Friday, March 26, 2010

Death Is Not the End (Part Three)

In Part Two, we considered how Jesus Christ viewed death, both His own and that of His close friend, Lazarus, concluding that, though the terrors of His crucifixion and His separation from the Father affected Him, He looked beyond death, knowing the power of God and the hope of the resurrection. Even so, despite His humanity, He was the Son of God, One in whom the Holy Spirit flowed without measure (John 3:34). For our edification, it behooves us to lower our sights somewhat and reflect on the viewpoint of a "normal" righteous man, the apostle Paul, a human being just like us, not God in the flesh as was Jesus. Having faced the perils of life with disturbing regularity (II Corinthians 11:23-28), Paul was intimately acquainted with the certainty of death, but being better spiritually educated and experienced than most of us are, he can provide us a positive example:
. . . according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you. And being confident of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy of faith, that your rejoicing for me may be more abundant in Jesus Christ by my coming to you again. (Philippians 1:20-26)
He realizes that it would better fit God's purpose if he stayed alive for a while longer because the Philippian brethren needed him and the teaching he would bring them, but if he had the choice, he says, he would far rather die to await the resurrection and thus be with Christ. He is torn between the two alternatives. Obviously, this is not a man who feels a morbid dread of death; like his Savior, he does not consider it an end but an interlude between physical life and eternal life with God.

In verse 21, Paul uses an interesting idiom, "to die is gain," which resembles a similar "death" idiom in English, "cashing in the chips." The apostle pictures life as a kind of game that he played for all he was worth, but when he must retire from it, he would gladly cash in his chips and take home his winnings, his "gain," as it were. By using this game analogy, he does not take death overly seriously. It is without doubt sobering and grievous because a life has ended and a person's companionship will be missed, but the apostle always keeps his priorities straight: Eternal life is always to be preferred to physical life. He knows he has far greater, more eternal winnings—"treasure in heaven," as Jesus phrases it in Matthew 6:19-21—than all the so-called pleasures and possessions he could enjoy on earth. He is very willing to endure death to claim the reward that God had promised to him in the resurrection. However, despite desiring to cash in his chips, he concludes that it would be better for the game if he kept his hand in it a mite longer.

Thus, like his Savior and ours, he is not morose and hopeless about death. On the contrary, he has "a desire to depart and be with Christ," because his next conscious act would be to rise from the grave to meet Christ in the air (I Thessalonians 4:16-17) and live and reign with him forever (Revelation 20:6). What a wonderful attitude to have! He would give his all in service to God while alive on the earth, but he would gladly give his life to be with Christ in His Kingdom.

Now that we have seen Paul's approach to his own mortality, we should also consider his attitude toward the deaths of others. Acts 20 contains the story of young Eutychus falling from the window during one of the apostle's long sermons:
Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where they were gathered together. (Acts 20:7-8)
Luke mentions the lamps probably because they contributed to the subsequent event. The large number of lamps had likely been lighted so that the all the brethren could see Paul and perhaps take notes on his teaching. However, lamps not only emit a great deal of light, but they also put off a lot of heat, so Luke almost certainly intends the reader to understand that the audience was becoming a little drowsy due to both the warmth and the late hour.
And in a window sat a certain young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep. He was overcome by sleep; and as Paul continued speaking, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down, fell on him, and embracing him said, "Do not trouble yourselves, for his life is in him." (Acts 20:9-10)
Luke's verbiage is matter-of-fact and unemotional. The apostle remains calm and collected throughout the incident. He does not race down the stairs, fly into hysterics, or wail about how tragically this young man's life ended. Even the English expression of his "falling on" Eutychus is a bit overdone since the Greek word, epipipto, has the sense here of pressing or lying upon. In other words, the apostle stretches himself out on Eutychus as Elisha did with the Shunammite's son (II Kings 4:34-35), then he coolly tells everyone not to worry, for the young man would live. Before long, the brethren are eating a meal together (Acts 20:11)!

