Topical Scripture: John 11:21-26
Men’s Bible Study begins this Thursday morning, as we consider this semester “Lessons learned the hard way: the life and legacy of Moses.” Dr. Ron Scates, senior minister of Highland Park Presbyterian Church and my very dear friend, will be the speaker as we begin. Then I’ll teach the rest of the semester.
But I often say that the real reason I teach Men’s Bible Study is to tell stories I can’t tell on Sunday. Here’s an example of one which is just on the edge.
“A man and his wife were having some problems at home and were giving each other the silent treatment. Suddenly the man realized that the next day he would need his wife to wake him at 5 a.m. for an early morning business flight. Not wanting to be the first to break the silence (and lose!), he wrote on a piece of paper, ‘Please wake me at 5 a.m..’ He left it where he knew she would find it.
“The next morning the man woke up, only to discover it was 9 a.m. and he had missed his flight. Furious, he was about to go and see why his wife hadn’t awakened him when he noticed a piece of paper by the bed. The paper said, ‘It is 5 a.m.. Wake up.’
“Men are not equipped for these kinds of contests.
These days, we’re dealing with life’s hardest questions, issues with which we are not equipped without God’s help. We’ve sought the cure for a lonely soul, a hungry soul, an injured soul, a joyless soul. Today we’ll seek the cure for a grieving soul.
When Mark Twain buried his beloved daughter Olivia’s body he placed over her grave this epitaph: “Warm summer sun, shine kindly here; Warm southern wind, blow softly here; Green sod, lie light, good night, dear heart.” He was sure that she was in the grave, that death is all there is. Was he right?
What happens when we die? When death comes to someone we care about? And, what happens to children when they die? We can consider no more relevant or emotional questions than these.
Why do we die?
W.C. Fields on his deathbed was seen thumbing through a Bible. Someone asked why. His answer: “Looking for loopholes.” But he didn’t find any. The death rate is still 100%. If Lazarus, Jesus’ best friend, was not kept from dying, neither will we.
In fact, you and I are one day closer to death and eternity than we have ever been before.
God’s word warns us: “It is appointed unto all men once to die, and then the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Death comes for us all.
Neither wisdom nor wealth can prevent it: “All can see that wise men die; the foolish and the senseless alike perish and leave their wealth to others” (Psalm 49:10).
We all face the same end, unless Jesus returns first: “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14).
On a tombstone in Sevenoaks, Kent, England is found these words:
“Grim death took me without any warning
I was well at night, and dead in the morning.”
It can happen that way for any of us.
But why? Why does death exist? If God were all-loving, he’d want to destroy death, we assume. If he were all powerful, he could. But he doesn’t. Why did he allow the tragic deaths of 9-11, an anniversary just one week away? Why did he allow the deaths in the recent Russian school siege? Why did he allow the one you love to die? Why? Here’s the simple answer: because of sin.
The Bible teaches, “Sin entered the world through man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all have sinned” (Romans 5:12).
The thief on the cross said, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve” (Luke 23:41).
This wasn’t God’s intention. He created a perfect world for his children. But when sin entered, death stayed. Death exists, not because God doesn’t love us or isn’t powerful, but because of sin.
Sometimes we die because of our own sin, as did the thief at Jesus’ side. Sometimes we die because of the sins of others, as when a drunk driver kills a child, or a terrorist flies an airplane into a skyscraper, or terrorists take over a school. Sometimes we die because of the sin of humanity, as a result of the diseases and disasters which plague this fallen planet. But we all die, because of the existence of sin.
But Jesus died so our sins could be forgiven. Why, then, do we still die?
God’s word is clear: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Corinthians. 15:50). Physical death frees us to live forever in glorified bodies with God in his heaven.
Then one day, death will be destroyed forever: “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of five” (Revelation 20:14). His word promises: “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
What happens when we die?
