I have a number of friends who are battling cancer with the near certainty that death is coming to them. It's at times like this I realise how little teaching there is on death and how we should face it. It's understandable in a world that doesn't want to talk about death and prefers to hope that there might be an opt-out clause.
The words we use when we speak about death are important. Let's take a very simple example: you often hear people talk about cancer as being the 'big C'. But as Christians we already have a 'big C': Christ. The fact that he is King of Kings puts him in a distinctly superior position. If you are battling with cancer, just remember that your 'big C' is Christ.
How the use of words makes a difference is seen in the almost endless number of euphemisms people come up with to avoid using the word death. One widely used phrase is 'passing away'. Let me be honest: I don't like this phrase. For one thing it makes it sound as though death is the end, some sort of a fading away into a nothingness. For the Christian this is not true. Because we are made in the image of God the death of any human being is significant: we are not things. And because for the Christian we go to be with Christ, death is not an end but a new beginning. Life in eternity is more real and more solid than this life.
A far better alternative is 'passing through'. This expresses the biblical view of death very well. Let me suggest three ideas that are relevant here.
The first centres on one of the key events in the history of the Jewish people: the fact that they miraculously passed through the Red Sea. The story, told in Exodus 14, is very dramatic. Under the leadership of Moses, the Israelites flee Egypt with Pharaoh's army in pursuit, only to find themselves confronted by the terrifying sight of the utterly uncrossable Red Sea. Just as things seem completely hopeless, God commands that the waters part and God's people pass through on dry land to safety. It's a graphic image and, in the context of dying, an enormously helpful one. God has not changed; if we have put our faith in Christ then we are his people, and facing the grim threat of death we can be sure that - like the ancient Israelites - he will open a way for us to go through.
The second passage relevant to the idea of death as passing through is to be found in Isaiah 43.
But now, this is what the Lord says -
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
'Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.'
These are astonishingly comforting words. 'The Lord' - the God of the universe who has stooped down to make an unbreakable covenant with human beings - gives his solemn promise that he has rescued his people, that he has called them, that he will be with them in person and that, as a result, they will safely pass through the terrors and threats symbolised by water and fire. John Bunyan refers to these words in Pilgrim's Progress as his hero crosses through the turbulent river of death to reach the heavenly city on the other side. For the Christian, death is indeed like passing through a river to the Promised Land on the other shore. However rough the passage, we pass through safely with Christ.
The third idea that helps me think about 'passing through' is the fact that at the crucifixion of Jesus the curtain of the temple was torn apart (Luke 23:45). This great curtain hung over the entrance to the Holy of Holies, the very core of the great Temple and the place in which it was felt that God was somehow present. It was so sacred that no one ever went past the curtain into the presence of God except the High Priest, and he only did that once a year. This demonstrates how the death of Christ has made a way for us to pass through to God. In Hebrews we read, 'And so ... we can boldly enter heaven's Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place' (Hebrews 10:19,20 New Living Translation). The main idea is that when we pray we have access to God in the same way (but even better) that the High Priest could have. I think we can safely apply the idea to dying. For the Christian, to die is to follow Christ through the dense darkness of a torn curtain into the glorious and dazzling presence of God our Father.
'Passing through' is a very helpful phrase for a difficult situation. It is honest about death: it accepts that dying is something difficult and unpleasant. But it is also hopeful because it points us to the fact that, for the Christian, death is not a grim exit from life but, on the contrary, an entrance to a greater and unending life.
When it comes to our turn to die, may we all not pass away but instead pass through safely with Jesus.