A short while ago I received the inevitable call: One of our beloved church members has died. Her son, also a church member, and my friend, gave me the news. I am sad, on several accounts, but also glad. Moira is in the presence of her Lord, for as the apostle Paul wrote concerning Christians, to be “absent from the body” is to be “present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).
This wonderful verse comes as the climax of a passage I have been contemplating since it became apparent that Moira had reached the end of her race. It became clear that soon there was going to be a death—and a memorial service. I began to prepare for this. Does that sound morbid? Does it strike you as defeatist? I hope not. Rather, such preparation is simply an expression of honesty.
I had watched this sister in the Lord fight poor health for quite a while. There were times when she seemed to be on the mend, yet in recent days it became very clear that she was going to lose this fight. The health professionals called the family to the hospital to say their goodbyes. And though no one knew when Moira would die, nevertheless, it was apparent that she would probably soon die. It was increasingly clear that she was in the final round. Death would secure another victory. Not, mind you, the victory, but a victory nonetheless.
This morning, death chalked up another notch in the “win” column as mortal man experienced another “loss.” The standings are currently tens of billions to zero—in favour of death over mortal man. We need to face the facts: Death is undefeated when it comes to our physical bodies. No mortal has out run it, no mortal has stood over it and declared, “I have won.” No mortal ever will. But, before death gets too haughty, and before we become despondent, we need to appreciate that because of the Lord Jesus Christ, we can confidently say, “Death, be not proud.”
One of the more oft misunderstood passages on death is found in Paul’s words to the Corinthians. In his famous chapter on the resurrection, the apostle writes of Christians,
For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written, [in Isaiah 25:8] “Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”’
(1 Corinthians 15:53–55)
The words, “must” and “then” make it clear that, for now, mortality has the upper hand.
More times than not, this passage is carelessly quoted as though, for the Christian, death has neither a sting nor a victory. But this is not what Paul says. As we watched Moira weaken in body, as we watched her struggle with pain and with difficulty to even breathe; it was clear that she was feeling a “sting” as death relentlessly pursued its victory over her mortal body. As her family grieves, the sting of death is very much felt. A mother, a sister, three brothers, three sons, a daughter-in-law, and five precious grandchildren have suffered a serious and heart-wrenching punch by the fist of death. Our church family grieves the absence of our sister in Christ, and we grieve for her family. We feel the sting.
It is important to grasp that Paul did not say that death has no victory and that death has no sting. What he does say is that there is coming a day when the sting and its associated death will be forever conquered—for the Christian. We hear this promise in the words, “this mortal body must put on immortality.” And when this happens, “then” death, and its sting, will be no more!
When the Lord Jesus Christ returns, all the dead in Christ will be raised, and at that time death will be completely defeated. There will never again be a death on this planet and therefore our present experience of death’s painful sting will be vanquished, once for all.
Death may be boasting today. Hospice has become the scene of another of death’s victories. But the Word of God tells us, unmistakeably, that this victory is short-lived and temporary. It is way too early for death to celebrate. One day, Moira will rise from the grip of death, and because of the Lord Jesus Christ, she will be able to say, “Death, be not proud. You lost!” This is what Paul is saying in this passage. He seals it with these words, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
When the Lord Jesus Christ died, He was not the first person to be raised from the dead. Lazarus, among others, also experienced this. But, Lazarus was raised with a mortal body—one that would die again. But Jesus rose with immortality—to never die again! There is a sense in which the win-loss column is tens of billion to one. But that one makes all the difference in the world, and all the difference for eternity!
All those who repent of their sins, calling upon the name of the Lord, are given the promise of immortality: “This mortal must put on immortality” (v. 53). Christians, like Moira, share in Christ’s victory. And though Christians, like Moira, die, and though they feel the sting of death, nevertheless, the victory is only temporary. Death’s victory is a hollow one. Christians, like Moira, will rise again. For this reason Christians can—and should—respond, “Death, be not proud, for—hallelujah—we have a Saviour!”