“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his Saints” (Psalm 116:15, 1599 Geneva Bible).

“Verily, verily I say unto you, he that heareth my word, and believeth him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation, but hath passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

Death be not proud, for thou art not so,” wrote John Donne (1572-1631), the great pastor-poet of St. Paul’s Cathedral.[1] Yet, then as now, even the most memorable words in our language can seem empty and cold. Death appears to terrorize us like a dark specter as it stalks the wounded widow and oppresses the lonely orphan. And lest we face this menace of mankind as if it didn’t exist, or as if it had been eradicated from the world, or as if we could stand stoically flint-faced and unmoved by it, we must acknowledge that the Bible does admit its gruesome and inhumane attack on our emotions.

My beloved, the Apostle Paul says that we grieve, not as those who have no hope, yet we grieve nevertheless.[2] Even our blessed Savior wept and was bent over in visceral grief as He witnessed the death of His friend Lazarus and the sad scene before the cold crypt.[3] Jesus Christ knew the destiny of death in the Father’s glorious plan of redemption for the world. He sympathizes with us and has, in His humanity, felt not only the festive joy of a friend’s wedding at Cana but also deep sadness at a friend’s funeral at Bethany. We must never minimize the sense of profound, personal loss of even the most devout of believers.

I think of the great faith of a dear couple I’ve known for years. I will always recall their greetings to me after my last sermon of the day, in evening worship, encouraging me in the Gospel to keep preaching. What a blessing they were to me! What a couple they made! To deny that the husband’s death does not leave a sense of loss is to deny our very humanity and that of Christ’s! We ask God to comfort his widow because the home going of the one she loved is a significant and painful loss to her, to their children, to the grandchildren, and to the countless people that this man of God touched. I feel his loss in my own life.

We do affirm these words of the Psalmist, “The Lord remembers our frame and pities His people. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). Indeed, the Lord speaks of the passing of His saints in a most comforting way when He said in Psalm 116:15, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” In John 5 Jesus tells us that when a man repents and trusts in Christ an enormous transfer of trust from self to Christ takes place: Jesus takes our sins. We gain His righteousness and atonement for sin.

“Truly, truly I say to you, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but he has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

God has done something astounding with death. What? I cannot, as a minister of the Gospel, withhold this Good News from you at this moment of your understandable sorrow. What I am telling you is the very Word of God and has been verified by many eyewitnesses and even by an untold host of grieving loved ones through this old world’s history.

Our God has sweetened the pain of death.

Note that the Lord says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” “Precious.” That is a word I thought that one dear saint coined herself, for she would always say this or that was “just precious, Mike.” I loved hearing that phrase from her! But in fact, she was using a Biblical word. “Precious” is the Hebrew word, “yaqar” that means “valuable.” It is used for godly women. I like the word “sweet.” “Precious, valuable and just plain sweet, in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.”

Now how is death sweet?

  • Death, that enemy of humankind, is sweet in that the Lord knows us personally and will receive us through that which seeks to destroy us;
  • Death, that sinister specter that haunts us through our days, is sweet in that God sent His Son, Jesus Christ to die for us, making death the paradoxical reason that Christ came to us;
  • Death is sweet in that God has turned a wall into a portal, through which we are escorted into the very presence of our God and Savior.

The word “sweet” is mostly attributed to our ladies, and rightly so. But it comes to the lips of many as they fondly remember woman and men of the Lord: “He was a precious man of God, and he was ‘sweet’ in his heart for God and others.’

I have often heard that folks either grow sour or sweet as they grow older. I hope that I get to be like my dear friend who has passed away: “sweet.”

This I know: Because of the valuable sacrifice of Christ for his life, he was sweet to the Father. And thus, God has sweetened the pain that we feel today as we gather to remember his life. For “Precious in the sight of the Lord” is the home going of His child and all men and women, boys and girls, who repent and trust in His Sweet Son, Jesus Christ.

What had God done to Death? Sweetened it. But He’s done something else:

Our God has sanctified His people before death.

