At Home with the Lord: What is the Christian View of Death?
July 16, 2000
One of the first prayers I learned to pray was my bedtime prayer. I do not remember how old I was when I first learned it but I know I was just a young boy. Over the years it has helped millions of children get ready to go to bed. You probably know it by heart:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake,
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to take.
It is the third line that has always struck me as unusual: “If I should die before I wake.” It seems odd that little children in the springtime of life should mention death in their bedtime prayer. But if you think about it, it’s not odd at all. Death comes to all of us sooner or later. Sometimes to children. And sometimes in the night before we wake.
There is an art to dying well. The Puritans spoke of “dying grace,” which is the special help God gives his children as they prepare to cross the final river. I suppose all of us are planning to live a long time, but these days you can never be sure. The stray bullet, the out-of-control driver, the renegade gang member, the sudden heart attack, the unexpected tumor, who knows what will happen next? Any of us could be struck down at any moment.
Have you ever thought about what you might like to say to your loved ones if you knew you were going to die? If you live long enough, you’ll start thinking about it sooner or later. And even though death can come suddenly so that you don’t have time to even say goodbye, it’s still a useful exercise to think about what final words you’d like to leave behind. Some years ago I pondered what I would say to my three boys if I knew I had only 30 seconds to live. You can’t waste time when the clock is ticking so you have to get to the point quickly. If I had only 30 seconds to live, I would say four things to my boys:
1) Take care of your mother
2) Love each other
3) Marry Christian girls
4) Serve Jesus Christ forever.
That’s it. Thirty seconds and I’m gone. Those four things summarize everything I would want my boys to know. After that, I would be ready to go.
Here is one mark of genuine Christianity. When you come to the end of your life, you still hold on to what you believe. When someone dies suddenly, we all want to know: What were his final words? That’s what our text is all about-the final words and deeds of three famous men. Hebrews 11:20-22 contains three brief snapshots from the end of life. One verse is devoted to each man: Isaac in verse 20, Jacob in verse 21, and Joseph in verse 22.
These patriarchs have this in common: 1) What they did, they did by faith; 2) What they did, they did in the last hours of their life. They were all old and infirm and on the edge of the grave. And the Bible bids us take a close look at what they did before they died.
Here are three generations in focus: Isaac the father, Jacob his son, Joseph his grandson. From looking at these final moments we can discover how faith shows itself at the end of life.
I. Isaac: Faith for his Children 20
“By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future” (Hebrews 11:20).
The book of Genesis does not give us much information about Isaac. He appears in the Scriptural record as a plain and colorless man. It’s hard to get a handle on his personality because he lived in the shadow of his father Abraham and his son Jacob. It is clear that he was manipulated by his wife and by both his sons. Worse yet, he seems helpless to stop the scheming. He had a strong father, a protective mother, and a domineering wife. He never steps out of the shadows and establishes his own identity.
Yet the Bible says, “By faith Isaac!” He must have done something right. At what point do we see his faith in action? Surely we see it when Jacob puts on the goatskins (at his mother’s instruction) and fools Isaac into thinking that he (Jacob) is his hairy brother Esau instead. Isaac then gives Jacob the blessing he intended to give to Esau. Later when Esau asks his father for a blessing, the deceit is discovered. This is the crucial moment. Isaac knows he has been tricked into giving Jacob the blessing. Everything about the way it was done was underhanded and wrong. And yet Isaac refused to reverse what he had done. “I blessed him-and indeed he will be blessed” (Genesis 27:33). Later he gives Esau a blessing as well, but it is much less significant.
This is an example of the overruling grace of God. He didn’t try to reverse the blessing obtained through deceit because he believed God was at work in the trickery of his wife and his younger son. He thus affirmed God’s choice of Jacob over Esau and God’s blessing of Jacob though he did not deserve it. His personal desire to bless Esau could not overcome God’s desire to bless Jacob first. By faith he ratified what God has ordained. Somehow he saw the hand of God behind all the conniving. What a lesson about the sovereignty of God working through sinful human circumstances. Isaac understood that God’s will comes first and we must bow before it even when we don’t understand it. Sometimes we make decisions that hurt those we love the most. When that happens, we must do what is right even when it goes against our personal preferences. The question at that point becomes, Do we put God’s will above our own desires?
Did Isaac have faith? Yes. He was strong in the end when it counted. He made sure his children were blessed “regarding the future.” He didn’t accomplish a great deal from a worldly point of view but he passed his faith along to his children. And in the end, that’s all that matters. On a personal level I find myself challenged by this fact.
If I gain the world but lose my family, my life can hardly be called a success.
