Archives For death

In times of crisis, this heady Christian doctrine can become deeply personal—and reassuring.

By Eric Reed

Empty tomb

The empty tomb. Pastor Jon McDonald of First Baptist Church of Casey led a tour of Israel in January. His wife, Lindsay, is a gifted professional photographer. She shared from her album some scenes that serve to illustrate this article.

Prologue
May I tell you a secret? When I close my eyes, I still see my wife on her deathbed.

Please stay with me. This article gets much more upbeat soon, but I have to start at this point so you will know why resurrection is so important to me right now. And it’s not because I want to get a jump start on the Easter celebrations. My need to understand resurrection has become very personal.

It’s been five months since my wife died. We spent her last three weeks in Room 101 at the hospice here in town. When I close my eyes, I sometimes—make that often—see her laying on the hospital bed in silhouette against the window. Each day as the sun passed over the building toward her west-facing window, the outside light would become quite bright. And I, sitting on the opposite side of the bed in a vinyl chair, would stare at her, and beyond her into sunlight.

I can muster other scenes from those weeks: Her sister sitting on the sofa under the window texting relatives. Our dog coming for a visit. Friends praying and doing their best to cheer us. One couple bringing a guitar and my wife singing hymns from memory, even third verses, when she was unable to say much else.

And I can see the night when I played Gaither songs on YouTube, and during “We Shall Behold Him,” my wife lifted both arms upward and pointed. “What do you see?” I asked. “A glimpse of heaven? Your mother?” Eyes closed, she nodded. She was eager to see her mother and old friends from the church where she grew up.

Then she lowered her arms and clasped her hands together. “Do you want me to pray?”
She nodded.

I prayed kind of like Jesus prayed on the cross at the very end, commending her spirit to the Father.

From that time, she hardly moved. I sat there for most of two days waiting for her body to catch up with her soul, staring across her prone figure into the light.
That’s the image I see.

That’s why resurrection has become not just a doctrine, but an urgency to me. The Resurrection of Jesus? Certainly. What is our faith without it? But also my wife’s resurrection, and my own. Whole libraries have been written on the Resurrection of Jesus, but relatively little on the resurrection of believers, and even less about resurrection as a necessary present-time action.

For me this year, Easter is not just a happy dance outside an empty grave, but a time of seeking earnestly the assurance of things to come, the affirmation of reunion, and a down payment on glory. In the meantime, resurrection—not as a future event, but here and now—becomes enough to get us through the here and now.

If you’ve wondered whether you can make it through today, much less tomorrow, then join me as we think about resurrection.

Gethsemane

Gethsemane

One word changes everything
Weeping outside her brother’s tomb, Martha insisted that if Jesus had hurried on, Lazarus would still be alive. His first words to her were cold comfort. Her response to the promise that Lazarus would rise again seems to be more a protest than an affirmation. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” she said. But she was more concerned about the present day.

Jesus’ reply turns her to the truth standing before her: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live, and everyone who believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

If the religious leaders standing there in the cemetery heard Martha’s statement, some would have applauded, others would have shaken their heads. The Pharisees believed the righteous dead would be raised at the end, while the Sadducees argued there was no resurrection at all.

Martha’s reply hinges not on the teachings of the major schools of Jewish thought, but on the words that Jesus has just applied to himself. He is life (zoe in Greek), and he is the very thing that guarantees life.

A friend of mine phoned across the country to tell his parents their grandchild had been born, a beautiful baby they called Anastasia. The proud dad heard his own father, a seminary professor, laughing from a thousand miles away.

“Well, son,” the older man said, “that little girl will always stand up to you. And no one will ever back her down.” He chuckled some more. “You named her anastasis, the Greek word meaning to stand up again.”

When Jesus called on Lazarus to come out of the tomb, Martha and Mary and the crowd around them saw anastasis in action. Lazarus stood up again.

More important, that’s what Jesus did soon after at his own Resurrection—stand up again. It’s a simple phrasing for a complex event: anastasis describes plainly the pivotal point in history, for, as one observer said, without the Resurrection of Jesus, Christianity is quite literally dead.

The Father calls, Arise! and Jesus stands up. The One who lay down his life for our sake takes it up again and emerges from the place of death into life everlasting. As he does, Jesus proves to the world that he is the Christ.