The Bible says that all who believe in Him are “saints.” In fact, 80 times in the Bible God uses the word saints to describe those who believe in Him.[4]

It is God, not man, who makes a saint. Paul writes in Romans 1:7 to those who were “called to be saints.”[6] I was a Presbyterian who went to a Nazarene college, and we used to talk (and sometimes enter friendly debate) about the emphasis in the Nazarene Church upon holiness. Holiness, we believe, follows grace. Holiness cannot produce grace. Holiness is the beautiful, transformative activity that comes from Christ at work in a person’s life.[7] You see that sweet man of God whose life we are celebrating was a holy man of God, a saint because God was sanctifying him, making him saintly, making him more like Jesus throughout all the days of his life. Why? One reason was that by the time that he went home to Christ, he had spent many hours in prayer, many hours in looking to Jesus and depending on Him for his life. When Jesus took him and led him into His presence, Jesus was not a stranger to our friend. He is not a stranger to His people who are His chosen ones. He is their friend, their Savior, and their longed-for Savior.

We are precious in His sight because we are saints. Paul says that we are saints in the household of God, that is, in the family of God. God transforms our souls, and we are born again. Then we are justified, declared “right with God” because of the finished work of Christ. The Lord adopts us into His family as His faithful children.[8] Thus, God makes us saints, His chosen ones.

That can be you today if you will repent and receive Christ. You can know for sure that you are His and He is yours. You can know for sure where you are going when you die, just like my friend knew. You can do that with a simple prayer right now where you are. If you are a saint, if you are His child, then today is a day to renew your commitment to Christ and grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord.

In the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the delightful Clarence the angel got his wings by helping Jimmy Stewart’s character.[9] He became a completed angel. Our friend who we remember today was an angel in many ways though he didn’t earn wings. But he did receive the gift of being a saint, not because of anything he did, but because of what Christ did for him. He believed by faith in Jesus Christ, and it was accounted as righteousness. And he was “beautified” by God. He became a saint. Today he is fully glorified and worshipping Christ face to face. Today he and all who have trusted in Christ and have gone on to be with Jesus are completed Christians.

What has God done with Death? He has sweetened it. He has sanctified those who pass through it so that they are His saints. Thus, we affirm the Scriptures:

Our God has secured His possession through Jesus Christ.

Our Lord Jesus taught in the Gospel of John chapter five about His authority as the Son of God. In verse 24 Jesus said that whoever hears His word and believes in Him has eternal life. That word in the Greek means “possesses” and the way Jesus uses it means that whoever believes has eternal life here and now, not just in the sweet by-and-by, as some think of Christianity. In fact, Jesus enforces that teaching by saying that those who die in the Lord do not come into judgment but have passed from death to life.[10]

God has already secured His possession, that is His people, and given us eternal life the moment we trust in Him. Our friend has been living in a state of eternal life since that young age when he repented of his sins and trusted in the resurrected and living Christ. Jesus secures our eternal life by His death on the cross. Paul, in Romans 8, tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus:

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38, 39 ESV).

Jesus says that no one can grab us out of His hand (John 10:29).[11] And there is no judgment for us. Judgment has passed. The judgment for all who trust in Christ happened on the cross when Jesus died for our sins. We are, to use the language of the old catechism, “acquitted” on the Day of Judgment because of Jesus Christ.[12], [13]

Do you have that security? Do you know that if you died today, you would, in fact, see Jesus Christ as your Savior and not as your Judge? You can have this assurance by doing what Jesus says in John 5 hear the Word of Life and believe in Christ, believe that He lived the life you can never live and died the death that should have been yours. Then you will have passed from death to life.

My friend did not complete a journey this week. He began that journey many years ago. He continued a journey, a walk of worship, a tour of love, and a journey of eternal life with God. This is how C.S. Lewis reminds us of the believer’s passing into the next life from this life in his children’s book, The Last Battle. I read from the final lines of the chapter, “Farewell to Narnia:”

“And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion, but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us, this is the end of all stories, and we can most truly say they all lived happily ever after. But for them, it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now, at last, they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”[14]

If you believe in the One in Jesus that your beloved friend believed in, you will not only see him once again, and you will see Jesus Christ face to face.