Paul does not react to Eutychus' death with the proverbial weeping and gnashing of teeth. By his placid demeanor, he reassures the brethren and proceeds to exhibit God's power and mercy. Remaining so composed in such a situation may seem almost inhuman to be able to do. We humans are usually so full of emotion for our loved ones that we become absolutely distraught when a death occurs, but these examples from Scripture show that, while grief is normal, a hopeful, positive expectation of life to come is a more spiritually mature attitude toward death.

The faith of Jesus and Paul allowed them to consider death almost from a detached point of view. Certainly, they felt the same emotions as we do, but they suppressed them to a large degree, not because they were callous, but because their hope in what God offers beyond death far exceeded them. To them, death was not the end but a necessary step toward a better life. Jesus Christ, "who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2). And for his part, Paul writes in Romans 8:18, "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us."

How could they do this? They knew what death really is, and along with their deep faith in God's plan, power, and promises, they could face it with unwavering hope.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Death Is Not the End (Part Two)

As we begin our study, we need to consider the perspectives of death of two righteous individuals. These viewpoints are included in the Word of God for our admonition, so that we can begin to understand, appreciate, and imitate them in our own lives. Of course, we must examine Jesus Christ's approach to death, and in Part Three we will review the apostle Paul's outlook. These should help us to see the ideal, giving us an idea of what changes need to be made to our own views.

Matthew 16:21 encapsulates how Jesus approached His own death. Here He apprises His disciples of the coming events of the next year or so. "From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day."

Looking at this as objectively as possible, it seems a good deal like a checklist! Matthew's manner of recording Jesus' declaration is rather unemotional and straightforward, yet he is penning the fateful itinerary of the Lamb of God, the Savior of the world! As we saw in Part One, Jesus Himself suffered intense emotional pain the evening before He was arrested, anticipating the torture and the crucifixion that awaited Him, as well as the terrifying absence of the Father from His life. However, at this point in His ministry, His attitude is more dispassionate.

The next verses highlight a striking contrast between Jesus' approach and Peters': "Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!'" (Matthew 16:22). Upon hearing what Jesus revealed about His impending death, Peter became angry, and his language took on a rough, aggressive tone against His Master and Teacher. Like most men, he encountered death with fear and hostility, gearing up to fight it with all his being.

However, notice Christ's response to Peter's rebuke: "But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men'" (Matthew 16:23). He considered His own death was a work of God, and to regard it with the fear and hostility that Peter did was offensive to Him! It was a major event in God's plan; He had to be treated monstrously and die agonizingly to pay for the sins of humanity. Beyond that, He had to be raised from death to immortality to ensure eternal life for all whom God would call.

It was all part of the plan; it was God's will. Thus, there was no need to approach it with great fear, the source of which He pinpointed in Satan the Devil. That evil spirit was heightening Peter's natural fear of death in an attempt to dissuade Jesus from fulfilling His Father's will. As Jesus says, at the moment Peter had jettisoned all thought about what God was doing in order to obsess on a human misunderstanding of death. Jesus, though, approached the matter with great calm and purpose. He would live out His life and die such a death to fulfill the will of God.

A person might say, "Well, that was Jesus! He knew His death was necessary to God's plan from early on! That doesn't apply to the average person." Perhaps, but only in terms of degree. For a converted member of God's Family must follow the same path as "the captain of their salvation" (Hebrews 2:10; "captain" from Greek archegos suggests a leader who forges ahead so that others can follow). Peter writes, "For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps" (I Peter 2:21). Just as Jesus lived a life of sacrifice, suffered death, and was raised to eternal life through resurrection, so must we go through the same process to reach the same goal (see I Corinthians 15:20-23; Philippians 3:8-11). In this way, our deaths and resurrections to eternal life are also part of the plan of God.

