Facing Death Triumphantly
February 22, 2015 / No. 3764
Dear Radio Friends,
The Christian lives in hope, that is, he lives in anticipation of things to come. He does not merely live on good memories of the past; she does not live only enjoying present pleasures. But as believers we live in hope, with our eye on the future, anticipating glorious things that are yet to come.
In this world, one of the things that we anticipate is death. Unless Jesus returns first, every one of us will face his own death. The Bible says in Hebrews 9:27 that we each have an appointment with death; a day and an hour that God has appointed as the moment we meet death. The timing of that, we do not know. For some it may be very close, for others it may seem to be far off, but in fact no one knows the day or the hour. And, looking ahead, we face not only our own death, but death in our families and relationships as well.
There is something fearful and terrifying about the prospect of death. The Bible calls death, “the last enemy.” In all of us, there is an aversion to death, and desire to preserve our own lives. But how, as believers, should we face and think about death?
It is in anticipation of death, his own death, that the psalmist writes the words of Psalm 16, and as he does, he rejoices, he is filled with hope, and he expresses greatest confidence and triumph. He says, in Psalm 16:9-11, “Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.”
Is that your hope? Is this your confession as you contemplate the reality of death? Is this your song, “My inmost being thrills with joy, and gladness fills my breast, because on Him my trust is stayed, my flesh in hope shall rest”?
As we pointed out in earlier messages, the words of this psalm are Messianic, that is, they are properly the words of Jesus Christ. He says these words and, as He approaches the cross in His own death, He speaks these words. But still, they are the words of David, and so they are also our confession as Christians.
David here is talking about his own physical death. He speaks of his body resting. In this life there is a constant busyness, but when death comes our bodies are laid down for the last time in the grave and there they rest. David has the grave in mind when he speaks of hell. In the grave, corruption comes to our bodies; they deteriorate, they rot, they decay. This is all a part of death.
What is death?
First, death is an expression of the wrath and justice of God against sin. In the beginning God said to Adam and Eve concerning the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, “in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” Sin, their fall into sin, and our sin too, requires death. The wages of sin is death.
Second, as to what we experience when we die, death is a vicious rending, a tearing apart and a tearing away from all things that we know and from things that belong together. It is the tearing apart of body and soul, which God originally created as one. It is the rending of all earthly ties and relationships. The experience of death is painful, emotionally, and very often also physically. Very few simply drift from life. Accompanying the experience of death, there is disease and old age; there is the violence of a death by accident. There is the agony of death by starvation or drowning. And, for the onlooker, the loved one who is left behind, there is the sorrow of an empty place that can never be filled again.
This is what David has in view as he writes this psalm: his own physical death. And I have described all that, to demonstrate that death for us is usually a terrifying prospect and a painful experience.
And yet, as we look at these verses, we see none of this. Instead, there is an expression here of the greatest joy. Let us look more closely at what David says.
First, in verse 9, “My heart is glad; my glory rejoiceth.” David means that he is filled with a deep, inexpressible thrill. With his whole being he celebrates, not the life he has lived, but death and the hope that is his in the grave. And we can do that too, because as children of God we know that death is not the end for us, that, in fact, death is but a servant to bring us into the richer experience of life with God.
And so David continues in verse 9: “My flesh also shall rest in hope.” To rest is to sleep, and this is one of the Bible’s beautiful pictures of how we should think of our death. Jesus said of Jairus’ daughter and of Lazarus, “not dead, but sleeping.” And so in I Thessalonians 4, Paul says that when we die as believers, we “fall asleep in Jesus.” And what does falling asleep and resting imply, but this, that we will wake up again. That is our hope, the resurrection of our bodies. Death is not the end of our bodies.
And then in the beginning of verse 10, we are given the reason for this. “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell.” Hell, here, refers to the grave. The soul, refers to the entire person, a part of which is our physical bodies. And the word “leave,” here, has the idea of being abandoned and forsaken. David is saying, God never leaves or forsakes the bodies of His people when they are buried. He never forgets us. That is His promise, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” And now, David applies that promise of God, to his body laid in the grave. What are cemeteries? They are places where we leave the remains of our loved ones. They are places where people who were once well known are forgotten. But God does not leave or forget a single one of His own, not in their graves either. He remembers them, and because of this, they rest in hope of the resurrection.
