My father died of brain cancer when he was 58 years old. He was a healthy, strong, fruitful, intelligent man, but when death came, all it took was eight months. A friend sympathetically commented after he died, “You really can’t get ready for a thing like this, can you?”
But you can. A few months before we got the news that my dad had incurable cancer, I had providentially memorized several chapters from Revelation. In that doctor’s office after my head stopped reeling and my stomach returned to its place, words that once sounded like theology suddenly rang like a brass trumpet:
“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead...” (Rev 1:4-5)
“But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades...” (Rev 1:17-18)
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:4-5)
All at once I realized this is what the gospel is for. That moment, that news, that feeling, that horror—all of that is why I needed the good news, and I had never realized it before. In that moment, I understood for the very first time, after 30 years of being a Christian, that death is what the gospel saves me from.
I was so thankful for that blast of gospel truth in that doctor’s office. Nothing there was of any use to us: the doctor and her massive amount of education, the medicine, the million-dollar machines, the cold, sterile floors, and the compassionate smile of the receptionist—all of it was useless for bringing joy, hope or life. But those words inside my head made all the difference.
Death is your greatest enemy. It affects every moment of your life and drags you down in ways you aren’t even aware. But death also has the potential to drive you to God—to force you to your knees and trust in his promise and provision of life. In that way, death is your ally. Only God could conceive of such a brilliant and powerful wisdom.
So what’s the use of having good news when the bad news is but a sidebar issue?
Death is the thing we don’t know how to talk about. It’s the thing that happens to other people, but not to us. It’s the thing we’ve seen a million times on TV, but never once in real life. So we’ve convinced ourselves that death is just a Hollywood stunt meant to thrill us. This makes salvation a melodrama and Jesus not much more than another comic book superhero.
The Bible is about the real thing: it’s about death in all its horror and Christ in all his power. It’s about your death problem and the fact that apart from Christ, you cannot do a thing to save yourself from it or from the grief it causes.
Don’t make another move as a minister of the gospel without first orienting yourself to the human problem of death. Without this orientation, your ‘good news’ is just another commercial product aimed at the felt needs of consumers. Power over death, according to the Bible, is our real need and the one thing no amount of money can buy.
If you are currently facing death, you already know the deep need and desperation death brings. For you, the challenge is to dive into the gospel in spite of your acute pain and fragility—to enter the battle in a condition of grief and trust that Christ will supply what you need to win—to participate with Christ in his defeat of death. For you, death has come; you need the gospel to face it. Death is what the gospel is for.
But even if you’ve never faced death before, there is no better time than the present to do so. Because death will come to you, as it does to everyone. And with the gospel, you’ll be ready.
Below is a reading list of passages and a short study guide that will orient your life around the unavoidable reality of death and around what God is doing about it. I’m also sharing two songs I wrote to help me memorize Psalm 90 (download; 7.6 MB) and part of 1 Corinthians 15 (download; 4.9MB). Listen to them every day for a week and I promise you will not be unchanged by the word of God, as it gets stuck in your head through the mental velcro of music.