So, what happens in the moment when you die? First, you are with Christ, if Jesus is your Lord. Jesus told the thief at his side, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Jesus taught us that the moment we die, the angels carry us to God’s side (Luke 16:22). When you close our eyes here you open them there. You will never die (John 11:26; Philippians 1:23). You are forever and always with Jesus.
Second, you’re home. Paul said, “We would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). Most of us have had surgery of some kind. You are in one room, then you fall asleep; when you awake, you’re done. It’s that way for us all.
Third, you’re in glory. Heaven is paradise, as Jesus said. Paul said “to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21), for “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord” (Revelation 14:13). We will gain imperishable, glorified, spiritual bodies (1 Corinthians 15:42-44), and be like Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:49). We will know God and each other as we are known (1 Corinthians 13.12). And we will eat of the tree of life and live forever (Revelation 22).
Dwight Moody, on his deathbed, said, “If this is death, it is sweet. There is no valley here. Dwight! Irene! I see the children’s faces. God is calling me. I must go. Earth recedes. Heaven opens before me.”
If Jesus is your Lord, when you die you won’t. Instead, you’ll see God. And you’ll be safely home.
What happens to babies when they die?
But we’re not done with tough questions yet. There’s one left for our subject, and it’s the hardest of all. What happens to babies when they die? They’re obviously not old enough to understand the gospel. Yet Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). So what happens to those who are too young to know him? In a related area, what about those who are not able developmentally to understand the gospel? What happens when they die?
It’s a very personal question for every parent in our service. One of the reasons I’ve asked Ron Scates to speak on “lessons learned the hard way” this Thursday is because he and his wife Ann lost a child themselves, and helped another survive cancer. It’s the hardest issue of life.
I’ll never forget the day it came home to me. A nine-month-old daughter of one of our church members had fallen victim to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I was asked to perform the funeral. As I looked into that tiny casket, I suddenly saw the face of my own nine-month-old son. I had to step out of the room and gather myself. My sons are my greatest treasure. I cannot imagine the unspeakable pain of burying one. But death comes to all—some late, some early. What happens to those who die so young?
Let’s begin with what God thinks of children. Jesus made clear his feelings on the subject in two separate incidents.
The first is his response to his disciples’ question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1). He knew they needed to see the answer more than hear it, so “He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven'” (vs. 2-3). The “greatest” in God’s kingdom is the one who is most like a child.
Later some mothers brought their children to Jesus, seeking his blessing (a typical custom with a visiting, famous rabbi). His disciples “rebuked those who brought them” (Matthew 19:13), so Jesus rebuked them: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (v. 14).
So, what happens to one of God’s children when they die as a child? We can trust our earthly children to their heavenly Father. Yes, we all inherit a sin nature from Adam (Romans 5:12-14). But we must choose to actualize this potential, to live in conscious rebellion against God. Those who die before they can understand the gospel cannot have rejected it. They are still in a state of grace.
King David said of his deceased newborn son, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23). He believed that his child was already where he would one day be, and trusted him to the God who made him. He was right.
If you’re the parent of young children, know that they belonged to their heavenly Father before they were entrusted to you. Trust them to their first Father. And yourself with them.
Then, when you die, you don’t. When you breathe your last breath here, you breathe your first breath there. When you close your eyes on earth, you open them in heaven. Jesus was emphatic: “whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:26).
Are you ready for that day?
There’s an old legend about a Baghdad merchant who sent his servant to the market to buy food. After a few minutes the servant ran back, pale and trembling. He stammered, “Down in the marketplace I was pushed by a man in the crowd. I turned around and saw the man was Death. He raised his arm to strike me. Please, Master, lend me your fastest horse so I can get away. I will ride to Samarra, where I can hide. Death will not find me there.”
The merchant lent his fastest horse to the servant, who rode away swiftly. He then went down to the marketplace himself, where he also saw Death standing in the crowd.
“Why did you frighten my servant this morning?” he asked. “Why did you scare him like that?” Death replied, “I was not trying to scare him. I was simply surprised. I was astonished to see him here in Baghdad. You see, I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
Let’s make sure we’re ready for ours.