The End of Death
SIGNIFICANT EVENTS HAVE PHASES. IN SPORTS, athletes first build skill and endurance, then they play the game, and finally interpret the results, celebrating victory or learning from defeat. Banquets also have phases. After we savor the meal itself, we linger over coffee and dessert in conversation that appropriates the meal as an emblem of a life shared with friends. So, too, we must interpret and appropriate a most significant event, the death of death in the death and resurrection of Christ.
The Crowds Misunderstood It
The perpetrators and witnesses of Jesus’ death tried, unsuccessfully, to interpret its significance before the crucifixion even began. Ironically, however, Jesus’ foes told the truth about the event even though they did not understand their own words. A Jerusalem mob howled to Herod for Jesus’ blood. Kill Him, they implored, and we will bear the repercussions. “ ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children’ ” (Matt. 27:25, niv), they said. Little did they know that only if His blood were on them—as an atoning sacrifice—could they escape death for murdering the Messiah.
Later, some Roman soldiers clothed Jesus in a scarlet robe, jammed a “crown” of thorns on his head, and bowed, saying, “ ‘Hail, King of the Jews’ ” (Matt. 27:27–31). Later still, the soldiers crucified Jesus and nailed the charge over his head, “This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (27:37). The soldiers intended to humiliate Jesus and the Jews. But like spiders in an art gallery, they missed the truth that was right in front of them. Jesus was the King; He did reign from the cross.
Jesus Explained It
Jesus, in His role as prophet, interpreted His death in several of His “words” on the cross. He first suggested that His death was the death of death in His puzzling cry of dereliction, “ ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’ ” (Matt. 27:46). Theretofore, Jesus always had spoken in language evoking unbroken fellowship with the first person of the Trinity, praying to and speaking of “the Father” or “My Father.” Now there was distance—“My God,” not “My Father.” Had the Father truly abandoned the Son? Or did Jesus merely feel abandoned?
Jesus’ wrenching question contains no error. He was forsaken by the Father; let us not domesticate it. The Father turned from the Son during “the great exchange,” when Jesus bore our sins and gave us His righteousness. He became accursed for us (Gal. 3:13). He who knew no sin became sin, and when He did, He suffered the consequence—separation from the holy God (2 Cor. 5:21; Hab. 1:13). The death of death began here, when the spotless Lamb suffered death for His people.
In the hour of separation, Jesus “descended” into the essence of hell, which is separation from the blessed presence of God. The cry of dereliction, therefore, is no temperamental emotional outburst, but the truth.
Jesus’ other words on the cross agree that His death constitutes the decisive blow against death. In John 19:30 Jesus declared, “ ‘It is finished.’ ” In Greek, this phrase is a single word, a word sometimes used in commerce to mean “paid in full.” Perhaps, therefore, Jesus meant He had paid the debt of sin in full. But the word for “finish” usually means to complete or fulfill rather than to pay. That was probably Jesus’ sense. That is, Jesus had finished the work the Father had given Him (John 17:4). His sacrifice had put sin and death to death. His appointed task was complete. Therefore, during the Crucifixion Jesus told the criminal who expressed faith in Him, “ ‘Today you will be with Me in Paradise’ ” (Luke 23:43). Finally, with His work done, with the sinbearing complete, Jesus laid aside the address, “My God.” The intimacy of Jesus and the Father was restored, so Jesus said, “ ‘Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit’ ” (Luke 23:46).
The Apostles Presented It
The rest of the New Testament verifies that Jesus’death constitutes the definitive blow against sin and death. As Luke says, Jesus had to suffer and die in Jerusalem for the remission of sins (9:22; 13:33; 17:25; 22:37; 24:46–47). But He also had to rise from the dead and then enter His glory (Luke 24:7, 25–27). God raised Him, releasing Him from the agony of death, “ ‘because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on Him’ ” (Acts 2:24, niv).
From the beginning, Scripture testifies that the wages of sin is death (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23). This is a wage all humans will have earned for their own sin when they stand before God, their Paymaster and Judge. Yet while we will stand before God one by one, we also will stand before Him as members of a community, in solidarity with our representatives, Adam and Jesus. When Adam sinned, death entered the world and reigned over all (Rom. 5:12–21). But Jesus reconciled us to God through His death (5:10). He brought grace rather than judgment, justification in place of condemnation, life instead of death (5:15–21). How did that happen?