That is the promise of God. That is the Gospel. For in Christ, the pastor-poet of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, John Donne, summoned the residual strength in his dying body, in defiance to death, preferring the promises of God in Christ to the ostensible signs of decay, and affirmed that which we, too, profess—even in our sorrow—; the confession of what God has done to death:

“Death be not proud…for thou art not so: Death, thou shalt die!”[15]

Footnotes

[1] John Donne, Hugh I’Anson Fausset, and Eric Gill, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne (London,: J. M. Dent & Sons for Hague & Gill, 1938).

[2] See N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008).

[3] I speak of the word, “embrimaomai” translated “deeply moved” in the English Standard Version of the Holy Bible, from John 11:33: When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in His spirit and greatly troubled.

[4] See, e.g., James Orr, D. D. of Glasgow. The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. James Orr … General Editor, Etc. [with Illustrations and Maps.](London; Chicago printed: H. Camp & Co., 1915).

[5] Peggy Noonan, John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father (New York: Viking, 2005).

[6] See J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, 1st U.S. ed. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1990).

[7] James Montgomery Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? : Recovering the Doctrines That Shook the World (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2001).

[8] Michael A. Milton, What Is the Doctrine of Adoption?, Basics of the Faith (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Pub., 2012).

[9] Frances Goodrich, Albert Maurice Hackett, and Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) Shooting Script, [1st electronic ed., American film scripts online (Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press,, 2004), http://www.aspresolver.com/aspresolver.asp?AFSO;FS000849.

[10] “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life: (John 5:24 ESV).

[11] “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:29).

[12] Quest. 38. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at the resurrection?
Ans. 38. At the resurrection, believers being raised up in glory, (1) shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment, (2) and made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God (3) to all eternity. (4)

(1) I Cor. 15:43 (2) Matt. 25:23; 10:32. (3) I John 3:2; I Cor. 13:12. (4) I Thess. 4:17-18.

[13] William Carruthers and Philip Wharton Baron Wharton, The Grounds and Principles of Religion Contained in a Shorter Catechism : According to the Advice of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster ; to Be Used Throughout the Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales ; with the Proofs Thereof out of the Scriptures (London: T. F. Downie, for the Lord Wharton Trustees, 1915).

[14] C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, a Story for Children, His Tales of Narnia (London,: The Bodley Head, 1956).

[15] From John Donne’s famous Holy Sonnet X. The triumphant line appealing to St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:55 (“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”) appears as the resounding final line in the “Sestet” (final six lines) or the “resolution,” following the “Octave” (first eight lines) or the “problem” of the Petrarchan sonnet. See Donne, Fausset, and Gill.

References

Boice, James Montgomery. Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? : Recovering the Doctrines That Shook the World. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2001.

Carruthers, William, and Philip Wharton Baron Wharton. The Grounds and Principles of Religion Contained in a Shorter Catechism: According to the Advice of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster; to Be Used Throughout the Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales; with the Proofs Thereof out of the Scriptures. London: T. F. Downie, for the Lord Wharton Trustees, 1915.

Donne, John, Hugh I’Anson Fausset, and Eric Gill. The Holy Sonnets of John Donne. London,: J. M. Dent & Sons for Hague & Gill, 1938.

Goodrich, Frances, Albert Maurice Hackett, and Frank Capra. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) Shooting Script. [1st electronic ed. American film scripts online. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press,, 2004. http://www.aspresolver.com/aspresolver.asp?AFSO;FS000849.

Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle, a Story for Children. His Tales of Narnia. London,: The Bodley Head, 1956.

Milton, Michael A. What Is the Doctrine of Adoption? Basics of the Faith. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Pub., 2012.

Noonan, Peggy. John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father. New York: Viking, 2005.

Orr, James D. D. of Glasgow. The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. James Orr … General Editor, Etc. [with Illustrations and Maps.]. London; Chicago printed: H. Camp & Co., 1915.

Packer, J. I. A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. 1st U.S. ed. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1990.

Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperOne, 2008.