If I lose the world but save my family for God, my life will not have been in vain.
When you die, the most important thing you leave behind will be your Christian faith. The people of my congregation don’t know me as well as they think they do. They will know me much better after I am gone. When we live up close to others we may find it hard to get them clearly in focus, but when they are gone, we can take the full measure of who they were and what they lived for. You will know what I believed and how I lived by watching my sons and my grandsons and granddaughters after I am gone. They will tell the story for me. They will rise up and reveal what sort of man I was. Both my strengths and weaknesses will be easy to see. But if they live for Christ, all else will fade away. If they don’t, nothing else can suffice.
II. Jacob: Faith for his Grandchildren 21
“By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff” (Hebrews 11:21).
Jacob is now an old man. As the King James puts it, “he was a-dying.” One by one he calls in his sons and gives each one a blessing suited to him. When he comes to Joseph, he blesses him and then he blesses Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh. He also worshiped God while leaning on the top of his staff.
The story of the blessing of the grandsons is interesting because Jacob did an unexpected thing. Joseph wanted him to bless Manasseh the older with his right hand as a sign of the greater blessing. But at the last second old Jacob crossed his hands and blessed Ephraim the younger with his right hand. This displeased Joseph but Jacob would not change his blessing. Some of us who are younger sons and daughters can draw great encouragement from this story. Many times the firstborn children are favored and children that come later are overlooked. But the Bible is full of hope for younger children. Isaac was a younger child. So was Jacob. So was Joseph. So was Moses. So was Gideon. So was David.
In blessing the younger over the older, Jacob teaches us that God is no respecter of persons. He exalts those who honor him regardless of their background or their birth order. Very often it is through the “overlooked” people of the world that God does his greatest work.
Jacob knew that his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh had been raised in the lap of luxury in Egypt. Because of Joseph’s exalted position, they had been reared to appreciate all that the pagan world had to offer and to enjoy all the glories of ancient Egypt. But Jacob looked into the future and saw a day when his descendants would return to Canaan. He wanted to make sure that his grandsons embraced their true spiritual heritage. If you stay in Egypt you cannot be blessed. At some point you must leave Egypt for the Promised Land. By blessing his grandsons he was moving them from worldly pomp to godly poverty. And he did it “by faith” because he judged that God would keep his Word and that the ragged tents of Canaan were a greater treasure than the vaunted temples of Egypt.
Jacob’s faith is strong as he comes to the end of life. How could he be filled with such confidence? After all, he was a schemer, a born cheater, and a compulsive manipulator. All his life he had “worked the angles” to get ahead. Years earlier he had deceived his father and cheated his brother. With such a checkered past, how could he be so joyful? The answer goes to the heart of the gospel. God held him guilty for nothing. I do not doubt that during the long years when he thought Joseph was dead, he felt guilty and probably thought that Joseph’s fate was somehow his fault. But in the end it didn’t matter. All of God’s purposes fit together. He worshiped with joy as he thought of the happy ending of a life filled with sadness, anger, betrayal, separation, loneliness, and manipulation. God takes our wicked past and places it on his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And then God works through our sinful choices to accomplish his divine plan. This doesn’t make sin any less sinful but it does demonstrate the glory of God in overcoming evil with good.
Recently I spoke with a man who has gone through many years of personal and marital difficulty. The last time I had seen him-many months ago-his face was taut and his voice filled with anger. But now his countenance shines with peace and joy. What happened? God had to bring him to the end of his rope and let him hit rock bottom. It was humbling and frightening. But as he told me the story, he emphatically declared: “It had to happen this way. I see that clearly now.” Everything had to happen exactly as it did so that God could work a miracle in his life. Now he and his wife get up every morning at 5:30 a.m. to read the Bible and pray together. Because I know the man well, I can say that it is truly a miracle from God and only God could have done it. It is a great advance in faith to look back over years of pain and foolish decisions (by yourself and by others) and be able to say, “It had to happen this way.” When you can see God’s hand even in the mistakes of life, you have discovered the same faith that Jacob had.
III. Joseph: Faith for the Distant Future 22
“By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones” (Hebrews 11:22).
Most of us know Joseph’s story. First his brothers envied him. Then they sold him to the Midianites who took him to Egypt where Potiphar purchased him as a slave. Later he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and thrown into prison. When he got out, he interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream and became second in command in Egypt. His family in Canaan thought he was dead but later discovered the truth. The whole family moved to Egypt where they enjoyed a happy existence for many years. Looking back at the treachery of his brothers, Joseph saw God’s hand in everything that had happened to him. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20). A few verses later we find his last recorded words:
“I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” And Joseph made the sons of Israel swear an oath and said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.”