And with that thought, David continues in verse 10, “neither wilt thou suffer thine holy one to see corruption.” Now as we know, this phrase is a prophecy of the fact that when Jesus was buried, His body did not decay; that it was sustained by the Divine presence for His resurrection on the third day. Death could not bring decay to His body. “Thou wilt not suffer thine holy one to see corruption.” And yet, these are words that David is speaking, in the first person, about himself. Does he mean that his own body will not see corruption? Obviously not. So what he is saying is that even though his body will decay, that will not destroy him. It is an expression of utmost confidence concerning his own bodily resurrection. Something like Job, “though after my skin, worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” And on that day, it will be as though his body never saw corruption. As I Corinthians 15 has it, “this corruptible must put on incorruption.” This is David’s confidence: death will not be the end for him, but through death God will be with him and he will be raised incorruptible.
You know, sometimes unbelieving scholars say there was no thought of resurrection in the Old Testament, that in the New Testament the disciples invented the idea of resurrection. But here, in the plainest language, David expresses the truth of his own bodily resurrection.
And believing this, he has reason for great joy in the prospect of death.
And for us, today, there is the same joy. That not only will my soul immediately go to glory with Christ at death, but also that this my body, though it must be buried and it will decay, this body will be resurrected, it will be made incorruptible, and with my eyes I will see Jesus Christ my Savior. That ought to give us confidence and joy as we face death.
In I Corinthians 15, the inspired apostle Paul expresses the confidence as a victorious and fearless boast, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” As believers, we ought to say that when the fears of death come. We have this triumph too. One of the most beautiful and real and triumphant experiences of the Christian life is to stand on the edge of a gaping grave, laying a loved one to rest. Yes, so painful, but also glorious. At that moment all that is trivial in this world is forgotten, and the things that really matter, heaven and eternal truths, are front and center in our minds. Ecclesiastes 7:2, “It is better to dwell in the house of mourning than in the house of feasting, for that is the end of every man, and the living will lay it to heart.” As painful as grief is, every believer knows the joy and the hope that is his beyond death.
There is a joy in knowing that the glory that will be ours beyond the grave far outweighs what we lose in death. And that joy creates a longing in our hearts for that day. Paul says in Philippians 1, “To die is gain” and to “depart and be with the Lord” is far better than staying here in this world. Is that your longing? To be delivered from the body of this death, from the struggles with sin? To see Jesus Christ face to face?
And then, our joy as believers is also this, that during our lives here on this earth, already now we have the experience of eternal life. With the life of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in us, we have the beginning of eternal joy. That is really what David is saying here in Psalm 16. The resurrection is not merely something that he contemplates in the future; but this is something that he experiences; it surrounds his life; it is the fullness of his joy and life in the present. He is not like a child waiting to go on vacation, counting down the days. His rejoicing is not just in something that he will receive in the future, but this is a joy that he has already. Look back at verses 5 and 6. The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and of my cup. The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places. You see, heaven and our resurrection will not be a change in the quality, but only in quantity of life. Now we know in part, then in fullness. And so in Ephesians 2, our salvation in the present is described as the privilege of being made to sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. And, having that joy now, we just want it to get better. And that is what heaven will be. The disciples sat and they fellowshipped with Jesus, and He said, “I go away. I go to prepare a place for you. And I will come again and receive you to myself, so that we can be together again, perfectly and eternally.”
And so as believers we rejoice, and we do rejoice, even at the prospect of death.
To the unbelieving mind, all this sounds quite silly. Not only that we talk about death, which is a subject to avoid, but especially that we speak of death and joy in the same sentence. The mind of unbelief says, “You’ve got to live for the moment. Seize the day. Life is short, so get the most out of the here and now every day.” And that is because without God, in unbelief, one is without hope in this world. You have nothing more to live for and to anticipate than what life can bring you here. You have no foundation.
