Jeremy Sarber
Disciple of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, Reformed Baptist, funeral home chaplain, and host of Sunday Tapes. All glory be to Christ.


Confronting Death

Death slowly takes everything

Death is always taking from us, little by little, until it finally takes everything down to our last breath. It perpetually eats away at everything good, and its appetite is never satisfied.

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Go with me to John 6.

We’ve discussed the tension death creates regarding our sense of identity. Who are we in light of the fact we will die? And last time, we considered the matter of futility. Since everything is perishable in this fallen world, what meaning can anything have? Today, we’ll examine yet another problem death imposes on us, and that is the problem of loss.

I’ll begin by reading portions of John 6, starting with the first verse.

After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. (John 6:1-15)

Let’s skip down to verse 25. The crowd of people, whom Jesus fed, followed him around the sea and found him the next morning.

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:25-40)

This exchange continues throughout the chapter, but let’s skip down once more to verse 66.

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69)

Death slowly takes everything

I’ve shared with you some of the experiences I’ve had working for funeral homes. Let me share another with you.

I can’t speak for every funeral worker, but for me, the hardest part of the job isn’t death itself. It isn’t the bodies. It isn’t the blood, the decay, or some of the other unpleasant aspects of death. For me, the hardest part of death is what it does to everything around it. Death doesn’t quietly take a life from this world. Like a stone thrown into water, it can have a noisy splash, and we continue to see the ripples even after the stone disappears.

For me, the hardest part of the job is not seeing and handling dead bodies. For me, the hardest part is walking into a home and seeing the devastation death has spread through someone’s entire family. The hardest part is watching a family linger by their loved one’s casket as long as possible because they know as soon as they walk away, a funeral director will close the lid for the last time. The hardest part is witnessing something as good and precious as family being ripped apart and destroyed.

I’ve also come to notice how death begins this destructive process long before a person dies. I’ve said before that we like to think of ourselves as climbing a ladder throughout life, and this is especially true when we’re young. We like to think we’ll get higher and higher as time progresses. Life will get better and better, but the truth is, death begins robbing us of many good and precious things very early. The longer we live, the more it takes.

I remember going on a death call for an elderly woman. She died at home, but it wasn’t her home. A few years prior, she had moved in with her daughter and was living in a small makeshift bedroom at the back of the house. Since the family didn’t want to watch me move her onto the stretcher, or gurney—we call it a cot at the funeral home—I went into the room and closed the door behind me. I paused for a moment because one entire wall, from floor to ceiling, was covered with framed family photos. Many of them looked quite old, and I realized these photos were probably once spread all throughout this lady’s house. But after she moved in with her daughter, they were all collected and hung on a single wall.

I spent a moment looking at these photos, and at first, I thought about all of the history hanging on that wall. It was a nice tribute to this woman’s life—so many great memories. But then, I got stuck on one photo, in particular, that was taken probably forty years ago. It was a candid photo of her, her husband, and her young children laughing in their former living room, and I couldn’t help but think about all of the wonderful things this woman had lost long before she died in that bed at the back of her daughter’s house.

As the years passed, this woman lost her young children. Eventually, her children grew out of the joy and innocence on display in that photo. They became teenagers, then they became adults and moved out of the house. They may have given her grandchildren, but those grandchildren grew up as well. At some point, this woman lost her husband. She watched his casket be closed for the last time. She lost her home, where all of those great memories had been made. She lost her health. She lost her independence. Years before, she had been a young woman excited to climb the ladder of life, but death eventually stole everything life had given her.

For me, that’s the worst part of death. Death isn’t like ripping off a bandage with one quick pull, where the sting is sharp but fast. The sting of death is certainly sharp, but there’s nothing quick about it. Death is always taking from us, little by little, until it finally takes everything down to our last breath. Even then, it isn’t finished. As it takes the last from us, it simultaneously takes from our families. It perpetually eats away at everything good, and its appetite is never satisfied.

