If you don’t have a better plan for how you are going to die, someone will probably just turn on the television.
As a minister of the word of God, I have always thought that part of my calling is to help people die well. That would include Paul’s aim that Christ be magnified in his body by death (Philippians 1:20). I thought of every Sunday’s sermon as part of this preparation for death. And I hoped every visit to the bedside of the dying would be faith-strengthening, hope-giving, Bible-saturated, gospel-centered, and Christ-exalting.
Which is why I groaned at the hospital to find the television glittering in the darkness of the approach of death. This felt utterly incongruous. Bizarre.
One of the most godly women I have ever known was dying. She was full of the Spirit and prayer. On one of my visits to the hospital in her last days, she pleaded with me to pray for her quick death, and shared with me the nightmares she was having of “half-naked women dancing around my bed.” I wondered if there was a connection with the television that the staff turned on.
Perhaps not. But surely we can all agree, there is a better way to prepare our souls to “face our Judge and Maker unafraid.” Part of the plan for dying well is to have friends who share your vision of how to live and die for the glory of Christ. Most of us, in the last days and hours of our death, will be mentally and physically too week to set the agenda. Better set it now.
Old or young, directly or indirectly, let it be known that you want — and need — a Bible-saturated, gospel-centered death. I’m thinking of the kind of death that John Knox chose.
Knox’s “First Anchor”
It was November 24, 1572. Knox was 57 or 58 years old. (The year of his birth is uncertain.) He was dying of bronchial pneumonia. Jane Dawson’s new biography describes his final days.
His wife Margaret was ever nearby, when not caring for their three daughters and two sons. Richard Bannatyne, Knox’s faithful secretary and friend, was never far from the bedside.
Around five o’clock in the evening, he called for his wife. Earlier he had asked for the reading of Isaiah 53 with the sweetest gospel words:
He was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned — every one — to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5–6)
He also had asked for 1 Corinthians 15 to be read with its detailed description of the relationship between Christ’s resurrection and his own.
But finally, he asked his wife to read his beloved “first anchor”: John 17. Thirty years earlier, when Knox was coming to the Reformed faith out of Roman Catholicism, this was the chapter that brought him peace. He said, this is where “I cast my first anchor.” Here he saw the roots of election and Christ’s commitment to keep those whom the Father had given him.
“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. . . . I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. . . . Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me. . . . I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. . . . Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:6, 9, 11, 15, 17)
Margaret read his anchor chapter. Knox said, “Is not that a comfortable chapter?” Death came about six hours later.
Thinking he was still sleeping, his family and friends conducted their usual evening prayers after 10 p.m. When asked by Dr. Preston if he had heard the psalm-singing and prayers, Knox replied, “I wald to God that ye and all men hard thame as I have hard thame [I would to God that you and all men heard them as I have heard them]; and I praise God of that heavenlie sound.” About 11 p.m., Robert Campbell sitting on a stool by the bed, heard Knox give a long sigh and sob and say, “Now it is done.” When asked by Bannatyne to give the signal to show that he remembered Christ’s promises, Knox raised his hand for the last time and “sleipit away without any pain.” Knox’s battle had ended. (Knox, 310)
Yes, and the war had been waged to the end with the word of God. It was a Bible-saturated death. This is what he asked for, and this is what his wife and friends gave him.
Ready for Heaven
Singing and speaking the word of God — this is what I hope to hear if my death comes slowly. If you have never loved the reading of the word of God and the singing of gospel truth, ponder deeply Knox’s words, “I praise God of that heavenlie sound.”
Nothing will be more discordant in that final hour than the television. And nothing sweeter than the “heavenlie sound” of friends singing and reading the word of God. Full of the gospel, full of Christ, full of hope. Plan for this.