Death: A Meditation
A few days ago I had a very intense conversation with a church leader about some foundational problems in a local congregation. The situation was complex and any way forward required deep humility and carried the risk of great relational pain. My counsel into the circumstances was simple and direct, “Are you willing to lose everything, church, finances etc., for the sake of the kingdom of God and the reputation of Christ?” The next morning I found myself awake very early and knew I could not go back to sleep until I had prayed into this matter. What I began to sense in prayer was blatantly real and a deep confirmation about the way of discipleship Jesus is seeking for his Church in our city. Christ began to speak to me forcefully about the transforming power of death.
Death Must Come
In prayer I was receiving a profound sense of the goodness of God’s decree upon sin; “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Gen 2:17). To grasp that death as punishment by a holy loving God reveals his supreme goodness towards creation requires considerable discernment. In a fallen world the mere biological or psychological fact of dying is not good (cf. Heb 2:14-15). What is good is that death has been set as a penalty by the Lord as the just and effective way forward way in delivering the world from the power of evil. This good decree goes right back to the beginning.
““Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden…” (Genesis 3:22-23 ESV).The expulsion from Eden is a wise emergency measure designed to prevent the endless perpetuation of sin. To live forever indwelt by evil would mean an endless state of inner conflict, or perhaps, as some modern commentators have put it, the hell on earth of endless boredom. An external decree that sinners deserve to die has however never had the power to transform us inwardly. From the slaughter of the Flood through the involuntary sacrifice of animals to the judgement of “the second death” the experience of mortality has only served to confirm to the perishing that God is NOT good (Gen 6:7; Lev 4; Rev 21:8). Only a human being who inwardly understood the goodness of God’s decree of death could ever transform our evaluation and experience of dying.
Death of the Cross
The cross is the first time a human being fully acknowledged the goodness of God in judging sin through death. Christ’s death is unique at the deepest inner level. The Old Testament witnesses that the death of prophets and saints is “precious in the sight of the Lord” (Ps 116:15 cf. 72:14). Dying for the sake of God’s kingdom was experienced by the righteous as a good thing (; Dan 7:21-22 cf. Heb 11:32ff.). The death of the Son of God is of a wholly different order. Something far more potent is at work in the cross than the sheer willingness of Jesus to die to satisfy the demands of holy justice (Rom 6:23).
The struggle in Gethsemane and the anguished cry, ““My God….why have you forsaken me?”” means that unlike the faithful prophets, saints and martyrs Jesus must die apart from the experience of a good death pleasing to God (Mark 14:36; 15:34). The power of the cross is that the Son must perish apart from the knowledge that God’s decree of death for sinners is a good one. In his hour of “outer darkness” Jesus must experience the suffering of death as pure evil, a totally godless experience (Matt 8:12; Mark 15:33). Christ however never turned his experience of the absence of the goodness of God in dying into an accusation against divine justice or a denial of his Father’s goodness. Raised from death into newness of life Jesus now proclaims to us the goodness of God about death as the way of destroying the sin which alone keeps us from eternal life (Rom 6:4; 8:3 cf. Ps 27:13)
A Dying Church
The Church moves forward not by programmes gifting or finance but by dying with Christ. He commands us to live as dying people; ““If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25 ESV). Paul proudly proclaims, “death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Cor 4:12); as a dying apostle he can authoritatively command the Church, “put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you” (Col 3:5). The systemic problems with discipleship in the Western Church simply reflect our cultural unwillingness to die. For centuries priests and pastors were trained in preparing Christians to die a “good death”; where does this register today?
The Lord is calling forth a culture of holy dying that recognises death to personal ambition, financial success, status and standard of living is the way to release eternal life; “And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life” (The Prayer of St Francis). It is only through Spirit-empowered Christians dying to those things most treasured by the world that social transformation can come (Luke 12:32-34). By sharing in Christ’s death the power of his love is released for the world; “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2 ESV)
A society utterly obsessed with sex and other pleasures is a society paralysed at the root of its existence by the fear of death in all its forms – financial, health, relational, physical (cf. Heb 2:15). Whereas the Western world is totally nonplussed by the suicide of the young and healthy, and is in terror of jihadist self-destruction, Christians are to understand themselves as living martyrs for the cause of Christ. Those who died in the Colosseum for Christ radiated a goodness that was more powerful than death and which eventually converted an Empire; this must happen again!
Good Friday has within it the power to totally transform our estimation of the meaning of death. However I do not believe I have ever been in a church which culturally embodies the truth of the goodness of God’s decree of death. A discipled church will welcome death as the final teacher; accepting that in truly and prayerfully dying to all we personally crave nothing and no one has power over us (Rom 8:13; 1 Pet 4:1). The ability to end it all in a way that reflects the goodness of God does not lie in us. It is surely time that we as individuals, congregations and as the Church of God asked for the help of Christ. “Jesus help us to die” is the prayer that needs be on all our lips. How good can it get?
 Only those who have overcome evil can be at peace with the prospect of living forever (Rev 2:7).