Whether by Life or by Death
A close family member of mine is, from all human observation, in the process of dying.
But so are we all. That’s not to trivialize the sobriety of her experience. It is to state a profoundly forgettable reality. Granted, knowing that I am going to die is not the same as knowing that I am likely to die soon. The former is a universal reality; the latter, odd as it may sound to say, is a rare and incredible gift from God—to consciously prepare for that departure from this remarkably brief earthly life in a very focused and intentional way. As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones pointed out, in some ways we ought to be doing much more of that than we do.
We do not give enough time to death and to our going on. It is a very strange thing this: the one certainty, yet we do not think about it. We are too busy. We allow life and its circumstances so to occupy us that we do not stop and think. . . . People say about sudden death, ‘It is a wonderful way to go.’ I have come to the conclusion that is quite wrong. I think the way we go out of this world is very important and this is my great desire now that I may perhaps be enabled to bear a greater testimony than ever before.
The world is too much with us. We hold on to life so tenaciously—that is so wrong, so different from the New Testament! Even until last November I wasn’t conscious of my age. I felt it ridiculous to talk about it. When we feel well and active it is difficult to realize the end. I remember as a boy the number of deaths from tuberculosis . . . and the number of child deaths from diphtheria. We were reminded of death much more often. With modern medicine people are now living to an older age. . . .
. . . [George] Whitefield was right. He had such a knowledge of the coming . . . glory that he desired to be there. That should be true of us all.(Cited in Iain Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith 1938-1981, 730-31)
Christ’s Perspective: Christians “Die” but They Don’t Die
Jesus talked about death quite a bit. John, especially, captured many of his most radical-sounding statements. John 5:24 seems initially to address only the believer’s deliverance from condemnation. But John 6:50-51 gets a bit more extreme. By the time you get to John 8:51, it begins to sound downright unrealistic: will never see death? Finally, when Martha mourned to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died,” his reply compels us to confess our conviction on a very personal level: Whoever lives and believes on me shall never die. Do you believe this? (John 11:26).
What point was Jesus making? Notice what he said earlier to his disciples: Our friend Lazarus sleeps; but I go that I may awake him out of sleep. Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleeps, he will do well. But Jesus spoke of his death. . . . Then Jesus said to them plainly, Lazarus is dead (John 11:11, 14; cf. Mark 5:39).
So, was he dead or sleeping? We would probably say he was dead. Jesus would say he was sleeping. The language of the NT is consistent on this distinction, even though it uses both terms (1 Thess 4:13-18). We can blunt the Bible’s language about death by misunderstanding it as merely figurative, or confuse the Bible’s language by misapplying it to the wrong part of us.
God is a spirit with no body; man is a spirit with a body. Believers’ bodies expire (die) like anyone else’s; that is the inescapable consequence of the fall. But Scripture takes us far deeper than the physical body. We are born dead; that, too, is the inescapable consequence of the fall. Paul addresses believers as “you who were dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1), sins that left us “alienated from the life of God” (Eph 4:18). “But God,” in saving us, “even when we were dead in sins, has made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:4-5).
For the unbeliever, physical death is the ultimate kiss of death, sealing one in eternal spiritual death. For the believer, physical death is the ultimate kiss of life. The body sleeps in anticipation of its final waking (resurrection). The soul, once regenerated from spiritual death, never dies and never sleeps; it merely moves out and changes “locations.”
The Saints’ Perspective: Thoughts on Christian Passing
Rowland Taylor. Five days before he was burned at the stake by Roman Catholic loyalists in 1555, pastor and Protestant reformer Rowland Taylor wrote to his family and friends, “Count me not dead, for I shall certainly live and never die” (Ryle, Five English Reformers, p. 83). He clearly took Jesus quite literally and at face value.
Esther Edwards Burr. In September 1757, Aaron Burr, president of Princeton and Jonathan Edwards’ son-in-law, died. He was 41. His bereaved wife wrote of the news to her parents, “with words that show how true theology kept her from a self-centered piety” (all the Edwards family citations are from Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography).
