Conversatio Divina

Are You Really Going to Die?

Dallas Willard

Dallas had a long distance but very positive relationship with The Church of the Open Door in Maple Grove, MN. This was his second visit to teach and he concludes his time there with this sermon on death (or the lack thereof).

Often when I’m at a dinner or something and someone says, well, what do you do? I say, well, I teach philosophy. “Oh,” they say “I had a course in philosophy once.” I had a lady once tell me I had a course in philosophy. That guy said she might as well have been out there playing a fiddle. Because often well, as they say, sometimes philosophers go down deeper and stay down longer and come up drier than anyone else, but I really do enjoy being a philosopher and a Christian because I think Jesus is the smartest man that ever lived and he would hold his own any context you put him in.

And that means the modern university and he does hold his own very well there. And you know, the early movement of Christianity overtook the classical world in the second and third century mainly by making it clear that the questions that philosophers had been asking for about a thousand years by then had their best answer in the teachings that came out of the Bible and out of Jesus and out of the early Christian movement. So it’s wonderful to be a part of of this life that I live. And I’m not sure which one is my main job, Keith. Just kind of all runs together.

Now, this morning, I want to talk to you about the question, are you really going to die? Are you planning on it? And I’d like to start by taking a text from John, the eighth chapter and verses 51 through 53. So if you have a Bible and you might want to mark a few verses, because I really think some of these verses we don’t hear much about—and perhaps this first one above all.

This is a context in which Jesus and the authorities around him are really having a fight. And it’s degenerated into name calling. In verse 48 of chapter 8 of John, the Jews answered and said to him, “did we not rightly say you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Now in plain English, we would say that today, “You are a demon possessed half breed.” That’s not nice!

But you see, Jesus’s teaching was really threatening them. And now he responds in verse 50, “I don’t seek my glory.” In other words, I don’t care what you say about me. And he didn’t. He says, “there is one who seeks and judges.” And that was Jesus’s pattern was to commend himself to God and let people do whatever it is they were going to do.

Now notice this, verse 51, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he shall never see death.” Never see death. Well, this really threw gas on the flame. The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died. Who do you think you are?” Abraham died. Now Abraham was the big man, right? I mean, he’s the one that defined, set the standard and everything was referred back to him.

“Abraham died. And you say, if anyone keeps my word, he shall never taste death.” You got two words there, see and taste. Please do keep them in mind because what Jesus is talking about here is not just you won’t die. We, we’re going to see that in chapter 11 in a moment, where he says you’ll never die. The emphasis here is on experiencing death. You will never experience death.

Now, Jesus chose John to carry through and complete the revealed portion of the gospel of Christianity and Christian teachings to the world. I mean, Peter was his, his rock man, his rocky—right hand man. And Peter served his purpose and he opened the message and the kingdom, not only to the Jews on the day of Pentecost, but to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius.

But that’s about as far as he went as I mean, he continued to work and all that, but Paul then comes in and in a short while makes the next stage. And Paul is the one, of course, who makes clear what the church is. And Paul’s very important an ancient, an older writer, said that “In Paul, for the first time, Greek philosophy made a step forward from the position it had fallen into where it failed to be able to understand how human beings live together.” And Paul comes and says, now look at the church, understand what it is, live in it, and you’ll find for the first time how human beings, even human beings being redeemed from sin can actually live together as human beings are meant to. And so all of his teachings about the church and about love and about how we relate to one another, nourish one another, that wonderful phrase in Ephesians 4—speaking the truth in love, build up the body of Christ through that which every member supplies—gives us a picture.

Now, John, he was the kid of the apostles, you may know. He’s the youngest one. It probably was someone with a little extra education and intelligence and so on. You remember he’s the one that Jesus assigned when, when he was on the cross, he said to his mother, “Behold your son,” and to John, “Behold your mother.” And actually John and Mary are very big in bringing the message of Christ to the world. There was a big controversy about whether or not Jesus had a body. And Mary was very important in that controversy because she could tell you he did, right? And that was a major role. And so when you go to Ephesus, for example, they’ll show you Mary’s house up on the hill and they’ll show you John’s tomb and they’ll tell you all the stories about them, because they moved out into the world and they are the ones. John especially is the one who sort of writes the last word in revealing God’s purposes. And that’s why I think you’ll find in John these explicit statements about death and life. You don’t really find them that way in any of the other writers, though, of course, Paul and all the rest of them understood the basic point I’m going to make to you this morning.