One philosopher has said, “To philosophize is to learn how to die.” Put another way, he believed the central purpose of philosophy is to figure out how to maximize pleasure in this life in light of our inevitable deaths. The problem most philosophers have discovered is that death taints everything. Imagine you’re a prison inmate on death row, and the warden comes to your cell to ask what you’d like to eat during your last meal. You could order your all-time favorite foods, and those foods could be cooked to perfection, but what are the chances you’ll truly enjoy your last meal knowing it’s your last?

Matthew McCullough says:

When you open your eyes to the reality of loss—not the exceptional and tragic and unexpected disruption of life, but the universal and absolute siphoning of time and decay—you come to see that death is a guest at every party. Every good thing comes tainted.

Danae and I have learned this feeling all too well. We have two young children, who bring us an incredible amount of joy. They make us laugh day after day. We feel richly blessed at this stage of our lives, yet every moment is tinged by that looming loss we know is coming. As Darius Rucker sings, “It won’t be like this for long.” Eventually, we know the joys we are experiencing now will be gone. Yes, other joys will come, but those joys can’t last either.

We all carry this burden. No one is exempt. Loss is a universal problem because death is a universal problem. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and the wages of sin is death (Ro 3:23; 6:23).

Honest about the problem

Strangely enough, however, most people not only avoid the problem, pushing thoughts of loss and death as far from their minds as possible, but they also seek refuge in more of the temporal enjoyments they know they will lose. It’s like a death row inmate asking for seconds. You couldn’t truly enjoy the first round of food. What do you expect to gain from the second?

Worst yet, I fear many professing Christians think this way. As we discussed last week, we should enjoy God’s gifts to us, but we also have to be honest about the reality of loss. “Teach us to number our days” (Ps 90:12). Right? Why, then, does it seem so many Christians are wholly focused on life’s temporal blessings? That’s what we pray for. That’s we hang our so-called contentment on. That’s what we almost exclusively praise God for on Facebook. As John Gerstner once said, “Many Christians are more absorbed in this world than the other,” and that’s precisely what we need to talk about at this point.

For the sake of unbelievers and nominal Christians, the church should never avoid the unpleasant, seemingly morbid task of confronting people with the inevitability of loss. As I’ve said before, death in general can be a powerful catalyst for faith in Christ and hope in his promises. It’s not just a plausible evangelistic tool. It is, in a very legitimate sense, a necessary one. If a person never confronts the problem, why would he seek a solution? To be more specific, if a sinner never confronts loss and death, why would he seek the Savior?

As for believers, we, too, need to confront this matter. We need to thoroughly understand what Scripture says about it. How can we enjoy God’s gifts when we know we’ll lose them? What’s the alternative to becoming a Stoic, who utterly detaches himself from everything we should love and enjoy? How do we conquer our fears of the fleeting, irreversible nature of every good thing we have in this life? We can’t possibly know unless we’re first willing to be honest with ourselves about the problem.

To be clear before we go any further, the problem is that we are dying people in a dying world. As the expression goes, all good things must come to an end, so how can we possibly enjoy anything?

Let’s consider what John’s Gospel has to say about it.

Jesus’s first recorded miracle

John has a distinct approach to telling the story of Jesus’s life and ministry. While the other Gospel writers speak often of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven, John seems to specifically focus on the concept of eternal life. Then, as he chooses which miracles of Christ he will tell, he selects a few that may leave us scratching our heads. Take, for example, Jesus’s first recorded miracle in John 2, where he turns water into wine.

As you likely know, Jesus did not perform miracles for the sake of performing miracles. He was not trying to stun his audience with impressive magic tricks or merely show off his power, though displaying his power and glory was part of it. The most vital reason for his miracles is that they teach us about his ultimate purpose. When he casts out unclean spirits, we learn he is able to defeat evil. When he heals the sick, we learn he is able to overcome the curse of sin. These miracles are small samples of what he came to ultimately accomplish.

