The Believer in Jesus Never Dies
Our Lord said that the one who believes in him will never die (John 11:26). This must be ranked among his most astounding and divisive claims. Thousands of his Galilean disciples left him for a similar saying (John 6:66). From the moment he said that the believer never dies, and then raised Lazarus from the dead to vindicate it, Jewish policy changed from resistance to active plotting for his death (John 11:46-53). What is it about this claim that fell like an atom bomb upon the first century world? How should we understand it? Does it possess the same force today?
In answer to this last question, I would suggest “no,” not because the claim is any less powerful than when Jesus first made it, but because men do not understand death. It is true that death surrounds us. The last century was the deadliest in human history. Family members die. The godliest must pass through this valley. Nevertheless, we do not understand death if we think of it merely as the end of life or an unavoidable part of the human experience. Death is the wages of sin. This is the most fundamental fact about death. It is a judicial penalty that God inflicts upon every sinner. Death is the consequence of our rebellion against him at the beginning of our history and for our individual sins in this life.
Unless one understands death in this way, it is inexplicable, and the force of Jesus’ words will be lost upon us. All the platitudes uttered at funerals, even the Scriptures that are read, will ring hollow unless we understand that death, our deaths, is punishment for our sins. Had we maintained our original integrity, we would never die. Thus, death is unnatural. Death is judgment. Whether this enemy comes at the conclusion of a long life, unexpectedly in the midst of life, or as a result of war or accident, it is God’s sentence upon the sinner.
This is what Jesus meant by “dying.” Carnal sense could only point to the graves of dead men to rebut him. Jesus would point to those same graves and say that you have forgotten why men die. The death of every man, for all have sinned, is one of the greatest proofs that God’s word is true and his judgment active. Carnal men want to live forever in their sins. This is impossible, for God sits upon his throne judging righteously.
The astounding aspect of his claim is that by living and believing in him, a man will never die. If we understand death, at some level we can understand his claim, though it only intensifies our wonder. Who was Jesus Christ? He was not sent into the world to make men better as they are, like putting a patch on an old tire or “new wine into old wine skins.” He was not simply the greatest teacher of holiness who ever lived and the greatest example of self-sacrificing love. John pointed him out: “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Pilate unknowingly identified him: “Behold, the man.” Behold him in whom I find no fault, nothing worthy of death. At the same time, bleeding and humbled as he then was, Pilate revealed his purpose for coming into the world.
Jesus Christ came as the destroyer of death; he came to abolish death (2 Tim. 1:10). It could be destroyed in one way. The God-man, the appointed Servant of the Lord and Lamb of God, must take the full weight of death upon himself. “Ought not the Christ to have suffered?” – having graciously chosen to save us, one way was open to God to deliver us from sin and death. The Son of God must take upon himself our flesh, become our Mediator, and suffer judicial death in our place, with all its pain, shame, and judgment, so that by union with him, his death to sin would become ours. He did this on the cross. He fully satisfied the justice of God against sinners by draining the cup of judgment. The Father laid upon him the iniquity of us all. He gave his life a ransom for many. The Father was pleased to put him to grief and to make his soul an offering for sin.
Now we can understand his horror of the cross, the true horror of it. It was not a theoretical hell but hell itself. Other men have been crucified and died gruesome deaths, but their deaths have not been an offering for sin. They died under God’s wrath, but they did not die to satisfy God’s justice. His declarations of dread as the hour came, his bloody sweat, his cries from the cross, his “terrors of death and hell” were all to one end. Upon his own back and sinless soul, was laid the full penalty for our iniquity. It was a horrible death. He received the full tally of our stripes and the full weight of our judgment upon himself.
And by his stripes alone we are healed, for he did not remain dead. He could not remain dead and abolish death. He could not remain dead and deliver us from death – judgment, hell, the wrath and curse of God, separation from him forever in the fires of hell. He must rise. The Scriptures foretold it. On that resurrection morning and in the days following, he rebuked his disciples for not believing the Scriptures. Did they not clearly foretell that the Christ must suffer, rise again, and enter into his glory and kingdom? They did. Only the world’s abysmal blindness prevents it from seeing in these fulfilled prophecies, these minutely fulfilled prophecies, infallible vindication of Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God. If we felt their weight as we should, we would see that the Christian religion bears unmistakable and incontrovertible proofs of its divine origin and the inspiration of its Scriptures. Jesus Christ died and rose again according to the Scriptures. He is the Christ, the Son of the living God. He has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Tim. 1:10).
And thus, the believer never dies. He lives in Jesus. By believing upon his name, looking to him as the only Savior and way to God, he is freed from death as the wages of sin. Efforts at self-atonement are useless and wicked, for Jesus already paid the price of our redemption. Death as judgment leading to hell cannot touch the believer, for he quenched their fires against us by being consumed for us in them. The believer in Jesus will never be separated from God, for Jesus has already been forsaken for him. He is not even separated from his believing family and friends, for all are one in Christ the Head. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. The believer never dies. Jesus Christ died for him.
What we now call death, at least for the child of God, is grievous, sorrowful, and heart-rending. It is God’s last and light chastening, but nothing more. Through the temporary separation of body and soul, the believer is delivered from the “body of this death” so that his already regenerated “self,” his soul, if you will, returns to him who gave it. He endures no more sorrows, tears, troubles, or trials. Rather than death being a horrific plunge into the fiery pit, it is an entrance into everlasting habitations, God’s more immediate presence, which is fullness of joy and eternal life (Ps. 16:11). He truly enters the joy of his Lord. There he enjoys unbroken, cloudless fellowship with his God and Savior, so that the longing of his heart that echoes Jesus’ own heart, “to be with me where I am,” is realized. For a period, he is unclothed, but he dies in the full assurance that his body will be raised from the dead. Christians thus bury rather than cremate, for the body is sown in the sure hope of the resurrection when our Lord returns.
This saying remains divisive. It divides the human race just as surely as it divided Jesus’ true from his false disciples in Galilee. It fell like a bomb because it identified the one and only in whom life can be found – all man’s delusions of saving himself smashed, all his citadels of pride blown to bits by this one claim. Only in me can men escape death. I am the resurrection and the life. He remains so. To die without Christ is to die fully and horribly, to stand before God’s throne of holiness without hiding place or advocate, and to be condemned immediately to everlasting death and hell. We must be born again. We must live by calling upon the name of the Lord, repenting of our sins, and resting upon the finished and perfect work of Jesus Christ on the cross. We must believe in the living conqueror of death. Its sting has been pulled for the child of God. Never, never will he die, for Jesus died for him. He will live forever.