The word of God cuts deep but also comforts (Martin Luther)
For many professors of Christianity, God may get a bit of attention for an hour or two on Sundays. The rest of the week, God vaporises like the morning dew: “Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? O Judah, what shall I do unto thee? for your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the dew that goes early away” (Hosea 6:4). Many who hear the word and receive it with joy, have a show of piety, but it’s grounded on a superficial faith. They respond to God for a time, but after a while fall away (Greek apostasy), while still attending church on Sundays. They might even confess Jesus publicly, but when this confession leads to persecution or death – as many Christians have met with in the past and are experiencing at present as in the self-proclaimed “Caliphate” in Iraq and Syria – they will deny Christ:
He who shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father who is in heaven. 33 But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father who is in heaven.
In this article, my focus is not on what the Christian’s response should be to persecution and the threat of death for being a Christian but what the Christian response should be to the premature death of a loved one; for example, the death of a young mother from cancer, of a parent in an accident, of a suicide, of the murder of a spouse or or one’s child.
I was speaking to a friend whose close relatives were gunned down, and who now counsels Christians who have lost loved ones “prematurely.” I asked him how he counselled these people. “No Bible texts,” he said. I tried to hide my surprise; firstly, my friend is not only a Christian but has been a pastor for several decades, and secondly, the people he counsels consider themselves to be Christians.
People in general, no matter what their beliefs in the afterlife, hate death more than anything. My pastor friend says that much of his counselling consists of being a good listener. It seemed to me that he doesn’t touch ‘Bible texts” at all in his counselling. I never asked him the reason for the exclusion. Did he think the Bible was unuseful? Did those he was counselling not want the Bible? I wonder how many of those whom my friend counsels ever read what Jesus said about death. If they had, it meant little to them.
31 So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?”
Note that in verse 31 those whom Jesus was addressing “had believed him.” I move on to verse 51:
“51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death.” 52 The Jews said to Him, “Now we know that You have a demon. Abraham died, and the prophets also; and You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word, he will never taste of death.’ 53 Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died too; whom do You make Yourself out to be?” 54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing; it is My Father who glorifies Me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God’; 55 and you have not come to know Him, but I know Him; and if I say that I do not know Him, I will be a liar like you, but I do know Him and keep His word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” 59 Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple.”
Why did they want to stone Jesus? Because he said (verse 58) “before Abraham I am,” that is, not only was he claiming to have existed before Abraham – in which case Jesus could have said, “Before Abraham I was – but existed eternally as Jahweh (I AM).
The Jews whom Jesus was addressing were called believers but it is clear that they were not true believers, which means they never were true believers. The parable of the soils that I shall quote shortly is about “believers” who fall away (apostates). They fall away because they have never been born again.
In his “Death is not the end of life,” John Piper says:
“Any effort to read any part of the Gospel [all four gospels] without knowing the importance of the end, I think would go against the author’s intentions. So when he (Jesus) says, “You keep my word, you live forever, you never die,” he’s not saying you don’t have to know anything about the cross. The Gospel is not going to end there…and he has already said. “the good shepherd has lain down his life for his sheep… I’m going to destroy death for you, I’m going to rise from the grave for you… [true believers) keep his word, love the revelation in its totality… if you embrace what Jesus said, you will live forever…never see death…Daily Gaza deaths, daily Ukraine deaths, daily Christian deaths persecuted all over the place. What do you mean “you won’t see death?” I see it. And you will be it. Fifty thousand people die every day in this world. Death is no surprise. What does Jesus mean when he says you will “truly, truly,” never taste death.”
Jesus says to Martha, the sister of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). “Belief” here is that of the true believer. Jesus says in John 5:24, “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.”
It is understandable that the bereaved feel anger and depression. How should a Christian (a true believer) respond. Surely not by “No Bible texts please. Why did God allow this to happen? My heart is broken.” This attitude to death is depthless, often due to a crossless, hence, a Christless Christianity. The true believer overcomes anger and depression, and should not end up with a broken heart. The worries of this world – where the greatest of these is surely death, in our context the premature and often violent death of a loved one – have defeated them. The seed never takes root:
A parable told by Jesus Mark 4:3-9:
“3 Behold, the sower went forth to sow: 4 and it came to pass, as he sowed, some seed fell by the way side, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 And other fell on the rocky ground, where it had not much earth; and straightway it sprang up, because it had no deepness of earth: 6 and when the sun was risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. 7 And other fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. 8 And others fell into the good ground, and yielded fruit, growing up and increasing; and brought forth, thirtyfold, and sixtyfold, and a hundredfold. 9 And he said, Who hath ears to hear, let him hear .”
The disciples of Jesus have no idea what the parable means. Jesus explains:
“The sower sows the word. 15 And these are they by the way side, where the word is sown; and when they have heard, straightway cometh Satan, and taketh away the word which hath been sown in them. 16 And these in like manner are they that are sown upon the rocky places, who, when they have heard the word, straightway receive it with joy; 17 and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, straightway they stumble. 18 And others are they that are sown among the thorns; these are they that have heard the word, 19 and the cares of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. 20 And those are they that were sown upon the good ground; such as hear the word, and accept it, and bear fruit, thirtyfold, and sixtyfold, and a hundredfold.”
I return to Hosea 6:
“Unless your faith is grounded in the sovereign work of Jesus Christ, and there has never come a time in your life when in gratitude you have acknowledged your lost condition, and by God’s grace entrusted yourself to him, and having realised that your eternal salvation is dependent upon what he has accomplished and you’re grateful for what he has done, your faith will be like the morning cloud too. It’ll be like the dew” (S. Lewis Johnson, Hosea 6, “God dismayed”).
Everything that comes to pass – both good and evil – is in accordance with the will of God. Surely not evil as well!
“We often don’t like to realize that everything comes to pass in accordance with the will of God. He works all things in accordance with the counsel of his own will, Paul says, and if Paul was standing in this pulpit, that’s exactly what he would say. All things come to pass according to the counsel of his eternal will. But there are times, you see, when God for other reasons – greater good, perhaps – determines that certain things are to come to pass which don’t please him. That puzzles people who are not responsive to the word of God, but if you just think for a moment about the cross of Jesus Christ, and if you think the cross of Jesus Christ was something that was determined in ages past, then you see that it was something that was determined of God. He does determine things that come to pass, even things that may not please him, may not be according to his word. Or, as the Scriptures put it, Peter, speaking on the Day of Pentecost says, “Him, Christ being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” – that’s God’s determination – “you have with wicked hands taken him up and nailed him to the tree.” And they did not have the excuse of, “Well, we were just doing what God determined to come to pass.” God called them wicked even when they were carrying out things that he had determined were going to come to pass” (S. Lewis Johnson, Hosea 8, “The tragedy of a forgotten God”).
To reject the biblical fact that God controls all things, even evil, is not the tragedy of a forgotten God, but the tragedy – your tragedy – of a God you have never known.
“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And he that doth not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me. 39 He that finds his life shall lose it; and he that loses his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:37-39).
“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever would save his life shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).
For God, no one’s death is premature.
“Test yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:5).