Who hasn’t come away from the last several months with a renewed awareness of how precarious life is? There’s nothing like a global pandemic and ruthless lockdown to remind us that death surrounds us on all sides. Everything indicates that we’re on our way to the grave. The liturgical calendar has its own annual reminder that we are “dust and to dust we shall return.” This comes around each year in the season of Lent. Scripture teaches about death as well, like in Paul’s quotable statement that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).
Acknowledgment of death is important because we won’t know what salvation really means without a diagnosis of our condition. The law is not the gospel, to be sure. But it does have an indispensable purpose in leading us to our Savior. So we must recognize the reality of sin. There is a conclusion to the typical human lifespan that results from our original rebellion against God. It began with the ambition of Adam and Eve to become divine through knowing both good and evil. Death is now our great enemy. But God has also made use of death as a tool of his judgment for sin. Perhaps this past year has prompted the recognition that God is not the tame projection of our highest hopes and dreams. Instead, he is the one who uses even his foes to make a point. That’s what he does when he uses death to reveal sin.
God surely makes use of his enemies. Whether we find him attractive for doing so is another question. What God has done with death is turn it against itself. This is the drama and mystery of salvation. The gospel teaches us that history’s great battle of light and darkness has already been waged and won. At the cross, Jesus takes the chosen weapon of evil and turns it against his enemies. By submitting to death on the cross and being raised on the third day, Christ has made himself Lord over death (dominus mortis). He died, but death couldn’t hold him. Death doesn’t speak the last word about Jesus. It doesn’t speak the last word about you either. Death is not Lord; Christ is.
As some of the church fathers will say, Christ fills death’s belly so full with his life that it bursts.
Of all the strange things Jesus does, one of the strangest is that he takes Satan into his own hands and puts him to work. Death is our great enemy. It’s the weapon of chaos the devil wields. But Jesus isn’t above a bit of trickery either. So at the cross, he makes the devil get to work in the salvation business for him. Christ undergoes death at the hands of evil in order to defeat death. An ancient doctrine of Christian theology – known as divine impassibility – can help us here. In himself, God can’t suffer and die. The person of Christ, true God, and true man, surely does. But Jesus is a divine person whom death cannot permanently imprison either. As some of the church fathers will say, Christ fills death’s belly so full with his life that it bursts.
By dying, Christ has done a very strange thing indeed. He has made himself Lord over his last and final enemy. What this means is that he is your Lord too. Nothing escapes from the grasp of the risen Christ. So what does this mean as we reach for a new year? The signs of death are abundant. Many have been met by death itself in the form of this new virus – whether in their own illness or the illness and loss of others. I won’t easily forget those dark March evenings listening to ambulances race across town, no doubt transporting this pandemic’s victims. All of us have been confronted with the seriousness of our foe and the profound chaos it creates.
So remember that you must die – both to sin and yourself. God works judgment through death and will bring about his good and holy purposes. But we mustn’t forget that Christ has made himself Lord over death to such an extent that we have the certainty of a resurrection with him ahead of us. Jesus has gone to work with death, and he’s very competent at what he does.
As an old teacher of mine often remarks, Jesus Christ loves nothing more than a fresh grave. Christ, the risen one, Lord over all things (including death), is making a new creation. The old one will no doubt pass away. Death will, in our sight and experience, continue its campaign of chaos. But faith in the risen Christ knows better – for faith knows that the victory belongs to Jesus, and there’s no one who can take it from him. Let that be your consolation this new year and always – at least until Christ comes to you, reaches into the grave, and brings you to the paradise of a new and everlasting creation where there is no death.