So, what does Jesus turning water into wine teach us? Specifically, what does it teach us about eternal life? Again, eternal life appears to be John’s focus, and he includes this particular miracle to teach us something about eternal life.

According to John 2, Jesus along with his disciples and mother are at a wedding feast in Cana. People are eating and drinking. Perhaps they’re dancing. They’re smiling and laughing. They’re celebrating. In short, they’re having a good time, but they’re also running out of wine, which threatens to not only embarrass the host, but also bring an end to the party.

The text says:

Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. (John 2:6-11)

I suppose if any of Jesus’s miracles appears to be a trivial magic trick, it’s this one, so why start here? Why not start with Jesus healing the sick, casting out devils, or best yet, raising the dead? Why begin with Jesus turning water into wine? What does this teach us about eternal life?

An eternal feast

To answer that question, let me jump back to the Old Testament for a moment and read just a portion of Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah 25 says:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the LORD; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
(Isaiah 25:6-9)

Working backwards through the passage I’ve read, according to Isaiah, God’s people are waiting for a day of salvation (Isa 25:9). On that day, GOD will wipe away tears from all faces and swallow up death forever (Isa 25:8). Death and the sorrow it causes is like a covering that is cast over all peoples, a veil that is spread over all nations (Isa 25:7). Death is like an overcast sky. We desperately want to see the sun, but the clouds refuse to leave. They are always hovering over us, darkening everything around us.

But God promises to swallow up that covering, to clear the skies once and for all (Isa 25:7). Furthermore, he promises to provide a feast of rich food and well-aged wine (Isa 25:6). He’s promising a party. He’s promising a celebration like no other because never before have we had such a monumental reason to celebrate. This is a celebration to end all celebrations because this is a celebration that will never end. The food and wine will never run out. The fun will never be over.

As it stands, death looms over everything. It taints everything. While there are many great things to enjoy in this life, and we should enjoy them, they’re all tainted because death will destroy them sooner or later.

Jesus, however, comes along in John 2 and reverses death’s impact on a seemingly trivial wedding feast. They were running out of wine. So, what? All good things must come to an end. Christ says, “No. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). Having a moment of pleasure here and there isn’t good enough. Christ came to ensure we never run out of wine. He came to ensure joy and celebration never end. He came to defeat not only acute death, but also the chronic effects of death that taint everything from the moment we’re born.

And that’s the significance of Jesus turning water into wine.

The last big miracle Jesus performs before his crucifixion is raising Lazarus from the dead, which makes perfect sense. Paul says, “The last enemy to be destroyed by Christ is death” (1Co 15:26). Christ began by whittling away at death’s consequences, and he ends by proving his power over death itself. The entire spectrum of his miracles effectively teaches us what he will ultimately accomplish. It gives us a foretaste of eternal life, which is a life where joy and celebration never end because death is utterly eradicated forevermore.

Jesus miraculously feeds thousands

Somewhere in the middle of these miracles comes the event recorded in John 6. Jesus miraculously feeds more than five-thousand people with only five barley loaves and two fish (Jn 6:9). I believe this story reinforces the same points I’ve already made, but I also want us to notice the crowd’s response.

Again, Jesus feeds more than five-thousand people with merely five barley loaves and two fish (Jn 6:9). This miracle is significant enough that not only do all four Gospel writers record it, but also Jesus repeats this miracle when he later feeds four-thousand people. Why?

In Matthew 6, Jesus says:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matthew 6:19, 20)

One of the great appeals of eternal life is not just the absence of death, but an existence where death can’t touch us at all. The appeal is that death can’t continually take from us little by little. It can no longer rob us of joy and those precious things of life. The perishable will put on the imperishable, and the sting of death along with its many smaller stings will be removed once and for all (1Co 15:54, 56).

What happens after we’ve eaten a meal and satisfied our hunger? Eventually, we get hungry again. How do we obtain our next meal? “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,” according to the curse, “till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Ge 3:19).

What is Jesus doing when he feeds the five thousand? He’s providing a small sample of his work in undoing the curse. These people are hungry. They’ve run out of food, but he provides them a meal, for which they didn’t have to work or sweat. All they have to do is enjoy it.