Resurrection is proof that Jesus is alive. So much for claims that robbers stole his body: The grave was sealed and guarded. So much for the swoon theory: Jesus didn’t pass out, he died. The soldier’s gash in Jesus’ side proved it, as water separated from blood gushed out. And if more proof were needed, the grave clothes were still in the grave, and the head cloth was neatly wrapped and laid aside by one who sat up, stood up, and no longer needed it. So much for mouldering in the grave: He is not here, he is risen!

Jesus’ declaration that he is the resurrection was proven on Resurrection morning. But the question of what that means in our hour of need remains.

A down payment on our future
Baptists are not a creedal people, so not many of our churches recite the Apostles’ Creed on a regular basis. Yet, we find in those summaries of the Christian faith a statement that the early church fathers felt was crucial to their belief in Jesus: “I believe in…the resurrection of the body…” Likewise, the Nicene Creed lists “resurrection of the dead.”

From the fourth century onward, believers needed to state aloud, along with their systematic beliefs about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, their own hope for themselves. This was true in a largely illiterate culture, so leaders built the statements into the worship services. This was a necessary response to various movements in the early centuries of the church that denied or misconstrued the deity of Jesus, and belittled the future hopes of his followers.

“Jesus was raised from the dead, and we will be too!” If the worship service had been a pep rally, that would have been the cheer, starting in 325 A.D.

This simple statement affirming the resurrection is based on verses in the Gospels and Epistles, of which Paul’s masterwork is 1 Corinthians 15. What the apostle says briefly in Romans 6:5—“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his”—is unpacked in 58 verses to the Corinth church.

You can’t blame the Christians in Corinth for sounding a little selfish. “We believe in Jesus,” they might have said, “but what’s going to happen to us?”

Paul reminds them that his teaching about Jesus is of “first importance”—“that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day…” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Whatever they may understand about their own coming resurrection is based on Jesus’ resurrection. Paul calls him the “first fruits” of the believers, in the same way that the first grains of the harvest forecast much more to come. (Around here, we would be more likely to talk about the first ripe tomato of summer or the first ear of corn.) There is such joy when the first fruits come in, because it’s only the beginning of harvest season and celebration.

Paul continues the agricultural imagery.

“‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’….What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body….So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power” (vv. 35-38, 42-43).

“The analogy of the seed enables Paul to walk a fine line,” scholar Richard Hays wrote, “asserting both the radical transformation of the body in its resurrected state and yet its organic continuity with the mortal body that precedes it.”
That should be good news to us.

Sea of Galilee

Sea of Galilee

Will I know my mother?
In her final week, I asked my wife again if she was scared. Of death itself? “No,” she responded, “but dying is coming quicker than I expected, and dying isn’t so easy.” She knew that her faith in Jesus as Savior would see her through to heaven, “but,” she said, “will I know my mother?”

I was surprised by that question. I thought she knew that for certain, but now she needed reassurance. I rifled through my pastoral answers: Paul says, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV).

  • Mary recognized Jesus after his Resurrection when he spoke to her. The pair walking on the road to Emmaus recognized Jesus. He was somehow changed, but he was still Jesus.
  • Thomas saw Jesus a week after his first appearance to the disciples. Meeting them a second time in the upper room, the scars showed that his glorified body was still his body. In some way it was still his earthly body—changed, transformed, glorified, but still his.
  • From his boat, Peter saw Jesus at a distance barbequing a beachside breakfast. Realizing who it was, Peter jumped into the water to swim to him, and left the others to row the boat in.

In these scenes from Easter morning forward, we see that resurrection—his and ours—proves God cares about the person and our personhood. He’s not just keeping the ethereal, spirit-y part of us, but he promises the preservation of all that makes us us. The questions that come up about the deceased whose bodies are destroyed or lost or cremated are rendered irrelevant by these truths: We are all made of dust and to dust we will return, but God has promised to this dust that it will stand again. In the biblical examples we have, the person was known by those who saw him. Organic continuity.

My wife wanted to hear that. “Will I know my mother in heaven?” was a way of saying, Will Mom still be Mom? Will I still be me?

Frankly, it was a word I needed too. I needed assurance that at the resurrection of the dead, a body ravaged by cancer is somehow transformed into something immortal and incorruptible and glorious. God promises to raise us from the dead, preserves yet transforms us, and that action assures us we will be together again.

