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We were eating ice cream on the porch of a log home. The sun was shining brightly. It was a beautiful chilly fall day as only the mountains can be.
He corrected himself. “No, the second worst thing.” I knew he was referring to the near death of his day old son, the tiny thing covered in patches and wires and tubes, coming back from being “80% dead.” But this time his sister had recently died from brain cancer.
How, he wanted to know, could God be happy over the death of his saints?
Psalm 116:15 Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.
Those of us who know the Bible and know God also know this – He is not inconsistent, nor does He refute Himself. There’s a lesson here somewhere.
First, not everyone is called a saint. If we say someone is not a saint we get into muddy water. Who are we to say who is and who is not a saint? At the point of physical death it is well known that individuals may grasp on to the truth of God and end up in heaven after a life as rascals who condemned God to His face. But that is His grace and we are not there.
God looks on the heart and we can’t see it. His sister was silent for one week before her death. Whatever she and God were talking about is not known to us now or then. And his sister wasn’t the chief of sinners either. So that explanation is out.
But, there is more than one death. Locked as we are in the physical world we think only of that death, the one where we say prayers, send flowers and present a formal public goodbye.
The memorial service custom has nothing to do with the “departed” – all the formalities are for us, the living, to mark a point in our lives when we can say to ourselves, however weakly, we must move on. Grief, if held on to for any reason can eat up the soul and contaminate the spirit with bitterness and regret and blame.
There is no such thing in life as the status quo; we are either moving forward or deteriorating.
But second, there is more than one death; there is a second death. Since the physical body cannot die twice, God must be talking about something else, and that something else is what Christians call “death to self.”
Paul said in Galatians 2:20 “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”
Paul is using the present tense: I am, right now, living in this body, believing myself crucified just as Jesus was, living not for myself and my own goals but for Him and His goals for me and the human race. All those wonderful plans I had for myself are gone and I am available to Jesus and to Him only for whatever gifts and work He has for me in this world.
That is what it means to be crucified – present tense – with Christ. It is a sacrifice and God knows a lot about that subject.
Jesus could well have lived forever in His sinless body. No disease could touch Him. He could have enjoyed a 2,000 year ministry laying hands on the sick and them recovering. He could have written some best sellers, been on TV (what a program) and spoken in multiple languages on radio to reach millions. But He chose His Father’s plan instead.
And that plan was then and is now to give the power and authority to His followers so they can put on TV shows, preach the good news in multiple languages, lay hands on the sick, cast out demons – whatever Jesus did is now possible for millions, perhaps billions of believers worldwide and through the centuries.
Yes, that is a better plan. He said, “As My Father sent me, so send I you.” He could not have been clearer. (John 20:21)
So when God’s people – the saints – make that choice to kill off their personal goals and take up whatever God’s plan is for their life, it requires them to die to their old ways, thoughts and projects. For introverts it may be coming out into a hostile world; for extroverts, it may be a life hidden in a life of prayer.
But whatever that plan God has for your life, it is superior to the one you have. Jeremiah 29:11 is a key scripture for any young person today. God has a set of plans for you.
The death of God’s saints means an exchange – my plans for His, His work for my goals, my deliberate living today for Him and doing his work. And yes, that is precious to Him and of great benefit to us.
The gruesome death of his sister? No, that is not precious at all. Make no mistake – Death is our enemy and Jesus has, in his time, overcome it all for us.
Read John 11:17-44
One of the hazards of knowing the Bible, and knowing it well comes when we read a familiar passage like this one and think “Oh, I know what this is all about.” Then we miss whatever new idea God might have to move us deeper into a knowledge of Him. That happened when I was nosing around for a place in scripture which could show me the outworking of the confession Paul made:
Galatians 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.
Then Lazarus emerging from the tomb covered in smelly grave clothes came to mind. Our church-faith-community has been structured around human leaders and established doctrine, but when someone is “dead in Christ” we infrequently hear about it and have no pattern for generating this kind of life in our church, families and communities.
Lazarus is a perfect picture of what Jesus wants us to go through, what He wants us to become. After we get saved we are still in the natural. We learn all the stations of belief, baptism, Holy Spirit infilling, fasting, prayer, battling the devil in various levels of sincerity, but the “dead man” that Jesus wants is nowhere to be seen.
And that formerly dead man now raised to new life right here and now is the Man God wants to lead his church out of the wilderness and into the promised land. There are people who are dead in Christ, I’ve met them, but they have no major books or TV programs. Most have no visible ministries but they are there. They are so dead we don’t know who they are unless we seek them out.
Notice here the pluperfect tense; Paul ‘was’ not crucified, but he uses the ‘had’ which means it is time well behind him. It is over and done with. He lives now in the state where the fleshy desires of the natural man – I want, I need, I must – have been put down by submission of the will to Christ.
So just as God called forth the stars ( Psalm 147:4 ) and the souls (John 10:3) to planet earth so Jesus stands outside the tomb and calls forth the dead Lazarus the one who knows what he needs to know about God, the one who died to himself, and now has new life, not on the other side of the grave but right here and now. Lazarus is the prototype, the symbol of what God wants from us, a living witness so dead to his own desires and self-will that he (or she) is able to follow the instructions from the Holy Spirit on a daily, moment by moment basis just as Jesus did.
Of course” he stinketh” as his sister Martha so ingloriously put it. The past is still clinging to him. He may also be stinking up the church if they do not understand who this New Man is or why he is here among us.
So Jesus has the witnesses pull off the grave clothes of old theology, old legalisms, old smelly rags of self-works and self-will, to reveal the New Man in Christ.
My ministry is to write for the people who no longer go to church but who are still interested in what God is doing and why. Between 30-40% of believing Christians no longer attend services. Out of an estimated 12 million adult Christians (less than half the total adult population of the USA) that is a potential church of over 3,600,000 million. That is a lot of wanderers.
Why did they quit? I think they, like Lazarus, are saying to themselves, “this church is dead.” And from their viewpoint, the church is dead.
But no, the church is not dead – they are. They have died to the old and are needing to embrace the new – but where is it? They wander around looking for similar Kingdom people who want to shake off the smelly clothes of last year’s religious status quo.
Being dead in Christ isn’t something Jesus does. This is your job. You get to die by practicing the Word of God, by forgiving instantly, by not lashing out even when you are justified, by not letting the ‘natural man’ take over your emotions. It is death. It is no garden party.
Look for the New Man because He is here ready to be revealed.