The benefits of confronting death
If you will, turn in your Bibles to 2 Corinthians 4. I won’t take the time to read the entire chapter, so let me briefly explain the context of the passage I will read.
As Paul writes this letter to the church at Corinth, he’s offering what is one part personal testimony and one part exhortation. He’s explaining to the church how he has managed to not lose heart despite all of the suffering he’s endured. At the same time, he’s encouraging these fellow believers by showing them the many reasons they have to also not lose heart.
I’ll begin reading at verse 18.
So, or therefore, we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient or temporary, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
This light momentary affliction
Notice all of the comparisons in this passage. The outer self versus the inner self (2Co 4:16). One is wasting away while the other is being renewed day by day. This light momentary affliction versus an eternal weight of glory (2Co 4:17). Things that are seen versus things that are unseen (2Co 4:18). The transient, or temporary, versus the eternal.
At first glance, Paul may seem awfully insensitive to anyone who is currently suffering. We may get the impression he is minimizing our suffering. Never mind that your outer self is wasting away. Forget about your affliction. It’s all rather petty compared to the eternity that awaits us. But that’s not what Paul is doing.
First of all, you’ll notice Paul doesn’t hesitate to confront his readers with mortality. He may not speak explicitly of death, but death is clearly implied throughout these verses. Our outer self is wasting away (2Co 4:16). The things that are seen are momentary and transient (2Co 4:18, 17). Life as we know it is temporary. It’s fleeting. It can’t last.
That much is true, but Paul doesn’t remind us of death to make light of our suffering. In fact, we tend to minimize suffering more than Paul ever did. For example, let’s say we’re going through financial difficulties. What do we do? We like to compare our situation with someone else’s much worse situation. We might say to ourselves, Well, I’m struggling right now, but that’s nothing compared to— Fill in the blank. I can hardly pay my bills this month, but I shouldn’t let that bother me because there are people starving in China. We may have to cut back on groceries, but it could be worse. So-and-so down the street has cancer.
Paul’s not trying to minimize our suffering here by comparing it to worse suffering. Instead, he’s trying to maximize the glory to come. Our afflictions can be deemed light only when compared to the eternal weight of glory (2Co 4:17). He doesn’t want us to deny our suffering. He simply wants us to see past the transient things of this life and bring the eternal things into focus (2Co 4:18). “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:2).
Even so, the contrast here is important. What is the appeal of an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison if there’s nothing to compare it to? (2Co 4:17). If we never suffer affliction or acknowledge that we suffer affliction, what do we care whether life is only temporary? Paul’s not minimizing our suffering. He’s honest about the fact that we suffer. He seems to characterize life on this earth as a time of suffering. Why?
First of all, that’s the reality of life in a fallen world. We suffer. Sometimes we suffer a little, and sometimes we suffer a lot, but as it stands— What does Paul tell us in Romans 8?
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22, 23)
We are dying people in a dying world, and as we’ve discussed throughout this study, death wreaks havoc all around us. It wants to destroy everything—our identities, our pursuits, our accomplishments, our possessions, our families, our health, our independence, and of course, our very lives. As a result of the curse, life on this earth is characterized as one of suffering.
The second reason Paul makes this contrast is because our hope in the eternal glory to come grows out of the groaning described in Romans 8. Because we groan inwardly, we wait eagerly (Ro 8:23). Because we have affliction, we look for an eternal weight of glory (1Co 4:17). “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12). Lord, help us to see that we are a dying people in a dying world, so that we’ll not only crave the glory to come, but we’ll also be captivated by it.
Again, Paul’s not minimizing our suffering. He makes these comparisons with an assumption that his readers already know what’s it like to suffer, and he’s reminding us there’s another side to the coin. Yes, our outer self is wasting away, but our inner self is being renewed day by day, in no small part, because of the promise articulated here (2Co 4:16). Yes, we are afflicted, but this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2Co 4:17). Yes, the things that are seen are transient and fleeting, but there are also unseen eternal things (2Co 4:18).
Interestingly enough, Paul doesn’t say the glory to come will come despite our suffering. Instead, he says, “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory” (2Co 4:17). I believe the NIV uses the word achieving. If I remember correctly, the old King James Version uses the word worketh. We might say our suffering in this world gets us ready for what’s to come.
While that’s a study all on its own, at the very least, we should realize that death and its consequences are not to be avoided. Only in confronting the tragedy and horrors of death can we truly see and embrace what God is promising. We may not be able to fully imagine this eternal glory Paul is talking about, but we certainly know affliction (2Co 4:17). We may not be able to fully grasp the concept of eternal, but we know all about transient (2Co 4:18). And if we’ve acknowledged and accepted the one as an undesirable problem, what does that make the alternative? It becomes something to hope for.