John 11 contains another example of how Christ approached death, this time the death of a beloved disciple, Lazarus:
Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. It was that Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. Therefore the sisters sent to Him, saying, "Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick." When Jesus heard that, He said, "This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it." Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. (John 11:1-5)
Obviously, quite a close bond existed between Lazarus and Jesus. Luke 10:38-42 shows that Jesus had spent time with the family, eating, talking, and perhaps even staying with them occasionally during His travels around Judea. Twice in these five verses, John mentions that Jesus loved Lazarus, and this fact is connected with His approach to this man's death. For, when He heard that Lazarus was sick, even knowing it was a fatal illness, He remained where He was for two more days (John 11:6)! John describes Jesus' attitude toward death as calm and confident, an assessment again depicted in verses 11-13.

What He says to His disciples in John 11:14-15 takes it still further: "Then Jesus said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. Nevertheless let us go to him.'" He was glad that Lazarus had succumbed to this illness! It was not a macabre pleasure but a positive outlook, a kind of righteous joy, since He knew that the resurrection He would perform would bring about a great deal of good: Lazarus would live, the disciples' faith would be bolstered, a great witness would be made, and the path to Calvary would be set firmly in motion.

Jesus surely took a different approach to death than we do!

Later, John records that "Jesus wept" (verse 35), and many people blithely assume that He was grieving for Lazarus, but they are mistaken. He had no need to weep for Lazarus because He knew the miracle He would soon perform. Verse 33 says, "He groaned in the spirit and was troubled" when He saw Mary and the Jews with her weeping. A word study of "groaned in the spirit" shows that He was upset, even angry or indignant, rather than grief-stricken, and His emotion came out in tears. The context shows that He wept for their unbelief and their lack of hope. Even Mary, who had hung on His every word, did not understand His power or the true hope of the resurrection. Jesus is Master over death (Hebrews 2:14), and still they disbelieved!

In summary, Jesus views death through the lens of hope and the good that lies beyond it. Next time, we will find that the apostle Paul's approach echoes His Savior's.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Death Is Not the End (Part One)

Looking at life from God's point of view, He stacks the deck in man's favor. He says with such positivity that He desires to redeem all people, if they will have it. This appears in I Timothy 2:4: ". . . who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." He also says in II Peter 3:9 that He "is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance." He is confident that He can bring every human being to salvation as long as each person yields to Him.

On the other hand, there is the equally wonderful expectation of God destroying all evil, including all unrepentant people, from earth for all eternity. The Bible terms this destruction the "second death" (Revelation 21:8), the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:14), "everlasting fire" (Matthew 18:8), "hell fire" (Matthew 5:22), or the "resurrection to condemnation" (John 5:29), which we have called the "third resurrection." At some point in the future, after the Millennium and the White Throne Judgment period (see Revelation 20:4-13), everything that is sinful and evil will be wiped away, and the Father Himself will then descend from heaven and live among redeemed humanity (Revelation 21:3-4).

We cannot imagine life without sin. Except for a very brief time after God created Adam and Eve, some sort of wrong or evil has always existed in the hearts of human beings. We have lived with it for so long that, sadly, we do not understand how to live without it. Even seeing the reality of the moral perfection of Jesus Christ is extremely difficult for us, and trying to live our own lives sinlessly is a task beyond our power.

Knowing how sin begets evil and death (see James 1:15), those of us whom God has called yearn for life without sin, but we know that such a time, when God's goodness infuses the whole world and everything in it, remains years in the future. The Bible prophesies that, between now and that wonderful day of gladness, dark days of tribulation and destruction—a time of woe that the world has never before seen (Mark 13:19)—will come to pass.

For mankind to reach this promised Utopia, a great deal of dying must occur. Billions of people have already died in various ways throughout history, and billions more will perish in the meantime. Death is inevitable for human beings, as the author of Hebrews writes: "And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment. . . ." (Hebrews 9:27).

It has been roughly calculated that upwards of fifty billion people will rise from their graves in the judgment. In this general resurrection will rise Israelites and Gentiles, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, from all eras of history and from every race, tribe, nation, and language that has ever existed on the face of the earth. Among their few common traits is that they will all have died.