When and how, we don’t know for sure, but we’re sure it’s coming. And like my wife said, it seems to be coming more quickly than I expected.

“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).

As if there was any doubt. “I will arise and go to Jesus; he will embrace me in his arms,” the hymnwriter said. Or as Paul concluded his Thessalonian note: “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

The Resurrection of Jesus foretells the resurrection of his followers. For me in recent months, that has proven to be a powerful, bankable promise from God. (See Philippians 3:10-11.) But what about the meantime? What does resurrection mean to us right now?

Baptism

The River Jordan

Throw some wood on the fire
Let’s be careful that this article doesn’t take a sharp, unwarranted turn at this point. That said, here is a road we should go down, if only briefly.
With Christ’s resurrection on one end of the timeline, and the promise of our own on the other end, what’s in the middle? I find an answer in that word we most often translate as resurrection: anastasis.

Literally the word means “stand up!” While linked theologically to life after death in many New Testament uses, it’s also a simple command to those who are sitting, resting, or, perhaps, lollygagging.

  • When Jesus called Matthew to be his disciple, the tax collector “arose” and followed him (Matthew 9:9).
  • Jesus told Jairus’s little girl to get up from her deathbed and she “arose” (Mark 5:42).
  • Jesus said the prodigal son came to his senses and “arose” to go to his father (Luke 15:18, 20).
  • Jesus told the one healed leper who returned to give thanks to “arise” and go his way (Luke 17:19).
  • The Holy Spirit told Philip to “arise” and head south for his divine appointment to share the gospel with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26).
  • And on the road to Damascus, Jesus commanded Paul to “arise” and go into the city for further instructions (Acts 9:6).

For those mired in grief, daydreaming about what might be, or lamenting what never was, this imperative is a big help. Stand up. In other words, until that final morning when we all stand up, there’s a lot of daily getting up to do and serving to fulfill Jesus’ mission.

There’s a lot of work to be done.

I’m still thinking about a story Pastor Ralph Schultz of Fieldon Baptist Church told at the Sandy Creek Association’s fall meeting. When he was a teenager, his family home was heated by a wood stove. Just before bedtime, his father would stoke the fire to keep the house warm overnight. Ralph would be snug in his bed and sleep soundly for several hours, but as morning approached, he would discover he was awake and thinking, “Someone needs to throw some wood on the fire.”

In a few minutes, Ralph’s father would call out from his own bedroom, “Son, get up and throw a log on the fire!”

“The house was cold, we needed someone to throw some wood on the fire,” Ralph said, “and I realized that ‘someone’ was me.”

Anastasis.

Epilogue
Maundy Thursday will mark six months since my wife died. On that day before Good Friday, I will retire some of my small grief rituals. Soon afterward, the dog and I will move to a new house in hopes of creating some fresh memories. And on Resurrection Sunday, I will arise and run with the disciples to the empty tomb, then beyond, seeking the Risen Savior.

“He is not here, he is risen,” I will hear.

And one day, by God’s grace, we will be risen too.

Eric Reed is editor of Illinois Baptist media and IBSA’s associate executive director for Church Communications.

Open empty tomb. Watercolor painting

The day of Jesus’ resurrection has always been an orienting point for Christians. From the beginning, it was the day for their weekly gatherings. Later it became a pivotal day in the annual Christian calendar.

Prior to Easter each year, we reflect on Jesus’ perfect submission — from His victory over Satan’s temptations in the wilderness to His ultimate act of obedience on the cross. We examine our own devotion and deal intentionally with the temptations and distractions that keep us from full obedience.

Then, on Easter, the commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection pivots us from contemplating the humility of the suffering Lamb to celebrating the power of the risen Lamb; from identifying with the crucified Servant to exalting the victorious Savior.

This shift is rooted in the events that occurred on the very day of Jesus’ resurrection, beginning with the question posed to the women who went to His tomb: “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?”

Easter posture is not, however, merely standing and facing the resurrected Lord. It is standing and facing our future because of His resurrection.