Better to go to a funeral
I preach a lot of funerals for non-Christians, and those families will often request that I keep the service light and positive. Translation: Don’t remind us that death has ripped our family apart. Typically, I try to honor their request, but not necessarily in the way they expect.
For example, families will often ask me to focus on their many fond memories of the deceased, but there’s just one problem with that approach. All of those memories necessarily imply the one thing they don’t want me to talk about, which is death. Whether I explicitly say it or not, people are crying as those memories are shared at the funeral because everyone knows they’ve reached the end of making memories. No new memories are coming, so avoiding the blatant reality of death is pointless. I don’t avoid it. Instead, I directly confront them with it. Why? Once death is on the table for all to see, then the gospel has meaningful context.
Let me offer an illustration. Imagine I’m walking down the street, and I see another man walking down the street. He’s casually strolling down the sidewalk, minding his own business, and I shout, “Sir, I’m here to save you.” How do you think he’ll respond? Chances are, he will look at me like I’m crazy because he’s not aware of any danger from which he needs to be saved. But if I shouted the same thing to a man hanging over the edge of a cliff, he’s likely to reply, “Yes, please save me.”
Quoting Solomon once again, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Ecc 7:2). It is better to go to a funeral than, say, a birthday party because confrontation with our mortality is like hanging over the edge of a cliff. The danger is clear, and our need for salvation is drastically more evident than it would be if we were casually strolling down the sidewalk far from any known danger.
Your brother will rise again
To illustrate this same point from the Bible, go with me to John 11. In John 11, Jesus teaches his disciples a profound lesson, and death serves as the backdrop of that lesson. I’ll begin reading at verse 1.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. (John 11:1-6)
Let’s pause right here for a moment because I want to emphasize that Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus (Jn 11:5). This family is more to Jesus than mere acquaintances. They are friends. They have history. He cares about them. He loves them.
Even so, Jesus learns that Lazarus is sick, yet he makes an intentional decision to wait. He doesn’t rush to Lazarus’s bedside as one might expect. Instead, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was (Jn 11:6). Why? Jesus himself says, “It is for the glory of God” (Jn 11:4).
Let’s continue reading. Skip down to verse 11.
After saying these things, Jesus said to his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” (John 11:11-15)
The picture is made even clearer at this point. Jesus intended for Lazarus to die before he arrived. First, he said, “It is for the glory of God” (Jn 11:4). Then, he says it is for the sake of his disciples—that they may believe (Jn 11:15). Evidently, there is something to be gained through the tragedy of Lazarus’s death.
“Of course,” someone says, “Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. It stands to reason God would be glorified and his disciples’ faith would be strengthened after seeing such a spectacular miracle.” While that’s true, once again, we want to remember that death is the context of this miracle. Notice what happens once Jesus arrives in Bethany.
Let’s skip down to verse 32.
Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:32-37)
To answer the Jews’ question, yes, Jesus could have kept this man from dying, but he intentionally chose not to. In fact, he delayed his coming to ensure Lazarus would be dead. Obviously, if Lazarus doesn’t die, he can’t raise Lazarus from the dead.
More to the point, though, Jesus is in complete control of the situation. The timing of things is in his hand. The life of Lazarus is in his hand. Nothing here could surprise him, and he will soon altogether reverse the tragedy that has taken place, yet he is still deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled (Jn 11:33). When he sees Mary weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he, too, begins to weep. Christ is just as disturbed and heartbroken by death and its devastation as anyone.
In other words, the internal groaning we feel because of death is an honest, appropriate response. Death is an offense to everything good and beautiful. It is a tragic aberration from God’s perfect design. Grief is not unbelief or sinful. It is honest. It is appropriate. It is even Christlike, as we see here.
When I preach funerals, I often make this point. While families may want me to avoid the unpleasantness of death, Christ shows us it is better to be honest about it. It is better to face it. Not only is death a reality for us, but it is also the end of all mankind, and the living should lay it to heart (Ecc 7:2). Again, there is something to be gained by confronting death.
Notice the lesson Jesus shares with Martha here. As she is distraught over her brother’s death—I’m jumping back to verse 23—Christ says to her, “Your brother will rise again” (Jn 11:23). Keep in mind, this is the kind of lesson that resonates most effectively when one is suffering loss. What could possibly encourage someone to hope for resurrection better the death of a loved one? Naturally, the utter separation from those we love makes us yearn to see them again. If only I could see him. If only I could hold her. If only I could hear his voice again.
