Richard Baxter felt the unwanted invasion of deep heartache that only death can deliver when his beloved wife Margaret passed away. He described his experience as being “under the power of melting grief.” J.I. Packer noted in his book A Grief Sanctified that Baxter’s use of the word “melting” perfectly captures the effect of being grief-stricken. Packer explained, “The capacity for initiative and enterprise melts-dissolves- away, and so does the power of empathy with and response to others. A half-numb apathy, frequently alternating with bouts of tears, sets in.”
Grief, even the power of melting grief, afflicts Christians when their loved ones fall asleep in Jesus. But we do not, as Paul says, grieve as other people do because we are able to grieve as those who have hope.
Hope. Hope in the midst of death. The Christian’s hope. That will be the subject of this article, and, Lord willing, that of the next two articles. This article will look at what some puritans had to say about the Christian’s hope at death and the next two will cover the hope we have after death and for all eternity.
Hope in the biblical sense is different from how we typically use the word today. We often use the word in reference to something that we want but may never experience. Hope in this sense is equivalent to wishful thinking. I hope that my favorite sports team wins the game means that I want them to win or expect them to win but it doesn’t mean that they will definitely win. Biblical hope is different. It is used with reference to what will definitely happen because God has told us that it will definitely happen.
So then, what biblical hope do Christians have for themselves and their loved ones in the Lord at death? Our hope is that we will not be alone when we die. Thomas Brooks, in a funeral sermon entitled “A Believer’s Last Day is his Best Day,” urged his audience to consider “that the Lord will not leave thee but be with thee in that hour.”
One of the most common exhortations that God gives to us in the Scriptures is “Do not fear.” Over and over again we are told to not be afraid. One contemporary author has said that this is by far God’s most frequent command. The reason we don’t have to be afraid is because God promises to be with us always. He promises to never leave us nor forsake us (Heb. 13:5). Brooks notes that there are in five negatives in the Greek text of Hebrews 13:5 “to assure God’s people that he will never forsake them,” and that Scripture renews this promise five times so “that we may press it till we have pressed the sweetness out of it.”
God will always be with us. The moment we die is, of course, no exception. It is not as if Christ by his Spirit is with us in life but then forsakes us when it comes our turn to die. No! Not at all. Brooks pointed to Psalm 23:4, which says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Our good Shepherd will be with us and he will hold our hand when we take our last breath. There is, therefore, no need for us to fear death. As Brooks rightly asked, “Why should that man be afraid of death, that may be always confident of the presence of the Lord of life?”
Christ is more than able to help and guide us in and through death because he tasted death in its fullness. He knows experientially what it is like to die. He took a last breath His body stopped working. His human soul departed from his body and went to heaven. Jesus walked through the door of death. Richard Baxter wrote, “Christ leads me through no darker rooms Than he went through before.” Christ, therefore, is able to walk you through the same door.
In fact, simply knowing that Christ has experienced death brings us “strong consolation.” In the middle of his own personal grief, Thomas Case, a Westminster divine, wrote:
Another word of comfort is, that our gracious relations are not alone in their death. The captain of their salvation marched before them through those black regions of death and the grave, Jesus died; this is implied in the following words, “If we believe that Jesus died.” This is an argument that carrieth in it strong consolation. Our christian relations in dying run no greater hazard than Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did; no greater hazard than all the patriarchs, and prophets, and apostles did, for they all in their generations died. Yea, what shall I say? They run no other hazard than the Lord of all the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles did, for Jesus died; this is wonderful indeed; the Lord of life yielded up the ghost; the eternal Son of God was laid in the grave!
Christ has gone through the black regions of death and the grave. He leads his people through those same black regions every step of the way. But that is not all, according to Thomas Manton. He argued, on the basis of Luke 16:22, that angels are present with the saints at death in order to carry them straightaway to heaven. Christians are truly never alone at death. That is the certain hope we have. Thomas H. Ramsey (1905-1997) captured this wonderful and comforting truth in his hymn “I Won’t Have to Cross Jordan Alone.”
When I come to the river at the ending of dayWhen the last winds of sorrow have blownThere’ll be somebody waiting to show me the wayI won’t have to cross Jordan aloneI won’t have to cross Jordan aloneJesus died all my sins to atoneIn the darkness I seeHe’ll be waiting for meI won’t have to cross Jordan alone
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