How Does the Bible Describe Death

By: Dr. John Ankerberg; ©2002
The Bible uses a number of interesting figures of speech when it refers to death. This month Dr. Lutzer tells us about three of them: a departure; restful sleep; and a collapsing tent. How is each of these a pictures a comfort to Christians?

How Does the Bible Describe Death?

Dr. John Ankerberg: Erwin, let me start by asking the question, why do so many people avoid thinking about death?

Dr. Erwin Lutzer: John, I just marvel at the fact that there are many people who do not pay attention nor do they seriously think or plan about death. Yet the fact is that it is inevi­table. Absolutely inevitable. We will die and we don’t know when. Death came into the world when Adam and Eve sinned. They died spiritually. They were dying physically after they sinned. And, of course, they also were dying eternally. But God rescued them from eternal death.

You know, when you stop to think of it and you get some perspective, you realize that death really is something that is wonderful for the Christian. I know that on this side of the grave it’s not wonderful; but on the other side of the grave, it is. I have often marveled at that passage in Corinthians where the Apostle Paul says to the people, “All things are yours, whether Paul or Cephas, or whether life or death” (1 Cor. 3:22). I thought about that and asked myself, “What did Paul mean that death was the possession of the Christian?”

And then I was thinking about the persecutions of the early Church, how the pagans were able to take everything from the Christians. They stripped them of their wealth, of their health, and of their very life. But you know, those early Christians, bless them, they used to say, “There’s one thing that the pagans cannot take from us, and that is death. In fact, they may hasten our death and death is the possession of every single Christian.”

So, I want us to think differently about it. If you’ve believed in Jesus Christ as your Sav­ior, the Scripture says that He came to “destroy the works of the devil” and catch this, now, “to deliver those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.”

Ankerberg: The Bible uses some interesting figures of speech when it refers to death. Tell us about one of those, and what comfort it gives to Christians.

Lutzer: John, when we look at the figures of speech that are found in the New Testa­ment, they will help us get a handle on this business of death and they will help us to view death differently. For example, death is sometimes spoken of as a departure. Remember the Mount of Transfiguration? Jesus was there along with Elijah and Moses and three of the disciples. And the Scripture says that Jesus spoke of His departure. The Greek word is exidos, from which we get, of course, the word that is the second book of the Bible, Exodus, the departure. He was speaking of His departure in Jerusalem, His death.

But you know, when you stop to think of it, when the Israelites left Egypt, there was nothing for them to fear in that Exodus, was there? Because they knew that Moses would be with them, the Lord would be with them, and then, of course, eventually they came into the land. They had some struggles along the way but they made it. I like to think of Jesus as having crossed a river and He says now that He is on the other side, “You come be­cause I have already crossed it and I will be there to meet you.” Not only there to meet you, by the way, but with us on this side of the grave, too, to lead us all the way through.

Ankerberg: That’s good! I like that! Okay, give us another one.

Lutzer: Death is sometimes spoken of as a “restful sleep.” In John Chapter 11 Jesus says regarding Lazarus, “Lazarus sleeps.” Now, I have to pause here for a moment, be­cause you know there are some people who believe in what is known as “soul sleep.” They believe that when you die your soul sleeps until the day of resurrection so no one who dies is conscious today. Now, I strongly disagree with that and let me give you a couple of reasons why.

First of all, we find that Moses did not sleep until the day of resurrection, did he? He was there on the Mount of Transfiguration, as I mentioned a moment ago. But furthermore, think of Stephen. You know, when he was being stoned and the heavens were opened and Jesus was standing on the right hand of God the Father, Stephen knew that when he died, Christ would be there to receive him.

Perhaps the most powerful information about this comes to us from the thief on the cross. Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Now, I have a question to ask you. If you had been that thief, how would you have interpreted that? Would you not have thought that Jesus was making you a promise that you were going to meet in paradise on that very day? There are some of our friends who want to interpret those verses this way. They say, “Well, what Jesus said to him was, ‘Today I am saying to you, you shall be with me in paradise.’” But, of course, that violates the grammar of the text. In fact, do you know what I think? Because you know Jesus Christ died before the thief did— the soldiers were surprised that He had died so soon—I like to think of the fact that Jesus died, He was in paradise, and He was already there as the thief entered, waiting for him. Isn’t that good news?

