity for the believer because Christ has taken upon Himself the penalty owing to our sins. By His work at Calvary, He has “annulled death, and brought to light life and incorruptibility by the glad tidings” (2 Tim. 1: 10).
Now before the death of Christ, a long and prosperous life on the earth was almost all that was hoped for. The earth was the sphere in which man was to be blessed, and to be blessed here was taken as a mark of divine favour (see Deut. 30: 19, 20). Hence “Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be prolonged in the land that Jehovah thy God giveth thee” (Exod. 20: 12; see also Deut. 5: 33). What lay after death was Sheol, or the unseen state, and understanding on this was limited. King David, speaking of his dead son, said simply “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12: 23; see also 1 Sam. 28: 19), while Solomon declared that “the dead know not anything” (Eccles. 9: 5). To die prematurely was a tragedy, as Hezekiah testified when he had recovered from sickness: “In the meridian of my days I shall go to the gates of Sheol: I am deprived of the rest of my years. I said, I shall not see Jah, Jah in the land of the living …The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I this day” (Is. 38: 10, 11, 19; compare Ps. 115: 17, 18).
Of course many of the Jews did also believe in resurrection—Martha could say of her dead brother “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection in the last day” (John 11: 24). This somewhat vague and remote hope was, however, transformed when it was personalised by the Lord’s own teaching that “I am the resurrection and the life” (v 25). Thus He was “marked out Son of God in power, according to [the] Spirit of holiness, by resurrection of [the] dead” (Rom. 1: 4)—that is, of dead persons, though He raised Himself as well (see John 2: 19-21). If “the first man Adam became a living soul” then “the last Adam” is “a quickening spirit” (1 Cor. 15: 45). Unlike Jewish hopes, which were centred in a kingdom down here, the Christian hope is up above, for the Lord is coming again, to receive us—both living and dead—to Himself, “that where I am ye also may be” (John 14: 3). What a triumphant day that will be—when “this corruptible shall have put on incorruptibility, and this mortal shall have put on immortality” and “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15: 54)!
Now of course Christians grieve when one whom they have known and loved is taken from them, but they do not grieve after the manner of the world—those “who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4: 13). To grieve in that hopeless and helpless kind of way is essentially to disbelieve what God has revealed to us. Nor are Christians to be overcome with grief, because we, and those who are already “with Christ” (Phil. 1: 23), have a bright prospect before us. We do not believe that death is the end, and we have the certainty in our hearts (because God has told us) that one day it will be true of every believer that they “shall be always with [the] Lord” (1 Thess. 4: 17).
Sadly, much of what passes for ‘Christian’ doctrine at the present moment is borrowed from the OT. Thus one of the most common refrains heard at any English funeral is ‘ashes to ashes and dust to dust’. Such sentiments do not take us beyond what happens to fallen man as a result of sin. Certainly, the words have a Scriptural basis to them (see Gen. 3: 19), but what is Scriptural is not necessarily Christian. How often, for example, do we hear what Paul has to say about death as “being with Christ” and being “very much better” (Phil. 1: 23)? And if we do hear it, how much is it really felt and believed?
Even worse, the modern trend to eulogise the departed is borrowed directly from the world, for the proper attitude of the believer is surely “We are unprofitable bondmen” and if we have done anything that might be thought worthy of praise, then our judgment should be that we have only “done what it was our duty to do” (Luke 17: 10). Yes we read that “pious men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him” (Acts 8: 2), but lamentation is not eulogy. Furthermore, the lamentation of these devout men was a Jewish characteristic—the hope of glory was not known to them (see also Mark 5: 38; Acts 9: 39; compare 1 Pet. 1: 3-4). Their focus was the earth, and what they saw was the premature end of a life that, by rights, deserved to be long.
We, by contrast, have a heavenly hope, and that hope is being ‘with the Lord’. Indeed, if our hope for that day centres in meeting departed loved ones, then we have rather missed the point of what Scripture is trying to teach us. Our hope is the Lord Himself. Of course, a great many so–called ‘Gospel’ songs speak sentimentally of heaven in terms of husbands and wives being reunited but we need to get our theology from the Bible rather than human compositions. Scripture is quite explicit that the marriage bond is annulled by death (see Rom. 7: 1, 2; 1 Cor. 7: 39) and has no force in heaven (see Matt. 22: 30). Even those who had known Christ on earth had to learn that His death had changed the relationship (see 2 Cor. 5: 16). Of course we should not be unfeeling—the Lord Himself grew up in a family, and understood the depth of family relationships. See how he considered for His own mother when a sword passed through her own soul (see Luke 2: 35; John 19: 26, 27). Furthermore, both Old and New Testaments are full of God’s consideration for those left behind, the widows, the orphans and the fatherless. But in being considerate to each other, let us not rob the Christian of his proper hope, which is waiting for Christ. As Paul says, it is “the Lord Himself” (1 Thess. 4: 16) that is coming for us. May we thus “encourage one another with these words” (v 18), as we await God’s Son “from the heavens” (1 Thess. 1: 10)!