“Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.“
Picture the following scenario.
A person gets in their car, equipped with surround sound-like airbag protection, secures the seatbelt across their torso, and proceeds to their destination. On the way, they pass by a cemetery populated with countless, neatly arranged dead, reposing beneath expansive, well-maintained lawns. They pass by a hospital tending to many who are dying, as well as by a hospice facility where end-of-life matters are sadly and profoundly imminent.
They are driving to their favorite superstore where they can save a buck on their preferred brand of anti-aging creme, and maybe find that latest “Seen On TV” gizmo that promises to thin those lumpy thighs, or the device by which flabby abs may be healthily refashioned into an enviable washboard . While perusing the aisles of “No pain, no gain” devices covertly promising life extension or the shelves of FDA-approved goo’s and gels that pledge restoration of a youthful epidermal glow or, at least, to conceal the skin-evident productions of age, they decide to do a good deed, perhaps one of nobly intended parental reconciliation.
They decide to buy for their often aloof and occasionally rebellious teenager that latest adolescently-lauded war simulation game. Or, perhaps they’ll choose the one where digitized muscle cars may be virtually driven with abandon against nefarious opponents whom they can sideswipe into a cliff-careening, fiery death, earning points on the glowing “deaths achieved” score counter in the corner of the screen. Sure, the game may be a tad violent, they think, but at least it keeps the kids “off the street,” so to speak.
In the checkout line, they smirk at the nonsensical tabloids strategically placed to lure a final impulse purchase, but are intrigued by the headline of one emblazoned, all these years later, with yet another bizarre tale of Princess Diana’s death, or maybe the one of that recent episode of mass arena death when the soccer stadium collapsed.
The entire excursion for this person has been enveloped with the presence of death … and they really don’t even think about it.
A Culture of Death
Death is a constant reality in the culture. It’s everywhere. Death has produced countless industries driven by fascination with it or necessity of it. There are ghoulish death tours in the oldest cemeteries of our cities. There are technology-propped pursuits of the dead broadcast regularly on television. There are self-proclaimed channelers of the dead strewn across the channels of cable entertainment. Bold headlines broadcast the death of the notable, whether popular or decried. The latest blockbuster movie, and surely the next one, features death of the villain and their minions while exalting the escape of the self-identifiable hero.
The point of the fictional tale is not that the pursuit of healthy bodies and a pleasant personal presentation is problematic. For the Christian, we are stewards of all that God has given us, including our bodies. Our concern regards the risk of idolizing our certain-to-die bodies. Our caution, with regard to our body, as well as to other “things of the world” (1 Jn. 2:15), is captured by Puritan John Owen: “Where the love of earthly things wholly rules and dominates the mind; where the mind has an unrestrained love for worldly things, then that mind is unregenerate and unspiritual.”
The point of the fictional tale, rather, is to consider the evident presence of death in the culture. While familiarity may popularly breed contempt, with death it also has bred fascination. Yet the death that is culturally ubiquitous and popularly glorified is “other.” Fascination is with the death of others, not of ourselves. When death, by inevitability, becomes personal, it becomes sanitized, somber, and hushed.
For instance, we call them funeral parlors, perhaps to evoke the subdued etiquette of a short, albeit final, visit with friends. Maybe we call them homes, conveying that this is last roof over one’s head, the ending abode, well-furnished and homey. Cemeteries are given names of solace, rest, and peacefulness. But whatever label is applied to the accouterments of death, the funeral industry has become a death-sanitizing secular ministry designed to help keep the imminence of personal death at bay in our minds, even if present in our sight.
The process of dying itself has been largely relegated to the sterile and sedate confines of rooms off quiet hospital corridors and to hospices devoted to end of life care, where dying and death is out of sight except by those most directly affected. Death, when it becomes personal, is gently and respectfully sanitized for our viewing, if not subtly removed from our view altogether.
Spiritual Thinking About Death
The impetus for this sanitizing and concealment is, most fundamentally, because we don’t naturally want to think about our own death. Note that modifier, “naturally.” Witness to an unbeliever of almost any age and the blind arrogance of disregard for death is readily evident. Sure, they know they will die, but now’s just not the time to think about it. But it is not so for the Christian. The Christian does not think “naturally,” but spiritually (1 Cor. 2:14).