No. It is not true that the soul sleeps. “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” You know, when Paul said in the Book of Philippians so very clearly, “I desire to depart and be with Christ which is far better,” why would he have desired to depart and to be with Christ if indeed he wouldn’t be with Christ after he died, he’d have to wait until the day of resurrection? My friend, I want you to know that when you die, you die without a break in consciousness. You slip from this life into the next.

Now, here is the good news. Why does the Bible talk about death as “sleep”? It’s notbecause our soul sleeps, it’s because of body sleeps. And the body sleeps until the day ofresurrection and Jesus Christ is going to speak the word and we’re going to be resurrected.

Ankerberg: We’re going to talk more about the resurrection later, but go on for now.

Lutzer: Let me give you a third figure of speech. Sometimes death is spoken of as “a collapsing tent.” In 2 Corinthians 5:1, the Apostle Paul talks about this body being de­stroyed and “we have a tabernacle with God in the heavens.” Well, you know, of course, that a tent is oftentimes used in some very bad weather and it gets tattered and the canvas begins to leak. Isn’t that a picture of our body as we become weary? I’m still a relatively young man but I’m beginning to find that I can’t do what I used to. We’re all in the process of deterioration. And God is going to give us a permanent home. You know, when you move into heaven, you are never going to have to pack and move again. Permanent home. And do you remember the story of those people who were out camping and one of them said to the other as they were setting up the tent, “Don’t drive in the stakes too deeply because we’re leaving in the morning”?

Well, I want you to know we used to sing “This world is not my home.” And it’s not our home! It’s not our permanent home because we’re leaving in the morning.

Dr. John Ankerberg: Erwin, you have told us that the Bible refers to death as a “depar­ture,” as “sleep,” and as a “collapsing tent.” And you’ve told us why those images are com­forting to Christians. But I know that the Bible uses other word pictures to describe death, so give us another one.

Dr. Erwin Lutzer: Let me give you another figure of speech and that is that death is like the sailing of a ship. You know, in Philippians 1 the Apostle Paul says, “The time of my departure is come.” And that is really a nautical term. It’s like a boat that has been pushed out to sea. And of course, we know that we are going to enter into the harbor safely.

Let me read from Hebrews 6:19: “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

The imagery is that in ancient times as a ship would come into the harbor, a forerunner would hop off the ship, swim to shore with a rope, fasten the rope, and then by means of a wench slowly bring that ship into harbor so that it would not be dashed against stones. And that’s what Christ does. You see, He is in the Holy of Holies. He has already died and He has proven that He has victory over death. He is alive today and He takes all of us as believers and as it were, as our Forerunner, He brings us safely into the harbor where He Himself is, right there in the very citadel of God.

Now, of course, along the way our ship is often battered. I speak to people who are tired of the storm. Some of the boards are beginning to fall apart and they are saying, “I don’t know whether or not I can make it!” Oh yes, you can! If you have trusted in Christ, your ship will be brought safely into the harbor, right into the presence of God.

Ankerberg: What a marvelous thought. Do you have any more for us?

Lutzer: I’d like to give one more figure of speech. In fact, it’s not really a figure of speech because it is a reality, and that is the fact that heaven is our home.

Do you remember in John Chapter 14 Jesus is speaking to the disciples who were discouraged. And they were fearful, of course, about the future, knowing He was going to die. They were beginning to understand that. He said to them, “Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, I would have told you.” And then He says, “I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go, I will come again.”

Do you remember the preacher who said, “Jesus is a carpenter and He’s been working for thousands of years to get this place ready”? I want you to know that Jesus Christ is God and in a moment of time, just by speaking the word, that place can be ready. But it has many different dwelling-places. You know, that means there is enough room in heaven for the Old Testament saints: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (And by the way, John, if you want to talk to Abraham, that’s fine. You can talk to him as long as you like because we do have all of eternity, and I will get my turn, too. There are plenty of people I want to talk to. Of course, the major focus of heaven is Jesus Christ but there is no question but that the fellowship of saints is going to be a part of it.)

