Deal with Death

The Bethlehem Institute 2008 Graduation | Minneapolis


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

I could not escape in the last five weeks that this is a dying season at Bethlehem. I want to talk about death in the ministry. So when you look back on your graduation, you’ll say, “Oh yes, that was the death message.” You will never be far from it, and it will never be far from you. In our own church family:

  • Terry’s twin brother, 63 years old April 19
  • Brett Arthur’s mother-in-law, Marianna Buckmeyer, 85, May 7
  • Sybil Sprinkle, 94, member since 1947, May 12
  • Marge Johnson, 94 years old, member since 1940
  • Elias Paul, 21 weeks
  • Maria Sue Chapman, five years old

Beyond our church family:

  • 78,000 in Myanmar
  • 51,000 in Sichuan, China; 29,000 still missing; 73,000 homes were destroyed yesterday in a 6.0 aftershock

When these seasons come, and they seem to periodically in life, things cluster. You can feel that. They just cause me to reflect upon what’s here all the time. 300 people die every week in the Twin Cities. 46,000 people die every week in the United States. Every two weeks, you get a Myanmar, here. Every two weeks.

Deal with Death

There are about 2.4 million people die every year in the United States. You men are preparing to minister in this world. It will not change until Jesus comes. This will be the way it is. Fifty years from now, if you’re still ministering, you will stand at a little place like this. You’ll talk to some young men, and this will have happened the week before.

“Christians have phenomenally good news about people who are facing death.”

Here’s my exhortation to you: It’s very simple and I will say a few things about what it is to deal with death. Deal with it, and deal with it a lot. Deal with it often. Don’t just deal with it when you have to deal with it. Deal with it when you don’t have to deal with it, because then you’ll help people be ready to deal with it when it comes.

Deal with death. Deal with it often. Deal with it over and over. Never get far from it for these two reasons.

Death Is at Your Door

First, it will never be far from you. It will always be in your relationships. It will always be in the news. It will always be on those two pages called obituaries. It is always crouching at your own door. It’s always just a heartbeat away from everybody in this room. That’s the first reason. Don’t be far from it as a topic, an issue, because it’s never far from you.

You Have Spectacularly Good News

Second, this is the most important reason: You have spectacularly good news about death. Nobody else does. Nobody. Muslims do not have good news about death. They’re crossing their fingers. Hindus don’t have good news. Maybe you’ll come back as a cat. Jews don’t have good news. It’s a conflicted message in the Jewish synagogue about death. Atheists don’t have good news about death. The world wants to run away from this because nobody has any good news — except you. You have phenomenally good news about people who are facing death.

The Gospel Revolves Around Death

The majesty and glory of Jesus Christ are the centerpiece of your ministry. This is where you want to be. The majesty and the glory of Jesus Christ will be the centerpiece of your ministry from now until you see him face to face.

Christ Died

The apex of his ministry and of his life was that he died. That was the apex of his achievement. The resurrection was absolutely essential, absolutely glorious, and confirmatory of the apex of what he achieved in dying.

The gospel begins with two words in 1 Corinthians 15:3: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died.” The first word in the gospel is Jesus, and the second word is died.

The reason that you should talk about death a lot is because it’s the second word of the gospel after Christ. Christ died. Right at the center of our religion, our faith is death — Christ died. You can’t go far away from it.

We Will Die

The second word of the gospel is “died.” Why did it have to be the second word of the gospel?

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. (Romans 5:12)

That’s why. Everybody will die. There’s nobody for whom this message is irrelevant. It’s not like there’s a little pocket of people who have to deal with death, talk to them about death and don’t talk to others about it, because they don’t have to deal with it. Everybody you will ever minister to will die, unless Jesus comes back.

Pastors Need to Talk About Death

People don’t want to think about it. Your job is to get them to think about it, because in the dark hours of the night, they do think about it. When they’re forced to think about it, they think about it, and when all is said and done, all the hip preachers who may not talk about it will not be the ones to whom they gravitate when they think about it.

They’re going to think, “Who has talked about that? Who has said something massive about this? Who has said anything deep or abiding or helpful about this? Where can I go to hear a word about what I’m facing that won’t be full of jokes?” They might come to you, if you have dealt with it, dealt with it often, dealt with it deeply, and dealt with it hopefully. Death belongs to everybody, and therefore, it is relevant to everybody.

Jesus Dealt with Death

The great central truth of the gospel is that God sent his Son into the world to die and rise again, to overcome the problem of death.

“Right at the center of our religion, our faith is death — Christ died. You can’t go far away from it.”

“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 15:55–57)

That’s the climax of 1 Corinthians 15. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ, who dealt with the law. If the law gives power to the sting of death, then you’ve got to have a law handler to free us from the sting of death. He handled it well. In him, we have fulfilled the law. It will not increase the sting of our death. The way he did it was by becoming a substitution.

Who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. (1 Thessalonians 5:10)

Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous. (1 Peter 3:18)

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree. (1 Peter 2:24)

Christ died for the ungodly . . . while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6, 8)

He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities. (Isaiah 53:5)

“Died” is the second word of the gospel because either we die forever or he dies for us. Those are the only two options. Don’t ever get far from the substitutionary, glorious, all-important work of Christ on the cross. He stood in our, the Puritans would say, room. He stood in our place, took death on himself, and defeated it so that we don’t have to endure it as condemnation.