It is true that the question had something to do with their location at the tomb. Luke reports, however, that the women had “inclined their faces to the ground” and that this posture prompted the messengers’ question. Why? Because early Christians knew they lived in a world governed by the words of Genesis 3:19: “You will eat food by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground, since you were taken from it; for you are dust, and you will return to dust.” The women’s posture that morning was entirely reasonable in light of these words. Each and every body laid in a tomb would return to the ground, the dust.

A change had occurred that morning, however, that the women’s posture did not reflect. Jesus’ resurrection had brought about a new posture. The women should not be inclined toward the ground looking for Jesus but standing and facing Him as their risen Lord.

Easter posture is not, however, merely standing and facing the resurrected Lord. It is standing and facing our future because of His resurrection.

Forty days prior to Easter, some Christians have ash placed on their foreheads and hear the words: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” They are reminded of the brevity of life and the urgency of present obedience.

The question is good for you to hear: Why do you seek for the living among the dead?

If you have been to a funeral this past year, you don’t need an ashen symbol to remind you of the brevity of life or that death still grips creation. As you inclined your face toward the body that was to be placed in the ground, you were confronted with the fact that this is not how God created that person. The eulogies testified to the fact that there is no one in the world who spoke, sang, laughed or loved like the one whose body lay in the casket.

It is at just this point where the women’s lesson is vital for us because the Easter posture is a posture of hope. Death results in the body returning to the ground — for now. Sorrow and grief are real — for now. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, however, we can stand and face our future with hope. The apostle Paul says it this way: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at His coming, those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).

Are you struggling to face your future? Maybe you have experienced a great tragedy in your life: the death of a friend or family member, a diagnosis of a terminal disease. Maybe the loss of someone or something that has provided security has shaken your confidence in the future: the betrayal of a close friend or spouse, the loss of a job. Maybe anxiety is just your persistent struggle; you struggle to face the future even in the absence of crises.

The question is good for you to hear: Why do you seek for the living among the dead?

Allow the fact of Jesus’ resurrection to give you the confidence to face your future. With His resurrection in mind, stand up and face your future with hope.

Christopher Graham is assistant professor of theology at Criswell College and its program director for the master of divinity degree and master of arts in theological and biblical studies. This article is adapted from the Southern Baptist TEXAN (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

O, Death

ib2newseditor —  April 10, 2017

Rolled away stone.

Several years ago, my father died on the first of April, just a few days before Easter. And so each year now, April and Easter roll in and bring me an emotional mixture of grief yet hope, sadness yet joy. At this time of year, I acutely feel both the promise of life, and the inevitability of death.

When I returned home from my dad’s funeral, the church I was serving as interim pastor sensitively asked if I would be ready to preach as soon as Easter Sunday. I assured them I wanted to. I believed, deeply, in resurrection and eternal life, and I was eager to declare that boldly from the pulpit, both for the congregation and for myself. I wanted to publicly join the Apostle Paul in defiantly asking death where its victory and sting are, now that Jesus has conquered it.

But I was also still feeling immersed in the reality and pain of my dad’s death, and my sermon outline showed it. My first three points were simple, and somber. Death is definite. Death is designed. Death is difficult. I preached those first three points through the misty eyes of fresh grief.

If I could get through this sermon, maybe, just maybe I’d find hope.

Of course, I was working my way to a fourth point, and a hope-filled conclusion. Yes, death is definite, and designed, and difficult. But death is also defeated! I knew that to be the ultimate truth, the ultimate promise, the ultimate miracle. Yet during those painful days, it was as if I needed to admit those first three points as much as I needed the assurance of the fourth.

I needed to acknowledge, in fact to proclaim, the inescapability of death. Everyone needs to understand that everyone dies. I also needed to place the providential plan of death squarely at God’s feet. Because of our sin, it is God’s good and merciful design that everyone dies. And I needed, from my own deeply personal experience that year, to acknowledge how terribly painful death is, especially for those who lose someone they dearly love. If we do not have a sound theology of death, we will not have a sound theology of eternal life.

I learned that year that death is like a terrible, dark canvass, but a necessary one on which the story of resurrection and life can be brightly and beautifully painted. Without the reality and severity of death, the promise of resurrection and new life means very little. It is the depth, and finality, and “no exceptions” nature of our mortality that makes resurrected life so supremely valuable.

In other words, I had never valued Jesus’ resurrection more profoundly than when my dad died. The true victory and joy of Sunday is for those who have experienced the loss and despair of Friday.