What’s the answer to the question? Are you really going to die? The answer is no. But we need to, that is, if you keep His Word, and, and some questions that have come up in the earlier sessions here by keeping His Word, that doesn’t mean you earn it. This is always an issue that comes up. Keeping His Word is an expression of the life that is in you, which is undying.

And if that life is in you, Jesus is saying, you can be identified by the fact that it flows out in your actions and you actually keep his word. Don’t worry about perfection now. That’s another issue that comes up. Okay. You’re, you’re living a life that Jesus has given you in the new birth from above. And that life is developing.

And Jesus is saying now those kinds of people will never experience death. Well in John 11, as you know, a more familiar passage is the story of the death of Lazarus. There was a family, two sisters, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, who knew Jesus well, and he had a special love for them. And a very special love for these people.

And because of that, I guess, he brought them into his ministry in a special way. Lazarus got sick, and he was in real trouble. And so the sisters sent a messenger to the Lord who was up north and said, “Come, you’re, you’re, you’re the one you love, your brother, your friend is sick.” And Jesus didn’t go.

He waited. He didn’t just go do what the people he loved wanted him to do when they wanted him to do it. I heard a person once say that if you serve Jesus long enough, you’ll disappoint him. And I think there’s a profound truth in that—because he’s got something better in your mind—he’s got something in mind for you that’s better than anything you’ve thought of.

And this is the case here. He’s using the occasion of Lazarus’s sickness, as he says in verse 15 of John 11, he says to his disciples, “I am glad for your sakes that I was not there so that you may believe.” In other words, so that you can really come to understand and get the point. Well this story is much more familiar than the John 8 verses, but let me go over just a few points in it.

Jesus comes, Martha goes out to meet him, and her words in verse 21 of John 11 are, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In other words, guess who’s to blame. And that’s okay. We can talk to God like that. We can talk to Jesus like that. We can be honest, share our disappointments. He’ll take it very nicely and lead us on. It’s important that we be honest about that.

There’s a discussion here that ensues in which Martha says, well, “I know that Lazarus will rise in the last day.” And I’m confident of that. But then Jesus says in verse 25, “I am the resurrection and the life.” In other words, what’s going to happen later is already here.

There’s going to be a resurrection, yes, but the life of God is not waiting for them. And that’s where the resurrection of Lazarus now is going to serve as a kind of nail to nail that message down. Here’s what Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me shall live even if he dies.”

So that’s one way of putting the main point. But the next verse is a fuller revelation of the facts. “Everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” Is anyone here planning to die?

Well, you’re going to be disappointed if you are one of those who keep his word. You’ll never die. Now, your body is going to cease functioning possibly, but that doesn’t mean you die. And the main thing I have to do this morning is try to give some substance to what—well, put it like this, what’s it like to not die when you die?

What’s it like?

Jesus is teaching us here that our experience, our existence will continue, that we will go through a passage to a different kind of presence with God, but we will not die.  We will not cease existing. We will not lose our grip on reality. God will not lose his grip on us. And this is a major change for human beings.

In this picture here, we see Mary and Martha weeping and there were people there helping them do that. You know, in those days they even paid people to come and wail, help you mourn. Help you wail. And it’s because of the, they wanted to be able to wail real good. And so they would have professional wailers who would come in.

And you should hear them. I mean, they really knew how to do it. And it was playing on the kind of sympathetic connection, you know, you have two little children and one of them gets unhappy and starts crying. And you look at the other and it starts puckering up and pretty soon it’s crying, right? Just out of the sympathetic connection.

