I never used to look at cemeteries. My fear of death as a child prohibited me from staring down the tombstones, as if I could avoid the grim reaper’s sickle by simply diverting my eyes.
Death was a foreigner until I watched my dad wither away. As cancer shaved his frame to the bone, and the space between breaths gained greater distance, my worst enemy seemed to dance and destroy all at the very same time.
I wanted death gone, but instead, my dad was the one to leave. I was so shattered by his passing that I refused to watch the gurney roll out of the house. The reaper may well have taken my father from me, but I would not offer him the satisfaction of my gaze. I would not look as the mortuary van drove away in the cover of midnight darkness.
It was not until I became a follower of Christ that my perspective on death changed, and I came to understand it as something more than an instrument of destruction. In Christ, death is no doomsday — it’s a gateway.
Death Serves Christ’s Timing
It’s true that death is a despicable consequence of the fall, and it’s right to grieve and weep over the devastation it causes on this side of eternity. Nevertheless, death does not and cannot operate outside the bounds of divine sovereignty.
“Because Christ defeated death, he owns it and commands it to serve his greater purposes of redemption.”
Nineteenth-century minister Alexander MacLaren suggests, “Death is Christ’s minister, ‘mighty and beauteous, though his face be dark,’ and he, too, stands amidst the ranks of the ‘ministering spirits sent forth to minister to them that shall be heirs of salvation’ [Hebrews 1:14].” The profound suggestion that death is a ministering spirit belonging to Christ can grant courage and comfort to those who believe. Because Christ defeated death, he owns it and commands it to serve his greater purposes of redemption. The summons Christ bids is not hasty, accidental, unintentional, brash, miscalculated, or even unkind — it cannot be, for it would be inconsistent with his character if it were.
Yet, from our perspective on the ground, death often looks like all of these things. Though this paradox makes no sense to us, God intends for us to live in the tension of its upside-down truth. We take solace, not only in trusting God’s higher ways (Isaiah 55:8–9), but in remembering that Jesus is not asking us to walk through something he has not endured himself.
Make no mistake: when the Master yearns for us to be home, the call comes from him alone. Christ is the only one with death’s keys (Revelation 1:18). Satan does not commission death, though he may be permitted a role in discharging it.
We Go the Master’s Way
In John 14:3–4, Jesus says, “When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. And you know the way to where I am going” (NLT). When we fear death, our souls long to be comforted from someone who has passed through the terrifying pilgrimage and ultimately lived to tell about it. Jesus — the firstfruits of resurrected life (1 Corinthians 15:23) — is the one and only man who can boast such a feat. He waves his pierced hands across the great divide and beckons us upward to glory. To be with him where he is, we must go the way he went: “Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (1 Corinthians 15:54 NLT).
R.C. Sproul writes of Christ, “He has defeated the ultimate enemy of life. He has vanquished the power of death. He calls us to die, a call to obedience in the final transition of life. Because of Christ, death is not final. It is a passage from one world to the next.” Not only must the angel of death obey Christ in the matter, but we must also submit in complete obedience — no longer out of punishment, but out of invitation. Come, child; I desire you to be where I am (John 14:2–3; 17:24). Just as it was for Christ, the corridor of death is a prerequisite for our glorification, where both body and soul await their ultimate redemption.
Sometimes, the kindest mercy God can grant is the call that brings us home. MacLaren explains, “Beyond all secondary causes, deeper than disease or accident, lies the loving will of him who is the Lord of life and of death.”
Traveling Well to Glory
By no means should we make light of the evil that death unleashes. We should hate it with every fiber of our being because our bodies were not originally designed to contend with it. Death was something foreign in the garden of Eden, yet because of one man’s disobedience (Romans 5:19), we all fall under its curse and groan for it to be eradicated forevermore (Romans 8:20–23). Until that day, we watch the minister of death go where he’s divinely commissioned, leaving us often confused by the lofty logic of the orders.
However, because Christ is risen (Romans 6:9), we can have confidence that he makes no home in the grave — and if no home in the grave for him, then none for us as well (Romans 8:11).
“When the Master yearns for us to be home, the call comes from him alone.”
Jesus carries out a double work for his sheep: Here on earth, he is with us (Matthew 28:20). There in heaven, he waits to receive us (John 14:3). On earth, our communion with him is real, though incomplete (1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:2). In heaven, it gains its glorious perfection (Colossians 3:4). On earth, Christ serves as our shepherd leading through the valley of death (Psalm 23:4). In heaven, he welcomes us into the Master’s joy, with all the eagerness and exuberance that divine hospitality could offer (Matthew 25:23).
In Christ, we can look at death and see something beyond a harrowing reaper: we see a servant carrying out the plans necessary to bring God’s people to a superior plane of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). Viewing death through the lens of redemption may not help us to make sense of the tragic means, but it does give us greater confidence in trusting God for the ends. For if the Holy One of Israel posts an invitation home, we can rest assured that, somehow, it’s sealed with the goodness of Christ’s kiss. When everything is ready, he will come and get us.