And there will be enough room for the New Testament saints. All the people you wanted to speak to who blessed you because of the books that they wrote and the sermons they preached and the lives they lived, we’re all going to be together. Heaven is our home.

I happened to have come from a good home, so I always looked forward to going home. I remember, at least when I was in college, after you’d finish that last exam you’d get on the first bus or take the first train because you wanted to be home. Well, heaven is our home. Isn’t that wonderful?

You’ll remember Enoch in the Old Testament. It says that, “Enoch walked with God and then he was not, for God took him.” A little girl in Sunday School said when her mother asked, “What did you study in Sunday School?” she said, “Well, you know, we studied about this man who used to take these long walks with God and one day God said to him, ‘Enoch, you are so far from your home, you’re much closer to My home. So why don’t you just come and live with Me?’”

Well, that’s the way it is. At the end of the day we go to live with God.

Ankerberg: Erwin, a lot of people are grieving right now. What can you say to comfort them?

Lutzer: John, as a pastor, I’ve had the responsibility of counseling many people when it comes to this topic of grief. And it’s necessary that we say something about it because we can talk about the glories of heaven, but the reality is that death is still our enemy. And because it’s our enemy, we have to know how to handle that transition period.

Let me say, first of all, the Scripture says, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” If your relative, if your friend, if your wife or husband died and they’re believ­ers in Jesus, the sting has been taken out of death. It still hurts. You know, a bee can only sting you once. Once it has stung, it cannot sting you again. Jesus Christ absorbed the sting of death for those who believe. Therefore, death is still fearful but the sting has been removed.

How do we face this business of grief? And I speak to some of you who perhaps are anticipating the death of a father or a loved one who is near death. How do you handle it? Well, first of all let me say that death is very normal. It’s okay to cry. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. But at the same time there is such a thing as unhealthy grief. There is good grief and there’s some bad grief. I remember a woman who, even years after her husband died, would not touch anything in his study. It had to be just the way it was when he died because she thought that if she were to tinker with it or sell the house that she would be disrespectful to him. No. That is unhealthy grief.

You know, in the Old Testament they had a period of mourning that was 40 days. Even if you take 80 days or a hundred days, at some point you have to say that the transition has been made. You know, I’m not saying that you’re ever going to forget or that it is ever going to be easy, but you must move on. It’s a time of “transition.” So feel free to weep. We all feel that pain.

Now, you say, “Pastor Lutzer, I’m fearful, though, that when the time comes for me to die or for a relative to die, I will not be able to handle it.” Well, you know, it’s been said by some very well known preachers—and I think they are right—that God does not give us dying grace until we need it. Do you remember Corrie ten Boom? As she anticipated the death of her parents and she was wondering how she would handle it, her father said this. He said,

“Corrie, when we are going to Amsterdam on the train, when do I give you the ticket?” She said, “Well, Dad, just before I get onto the train.”

And he said, “In the very same way, just when you need it, God’s grace and sufficiency will be there.”

God will be there for you. I promise you. God will be there.

When Donald Grey Barnhouse lost his wife, as he was returning from the funeral he was trying to comfort his children. As they were driving along the road, a big huge truck passed them, and, of course, they experienced the shadow of the truck as it drove by them. And he thought of Psalm 23 and he said to his children, “Children, what would be your preference? To be run over by the truck or the shadow?”

And the children said, “Well, of course, Dad, the shadow.”

I want you to know today that when you know Christ as Savior, you pass through the “valley of the shadow of death.” It’s the shadow of death. Jesus is there with you, and what you need to do is to transfer your trust to Him and believe in Him. The images that we have talked about are beautiful images that help us come to grips with death. But at the end of the day, what we need to remember is the fact that only those who have faith in Christ will experience the blessed side of death. “He that believes in Him has everlasting life. He that believes not shall not see life but the wrath of God abides on him.”

I conclude by telling you that God is adequate for us when we’re living, and He’s ad­equate and He’s there when our time comes to die. The most important thing is to prepare for that final moment by faith in His blessed Son. Apart from Him you shall not see the life that God promises.

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