And Jesus looked at that and, well, this is, this is where the shortest verse in the Bible comes in. You know what the shortest verse in the Bible is. Now, I, this was my favorite verse when I was a child, because when called on to say a verse of scripture, I can always say, “Jesus wept.” And all of us kids in Sunday school, we had that one ready.

“Jesus wept.” That’s verse 35 of John 11. So if you ever get to where you need a verse, remember that, okay? “Jesus wept.” That’s the shortest verse in the Bible. “Jesus wept.” he cried. What did he cry about?

You might almost think he was crying about what he’s going to do to Lazarus. He’s going to bring him back and Lazarus is in a good place.

Well sometimes when God loves us, he allows us to be put through things that serve his purposes and that really, I’m sure Lazarus doesn’t regret this. Or like Job, you know how Job got in trouble? God bragged on him.

Have you considered my servant Job?

You see, our function here is to glorify God. And sometimes we’re led through things that are pretty deep. But I don’t think that’s why Jesus was weeping. I don’t think he was weeping. He knew Lazarus was okay and everything would be fine. I think Jesus was weeping because he looked at these people wailing and trying to make themselves as miserable as possible.

And I know the people I was raised among felt almost a duty at a funeral to just fall apart. I can remember seeing people fall on the floor and I think Jesus wept because he understood how people suffer from fear of death. Listen to these words from Hebrews, the second chapter, verses 14 and 15, “He partook of flesh and blood that through death he might render powerless him who had the power of death.”

That is the devil. Death as human beings know it is the devil’s idea, not God’s idea. Now, if we were to go into that deeply, it would take us a long time to work that all out. But I just want you to say that, to hear that. Death as human beings know it, as those people knew it who were weeping and wailing and carrying on…Sometimes these are people who ought to know better. Mary and Martha ought to have known better, but of course they didn’t. And in the mercy of God, they learned a lesson here. Listen to these words now from Hebrews. That is the devil, that “he partook of flesh and blood, that he might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” Through fear of death, were subject to slavery all of their lives. Subject to bondage. Why does the slave remain a slave? Because someone’s going to kill him if he tries to get out of it. See, the fear of death is a great power in life. And you can see it all around you.

In fact, human government is always ultimately based upon the fear of death. There is no human government that does not have the power to kill. And it will use it when it’s pushed. No matter what nice language it may use. That’s why Jesus was weeping. He saw that. He wept for grief at the mistaken understanding of the passage to God that he saw around him in the whole world.

Now Paul picks up on these themes in many of his writings. Look for a moment at 2 Corinthians 5. This is one of the great statements by Paul about what he had come to know through his interaction with Jesus Christ. See, Paul knew the reality of life beyond death because he had met Jesus. Actually, he had spent several years studying with him, especially intimate occasions.

He had an unexpected encounter with him on the road to Damascus, you’ll remember, but that was not the end of the story. And he had other experiences which led him to be sure that people do continue on and continue to function and have a life. Here he says  in verse 1 of chapter 5 of 2 Corinthians, “We know…” He knew. He didn’t say we guess or we hope. “We know that if the earthly tent or tabernacle,” he’s referring to this body, a tent or a tabernacle is a temporary dwelling. And that’s why he calls it a tabernacle. “We know that if the earthly tent, which is our house, is torn down, we have a building.” Very interesting.

He doesn’t say another tent. “We have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven.” And probably some of you folks are a little older—you did some groaning this morning when you got up, I suspect. And you were groaning, groaning for this house that won’t make you groan anymore.

But he says we want a new house. We don’t want to just lose the house. We want a new house. And we groan being burdened because we do not want to be enclothed, but be clothed in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up in what is…mortal means what is dying. In the process of dying. And you start that when you, when you’re born. What is mortal may be swallowed up in life. And not many of you will know the wonderful treatment in 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul spells all this out much more. But here in verse 5 he says, “Now he who has prepared us for this, that is for the eternal kind of life has given us the spirit as a pledge.”