Martyn Lloyd-Jones spent thirteen years of Friday nights teaching the book of Romans to his congregation at Westminster Chapel in London. He preached over 360 messages during that time and, nestled within one of them, is a query unlikely to ever be heard from the pulpit-less dais of the contemporary megachurch. You will be hard-pressed to find it the theme of the latest best-selling, celebrity-produced Christian book. Here’s what Lloyd-Jones posited:
“Have you visualized yourself lying on your deathbed? What are your feelings when you do so? Are you still afraid of death? Are you still afraid of the judgment of God? If you are, you cannot say, ‘I have been justified by faith and am at peace with God.’ If your faith cannot stand up to these tests it is not truly Christian faith.”
It is a biblical verity, evidenced by the very work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the genuinely redeemed, that the natural fear of death we had prior to our conversion has been removed. Christians do not fear death. The Reformer John Calvin even wrote, “Let us, however, remember this truth: No one has made much progress in the school of Christ who doesn’t look forward joyfully both to his death and the day of his final resurrection.” As we mature spiritually, we increasingly slough off natural fear and begin to “look forward joyfully” to death, for “to be absent from the body” is to be “present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). And with Him is where we most yearn to be.
When we look, then, at the unbeliever in the culture of concealed but ever-present death, we understand at least a few biblical realities. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes confirms for us that eternity is written on man’s heart (Eccl. 3:11). Everyone inherently knows the soul survives the body’s death. We also know, from the Apostle Paul, that the unregenerate suppress the truth (Rom. 1:18). The unbelieving mind represses the vivid certainty of their own death because, though they know there is a God (Rom. 1:21), they do not want to consider their death-borne, certain introduction to Him. It is an introduction that, apart from Christ, will not go well.
But for the believer, the fear of death has been overwhelmed by the truth of God which we understand. We know death is the divine consequence of sin (Gen. 2:17), and that sin is the product of our own self-satisfying, God-defying lusts (James 1:15). Though the “sting of death is sin” (1 Cor. 15:56), we can join Paul in his exultant words, “but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57). Christ has saved us from the penalty of sin, is sanctifying us increasingly against the power of sin, and, through death, will glorify us in heaven, removed from the presence of sin.
Still, Lloyd-Jones’ pointed query might be met by many professing believers with raised eyebrows. Many simply find the deliberate consideration of their own death dreadful and unpleasant, a contemplation best avoided along with the unbelieving world. Yet, as the eminent expositor bluntly states, if your faith cannot stand the self-examining test regarding the fear of death and divine judgment, then it is not Christian faith which you have.
The Christian, rather, echoes the Puritan prayer from Valley of Vision: “Quicken my hunger and thirst after the realm above … and lead me to it soon.” The regenerate believer does not sinfully crave death, for we have been left here by our grace-giving Lord as His privileged ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20), nor do we presume to hasten it for ourselves, sinfully and selfishly usurping the sovereignty of God who has numbered our days (Ps. 139:16). But for us the thought of death isn’t to be avoided as a thing of fear and anguish, but rather is a welcomed, pleasant, and joyful thought “on things above” (Col. 3:2). We are “longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven” (2 Cor. 5:2) “so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:4).
Spurgeon: Truth For Facing Death
Though largely missing from modern day pulpits, the candid question posed by Lloyd-Jones is not absent among the historic preaching of our faith. Turn back a century from his Westminster Chapel series to another London church, the Metropolitan Tabernacle under the pastorate of Charles Spurgeon. The Prince of Preachers taught much about death to his flock.
Consider this excerpt from a message he preached October 4, 1885. Entitled, “Glimpses Of A Heavenly Life, A Sermon Suggested By The Decease Of The Earl Of Shaftesbury,” Spurgeon’s message included the following words:
“Those saints who have been in glory now these thousands of years cannot be more blessed than the latest arrivals. Within a very short space you and I shall be among the shining ones. Some of us may spend our next Sabbath with the angels. Let us rejoice and be glad at the bare thought of it. Some of us are not doomed to live here through another winter; we shall pass beyond these autumn fogs into the golden light of eternal summer before another Christmas day has come. Oh, the joy which ought to thrill our souls at the thought of such amazing bliss!”