Death is not generally considered to be an uplifting topic. However, there is no reason to approach it from a morbid point of view, or from one that invokes fear or grief. God is always positive, and His point of view concerning death is based in reality and hope. If we have the proper perspective, we can actually have a healthy, positive view of death.

Certainly, God calls death our enemy (I Corinthians 15:26) because it is a result of sin. Death entered the world once Adam, as mankind's representative in the Garden of Eden, ate of the forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Romans 5:12). However, before creating humanity, God had realized man would sin, bringing upon him the penalty of death, for the redeeming sacrifice of the One who became Jesus Christ "indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world" (I Peter 1:20). God, then, allowed sin and thus death to occur, and He has incorporated death into His plan.

In doing so, God has made something positive out of it. Sometimes, what we consider to be a curse ends up being a blessing. This occurs because we often look at matters from the wrong end, not considering that even the worst of circumstances may work out quite positively when all is said and done. In the end, even death can be seen as a good thing in some respects.

Notice Hebrews 2:10, 14-15, which ultimately casts death in a positive light:
For it was fitting for Him [God the Father], for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the author of their salvation [Christ] perfect through suffering. . . . In as much then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
All men have been subject to the fear of death, and it is something that we have to strive to overcome. When we are called out of the world, we do not immediately shed all of our wrong, human perspectives. It may take years to overcome our fear of death, and most of us never do. However, Christ has freed us from the fear of death, and now we live in the fear of something else, the fear of God (II Corinthians 7:1).

Even so, we still fear death a great deal. We often take a loved one's or a friend's death very hard, and personally, we fight death with a vengeance. These are natural, human things to do, and we are not bad people if we do them. Nevertheless, there are situations and reactions that we need to learn to approach from God's perspective. Normal reactions like deep grief or denial are hard to let go because we have all our lifetime been enslaved to the fear of death.

Even Jesus, facing the horrific death of crucifixion and the crushing penalty of humanity's sins, reacted with strong, visceral emotion:
And he was withdrawn from [His disciples] about a stone's throw, and He knelt down and prayed, saying "Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done." Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. (Luke 22:41-44)
Jesus was God in the flesh (John 1:14), and at this moment, His flesh cried out in anticipation of the suffering and pain He would soon encounter. Not only that, He had never experienced a moment of being forsaken by His Father (Matthew 27:46), when He would be absolutely alone to undergo the cessation of His life in payment for all iniquity. How frightening a prospect that must have been! Yet, even in His desire to avoid these physical and emotional pains, Jesus illustrates perfect submission to His Father's will, realizing its necessity for the success of His plan. Knowing God would raise Him to eternal life after three days, He did not fear death—what He feared most was life without God!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Marriage—A God-Plane Relationship (Part Seven)

The biblical concept of husband and wife being "one flesh" is far more involved than many people think. This teaching has its origins in Genesis 2:24: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." Too many Christians pass this off as being merely an illustration of the marriage bond—that when a man and woman marry, the two become one. However, when Jesus quotes this verse in Matthew 19:6 and Mark 10:8, He states it in the negative: ". . . they are no longer two but one flesh," strengthening the principle beyond mere illustration.

This phrase "one flesh" is used only seven times in the Bible: four times in the three verses just cited, as well as
Matthew 19:5; Ephesians 5:31; and I Corinthians 6:16. This final scripture elevates the "one flesh" principle, revealing a spiritual correspondence:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For "the two," He says, "shall become one flesh." But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. (I Corinthians 6:15-17)

How sacrilegious it would be to try to force Christ into a union with a harlot! Yet, that is what members of the church do when they give themselves over to un-Christian behavior, since they have been joined to Christ by covenant. He is the Bridegroom, and the church is the Bride. Such iniquity, Paul suggests, is the spiritual counterpart to a married man having sexual relations with a woman who is not his wife.