What does that mean? Well, spirit is unbodily personal power, moves into our life. And Paul knew the reality of a life that was not from his body. He knew that. He knew that because he walked in it day by day. You go back and look at this passage in 2 Corinthians from chapter 3 through about 5, you’ll see, spelling this out, the life of the spirit.

And how does he know this? Well, not just because of his experiences, but because he is interacting and living with a life that is eternal day by day. I read it again. Verse 5, “He who prepared us for this very purpose is God who gave us the spirit as a pledge.” Now see Paul’s assurance of that is what buoyed him up when he was in jail and all the other things he went through.

You may recall these words from Philippians chapter 1, and he’s talking to the Philippians about being in jail and what’s happening with him now. And he says in verse 20, “According to my earnest expectation and hope that I shall not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ shall even now be always exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”

And given that, then he can say as verse 21 does, and perhaps you have, you know this one by heart, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” And see to live is Christ, that meant he was living a life that is beyond death. And then he goes on to talk about how he’s in a straight between two choices: one is to go ahead. And he says, that would be far better, far better to depart and be with Christ. That would be far better. Or remain and serve the Philippians and others in the name of Christ. And he says, he’ll stay a little longer and he does. But it still would be far better as verse 23 of that passage says.

Paul’s vision is—most sharply stated, I think—in the 10th verse of 2 Timothy chapter 1. And Paul is talking here about how Christ has saved us and given us a holy calling and filled our lives with purpose and grace that extends into eternity. And he says in verse 10 of 1 Timothy chapter 1, “Now Christ has revealed who we really are.”

“Christ has revealed who we really are um, by his coming in and proclaiming the gospel and living in the kingdom.” Here he says, “Now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus who abolished death.” Do you see that? What does that mean, abolished death?

If death, if something is abolished, what is, what’s, what’s true of it? It ain’t around no more. It’s abolished. It’s done away with. See that now, he did that by bringing life and immortality to light through the gospel. The teaching of the kingdom and of life in the kingdom makes clear what life and immortality are. And see, that’s something that we need to hold onto now.

Now we finally get to know who we are by what happens. The teaching of Jesus about death and the story of Lazarus and Mary and Martha is designed to nail that down so that anyone who wishes to know can know it. There are other passages about this passage that are important to understand. Back in Luke, the 20th chapter we have the story of another Lazarus, a poor man who lived at the gate and took scraps from the table and the dogs licked its soars.

That’s pretty, that’s pretty poor.

And then another man, the rich man who owned the gate. And now here’s what is said of Lazarus, “Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by angels into Abraham’s bosom.” Now think about what he’s describing there as what happens when you die, but don’t die. When you die, but don’t taste death. When you die, but don’t see death.

Think of Lazarus. What was his experience like? Now, when I was young, I worried about Abraham’s bosom, because I didn’t know much about that sort of thing, and I was wondering what Abraham’s bosom was.

Well, I realize that’s actually referring to a banquet or a celebration, a party. You may recall that in one of the times of meal times together with Jesus, John lay on his bosom. Do you remember that? And so that it refers to intimacy, fellowship. We even have an older hymn that says, “Jesus lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly while the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high.”

In other words, resting on Jesus in the midst of turmoil. So that just refers to intimacy. And what about those angels? Well, we know that, as Jesus taught in another chapter, those who are thought worthy to be in the resurrection and the life beyond the passage that we call death, will be as angels.

So now what do you think the experience of Lazarus was when he died? But take a moment now and try to fill in here, and I’ll keep talking a little bit to help us with it. But see, what you want to understand is that what Jesus said, when he said, “Those who keep my word shall never see or taste death,” that’s what Lazarus experienced.

Do you think he was worrying about his body?

What do you think? Here are the angels. They’ve come. So he’s in real good company. Probably some people he knew.

You think he was saying, “Oh, my body. What’s going to happen to my body? Oh, my heart has stopped beating.” And so, do you think he was saying that? Okay. What do you think? Yes or no? Was he thinking that? No, he wasn’t thinking that. He probably didn’t even know he was dead.