But in the Christian gospel there is a foundation. We do not just believe in a fantasy, but our hope is founded on Jesus Christ, and His resurrection. And in the verses here from Psalm 16, that is on the foreground. David’s confidence and hope are founded in this, that from his Old Testament perspective, Jesus will come and will conquer death and the grave, by His bodily resurrection. The lesser David can say what he does here, because of the greater David who is yet to come, Jesus Christ. If these things were not true for Jesus, they could never be true for David, or for us.
This is exactly the way the New Testament explains these verses. Peter tells us in Acts 2 that these words are primarily prophetic of Jesus’ resurrection. After quoting these verses from Psalm 16 in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter says, Acts 2:29, “men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; he seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.” What Peter is saying is this, that when David said things that could not be true of himself in these verses, he was expressing his faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the foundation and reason for his confidence and joy.
And so, these words in Psalm 16 are first Christ’s words. His flesh rested in hope after the burial. He died knowing that God would not abandon Him in the grave, that this was impossible that God would forsake Him, the second person of the Trinity. His body did not see corruption. It is Christ who speaks here.
And because these are Christ’s words, they can be David’s words and our words as believers. We see here that we have a common faith with the Old Testament saints. They trusted in Christ, looking forward to His coming. Their salvation, the payment for and forgiveness of their sins, their hope, was also through Jesus Christ. They trusted in the promises, the oath, of God. We in faith look back at the fulfillment of those promises in the person of Jesus Christ. But our salvation and theirs comes the same way, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
That helps us to understand, too, how we should read the Old Testament. It is a narrative of the experience of God’s people. It is a record of God’s wondrous grace in salvation to His own. We are one with the Old Testament saints. Their suffering is our suffering. Their pilgrimage is our pilgrimage. Their hope is our hope. They were joined to Jesus Christ by faith, and so are we. And joined to Jesus Christ, their confidence and joy is also ours.
Today, Jesus is risen. He is the firstfruits of them that slept. And all who die believing in Him will be raised again into the glories of heaven. Just as Jesus said to Martha when He came to the tomb of Lazarus, in John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” Then He added to Martha, “Believest thou this?”
That is the question for you today. Do you believe this? You know, if Christ is not risen, then no one else who is dead can be raised. If Christ is not risen, as I Corinthians 15 tells us, there is no forgiveness of sins, we are yet in our sins. So, what we have here is the foundation. The fact of the physical bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the foundation for our confidence and joy. Because He lives, we live and we shall live again.
I want to finish this message with a few words on the last verse here, verse 11. “Thy wilt show me the path of life. In thy presence is fullness of joy. At thy right hand are pleasures for evermore.” Obviously, what the psalmist has in view here is the joy and the experience of life in heaven.
But let us remember that the primary speaker here is Jesus Christ. The path of life that God showed Him was a path of suffering that led through death and resurrection to eternal life and glory. Jesus always said to God, “In Thy presence is fullness of joy.” Just think of how often and much He loved to pray, and understand that prayer is an expression of man’s desire to be with God. And also in anticipation of His exaltation, Jesus said at the end of the verse, “at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.”
But again, these are also David’s confession and ours. And what we have in this verse is a wonderful and positive description of heaven. Many of the Bible’s descriptions of heaven are described in the negative, compared to the earthly. And we are told that heaven will not be like it is here on the earth. In heaven, Revelation 21, there will be no more sorrow or sighing or pain. But here it is put very positively. This is what we anticipate as believers.
God shows us the path of life. Sometimes that is a path of suffering. But it leads to the fullness of joy in God’s presence. To be present with the Lord—that is the essence of heaven in the Bible. When we see Him we will be like Him. Do you long to see God?
When we do see Him, there will be eternal pleasures. God created man in the beginning to know and to enjoy Him. Heaven is a world of joy, a fulfillment, a finishing of the purpose for which God created man. There without the restraints of sin, without the struggles and trials of suffering, we will serve God to eternity in perfection. Is that not your longing?
My inmost being thrills with joy, and gladness fills my breast, because on Him my trust is stayed, my flesh in hope shall rest.
Let us pray.
Father, fill us with the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Give us to believe on Him, to trust His death and resurrection. And, Lord, fill us with the joys of heaven, a longing for the day when we will see our Savior and have our bodies fashioned like to His glorious body. And free us, Lord, from being saturated with this earth and its pleasures and cares. We ask it for Jesus’ sake. Amen