Though he was old and dying, Joseph saw past Egypt into the distant future. He knew that God would one day keep his promise and deliver the Israelites from Egypt and would give them a homeland of their own. Because he believed so firmly in that promise, he instructed the Israelites not to leave his bones in Egypt but to make sure and carry his mummified body with them and give him a burial place in the Promised Land.
How could he be so sure about the future? First, he knew what God had promised his great-grandfather Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). Second, his own life proved that God keeps his promises. He knew that Israel didn’t belong in Egypt and he didn’t want his bones staying in Egypt when the Jews left for Canaan. On the outside he looked like an Egyptian; on the inside he was an Israelite. He never forgot who he was or where he came from. The Bible tell us that Moses took the bones with him when the Jews left Egypt (Exodus 13:19) and years later Joshua buried them at Shechem (Joshua 24:32). There his bones rest in the dust of the earth to this day.
“Dad, Where Do You Want to be Buried?”
I can understand it. Although I am only in my late 40s, I find myself thinking about my own death from time to time. It’s natural as you grow older to think about where you will be buried. Most of us would like to be buried near our loved ones, if possible. Several years ago, on the first day of our vacation, we made our way south from Chicago, heading down to Mississippi and on to Florida. We were having a great time, singing, laughing, and telling jokes. We stopped for lunch in southern Illinois, got back in the car, and headed on down the road. We hadn’t gone far when our resident theologian Mark (who was then ten years old), suddenly asked me, “Dad, when you die, where do you want to be buried?” Talk about a conversation stopper. How do you answer a question like that? After a few moments thought, I replied, “In the ground.” But Mark was serious, so we discussed the question for a few minutes. It was important to him to know the answer.
Joseph lived and died without ever hearing about Moses and Joshua. He knew nothing of their mighty deeds. But in his old age God gave him faith to believe that although he was dying in Egypt, his future belonged in the Promised Land. Joseph is saying, “I may be dying but I believe that one day God will keep his promises. I want to be there when it happens so don’t leave me down here in Egypt. Bury me in the Promised Land.”
Nothing of God dies when a man of God dies. We die, but the promises of God live on. They bury us, but they don’t bury God’s promises with us. Your death cannot nullify God’s faithfulness. Our God is the God of the future. He is the God of the generations to come.
A servant whose master was dying was asked, “How is your master?” “He is dying full of life,” came the reply. It is a grand thing to die “full of life.” This is possible for those who know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Three Lessons for Today
What can we learn from these glimpses at the last words and deeds of Isaac, Jacob and Joseph?
1) The greatest thing you can do is to pass your faith along to your children and grandchildren. Abraham gave it to Isaac, Isaac gave it to Jacob, Jacob gave it to Joseph, and Joseph gave his faith to the whole nation of Israel.
The Christian faith is not a sprint and it’s not really a marathon. It’s a relay race and I am but one member of a team that stretches across the generations. I have faith because someone gave it to me. And someone gave it to the person who gave it to me. On and on the line goes, stretching back 2000 years. I must make sure my three boys follow in my steps. I must not fail here. The baton of faith must be passed on to the next generation.
A week ago I heard Ravi Zacharias speak at a banquet in New Orleans. He mentioned that he had spoken at the memorial service for Robert Fraley, one of the men who perished in the same plane crash that took the life of golfer Payne Stewart. Ravi said that one of the other eulogists was baseball pitcher Orel Hershiser. Several years ago after a particularly good season Orel Hershiser suggested to Robert Fraley that they sit down and evaluate his baseball career. “It’s not time to do an evaluation,” Mr. Fraley replied. “You need to wait until the end of your career and then ask yourself four questions: 1) Is my faith in Christ still strong? 2) Is my integrity intact? 3) Am I still living with my wife and are we still in love? 4) Have I passed my faith along to my children? If you can answer yes to those four questions, then you’ve had an all-star career, and it doesn’t matter what your won-loss record was.”
As the years quickly pass I am seeing more and more that passing my faith along is the work of an entire lifetime. It’s never done no matter how old I get. As long as I have life and breath I am to be like old Jacob with his children and grandchildren and the entire clan gathered round his bedside waiting to hear his final words. When that time comes for me, I pray that my family will be by my side and I pray even harder that I will have something worthwhile to say.
