Two years ago, our family found ourselves in the middle of an intense trial. My mother-in-law, just 64, was diagnosed with cancer already in advanced stages, leading to a summer in which my wife, Corina, spent (in total) three months in Romania as her primary caregiver during those last days. I wrote about the shock of the diagnosis as well as the truths that sustained us during that season. At Thanksgiving of that year, I said it felt like we were struggling up the sides of a crater left in the wake of an asteroid of suffering.
Since that time, I have found solace in God’s promise of resurrection and the New Testament’s description of the final victory of God over sin and death. Oh, there are still tears. There is still heartache and pain. Trusting in the promises of God does not turn us into unfeeling people who demonstrate faithfulness by keeping a stiff upper lip.
But even in the tears, the promise of resurrection remains solid—a foundation for our lives that will not be shaken, something that can help our hearts remain steady and firm no matter how much we grieve. We can take comfort in knowing that no matter what happens, no matter how much death haunts our life, the day is coming when we will sneer at death as a pitiful, shriveled up, old defeated enemy when seen in the everlasting light of resurrection life.
Sneering at Death
Paul quoted from both Isaiah and Hosea when he taunted death in 1 Corinthians 15.
54 When this corruptible body is clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal body is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will take place: Death has been swallowed up in victory. 55 Where, death, is your victory? Where, death, is your sting? 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
Paul doesn’t just revel in the victory of Jesus, he also he sneers at the defeat of his enemy. There’s no being a “good sport” here with Paul. Trash talk is appropriate, because death is not a worthy opponent but the “last enemy” to be defeated before God remakes the world.
Paul’s sneering at death means that no matter what comes your way, you can walk in faith that God will have the final victory. God is bigger. God is stronger. He raises the dead. The decisive battle against this enemy was waged and won at Easter. The Lamb of God who surrendered to death’s clutches is the Lion of Judah who has stolen Death’s sting. Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection. He’s first, not last. That means our resurrection will follow.
When we trust in Jesus—when we believe that he is the resurrection and the life and when we repent of our sins and put our faith in him as our Savior and Lord—we are reconnected to the source of life. We are reunited to God, our Creator. So, even if this body of mine will die, it will not stay dead forever. When we die, our spirits go immediately to be with Jesus, and our bodies await the day of resurrection, when Christ returns to harvest the seeds we plant in the ground.
That’s why we can die defiantly. We can look our last enemy square in the face, take one last breath, hear one last pulse of our heart, and say this: I will breathe again. This heart will beat again. This body will rise again. Because my sins are gone and my Savior got up from that grave!
‘Do Your Worst!’
The Reformation theologian John Trapp sums up Paul’s words here:
This is the sharpest and shrillest note, the boldest and bravest challenge that a human being ever rang in the ears of death. . . . Death is here out-braved, called craven to its face and bidden, “Do your worst!”
And all throughout church history, Christians have looked squarely into the face of death and said just that, “Do your worst.”
Back in the time when the plague would descend among the great cities of the Roman Empire, the pagans would flee the towns out into the countryside, leaving loved ones to waste away. But the Christians would stay back and nurse the sick and care for people on the brink of death, even if it meant they might die themselves. Why? Because death is an enemy, yes, but it’s not going to have the last word. Death is not the worst thing that can happen to you if you’re a Christian.
Another writer during the time of the Reformation, Katharina Shutz Zell, lived from 1497 until 1562. A hard life. Full of sorrow. With the stench of death constantly present. When her husband died, she said this:
I hope to obtain and see that resurrection with my dear husband, along with our dear children. Together we had two, and they lie in this graveyard. It is now in the 21st year since—with great pain!—we carried our first child and trod this place with him; he was the first person buried in this graveyard, where with such fitting earnestness my husband so often longed to come. Therefore just as he desired to be buried in this place with his and my children, so I hope that this place will also be my abiding place until the trumpet and voice come: Rise up, you dead, for the judgment! Then my husband and all the believing dead will hear the happy voice of our worthy Lord Jesus Christ: “Come here, you blessed, into the kingdom that was prepared for you from the beginning.”
Can’t you hear the grief of this woman as she stands at the graveside of her husband and children? And yet there’s such confidence in her words. She demonstrates the great hope of the Christian faith. She laments, but through her tears, she confesses her faith: death will be defeated, and everlasting Life is going to win.
Answer to Lament
I love what Aubrey Sampson writes in her book on lament:
Because of the sin-atoning, death-defying, bondage-breaking, heart-healing, prisoner-emancipating, forgiveness-bringing, adoption-declaring, heaven-and-earth-meeting, new-creation-ushering, shalom-restoring, victory-winning, evil-overcoming, righteousness-gifting, Spirit-filling work of the cross and the resurrection, pain and suffering will never be the end of our story. All laments are answered in the lament-ending love of Jesus.
We can lament today, but we will celebrate tomorrow. Death is going down, and its power will be forever broken.