I spoke these words a couple of years ago at the graveside of Cathy Duncan, one of my church members. I share them here for your edification and comfort.
Two Pictures of Death
Anytime a Christian dies we have mixed feelings. We feel grief, knowing that they’re gone, and we feel comfort, knowing that they’re in a better place. When a Christian like Cathy dies, both of these feelings are right and fitting. Comfort and grief. And the reason they’re both fitting is because the Bible presents us with two different pictures death.
On the one hand, the Bible presents death as a friend. If you’re trusting in Jesus Christ as your only hope, then the Bible says that “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21), because to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). For a Christian, death is a doorway into the presence of Jesus, and Thursday morning Cathy got to walk through that door and see the one who loved her and gave himself for her.
For the Christian, the Bible presents death as a friend. And we’re meant to take comfort in that.
But that’s not all the Bible says about death. If it were, we’d be wrong to grieve. But we’re not.
Because the Bible also presents death as an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). Death is an intruder—something that doesn’t belong here. People have been dying for so long that it can almost seem natural. And yet any time we stand over the grave of a loved one, we’re reminded of just how unnatural it is. The reason it doesn’t feel natural is because the Bible tells us that it wasn’t always like this. There were no graveyards in the Garden of Eden. Death came later as a result of sin.
It’s an enemy. That’s why it’s right to mourn.
The shortest verse in all the Bible is two words—”Jesus wept.” And the reason he wept is the same reason you have been weeping. Because someone he loved had died. His friend Lazarus had died. But he didn’t just weep because Lazarus had died, he also wept because he saw the grief that death caused. The Bible says that when he saw Lazarus’s sisters weeping, he was indignant—angry. Not angry at them for grieving. And certainly not angry at God. But angry at this enemy called death. Angry because when he looked into the face of death he knew that something wasn’t right.
And part of his mission was to make it right. To grapple with this enemy called death and to come out victorious.
Two Layers of Comfort
Jesus said “Blessed are those who mourn, because they shall be comforted.” So in light of what we’ve just heard, there are two layers of comfort that Jesus wants to give us today as we mourn the loss of Cathy.
The first layer of comfort is the one I’ve already mentioned. For the Christian, death is a friend because it brings us into the presence of Jesus. And if we could experience even for ten seconds what Cathy is now experiencing, we’d never wish her back.
But as comforting as that is, it’s not enough. Because death is still an enemy. So there’s another layer of comfort. And it’s this:
Jesus has defeated death. The Jesus that Cathy saw on Thursday morning was not a ghost. He was a man with flesh and blood and an empty grave. The Christian faith is that Christ is risen from the dead. And the Christian hope is that one day we will rise with him. Someday an angel will be able to stand over Cathy’s grave and say “Why do you seek the living among the dead? She is not here; she is risen, just as he said.”
That’s the comfort that Jesus offers us today. Not only is death a friend to be welcomed, it’s an enemy to be defeated. An enemy that Jesus has already defeated, and that someday he’s going to evict from his world.
Someday he’s going to return. And every tear will be wiped away and everything sad will come untrue. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thess. 4:16–18)