Open caskets at funerals are a dance with death. The waxen look of a dead loved one or friend presents a strange sensation. We may wonder, What happened? The animation of life is gone from them. We are sure of that. There can be no conversation, only our tears and memories.
Our adjustment to that phase of the death experience is helped by family and friends who gather around us. We talk, comfort, reminisce, cry, and laugh while we dance with death. But is that all there is? Is that the only time we sit alongside death? It is not.
We are a dying race. We live with our own dying every moment whether we realize it or not. We read the obituaries to see who has died, why they died, and were they older than we. But, as we know, death gets more personal than this.
A visit to the doctor, an MRI, blood work, and a diagnosis may very well bring death very close. A family member calls and tells us that they have cancer. Another kind of dance with death begins.
How do we talk about it? How long will they live? What are we to do? Should we pray for God to work a miracle of healing, a prolonged time of remission, or a second opinion?
God created a world in which death is the penalty of sin. God was not surprised when Adam and Eve chose to savor the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil instead of obeying him and living happily in fellowship with God forever.
Our first parents witnessed the death of an animal in order to cover their nakedness. They began their dance with death. Nature became hostile to them. They were expelled from the garden. Life became hard. Their son killed their other son. They grieved. The world they inhabited gradually became a cemetery. Eventually they had to attend their own funeral.
The Bible tells a story. Death is one of the leading characters. The hero of the story is the Son of God, Israel’s Messiah, and God incarnate. He does an amazing thing.
He lives on this earth for about 33 years, never sins, performs thousands of miracles, and teaches. But death stalked Him. Satan, the villain, had the power of death and intended to defeat God with it. Satan’s self-deception clouded his mind and distorted reality. Jesus Christ was hoisted above the ground and hanged on a cruel Roman cross.
Had the devil trapped and killed his prey? It was not to be. The Son of Man had come to earth to seek and to save that which was lost. This truth had been lost on the Evil One.
The penalty for the toxic weight of sin fell upon Jesus. Our punishment became His that “we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24). The cross crushed the head of the Serpent and death was crushed to death.
To top it all off, the Hero came out of His grave and lives forevermore. Because of Jesus Christ, those who put their trust in Him walk through the door of death into His eternal presence.
That is a good story. There is more to it, but it is enough to tell us what has happened to death. It has been defeated in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Believers in Jesus Christ are not exempt from dying but their dying is different. How different?
It is gain not loss. That’s the testimony of Paul, who heard death knocking at the door (Phil. 1:21). Elsewhere he says that death “belongs” to the believer (1 Cor. 3:22). Death works for the advantage of those who are in Christ. Its sting has been removed (1 Cor. 15:55).
This is true because, as has been said, “where sin is pardoned, death has no sting.” Death is without its fangs because it ushers the child of God into the presence of Christ (2 Cor. 5:8). Bound up in this victory over death is the hope of a resurrection body and reunion with fellow believers.
There is tension involved in the dance with death. On the one hand the Christian wants to be with Christ, but on the other hand there is the desire to go on living and be useful for Christ (Phil. 1:23-24). There is pressure that comes from two equally profitable alternatives.
What will bring the most glory to the Lord? We must leave the timing of our death in the Lord’s hands. It is normal to want more earthly time with those that we love. It is a good thing to want added days to serve God this side of heaven.
God is sovereign. Because we belong to Christ, death belongs to us. Death may strike suddenly — an automobile accident, a stroke, a heart attack, or a blood clot. Cancer or dementia requires prolonged dying grace. Our confidence must be in an all-wise, loving heavenly Father who does all things well.
How and when we die can cloud the believer’s attention to living each day for the glory of God. Peter was given some specifics about his death (Jn. 21:18). He immediately let this distract him by wanting to know how his fellow apostle, John, was going to die (Jn. 21:22). Jesus rebuked Peter by reminding him that faithfulness was to be his primary concern.
Whether it is martyrdom or a long, full life, the believer’s dance with death is to be for the exaltation of Christ in all things.
Death portrayed as the grim reaper, a robed skeletal figure with scythe in hand, is a frightening image. It should be for those who live and die without knowing Jesus Christ. Death is not a friend to the non-Christian.
Self-deception is not limited to Satan. It is the plague of all who try to convince themselves that death is either without consequences or that good deeds can insure some kind of heaven.
To die without God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ is the beginning of an everlasting dance with death in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15).
Dear friend, if you have never put your trust in Jesus Christ for the gift of eternal life, now is the time.
Dr. Howard E. Dial, pastor
Berachah Bible Church
Fayette County, Ga.