Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. (John 19:30 NASB)
Dying and death have been on my mind for weeks. At Creekside, we’ve pored over the Scriptures and prophecies about Jesus’ death on the cross in Sunday sermons. We’re preparing for Good Friday and believe that Jesus’ death is good, even gloriously good.
Yet human dying is all around us, and it doesn’t seem good at all. How can Jesus’ death be good and all the other deaths not be good? Is death less of an enemy and more of a friend than my instincts tell me?
Of course, Jesus is unique and His death is unique. But Jesus continually invites us into imitation of Him. Perhaps there’s a redemptive quality to human death waiting to be grasped.
Jesus uses the metaphor of seed and fruit to talk about death: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24 NASB). How benign this sounds! The way of plants and gardens, of growth and the sweetness of fruit. Death leads to fruit.
Jesus goes on: “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also” (John 12:25-26a NASB). Here’s an inkling that life and loving life puts us at risk and death may have a beneficial role. And this hating of life is itself a fruit of sticking close to Jesus, following in His footsteps.
When I visit my mom at the nursing home, especially in winter, there’s almost always a new solitary rose in a vase with a picture of a resident who has recently died. If my eye catches that of some staff member, we smile sadly at each other and sigh. A life that has touched us has passed from view. Still, these deaths don’t feel tragic. Death can be an ending to a period of disorienting disability, pain or confusion.
My friend has a beloved 88-year-old grandpa with leukemia who may only live another month or two. She told me, “It feels callous, but I feel like there will be something returning to order in the universe when he passes.”
Different from the passing of precious elders are the 43 dead at two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt, who were killed during Palm Sunday worship. This is tragic death, a seeming victory for evil against the God who is actually more powerful, but veiled or restrained. Then there’s my good friend’s college minister who died of cancer in his early fifties. And the young man who died in a motorcycle crash. And on and on.
Jesus said that a slave is not above his master (John 13:14-17). Our Master willingly died. We will not avoid death if our Master suffered it. Whether we die from old age, malice, disease, accident or a mistake, dying is an act of submission in the likeness of Jesus’ obedience to death. Death is ennobled by Jesus.
What if God had not plucked Adam and Eve out of the garden of Eden after their too soon dive into deadly knowledge? What if they had eaten from the tree of life? Would they and the whole human race have been forever frozen, locked into sin, rebellion and a death that would not die, without remedy?
God saved us from that horror and gave us the penance, or gift, of death, the final cleansing break with sin that releases us, like a seed, to an eternity worth living with the Lord who died for us.
Jani can be reached by email here.