God must punish the guilty. He would be a bad judge if He did not. But if Jesus bears the punishment of death for sinners, then the just God cannot punish them again. They are free from liability to death. Jesus is indeed the one true man, the one faithful Israelite. He is the head of a new humanity characterized by repentance and faithfulness to God.
Catholic theologians charge that justification by faith alone is a legal fiction, a “pretend” game in which the Father acts as if His people have been justified by faith alone, when in fact they have not. But justification by faith alone is not fiction because Jesus’death is not fiction. He died for us, for the children He calls into His family. We are clothed in His righteousness. His Spirit indwells us. His life, His victory over death, is ours. In this way, Jesus glorified God and empowered us to cross over from death to life (John 5:24; 11:25–27). Yet it remains for us to appropriate Jesus’ victory and for Jesus to consummate it.
Appropriating the Death of Christ Now
Even now, we must begin to appropriate Jesus’ victory over death. First, we appropriate Jesus’death by our sanctification. We do not tame sin in a weekend (Rom. 7:13–25), but we do hate it and resist it, using every God-given means (Rom. 12:1–8). Even if we fail, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (8:1–4).
Second, we must no longer fear death, whether physical or eternal (Heb. 2:14–15). Jesus’ kingdom has overpowered Satan’s (Matt. 12:29). He has bound the strong man and plundered his house (Luke 11:21–22; Rev. 20:1–2). He blazed the trail to heaven and waits for us there.
Enjoying the Death of Christ Forever
In His death and resurrection, Jesus defeated death in principle. The decisive battle with death is over and Jesus has emerged victorious. Yet death still abounds, both physically and spiritually. Therefore, we yearn for the consummation, groaning until God liberates creation from its bondage to decay (Rom. 8:18–24).
This hope will be realized on the day of Christ’s return, on Judgment Day. On that day, Jesus will come personally, physically, visibly, and audibly. He will summon all men and angels, and will officiate at His judgment throne (Rom. 14:10). He will hurl Satan and his allies into hell. All will render an account for their words and deeds. For unbelievers, this will lead to condemnation and the second death (Matt. 25:41–6; Rev. 20:6, 14; 21:8).
Christians sometimes puzzle over the Bible’s frequent teaching that we must answer for our deeds (Ps. 62:12; Matt. 16:27, 25:31–46; Rom. 2:6; 2 Cor. 5:10; Eph. 6:8; Rev. 20:12–13). Let us be clear: no one earns his way into the Book of Life. The names of believers are written there. Yet our deeds still count. Our good deeds redound to God’s glory and our evil deeds attest to Jesus’ mercy. Our good deeds also show that we belong to Christ (Matt. 7:16–20). Our evil deeds still exist, but Jesus covers them. But the sins of unbelievers (even churched ones) eventually define them. That is, their idolatry and lies manifest the condition of their hearts until their character becomes inseparable from their sins. They don’t just tell lies or commit idolatry, they are liars and idolaters (1 Cor. 6:9–11; Rev. 21:8). They will face the judgment as such.
When Jesus returns, this world will end. Then eternity, with the new heavens and the new earth, will begin. Revelation 21 and 22 help us picture this, explaining as much as we can take in through “the way of eminence” and “the way of negation.” The way of negation says the “former things” have passed (21:4). It cites all that is evil and announces its end. There will be no tears, pain, sorrow or darkness; no sin, no sinners, and no curse; no hunger or thirst; and no death (21:23–27). The way of eminence affirms that when God unites the new heavens with the new earth, every blessing will abound. God will be there; we will dine with Him at the Lamb’s feast. We will enter a vast, shining city, replete with the glories of a restored creation and the glories of the kings, the nations, and the saints who reign with God. Then He will join perfected spirits to imperishable bodies. Sin will be vanquished and death, since it is a consequence of sin, will be powerless. The victory of Christ swallows it up (1 Cor. 15:51–57). His victory defeats death in every form.