O, I am afraid I shall conduct myself so as to bring dishonor on my God and the religion which I profess! No, rather let me die this moment, than be left to bring dishonor on God’s holy name—I am overcome—I must conclude, with once more begging, that, as my dear parents remember themselves, they would not forget their greatly afflicted daughter, (now a lonely widow), nor her fatherless children.
Two months after her husband (Aaron Burr) died, their infant son (Aaron) contracted an infection that brought him “to the brink of the grave.” Esther wrote to her father, Jonathan Edwards, on November 2, 1757.
I did give myself and my children to God, with my whole heart…. A few days after this, one evening, in talking of the glorious state my dear departed husband must be in, my soul was carried out in such large desires after that glorious state, that I was forced to retire from the family to conceal my joy. When alone I was transported, and my soul carried out in such eager desires after perfection and the full enjoyment of God, and to serve him uninterruptedly, that I think my nature would not have borne much more. I think, dear Sir, I had that night a foretaste of heaven. This frame continued, in some good degree, the whole night. I slept but little, and when I did, my dreams were all of heavenly and divine things. Frequently since, I have felt the same kind, though not in degree. This was about the time that God called me to give up my child. Thus a kind and gracious God has been with me, “in six troubles and in seven.“
By April 1758, only six months after writing this, Esther herself was in heaven.
Sarah Edwards. Jonathan Edwards died of a smallpox inoculation on March 22, 1758. His physician wrote the following to his wife, Sarah, on the same day.
This afternoon between two and three o’clock, it pleased God to let him sleep in that dear Lord Jesus, whose kingdom and interest he has been faithfully and painfully serving all his life. And never did any mortal man more fully and clearly evidence the sincerity of all his professions, by one continued, universal, calm and cheerful resignation and patient submission to the Divine will, through each stage of his disease, than he…. Death had certainly lost its sting, as to him.
Sarah wrote to her daughter, Esther, on April 3, 1758. Esther never received this letter. She died only 16 days after her father.
What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands upon our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness, that we had him so long. But my God lives, and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left us! We are all given to God; and there I am, and love to be.
The chronology is sobering. Within 13 months, this family had five funerals:
- September 1757—Aaron Burr (Edwards’ son-in-law), age 41
- January 1758—Timothy Edwards (Edwards’ father), age 88
- March 1758—Jonathan Edwards, age 54
- April 1758—Esther Edwards Burr (Edwards’ daughter), age 26
- October 1758—Sarah Edwards (Edwards’ wife), age 48
“Here was a royal fellowship of death” (Henry V).
C. H. Spurgeon, with John 17:24 in view, wrote in his devotional collection Evening by Evening for March 22:
O Death! Why dost thou touch the tree beneath whose branches weariness hath rest? Why dost thou snatch away the excellent of the earth, in whom is all our delight? If thou must use thine axe, use it upon the trees that yield no fruit; thou mightest be thanked then. But why wilt thou fell the goodly cedars of Lebanon? Oh, stay thine axe and spare the righteous. But no, it must not be. And why? It is through Jesus’ prevailing prayer—“Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am.” It is that which bears them on eagles’ wings to heaven. Every time a believer mounts from this earth to paradise it is an answer to Christ’s prayer.
A good old divine remarks, “Many times Jesus and His people pull against one another in prayer. You bend your knee in prayer and say, ‘Father, I will that Thy saints be with me where I am.’ Christ says, ‘Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am.’” Thus the disciple is at cross-purposes with his Lord. The soul cannot be in both places: the beloved one cannot be with Christ and with you too. Now which pleader shall win the day? If you had your choice; if the King should step from His throne, and say, “Here are two supplicants praying in opposition to one another; which shall be answered?” Oh! I am sure, though it were an agony, you would start from your feet, and say, “Jesus, not my will, but Thine be done.” You would give up your prayers for your loved one’s life, if you could realize the thought that Christ is praying in the opposite direction—“Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am.” Lord, thou shalt have them. By faith we let them go.
O Lord of the deeps,
My frail vessel sails on a restless sea.
This day will bring me nearer home.
Guide me through life’s open and perilous ocean,
Until I reach the shore of unceasing praise.
~ From The Valley of Vision (modified)
Photo Credit: Isaac Talbert