As shown previously, coitus—whether inside or outside of marriage—binds a man and woman as one flesh. Joined in
verse 16 is derived from the Greek word kolláō, which means exactly the same thing as the Hebrew word dabaq in Genesis 2:24: "to glue together," "to cleave," "to adhere." Paul is plainly stating that, as the conjugal relations of a couple bind them together like glue, so also does the illicit act of a man and a harlot unite them as one flesh.

In the Old Testament, writers often used forms of the verb "to know" as a euphemism for the sexual act (see
Genesis 4:1; I Samuel 1:19; etc.). This "knowing" suggests that the actual intercourse is but the physical sign of the greater personal and emotional intimacy that is shared—even with a prostitute. "Uncovering the nakedness" of another, as is written throughout Leviticus 18, is such an intimate act that it creates a bond between the two participants.

Too many people of this generation think of sex as cheap. Since the publication of the Kinsey Report in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, the doors of promiscuity have been flung wide open, spawning the sexual revolution. Nowadays, it raises few eyebrows that some have multiple sexual partners, even before graduating from high school! While Americans of all beliefs shake their heads in consternation over Tiger Woods' string of illicit liaisons, the truth is that this kind of scandalous behavior is quite commonplace in Main-Street America.

God does not consider the sexual union of man and wife as cheap. As the author of Hebrews writes, "Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge" (
Hebrews 13:4). To Him, it is so valuable that every time a person engages in it, he more intimately binds himself to his spouse, making marriage even more precious. Clearly, the "one flesh" principle is vital to Christian marriage.

However, the sexual aspect of this principle should not distract us because, in fact, the focus is on the closeness of union or togetherness. Without using the term "one flesh" again, the apostle expands on how this principle applies to marriage in
I Corinthians 6:18-20; 7:2-4. He writes, "You are not your own" (I Corinthians 6:19), and "You do not have authority over your body, but your spouse does" (I Corinthians 7:4, paraphrased).

This is a major Christian understanding, one that separates it from marriages in other religions. Once married—once joined as a unit—the individuals in the covenant (husband and wife, male and female) are subsumed within the bond. To use a sports analogy, the team becomes more important than the individual players. The principle of "one flesh" leads to absolute togetherness or unity—living, thinking, planning, working as one.

This is obviously the ideal. It should not embarrass anyone or make anyone feel like a failure if this kind of total oneness is not present in his or her own marriage. It may never happen. Even so, God expects married couples to work toward the goal of being so committed to the relationship, so much in love with each other, so willing to work harmoniously together, that they function as a perfectly oiled unit, as it were.

We should never forget that marriage is a type of something greater! What does God want of us? To be one spirit with Him (
I Corinthians 6:17)! The marriage relationship, where a man and a woman come together as one flesh, is a training program for the majority of us to learn how to be one with Him. If we cannot be one flesh with the person closest to us, how can we hope to be of one spirit with God?

Marriage is a primary spiritual testing-ground for us to prepare to be the Bride of Jesus Christ our Savior and to be one with God. Thus, we learn how to work in tandem with another human being whom God has given to us as a mate. Like a yoke of oxen, we must learn to pull in the same direction and for the same purposes, straining to reach the same ultimate glory.

How are we married couples doing? Are we pulling together? Or have we agreed to something like a 50/50 marriage? God would frown upon a 50/50 marriage because what it implies is that one is willing to meet his spouse only halfway. God desires us to give everything up to the other—so much that we no longer even own ourselves! Each spouse owns the other. That is surrendering a great deal, but it is also receiving much in return.

Song of Songs 6:3, the Shulamite, after experiencing the trauma of being beaten and abused by wicked men in her town, comes to realize that the "one flesh" principle is the way a marriage should work. She says: "I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine." She understands that her spouse has done everything for her benefit, and because she was his and he was hers, she would do everything for him.

This is as good as it gets, humanly speaking. The perfect marriage is one in which each partner is wholly committed to the other and to the relationship. Each mate is striving to the utmost to live according to the will of God by showing true love—outgoing concern—for the other. And the perfect mate is the loving Christian giving his all to develop God's character both in himself and in his spouse.