Death as the Servant of Christ
The following is taken from Anthony Hoekema’s The Bible and the Future, to my mind one of the best works on biblical eschatology (the doctrine of the “last things”) in print. In his chapter “Physical Death,” Hoekema takes up the question of why do Christians still die even though they have been forgiven their sins through the work of Christ. Here are his (always) insightful comments:
The conquest of death, therefore, is to be seen as an essential part of Christ’s redemptive work. Christ not only redeems people from sin; he also redeems them from the results of sin, and death is one of them. And so we read in II Timothy 1:10 that Christ has “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light.” It is therefore a fitting culmination of Christ’s redemptive work that in the new Jerusalem there will be no more death (Rev. 21:4)
But then the question arises, why must believers still die? Why couldn’t they just immediately ascend to heaven at the end of the earthly days without having to go through the painful process of dying? As a matter of fact, this is what will happen to those believers who will still be living when Christ comes again. They will not have to die, they will be changed “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (I Corinthians 15:52) into the state of incorruptibility. Why can’t this happened to all believers?
This question is, in fact, asked in the Heidelberg Catechism, question 42: “since, then, Christ died for us, why must be also die?” The answer reads as follows: Our death is not a satisfaction for our sin, but only a dying to our sin and entering into eternal life.”
Death is for us who are in Christ not a satisfaction for sin. It was for Christ, but it is not for us. Since Christ was our Mediator, our second Adam, he had to undergo death as a part of the penalty for sin which we deserve, but for us death is no longer a punishment for sin. For Christ death was part of the curse; for us death is a source of blessing.
But then we ask, What does death now mean for the Christian? “A dying to sins,” the catechism goes on to say (literally, “an extinction of sins”). In this present life sin is the heaviest burden we have to bear. The older we get, the more it grieves us that we keep on falling short of doing the will of God. One feels something of the weight of this burden when he reads Paul’s words in Romans 8:23, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” But death will bring an end to sinning. …Our death will also be en “entering into eternal life.” These words are not intended to deny that there is a sense in which the believer already possesses eternal life here and now, since the same catechism teaches in Answer 58 that we now feel in our hearts the beginning of eternal joy. But what we enjoy now is just the beginning. We shall enter into the full riches of eternal life only after we have passed through the portal of death. Therefore Paul can say, “to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21), and “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).
All this implies that death, our “last enemy” (I Cor. 15:26), has through the work of Christ become our friend. Our most dreaded opponent has become for us the servant who opens the door to heavenly bliss. Death for the Christian is therefore not an end but a glorious new beginning. And thus we understand why Paul can say,
All things are yours,
whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas
or the world or life or death
or the present or the future,
all are yours;
and you are Christ’s;
and Christ is God’s (I Cor. 3:21-23).