So if you are entering April or Easter this year with a fresh experience of death, don’t be afraid to feel that pain deeply, with a holy grief. Only through death could Jesus remove the penalty of our sin. Only through death to our old selves can we be raised to a new and abundant life. And only through the death of our earthly bodies can we receive our new heavenly bodies.

As I learned eleven years ago in a profound new way, Easter is of necessity a matter of both life, and death. But because of Jesus’ resurrection, we can stare death right in the face and ask where its victory and sting are. Death is simply a role player in the Easter story, a story that ends with the greatest victory in all of history—victory in Jesus.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.

The death of death

Meredith Flynn —  April 18, 2014

Charles_Lyons_blog_calloutCOMMENTARY | Charles Lyons

I wish you could meet Richard.* When our church moved into the hulking former Masonic Temple, squatting on a Kedzie Boulevard corner, the guy I would come to know as Richard hung out with a crowd of 20 guys in front of our building each evening.

This was their hood. This was their corner. Now, many years later, Richard has confessed with his mouth and believed in his heart the Lord Jesus.

He’s in my Grow Group that meets every Thursday night. The week after Easter we were bemoaning that Richard had to work the previous Sunday. He’s a security guard at a hospital, which has served this dangerous Humboldt Park neighborhood since the early 1900s.

He was recounting the hectic happenings at his ER security post on Resurrection morning.

“Yeah, we had two rape victims come in, then we had two other girls who were hit and run…” His hands were waving. “Then we had a shooting victim brought in.”

Right about here I interjected, “This is all Easter morning?”

“That’s right,” he affirmed, voice rising.

“Then the Monsters* (local gang whose turf surrounds the hospital) started gathering outside the ER door trying to get in to finish off the guy they shot but failed to kill. We had to put a call into CPD (Chicago Police Department) for some help. On top of that, two overdoses came in.”

While all that was going on, about a mile and a half north, Armitage Baptist was lifting praises to the resurrected Christ. We were declaring the good news that Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection is victory over sin and death. He’s in the life-transforming business. That very morning, almost a score of sinners
confessed Jesus as Lord in our services.

Cities are centers of death. The wages of sin is death. Cities … more sinners … more sin … more wages of sin … more death. I can’t help but think of the crime, the plagues, the fires, the wars that have wreaked havoc on cities throughout history.

Even natural disasters are more dramatic and more death-dealing when they hit cities. Think of the tornado in Joplin, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Biloxi, and Hurricane Sandy in Long Island.

Think of Jerusalem – ravaged, destroyed, blood soaks every square foot of its rocky soil. Several hundred years before Christ, the Babylonians decimated the city. Several decades after Jesus, the Romans brought great horror to the sacred city.

Jerusalem – The city. The city that is the center of the earth. The city central to God’s grand plan. On one dark Friday it is again the center of death. This death is the death of all deaths. Three days later death is conquered in a city, the city.

Could it be with all the devastation Satan has hurled at humanity in cities and through cities, that God chooses the city purposefully as the place where death will be conquered?

“O death, where is your sting, O grave where is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:55) The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law, but thanks
be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Rosa,* new to our Grow Group, sat in stunned silence as Richard talked. Which, if you knew Rosa, was an awfully rare occasion. There had been a knock as our group assembled. The door was flung open. Richard entered the tiny living room seemingly filling it. Rosa told me later, “I recognized him right away! I don’t know if he recognized me, so I just introduced myself.

“Pastor, Pastor, he’s the guy who told my son that he was going to kill him!”

“When was this?” I asked.

“Over 15 years ago. Right out in front of church!”

It seems Rosa’s then-teenage son had some kind of run-in with Richard. Rosa had literally feared for her son’s life, taking precautions to avoid the big guy that ran the hood.

Not having seen him for years, she had the spiritually jolting, emotionally shocking experience of sitting that night studying the Word of God with the very man, now her brother in Christ, who had threatened the life of her son. And doesn’t God often take it up one more notch? Rosa’s son now works at the hospital because Richard helped him get the job!

Jesus is the death of death in the city.

Charles Lyons has pastored Armitage Baptist Church in Chicago since 1974. This column first appeared in the Baptist Bible Tribune.