Probably, he figured out as he went along that something had changed. He didn’t get to see Abraham every day.

Are you beginning to get the idea here that those who are caught up in the life of God are people who, when the moment of change comes, will have their lives full of something so good that they will not experience death? The Psalmist said, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil because,” say it a little louder…”for thou art with me…” That’s good company, wouldn’t you think?

That would be good company.

Let me read you a beautiful story here by Amy Carmichael. Amy Carmichael was a wonderful Christian who served in India, mainly caring for children. And she tells a story about a little girl. I’ll just read this to you.

Her name was Lulla. She was five years old, a Brahmin child of much promise. She had sickened suddenly with an illness which we knew from the first must be dangerous.

We couldn’t ask a medical missionary to leave his hospital a day and a half away for the sake of one child, but we did the best we could. We sent an urgent message to a medical evangelist who had been trained and who lived nearer and he came at once, but he arrived an hour too late. But before he came, we had seen this.

It was in that chilly hour between night and morning. A lantern burned dimly in the room where Lulla lay. There was nothing in that darkened room to account for what we saw. The child was in pain, struggling for breath, turning to us for what we could not give. I left her with Mabel, Wade, and Ponamol, and going to a side room, cried to our father to take her quickly.

I was not more than a minute away, but when I returned, she was radiant. Her lovely little face was lighted with amazement and happiness. She was looking up and clapping her hands as delighted children do. When she saw me, she stretched out her arms and flung them round my neck as though saying goodbye in a hurry to be gone.

Then she turned to the others in the same eager way, and then again, holding out her arms to someone whom we could not see, she clapped her hands. Had only one of us seen this thing, we might have doubted, but we all three saw it. There was no trace of pain in her face. She was never to taste a pain again.

We saw nothing in that dear child’s face but unimaginable delight. We looked where she was looking, almost thinking that we could see what she saw. What must the fountain of joy be if the spray from the edge of the pool can be like that?

Do you think this little girl tasted death? Do you think she saw death? I assure you she did not. She was in wonderful company and it was real. You know it just leads me to say no child of God dies alone. No child of God dies alone. That bothers many people because they’re not there when a dear one passes.

But you want to remember that. And I don’t mean you shouldn’t be there, that’s fine too. But if you are there, they are soon going to find someone they would rather be with than you.

Now, it’s wonderful to know that, but you know it’s very important to understand that this is not just a teaching about death, this is a teaching about life. See, these things are teachings about who we are now. It’s who we are now. Our identity, you’re not your brain. I know you go down to the university or watch some stupid movie and it says you’re your brain, but you’re not.

Your brain is an interesting piece of meat that’s important for you to function with while you’re in this body, but it’s not you. And you don’t need to be afraid of Alzheimer’s or anything else, as the integrity of yourself as a spiritual being will be kept by God. And you can also understand that for your loved ones.

I can’t go into all of that today, but that’s one of the things I spend a lot of my time on in philosophy is working with this issue of the brain and the mind. I just want to say to you, look, you’re not your brain, you’re not your body. Your body and your brain are important, but it’s only because you’re a person, you’re a spiritual being.

Let me give you just a little language here, and you may want to write it down, just one sentence that will help you pull this together. And you may need to write it on your bathroom mirror or somewhere. Here’s the sentence. “I am an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.”

“I am an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.”

Would you be willing to say that with me? Think you can say it with me? Let’s say it together. “I am an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.” See, that’s who you are. That’s why death for those who keep God’s word, who keep Christ’s word is not something you’re going to be experienced.

So you just have to give up on that and get over your disappointment, because you’re not going to experience that. When that time comes, you’re going to be caught up in something that’s so much better and different. Now, I know that if we had time and could open this to you, we would have a string of people testifying about what they have seen, and we wouldn’t get out of here before dinner.

So we’re not going to do that.

You see, what you want to understand is the, the character, I want to just read a few words from a writing by C. S. Lewis on the greater weight of glory. Here’s what he says, “We must remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations, these are mortal. And their life is to ours as the life of an ant.” In other words, compared to a person, a civilization is of no greater significance than a gnat.

