Danger Averted, Destiny Attained

Funeral Message for Lois Nelson (1919–2023)

Bethlehem Baptist Church | Minneapolis

What is perhaps the most familiar verse in the Bible is often taken for granted. We don’t pause over it to let the message sink in. And it is not only one of the most familiar, but one of the richest — especially at a funeral of one of God’s loved ones. Most of you know it (perhaps in the King James version):

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

As we ponder Lois’s death, and even more as we ponder our own eventual death, there are four truths in this verse we all need to know:

  1. the danger we are all in: perishing, the opposite of eternal life
  2. the design of God to rescue and save the perishing: love, sending his Son
  3. the duty we all have in response to God’s design: faith, believing in Christ
  4. the destiny that we have if we believe: life, eternal life

1. The Danger: Perishing

The danger is that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). “Perishing” means being under the wrath of God. As John 3:18 says, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already.” So the issue is not merely dying, but being judged by God. And John 3:36 is the most sobering verse of all in this Gospel: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

Why is sin so serious as to deserve perishing? The answer is that God is the most worthy person in the universe. His greatness and his value are infinite. All things are measured by him. He is the beginning and the ending of all things. Every person depends on him for everything. We owe him perfect trust and allegiance and love and worship and honor and respect and obedience, because he made us and owns us and sustains us.

Therefore, rejecting him, and distrusting him, and disobeying him, and neglecting him, and enjoying other things more than him — all these are infinite insults because he is an infinite treasure. And an infinite insult, or a life of infinite insults, deserves infinite punishment.

I still have a letter a young woman wrote to me in 1992. Here’s what she said:

I wonder whether you remember a very much younger me, sitting in your office [in 1985] and telling you I was afraid God would have to use a car accident or some other awful event to get my attention. You pointed out that the consequences of my deliberate choice to continue sinning would be nothing short of hell itself. No one had told me ever before that I was headed for hell, missionary’s kid that I was, “saved” at the age of six. . . . It was a turning point in my life, and I have wanted to thank you and tell you that, ever since. . . .

A warning such as that 1985 conversation made me feel all the more loved, after I heard what you really think of hell. That you cared enough to tell me, a stranger at that time, means more than ever with the echo in my ears.

“Our most fundamental need is that the wrath of God be taken by another.”

Our most fundamental need is that the wrath of God be taken by another.

2. The Design: God’s Love in Sending His Son

First, pause and just let it sink in: God exists. We are not ultimate; he is. Our plans are not decisive; his are. It’s a massive reality. Second, pause and be amazed: God has a Son. Not by sex and procreation, but by an eternal begetting so that the Son is fully God and never had a beginning.

Muslims get this all wrong when they say that Christians think God had sex with Mary, and Jesus was the result, and so he is a son that way. But listen to John 1:1, alongside John 1:14: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”

“The Son” is another way of describing “the Word,” which means that the Son was “in the beginning . . . with God . . . and . . . was God.” He was begotten from all eternity, not begotten in time. God always existed in one divine essence and three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So here we are again, dealing with the weightiest realities in the universe. First hell, and now the Trinity. “For goodness’ sake, Pastor John, this is a funeral,” you may be thinking. But recall that one of the most precious verses in the Bible says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.”

God has a Son who is God. And Romans 8:32 says, “[God] did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” — to die for his enemies, to take away the wrath of God. God has a Son who is God. If we don’t know at least that much of the Trinity, we can’t know the love of God. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.”

This is a funeral. Right now we need to know the love of God: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:8–9). Oh, how Lois and Ozzie loved the word of God! This is what I recall them saying over and over, among all their encouragements to me: “Thanks for getting us in the word. Thanks for getting us in the word.”

Danger: wrath. Design: love.

3. The Duty: Faith

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

What is believing? It’s not just affirming a fact. The devil affirms more true facts about Jesus than we even know. The problem is that he hates those facts. He wishes they were not true. How does Jesus himself in the Gospel of John explain faith?

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

“Believing is a coming to Jesus so as to find your soul-hunger satisfied and your soul-thirst satisfied.”

Believing is a coming to Jesus so as to find your soul-hunger satisfied and your soul-thirst satisfied. Believing is embracing Jesus as your treasure — your soul-satisfying treasure.

Which is why faith is not work. You can’t make it happen. You can’t make yourself treasure what you don’t treasure. It’s a gift: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). Yes, we do seek it. But if you see Jesus as Lois did, as the greatest treasure, you are a miracle. She was a miracle. And those whom he calls into faith, he keeps. For 103 years, he kept her.

I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:28)

Danger: wrath. Design: love. Duty: faith

4. The Destiny: Life, Eternal Life

Not just endless life as we know it, but life “which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19) — knowing God. In John 17:3, Jesus defined “eternal life.” He was praying to his Father in heaven, and he said, “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” And eternal life comes to us in relation to Jesus: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

Eternal life is a personal, intimate knowing of God. It is not like an inoculation against the disease of death. It doesn’t work unconsciously, like a spiritual antibiotic against death. It is a conscious experience of knowing and relating to God. It is real life with God, the source of life.

And eternal life is not interrupted at death. In John 11:25–26, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” The essential part of Lois Nelson did not die. To be apart from the body is to be at home with the Lord, more alive than ever. And one day, her body will be raised in glory, and she will swallowed up by life.

Everyone who has eternal life through faith in Jesus will never have that life stripped away from him. Physical death does not turn eternal life into temporary life.

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“O death, where is your victory?
          O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:51–57)

Steadfast, Immovable, Abounding

Lois escaped the danger of God’s wrath.

She escaped it by the design of God’s love, which sent his Son to bear her guilt and punishment on the cross and provide everything she would ever want in Christ.

She fulfilled the simple duty by believing in Jesus. He was her Savior, Lord, and treasure, and that faith connected her to life.

She now enjoys the destiny of eternal life more fully than she ever did here. And there is more yet to come for her and for us, at the resurrection.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)