In the current climate of self-focused, here-and-now evangelicalism, it might be considered theological hate speech to assault a congregation with the joyous notion that they might not live till the next Sabbath. It could be deemed personally offensive by many pew sitters to suggest that they may not be “doomed to live here through another winter.” Such a contemporary condition speaks much about the superficiality to which “the faith once delivered” (Jude 3) has been dangerously distilled and diminished.
Such a diminished faith may be capable of offering pleasant platitudes and Christian clichés to hopefully comfort the grieving for whom death has been made personal, but it is incapable of consoling with the wisdom which Spurgeon clearly knew. “Never fear dying, beloved,” Spurgeon taught. “Dying is the last, but the least matter that a Christian has to be anxious about.”
We Are Not Uninformed
Spurgeon clearly understood the apostle Paul’s teaching to the Thessalonians: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (1 Thes. 4:13-14). As Paul exhorted, following his explanation of the believer’s coming resurrection (1 Thes. 4:15-18), “Therefore comfort one another with these words,” so Spurgeon did.
Armed with divine truth, Spurgeon persuaded his flock. “Depend upon it, your dying hour will be the best hour you have ever known! Your last moment will be your richest moment, better than the day of your birth will be the day of your death. It shall be the beginning of heaven, the rising of a sun that shall never go no more down forever!” He assured them that “The best moment of a Christian’s life is his last one because it is the one that is nearest heaven” and “He who learns to die daily while he lives will find it no difficulty to breathe out his soul for the last time.”
Though Spurgeon would “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15), he was yet able to comfort the grieving with the solid certainty that, for the believer, death was assuredly “swallowed up in victory” (I Cor. 15:54). For the redeemed, the curse had become a blessing of God’s love. “We see His smile of love even when others see nothing but the black hand of Death smiting our best beloved.”
We Worship With No Fear Of The Final Enemy
As we come to worship this Lord’s Day, let us glean the praiseworthy comfort of the Lord through the wisdom Spurgeon understood. Though preached years before his own death, the sermon re-titled “His Own Funeral Sermon” was selected by Charles and Susannah to be read at his own funeral. His closing commentary speaks well to the comforting death of the believer.
“Some die with a considerable measure of pain; but, as a rule, when believers pass away, they just shut their eyes and open them in heaven. … I have had infinitely more pleasure at death-beds than I have had at weddings … I am not aware that I have gained anything at a wedding, but I have gained much at the death-bed, as I have seen the joy and peace and rapture of girls and youth, and men and women, passing away, joyfully to be ‘forever with the Lord.’ I have known some of our number here who were too bashful and backward to ever say much for Christ when they were well; but when I went to see them die, there was not a bit of bashfulness about them. They spoke out so boldly that I have said to them, ‘Why, if you get better, you must preach for me one of these Sundays;’ and they have smiled and said they would never get better. They have known this, and they have rejoiced to think that they were going where they would not need any preacher, but would see their Lord Jesus face-to-face. How they have brightened up at the mention of His dear name! … You who believe in Christ ought no more to dread death than you dread going to sleep at night. You will, before you sleep, commit yourself to God, and as you put your head on the pillow, the similitude of death will be upon you … you will not be afraid of that.”
With Spurgeon, let us thankfully worship that, because of the grace of our Savior whose death conquered death, “It is the very joy of this earthly life to think that it will come to an end.” We alone may praise God who has conquered the final foe (1 Cor. 15:26), making us faithfully fearless in the face of man’s greatest enemy. Let us pray for boldness to share with a death-consumed world how, for the believer, “to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
Above all, let us worship with the joyful knowledge that our Lord has made it possible, when our final numbered day arrives, for us to gloriously and securely offer the same last prayer He uttered before His atoning death on the cross:
“Father, into Your hands I commit My Spirit” (Luke 23:46).