Do you see what Jesus is doing here? He wants Martha to feel the sting of death. He’s providentially orchestrated the events so that Martha would be in this helpless, vulnerable position. And just when he knows death has violated her family by ripping her brother from this world, simultaneously piercing her heart with unbearable sadness, he says to her, “Your brother will rise again” (Jn 11:23).
Years ago, I worked as a freelance web designer, and a local jewelry store hired me to design and build them a new website. I almost lost the job because the owner of the store and I had a slight disagreement over his photography. He had hired a professional photographer to take pictures of his jewelry, and I argued that most of those photos needed to be retaken. Every piece of jewelry had been photographed in front of a white backdrop. Do you know how to make a light-colored diamond ring really pop? Put it in front of a dark background. The stark contrast will make the diamond seem even brighter.
What did Paul say? “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2Co 4:17). Sometimes our affliction feels anything but light, but what happens when you set it next to the eternal glory to come? It shrinks as eternal glory proves bigger and brighter than any temporary suffering we may face in this world.
If you want people to see the beauty of resurrection, hold it up to them not when everything in life is bright and fair, but when death has made things very, very dark. The contrast will be stark, and that’s the point. That is what Jesus does here in John 11. As Martha is afflicted by the death of her brother, he reminds her of the resurrection, saying, “Your brother will rise again” (Jn 11:23).
The resurrection and the life
Martha responds with a theologically correct statement—“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”—but that’s not quite good enough (Jn 11:24).
I told you I preach a lot of funerals for non-Christian families. Whenever I initially speak with one of these families, I always ask the same question. What do you believe about God and eternity? I can probably count on one hand the number of people who say anything at all about God. Never mind Christ Jesus. If they don’t acknowledge God, I can’t expect them to acknowledge his Son. But would you care to guess how many of them say they believe in heaven? I think that number hovers somewhere around 100 percent.
In the face of death, it seems almost everyone wants to believe in eternal life, and I can’t blame them, but they need to understand a couple of fundamental things about eternal life.
First of all, non-Christians need to understand that death is not something that just happens. Death is part of a curse. Death is the direct result of sin. We die not because that’s just the way things are, but because we are sinners who have sinned. We have broken God’s law. God created this world one way, but we twisted it into a distorted, perverse version of what it once was, and the end result is death. Death is our surface-level problem, if you will, but sin is the real obstacle that stands between us and eternal life.
Second, non-Christians need to understand that heaven is not our default destination. Again, sin stands in our way. We are not born innocent, and God does not weigh our good works versus our evil works to determine who gets into heaven. We are sinners. James writes, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (Jas 2:10). And because we are sinners, who have broken God’s law, heaven could never be our default destination.
“For the wages of sin is death,” Paul writes, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 6:23). What’s the solution to the problem of death? How does one overcome the obstacle of sin? How does one obtain eternal life? It is only in Christ Jesus our Lord.
You’ll notice Jesus points Martha in the same direction. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (Jn 11:25, 26). It’s great that Martha believes in a resurrection. I think it’s great that people at funerals want to believe in heaven. But let’s not put the cart before the horse. The pertinent question is, how does one experience this resurrection? How does one obtain eternal life? Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. I am the way.”
Several people have asked me how I’m able to preach the funeral of an unbeliever. They correctly assume I would like to talk about the deceased person being in heaven, but to be candid, that’s not my priority. Following the example of Christ himself, I’m speaking to the living, and my priority is to lift up Christ and his gospel in a time of tragedy like holding up a brilliant diamond in front of a dark backdrop. I begin by confronting them with the terrible reality of death, which is the consequence of sin, and end by showing them the only solution we have to this problem. Whoever believes in Christ, though he die, yet shall he live (Jn 11:25). “Do you believe this?” I ask (Jn 11:26).
I remember speaking with one pastor who told me he doesn’t explicitly preach the gospel at funerals. According to him, it isn’t the right time or place. So, I asked him what he does preach, and he said he primarily focuses on the life of the deceased and talks about the glory of heaven. In my experience, however, the crowd already believes in heaven. They just don’t know how to get there. Worse yet, they’re not concerned about how to get there because they assume they and pretty much everyone else will get there.
“Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12). “It is better to go to the house of mourning, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Ecc 7:2). “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe” (Jn 11:14, 15). Is there a better time and place for the gospel than at a funeral?