2) The saddest thing that can happen is to become bitter in your old age. We’ve all seen it happen to people we know and love. They become bitter, angry, and filled with resentment because life didn’t turn out the way they thought it would. Abraham had a promise from God but he never saw it completely fulfilled. Isaac had the same promise but he died without seeing it fulfilled. Jacob had the same promise and he died in Egypt. Joseph had the same promise but died in Egypt too. If ever any one had the right to become bitter it was these three men-Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. They lived and died with the promise unfulfilled but to their credit they never gave up hope.
3) The happiest way to live is to realize that God’s work is bigger than you are. That’s why Isaac saw God’s hand at work in spite of the trickery of Rebekah and Jacob. That’s why Jacob blessed his grandchildren before he died. And that’s why Joseph said, “Don’t leave my bones in Egypt. Bury me in the Promised Land.” They all said the same thing: “God’s promises are true. I may never see the final fulfillment. But that doesn’t matter. My sons will see it. Or my grandsons will see it. I may die but everything God said will eventually come true.” Isaac, Jacob and Joseph were three links in God’s great chain of faith. They never gave up believing in God and they died in faith and in the faith.
I may live for 70 or 80 years and never see all that I dream about. I may pray for things that never happen. I may trust God for things that do not appear. I may struggle against great difficulty for many years. The way may be hard, the road steep, the path lonely. I may climb and climb and still never reach the summit of all that I set out to do. It may not be given to me to see everything I would like to see, but it is given to me to live faithfully day after day so that after I am gone, others may stand on my shoulders and see things I never saw. Here is a great goal: To have dreams so big they can’t possibly be fulfilled in my lifetime.
And this brings us to a tremendous truth: God’s plans are bigger than mine. My part is to live for God and to pass my faith along to my children and then to my grandchildren. And I must live so that those things for which I am praying and those things I dream about may happen some day after I am gone.
Grace Rice MacMullen
The name Grace Rice MacMullen will not be familiar to most of you. She was the oldest daughter of the late evangelist John R. Rice. She was a vibrant, active Christian who led many people to the Lord. Her story is all too familiar. The doctors discovered cancer, treated it with chemotherapy and she went into remission. Then the disease came back in force. The doctors told her she would have four to six months to live. That was on August 18. She went home and figured up four months and then wrote these words entitled, “What will I be doing on December 18?”
Well, that depends. I’ll be praising the Lord for his glory and goodness either by faith or by sight. If by faith, as I’ve been doing, my praise may be subdued, alternating with a tear at times.
If not by faith, ah then, ah then! With angels and trumpets and choirs and instruments indescribable!
I’ll still be loving the Lord-maybe blindly, hesitantly, but full-heartedly, trustingly!
Or else-or else! I’ll be loving him in a burst of light where shadows are washed away, to know as I am known-with that full-pouring effusion that can only at last express my stunted, limited, longing love-in purest, shimmering light and color and substance.
I shall, that day, talk to God a bit, as usual, about the things I’m thinking about, about the people I love, about how the day is going, about what I need and want.
Or yet-or yet-I shall that day talk to God! Himself, in person, no dark glass between, nor childish me to speak of childish things.
I shall on that day lie in bed, or move about with wheeled chair, finding my needs met minute-by-minute by loving hands and smiling faces:
Or, indeed, indeed! I shall be doing handsprings, cartwheels, run a dozen miles! To move with God’s own planned grace, as Eve did; roll down a long grassy field, jump across a stream. I shall observe with undimmed eyes and hear with unstopped ears, taste with untainted buds and sniff the fragrances of another world.
Where shall I be?
Here or there?
How little it matters!
She never made it to December 18. Death came on October 24. Her words tell us all we need to know about faith in the face of death. That’s Christian faith. Now I ask you a simple question, Is that the kind of faith you have? Are you ready to die and do you know where you will go when you die?
Death cannot exhaust the promises of God. That’s why Paul could say, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (I Corinthians 15:55). Years ago I heard Stanley Collins, then director of the Forest Home Conference Center in California, tell a story from his days with the British Army in World War II. One day he and another soldier came upon an unexploded land mine. Later that night he nearly passed out when he walked into the barracks and found his buddy resting his head on the same mine. Then he discovered that his buddy had removed the firing pin, rendering the land mine harmless. What had been an instrument of destruction had become a pillow for a weary soldier. Jesus has taken the sting out of death and given us victory over the grave.
For all the wonderful things that we have experienced at the hand of the Lord, we still must pass through the valley of the shadow of death. Our hope is this. That He who has seen us this far will not abandon us when we need him most. He will be with us when we must cross the dark Jordan. He will personally escort us to the mansions of eternal light.
Cheer up, child of God. Smile through your tears. Death is the worst that can happen to us. The best is yet to come. Amen.