Anchoring to the Living Conqueror of Death, Part 1
The CDC announced last night that the Corona virus death count has now passed 1 million people worldwide. One million people! That’s a lot of death from a single virus. I woke up this morning anticipating the media frenzy over this news—leading stories, nonstop coverage with leading experts offering their observations and criticisms and warnings, special press conferences, and so on.
But, no, today it is just a passing story, a sidebar issue in a list of other goings on in the world.
The critical side of my brain immediately assumes that there must not be money or political power or viewership to be gained in making a big deal about the story. (One of the reasons it’s important not to let the news media alone shape your view of what is really going on in the world.)
On the other hand, there is also the reality that people are simply tired of hearing how many people have died of Covid-19.
Do you remember back in the spring when the numbers would come out every day and we were watching the illness and death count climb? Do you remember all of the reporting about people who were not surviving? Hundreds of people on ventilators. People who ignored the warnings and ate at a restaurant together or attended a choir rehearsal and did not survive.
We were all riveted. Back then I downloaded the WHO app for my phone. I was interested in how many people worldwide were infected or had died, how many in the U.S., how many in my hometown. Plus, we were all shuttered indoors most of the time with this ominous feeling that something was coming to get us.
By now, however, we’ve gotten used to the idea of Covid-19 and people on average are managing the virus better, though we must still take it very seriously. (Various friends and family who contracted the virus assure me that it is something I do not want to catch!)
But the fact remains that we really don’t want to die. That’s why we’re alarmed when we’re being told there is a pandemic and we are all at risk of catching something fatal. And if it’s not Corona virus that will kill us, then there are dozens of other statistically bad ways that we could leave this world. The number of people who die annually in the world from heart disease reaches close to 18 million. That’s the leading killer, apparently. Cancer is about half that. On a day-to-day level, over a million people worldwide die each year from car accidents. (You can Google these statistics.)
So what comforts us when we contemplate death? When we think that our time to leave this world may be coming soon?
One of the reasons Jesus gave his church the book of Revelation is because his people were being confronted with the real possibility of their own death, a martyr’s death.
So when Jesus speaks to them through the apostle John, he does not begin by telling them to have greater faith, or by assuring them that he will keep them safe, or if they die they will have a “home in heaven.”
Rather, Jesus assures them by presenting to them a description of who he is.
In Rev 1:5, Jesus is described as “the firstborn of the dead,” or the firstborn from among the dead. In other words, Jesus was “dead,” but was “born” out of the realm of the dead, coming back to life.
Jesus describes his death and resurrection in other terms in Rev 1:17–18. After John beholds the resurrected Lord in his glory he says,
“I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.’”
Jesus also describes himself to the believers in Smyrna as “The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life” (Rev 2:8).
In this stunning description of our Lord, we find at least two bold assurances that give believers confidence to face death.
Jesus has the authority over life and death forever.
When Rev 1:5 says that Jesus is the “firstborn” (prototokos), the word “first” (protos) can have two meanings. “First” can refer to first in order. (I’ll say more about that in the next post.)
But “first” can also refer to first in standing, first in rank or position, or the preeminence of one person over another.
God says to Pharaoh in Exod 4:22, “Israel is my son, my firstborn,” not because they were the first created people but because God was exalting them to a status which set them above all of the other people of the earth.
Psalm 89:27 – The LORD speaks of David in Psalm 89:27 when he says, “I will make him my firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” David was not the Lord’s “firstborn” in the sense of order. If anyone held that position, it would be Adam (cf. Luke 3:38).
But God says, “I will make him my firstborn.” That is, “I will elevate him in status to the greatest of the great.”
So, when Rev 1:5 says that Jesus is the prototokos or “firstborn” of the dead, it is first of all an emphasis of Jesus’s lordship or authority over death. And this meaning is affirmed when we look at the other descriptions of Jesus.
In Rev 1:18, Jesus says, “I have the keys of Death and Hades.” To have the “key” to something means that you have authority over it. You say who enters and who doesn’t.
In Greek mythology, Hades was the god of the underworld. This god was supposed to hold the authority over who entered Hades and, more importantly, who was able to get out (usually, no one).
Well, we know that these ancient, false gods never held the key to life and death. But know who does hold that key! Jesus. Jesus says, “I have the key. The authority is mine.”
And this is a great comfort for every believer, that we know personally the one who holds the key to death. We do not know when the day of our death will be, but Jesus does. He has the authority over life and death. And our time is in his hands. He knows when he is going to bring us home to meet him face to face.
It’s troubling when someone we love dies. Even when that person is a believer and we know that he or she is with the Lord. It’s especially sad when someone dies unexpectedly, like a child or a young adult. Everyone says, “They had so much more to live for.”
But death doesn’t take Jesus by surprise. He holds the key to death. Our death is on his authority. And he lovingly and graciously calls his children home, not to end their lives, but to give them a new beginning. Those who have died in Christ are more alive now than they have ever been.
In fact, do you know what Jesus ultimately does to death? He destroys death altogether.
Revelation 21:4 describes part of this glorious scene of the first days of forever. A few verses earlier, at the end of Revelation 20, death and hell itself are literally cast into the lake of fire. Then Rev 21:4 says, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Death is, in essence, separation. Separation from our bodies. Separation from one another. And there is sorrow in death, even for those who know the Lord. Paul says even though we have hope, we sorrow because of death (1 Thess 4:13). We don’t want to say goodbye to those whom we love.
But there is coming a day—sooner than we know—when death will be a distant memory. And tears will be a thing of the past. And mourning and crying and pain will be done away with. Because our Lord Jesus Christ has authority over life and death. And through him, Life will reign and Death will be destroyed forever.