Not because you saw signs

Unfortunately, these people miss the point. We begin to see that in verse 15 because they were about to come and take Jesus by force to make him king (Jn 6:15). They’re not thinking about eternal life. For them, it’s all about right here, right now. They want to make Jesus a purely earthly king. If he can perform a miracle like this, imagine what he can do for the nation of Israel.

As the story continues, Jesus leaves the crowd and goes to the other side of the sea, but they find him the following morning. Jesus, then, says to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (Jn 6:26). In other words, they want more bread. The problem is, they are very shortsighted because they more perishable bread. They want more bread that can’t last. They seem content to remain on this perpetual cycle of eating, getting hungry again, eating again, getting hungry again, and so on. They have tragically missed the point.

Jesus says, “You are seeking me, not because you saw signs” (Jn 6:26). They, of course, saw his power. They saw the miracle. I believe what he means is that they overlooked the meaning of it. He continues, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (Jn 6:27). I didn’t feed you because I want your desires to be fixed on food that perishes. I miraculously fed you because I want you to see what is possible in me. I want you to lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys (Mt 6:20).

In the end, how do the people respond? After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him (Jn 6:66). Their reaction is strange when you think about it. Jesus is offering an infinitely better version of what they’ve always wanted, but they are so blind that they refuse. Unless he’s willing to give them the perishable version right here, right now, they’re not interested.

The Lord’s apostles are another story. Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:67, 68). Eternal life. Not a life that dies little by little until it’s gone forever, but eternal life.

There’s plenty Peter and the other disciples don’t yet understand about God’s plan of salvation, but there’s one thing they do understand. They’re tired of living in a dying world. They’re tired of good things passing away. They’re tired of death separating them from everyone and everything they love. They want eternal life, and they know Christ alone is the way.

Set your minds on things above

Let’s back up and notice the evangelistic approach Jesus takes here. He begins by satisfying the people’s physical hunger. Then, once the satisfaction of that meal fades, he announces a better kind of bread. He points to a possibility where they could never feel hunger again. He says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (Jn 6:35). What did Isaiah say? “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine” (Isa 25:6).

Using something as basic as food, Jesus indirectly confronts these unregenerate people with death. He’s appealing to their innate craving for comfort and satisfaction, which they know is perpetually frustrated by the dying nature of a sin-sick world, to draw them to himself. In other words, he confronts them with at least one of the problems of death, so they might seek the only solution we have to the problem of death—Jesus Christ.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote to a friend, “It is only when one loves life and the earth so much that without them everything seems to be over that one may believe in the resurrection and a new world.” Jesus confronts the unbeliever with death because that man has no motivation to pursue the imperishable until he accepts the truth of the perishable. Again, no one seeks a solution until he knows he has a problem.

This means we, as believers, must be the voice that says to the world around us, “Don’t put your hope in transient things. They can’t last.” We have to be willing to confront people with inevitability of death, which means we have to be willing to confront death. We have to accept the fact that we live in a dying world. We have to make sure we have not turned God’s gifts into idols. “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:2).

The good wine

Meanwhile, God calls us to enjoy his gifts despite knowing death will take them from us. How is this possible? Like the death row inmate, how do we truly enjoy our last meal knowing it’s our last?

The truth is, this meal is not our last. Perhaps it would be better to think of it as an appetizer. For the Christian, whom God promises and secures eternal life in Christ Jesus, a perfect feast that can never end, the good things in this life are merely a small taste of what’s to come. Though death continues to take from us, Jesus’s death and resurrection have purchased us the freedom to enjoy God’s gifts because the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Ro 8:18).

God’s gifts in this life don’t have to last to be wonderful. They can still be delicious, God-glorifying appetizers to the eternally satisfying meal that awaits us. While the unbelieving world thinks they need to get their fill now, the Christian knows Jesus saves the good wine for last (Jn 2:10).