The Death of Death
Please note this is an abridged version of a 30 minute talk!
Over the duration of this course I have one simple aim: to change the way you think about death, and your own death in particular… As we listen to the teaching of the Scriptures (and so strip away the fear of the unknown), my hope is that we can begin to confront the reality of our own mortality, prepare for our own dying, and perhaps even in an appropriate way to anticipate death… dare I say, look forward to it. And beyond all this, to know how to die well, and in a way that honours Christ, shaped by our hope in Him. We often reflect on how to live a godly life, but how often do we reflect on what it means to die a godly death?
By contrast, past generations saw living as a Christian as the prelude to dying as a Christian. All our struggle with temptation throughout the long years of our earthly pilgrimage was to prepare us for the last great battle for faith as we confronted death. Throughout the history of the Church, our death is understood as the most important moment of our life…
It is perhaps strange that given its commonality and inevitability, we so rarely think or talk about death, and still less about our own death. Indeed we tend to avoid the topic as often as possible, and when we do have to broach the subject, we do so with euphemisms and images that minimise its significance. We must beg to differ. Death is not insignificant. It in fact an enemy (I Cor.15:26). ‘Death is the separation of the spirit from the body … a violent sundering of the two elements which are … interwoven into a living being … [it is] bound to be a harsh and unnatural experience’ (Augustine, 5th century Bishop).
Only God has life in Himself. Our life was always dependent on His gracious providence, and generous provision. As such we were created with the capacity for death should we violate the Lord’s glorious vision for His creation (Gen.2:17). Our mortality is thus only realised after we have been alienated from Him. In our falleness, death unleashed, and with it the torrent of grief, suffering, sorrow and horror that we have come to accept as normal life (Gen.3:19, see also Rom.5:12; Eph.2:1). Death was never part of the creation that God declared to be good. Its birth is in human sin, the result of God’s curse on a sinful world.
The cross, where our sin is destroyed, is the death of death (II Tim.1:10). Those elements of death forged in the Lord’s condemnation of sin are done away with, borne by Christ, and our experience of death is radically revolutionised. Even our dying is redeemed, becoming part of the ‘all things’ that God works in for our good (Rom.8:28). Death is ours, swallowed up in victory (I Cor.3:22 & 15:55-57).
For Christians death is no longer about judgement, and the curse and condemnation. Without sin, death bears us into life. It remains our enemy, but defeated, it does the bidding of Christ who is Lord over both life and death.
While we still die, death’s meaning and significance is transformed through our union with Christ. It no longer holds any threat of the second death, and so is ‘only’ the separation of spirit from body for a short while (until resurrection). We might fear the experience of dying, but cannot fear death. Death itself has become a means of blessing, ushering us into the presence of Christ and the fulfilment of all we have lived for!
This rather cavalier attitude is rooted in Christ’s dismissing of death as nothing more than falling asleep (see John 11:11-12; Mark 5:39 & I Thess.4:13). Historically the Church has celebrated this, seeing every bedtime as an opportunity for a dress-rehearsal of our lying down into the sleep of death. As one prayer from a previous generation has it: ‘May my frequent lying down make me familiar with death, the bed I approach remind me of the grave, the eyes I now close a picture to me their final closing... Keep me always ready, awaiting for admittance to thy presence… I retire this night in full assurance of one day awaking with Thee … and permit me to commit myself to Thee, awake or asleep’. Of course, every morning also hints at the dawn of the glorious Day of resurrection!
We need to think carefully: death in itself remains a curse, but our experience of dying is transformed through the Cross, so that in Christ it becomes our servant. This isn’t straightforward. Our instinctive fear of death in its original form as a penalty holds a deep grip. As we read the Bible, we find we have good reason to (joyfully?) anticipate death, and yet we may struggle to emotionally reconcile ourselves to that anticipation. Fear of the process of dying, assault on our faith, prolonged sickness or suffering, loss of dignity, anxiety for those we leave behind all conspire to complicate our response to death, even as Christians. But many of these we will confront in the next few weeks.
What do you think is a healthy mindset with which to approach death?
What is the best thing you have heard said at a funeral? Why was it so significant?
Why do you think the devil is described as holding the power of death? What does it mean to hold the power of death?
How does Jesus’ death destroy the devil?
Do you think it is right to speak of people as having a ‘fear of death’?
Do you think people are afraid to die? Why / why not?
What do you think that means to be ‘held in slavery by their fear of death’? How does the death of Jesus free people from their fear of death? What should we feel about death, if not fear?
What would you say to someone who was afraid of dying?
How would what you say change depending on whether that person was a Christian or not?
How would you help someone prepare to die?
Do you think it is reasonable, or responsible to tell people they shouldn’t fear death?
(we’ll be coming back to this passage several times in the next few weeks)
What strikes you about Jesus’ attitude to death in vv.4-6
How do you feel about Jesus referring to death as ‘sleep’?
Why do you think Jesus responds to Mary and Martha so differently when they say the same thing to Him?
Write my will if you haven’t already done so. If you have, check it is up to date, and that those concerned know where to find it.
Useful website: https://www.gov.uk/make-will/overview.
Also, check out Will Aid.
Write-your-own-will kits are available at WH Smith from £9.99. Other suppliers are available!