“But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit. Immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

So you see, that’s why, that’s why God wants to keep you. It’s because he knows the greatness of what he’s created. And I can give you just quickly a few reasons he wants to keep you. One is he’s invested in you. He’s invested in creating you. When you were born, you didn’t come into this world like an accident of something.

God brought you, he’s invested in you. And for most of us, He, the people of God has invested in you. I think probably that’s true of most of us here. The people that follow Christ have invested, and that’s God investing in you. So that’s one reason—he’s invested in you. The second is, he has a plan and purpose for you. He’s got something for you to do. And you know that, too, is bigger than we can easily imagine. In Romans 8 we have some statements about the purpose of God in creating us and our redemption in relationship to creation. Just listen to these words from verse 19 of Romans 8 and following, “The anxious longing of creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the children of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of him who subjected it in hope. The creation will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom and glory of the children of God. The whole creation groans and suffers, waiting in pains of childbirth until…”

What in the world is that about?

That is about this simple thing. God has on earth a plan for human history, which means that he is taking out a people with whom he will live and reign as they reign in his universe under him as they govern for good, as they live as creative will under his power, as they make ever greater the universe he has created.

God’s project in creation is to make something as great and good as he himself is. And of course, since he is infinite, that’s a never ending process and you get involved in it. And that’s what your life is about. You are training for reigning. So will you remember that today as you go out back in that year?

It’s training for reigning. And he has a plan for us. And by the way, because he loves us. See? That’s what made Job say, almost cry out of the darkness, not only of his own suffering, but of the world in which he lived. He says, “I know that my Redeemer lives.” I know that, Job 19:26. “I know that my Redeemer lives.” Now how did he know that? He knew it because he knew the goodness of God.

He knew that, “I know that my Redeemer lives and my, that after my death, though I rot in my flesh, I shall see God.” You see, he knew the future because he knew the presence of God, a loving God in his world.

So what are you going to be doing 300 years from now?

You’d be parked on some shelf in some foggy warehouse?

No, you’re going to be an active being. If you go on while Jesus is still preparing a place for us, I don’t think you’re going to sit and watch him. Being with the Lord is not going to be just being parked somewhere. We will be engaged with what, and then looking ahead to the future. Listen to these words from Revelation 22:5.

“And there shall no longer be any night, and they shall not have need of a lamp nor light of the sun, because the Lord God shall illumine them, and they shall reign forever. And ever.”

Who’s that? They? Is there anyone here today that’s included in that? Anyone? Can I see a hand? Hey, how about that? How about that?

That’s talking about you and me. They will reign for and ever listen to these words that Jesus takes out of the book of Daniel, and he gives them again in Matthew 13. “Then shall the righteous shine forth like the sun in the kingdom of their father.” And that’s what Lewis was talking about. You see, Lewis was talking about how that’s the reality.

Now, thank goodness, you know, you can’t walk around like that now. You might frighten the horses.

But that’s who we are. “I am an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.” That’s the future. That’s the future.

Let me just give you one more verse, Isaiah 51:11, beautiful words based on that confidence in the goodness of God. Here’s what Isaiah says, “And the ransomed of the Lord will return and come with joyful shouting to Zion, and everlasting joy will be on their heads, and they will obtain gladness and joy. And sorrow and sighing will flee away.” That’s our future. That’s what God has given us. You’re not even going to have to experience death to get there, because you’re living now in eternity where God is acting. And that’s why Jesus says, whoever keeps my word will never see death.

Let’s stand for prayer.

And now, Lord, You have given these words to your Son and he has given them to us. I’m sure they’re far beyond anything we could competently explain now, but your Spirit, we ask, would come and quicken the Word and settle the vision so that it is never off the horizon of the mind of any person in this building now for the rest of their life. Settle that into their body and into their soul so that they will understand these things and know how to live now the eternal life which you have given us. In the name and honor of Jesus, we pray it. Amen.

You’re dismissed.