Christ Changed Death Forever

What did he do to it? What did he do to death? I want to give you eight statements. What did Christ, in dying for us, do to death? He changed it. We do die, we will die, but he changed it. Here are eight ways that he changed it.

1. Grieving with Hope

He changed death from an experience of grieving without hope to grieving with hope. I put that first, not because it’s the most important, but because it’s emotionally the most immediately relevant. The others might, if you are careless, make you cavalier about the pain, and you shouldn’t be cavalier about the pain.

I had a man come up to me, who I never met before. He had his wife sitting in the second pew, and he had, looked to be, five kids. He took me by the hand, tears running down his face. He said, “We’re new. We came here to take our little Angelica to the hospital with major heart problems.” This woman looked totally beleaguered and sad, and he was sad. He said, “We’re just trying to figure out how to ‘count it all joy’ [James 1:2] works here.”

The first thing after he stopped and he paused, I said, “Let me just tell you what it doesn’t mean first. It doesn’t mean no tears. Let’s just get that settled quick.” Count it all joy when you meet various trials, doesn’t mean no tears. Get that settled. Now we can talk about profound, unshakeable roots and a Rock that will never change as you stand on this. Joy can be down there.

“Jesus stood in our place, took on death, and defeated it so that we don’t have to endure it as condemnation.”

If I had time, I would give him some concrete experiences from my own life. The one that’s the most experientially relevant to me is my mother’s death, still, after 34 years. When I got the news at age 28, which is what some of you are, I hung up the telephone and told Noël what had happened. I wasn’t crying yet. I pulled little Karsten off of my leg, who was saying, “Is daddy sad?” I walked back, knelt down at my bed, and probably cried for two hours.

As that was happening, I was watching myself cry. You’re looking at yourself and you’re thinking, “She was a really good mom, and daddy’s still alive.” I found myself doing what I had preached or taught that one can do, namely, grieve your eyes out and feel something like joy — something like joy, because of other things that were all around and in this moment.

Number one, he changed death from the experience of grieving without hope to grieving with hope. The text is 1 Thessalonians 4:13: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

2. The Beginning of Paradise

He changed death from the beginning of perdition to the beginning of paradise.

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.” (Luke 16:22–24)

Death meant the beginning of Hades for this rich man in Luke 16. The thief on the cross heard the words, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43) Those are two very different experiences of death — the beginning of hell and the beginning of paradise. Jesus came to turn death from the beginning of hell to the beginning of paradise.

3. Death Purifies Our Faith

He changed death from the dreaded punishment to the hope-filled purifier.

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)

God brings his servants eyeball to eyeball with death. This is not to instill fear, but to awaken confidence in God alone — and nothing else. He is the one who raises the dead. Death is designed now for believers as a faith-producer, not a punishment.

4. The Gain of Glory

He changed death from the loss of God’s presence to the gain of his glory.

“If I have cultivated my heart well, death changes from a hopeless curse to happy homecoming.”

When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:7–10)

What will happen, either at the Lord’s coming or at death, is separation from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his might, or a great marveling at his glory. He changed death from being separation from glory to gain of glory.

5. A Happy Homecoming

He changed death from a hopeless curse to a happy homecoming.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. (Galatians 3:13)

We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:6–8)

Home. We should cultivate a sense of exile here on earth. We’re not at home. We shouldn’t let ourselves feel too much at home here. We should always be thinking in ways that would make it easier to go away than to stay. We shouldn’t cultivate thoughts and ideas that make this world feel like home, at least the way it is now.

Christ should feel like our home so that when we’re called to go and we have five minutes to think about it — say lying on the side of a road, or with some needle stuck into us, and you have five minutes to contemplate — we have prepared ourselves. “Do you mean I get to go home? I’ve been away all this time and I’m going to get to go home? It’d be hard for the others, but not for me.” If I have cultivated my heart well, death changes from a hopeless curse to a happy homecoming.

6. Death Means Fellowship with God

He changed death from entrance into eternal fire to entrance into eternal fellowship with God.

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41)

Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. (1 Peter 3:18)

Fire or fellowship with God.

7. Death Means Eternal Life

He changed death from the sealing of wrath to eternal life.

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. (John 3:36)

8. Death Is an Act of Worship

He changed death from final rebellion to an act of worship. I have two pictures in my mind of the way two people died in the New Testament, Herod and Peter. Here’s the way Herod died:

“God is the one who raises the dead. Death is designed now for believers as a faith producer, not a punishment.”

On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last. (Acts 12:21–23)

Herod received their blasphemous praise and God killed him. For Herod, death was a final act of rebellion. Now let’s take a look at Peter. The Lord said to Peter,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) (John 21:18–19)

For Herod, death was his last act of rebellion, but for Peter, death was his last act of worship. Peter glorified God by his death.

Confront Death in the Face

I close with just the same exhortation. Deal with death. Deal with it often. Never be far from it, because it is never far from you. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). Say that in the face of death. Don’t say it naively. Only when life is nice. Say it in the face of death.

The president of Christian Focus sent me an email this week. He said, “I stumbled across a quote, I thought you might like it. It’s from Hugh Martin. It goes like this: ‘The gospel, sir, is that you have no right to go to hell. If you do so, you go there trampling upon the Son of God.’”

If you or anybody you talk to goes to hell, they go there trampling upon the blood of Jesus, which was shed to deliver them from hell. You have no right to spurn him. Don’t add that rebellion to all of your other rebellions. Speak of the glorious gospel of the Son of God, crucified for you. We have the best news in all the world.

“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. 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 15:54–58)