Imperishable, undefiled, and unfading
The reason death can be such a powerful catalyst for faith in Christ and hope in his promises is because death is perhaps the most vivid manifestation of our problem of sin. If anything can compel us to seek the Savior, it’s confronting death and realizing that all we have in this world is fleeting. In 1 Peter 1, the apostle Peter writes:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)
Notice what Peter highlights about our inheritance in Christ. It is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading (1Pe 1:4). In other words, it is the exact opposite of everything we have now. So, when someone is able to see how perishable, defiled, and fading life is, how death destroys everything, he’s in a great position to see the beauty of Christ and his gospel.
What about the believer?
What about the believer? How does confronting mortality help the believer? Aside from helping us in our evangelistic efforts, what do we gain from numbering our days?
Consider what Peter goes on to write in the same chapter I just read from.
In this—that is, the salvation he’s been telling us about—you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:6-9)
Like Paul, according to Peter, seeing the stark contrast between our dying world and the imperishable glory to come changes everything. Let me give you just a few examples.
How about contentment? The struggle to find contentment is a universal problem. We’re discontent because all of our clothing is old and ragged. When we finally have newer clothing, we’re discontent because it doesn’t fit perfectly. When we get clothing that fits better, we’re discontent because it isn’t the latest style. When we get the latest style of clothing, we’re discontent because our neighbor has even nicer clothing. When we get the same name brand as our neighbor, we’re discontent because eventually even name-brand clothing gets out of style, old, and ragged.
Generally speaking, we’re discontent because our baseline expectation of the world is comfort, convenience, and control. The trouble is, death destroys our comfort, convenience, and control. In turn, we’re unhappy because things aren’t what we expected or wanted.
Awareness of death moves our baseline. When we acknowledge what death is doing in this world, we can’t be surprised or troubled because we knew it was coming. Furthermore, we won’t rely on fleeting things to support our satisfaction. Instead, our eyes will remain fixed on Christ and his promises. We look for satisfaction in him.
How about envy? This is another universal struggle. We tend to covet what other people have, but confronting mortality changes our perspective.
Imagine you and a friend are taking a trip together. Once you arrive to the airport, you find out the plane is overbooked. Your friend now gets to sit in first class with comfortable seats, plenty of leg room, and a nice meal. You, however, have to sit at the back of the plane next to a smelly bathroom between two rather large men. You have no leg room, and you’ll be lucky to get a small bag of peanuts. There’s a pretty good chance you’ll envy your friend.
Now imagine how things would change if the engines on that plane suddenly failed, and it began a steep nosedive toward the ground. Your accurate awareness of death would quickly eliminate all feelings of envy.
How about anxiety? How does numbering our days help us overcome anxiety?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers this insight into the root of our anxiety. He says, “Worry is always directed toward tomorrow.” We worry because we have certain expectations about the future, but at the same time, we don’t know what the future holds for us. As Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, we are basically adding trouble to the present with worry over trouble that may not even come in the future. Jesus said, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Mt 6:34). We get anxious because tomorrow may not be what we want it to be, but death reminds that it won’t matter anyhow.
John Paton, a 19th-century missionary, felt led to preach the gospel on an island full of cannibals. The first missionaries who attempted it were killed and eaten, so one of his older friends pleaded with him. “Don’t go,” he said. “You’ll be killed.” Paton’s friend was, of course, thinking about what this young man would lose. He had his whole life ahead of him.
You are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.
In short, Paton knew he didn’t know what tomorrow would bring. He didn’t know whether he’d be killed or live to an old age, but he also knew that it doesn’t ultimately matter. Death will get us sooner or later. Never mind how much time we have. How do we spend our time? That’s what relevant when we (1) learn to number our days and (2) keep our focus on the eternal weight of glory, which is beyond all comparison (2Co 4:17).
Christ the firstfruits
Throughout this series, I’ve tried to make the case that confronting our mortality is spiritually beneficially. And I’ll bring this series to an end by citing 1 Corinthians 15:22, where Paul says, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” According to Paul, our solidarity with Adam in death is the necessary context to seeing and rejoicing over our solidarity with Christ in resurrected life.
Whatever disappointments, griefs, and losses we face until we ultimately breathe our last breath, we can take solace in the fact that Christ went before us. He already died and rose again victorious. Paul says, “In Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1Co 15:22, 23).
Death may still torment us for now, but we don’t have to grieve as others do who have no hope (1Th 4:13). We’re simply waiting for our turn to rise victorious just like Christ. And when we do, we will enter into the dwelling place of God (Rev 21:3).
God will dwell with us, and we will be his people, and God himself will be with us as our God. He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:3, 4)
I’ll be out of a job, and I’ll never have been more thankful.
Reply to firstname.lastname@example.org.