“The last enemy that will be abolished is death.”
– 1 Cor. 15:26 (NASB)
As I compose this commentary, I am less than 24 hours removed from attending the funeral of a beloved friend and brother in Christ. I will refrain from mentioning his name out of respect for the privacy of his surviving wife and children. Nevertheless, and with your patient indulgence, I would like to dedicate this blog post to his memory and legacy.
Notwithstanding the God-exalting music, Christ-centered preaching, and heartfelt testimonies of a select few of his closest friends who, in eulogizing their departed brethren, spoke very affectionately and, at times, humorously, about his servant’s heart, his Christ-honoring devotedness to his family and, most importantly, his unwavering allegiance to his Lord, the imagery that remains clearest in my mind is of me sitting on a pew near the rear of the sanctuary and staring almost unblinkingly at the solid black coffin that contained my friend’s bodily remains.
Though fully aware of the ancillary goings-on in my peripheral vicinity – most notably the continuous loop on the two big screens above the rather cavernous sanctuary of photos taken over the years of this dear brother and his family and friends – I found myself becoming increasingly angry at the sight of the open casket that was stationed front and center several pews in front of me.
I was not angry at the fact that my friend had died only two months from his 49th birthday. Nor was I upset at how he died. No, the root of my smoldering indignation was why this beloved husband, father, friend, and brother had to die.
Yes, he had to die.
“The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat from it you will surely die.” – Gen. 2:16-17 (NASB)
My own father died of a massive heart attack at the relatively young age of 64. It was a “normal” summer afternoon when he walked into the master bathroom of his home to do what people “normally” do in bathrooms. But, in my father’s case, he didn’t walk out. My mother came home from work that day and discovered his lifeless body slumped over the bathtub. Conversely, my older brother died of complications from HIV/AIDS at the age of 35. It was only six months from the day he told me over the phone of his terminal diagnosis that we were lowering his body into the ground.
It is 48 verses into the book of Genesis that the Hebrew verb “die” (מוּת) first occurs in Scripture (Gen. 2:17). Its next occurrence is Gen. 3:3, as an unsuspecting Eve naively discusses with the nefarious serpent the veracity of God’s unambiguous command given to both her husband and her. The third occurrence of the word is in the very next verse, Gen. 3:4, where the serpent essentially calls God a liar as he exclaims to Eve, “you will not surely die!” But only two verses later, in Gen. 3:6, an experience that had been completely foreign to our progenitors – and to God’s original plan for them – became painfully normative both for them and for those who have inherited their sinful nature (Eze. 18:4).
As stated in Article 15 of the Belgic Confession of Faith (1561):
“…by the disobedience of Adam original sin has been spread through the whole human race. It is a corruption of the whole human nature – an inherited depravity which even infects small infants in their mother’s womb, and the root which produces in humanity every sort of sin. It is therefore so vile and enormous in God’s sight that it is enough to condemn the human race, and it is not abolished or wholly uprooted even by baptism, seeing that sin constantly boils forth as though from a contaminated spring.”
Or, as the apostle Paul writes in Rom. 5:12,
“Therefore, just as through one man [Adam] sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all [in Adam] sinned.”
The reason the death of those we care about is so grievous to us is that despite sin’s effects on each of us in that, as sinners, we imperfectly bear God’s image (Gen. 1:27; Rom. 3:23), we bear that image in such a way that God has graciously imbued us with an innate awareness that death is an enemy and not a friend (1 Cor. 15:26). Consider that God Himself declares, “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies (Eze. 18:32a).” And yet, it is in the second half of that verse that God calls us to turn from the sin that, ironically, gives life to death, “Therefore, repent and live (Eze. 18:32b).”
The story is told of the 17th-century Puritan theologian and author, John Owen (1616-1683), whose secretary, as Owen is lying on his deathbed, penned the following words to a friend of Owen in Owen’s name, “I am still in the land of the living”, to which Owen responds, “Stop! Change that and say, I am yet in the land of the dying, but I hope soon to be in the land of the living.”
“We spend our years with sighing; it is a valley of tears; but death is the funeral of all our sorrows.” – Thomas Watson
In the days and years to come it will be said of my beloved friend, who has gone unnamed in this article but not in the hearts and minds of those who knew and loved him, just as it was said of my father, that the “official” cause of his death was a heart attack. Conversely, it will continue to be said of my brother that his demise was facilitated by complications from HIV/AIDS. The reality, however, is that it was neither a devastating heart condition nor a merciless autoimmune disease that killed them.
It will not say that on their respective death certificates, of course. Nonetheless, it is sin that murdered them. And it is sin which, likewise, will be the cause of your death and of mine as well should our Lord delay in returning for His elect, never again to die, but to live in His glorious and radiant presence for all eternity (1 Thess. 4:13-18).
Humbly in Christ,