Death. We hate thinking about it yet have a morbid fascination with it. Whenever we hear about a major disaster in which lives were lost, we rush to our news media of choice for details. If someone famous dies – an entertainer, athlete, or public figure – we’re quick to ask our friends, “Have you heard…?”
Many of us have indelible memories etched in stone when asked where we were when we heard JFK was assassinated, Elvis and/or Michael Jackson died, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, or when the horrific events of 9/11 unfolded.
Local newscasts often open with stories about homicides, traffic fatalities and tragic fires. Why? Because people watch. We read obituaries to see if anyone we know has left this life.
At the same time we’re reluctant to contemplate our own mortality. We procrastinate in writing last wills and testaments, and cringe when thinking about making funeral arrangements in advance, as if delaying those steps could hold our own demise at bay.
But as someone has said, death is the great equalizer. It’s truly the one area in which “all men are created equal.” The mortality rate is 100 percent. It’s more certain than taxes – taxes have shelters, write-offs and deductions, but death has no such things.
So this time of year underscores a great biblical paradox: Receiving life through death.
We’re in the midst of Holy Week, highlighted by the traditional Good Friday observance and Easter celebration. Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ, who claimed to be the Son of God. And Easter marks the most improbable occurrence of all: His resurrection from the dead and subsequent appearance to hundreds of witnesses, spawning a spiritual movement that continues to multiply, transforming countless lives all around the globe.
Easter is easier to “get,” even without the Easter bunny, chocolate eggs and baby chicks. Good Friday, however, is more of a puzzle. I vividly remember attending a somber Good Friday service at my church as a boy. During the proceedings I asked my mother, “If this is the day Jesus was crucified, why do we call it Good Friday? What’s good about it?”
Lacking formal spiritual training, my mom deferred to “the reverend,” who after the service stood at the door shaking hands with departing congregants. I asked him the same question. As I recall he mumbled something but offered little in response. (As you might surmise, it wasn’t a Southern Baptist church.)
I concluded if the minister – a professional religious person – didn’t know the answer, who would? So my question about the basis for “Good” Friday remained unanswered into my college years and beyond. It didn’t dominate my thoughts, but certainly didn’t seem to make sense.
Then, many years later, I learned the answer. Jesus’ physical death on the cross, described by many as the most excruciating form of execution ever devised, was not “good.” But its purpose and ramifications for humanity certainly were.
Mankind had an insurmountable problem then, as it does today: Sin. Literally it means “missing the mark,” where God’s standard of perfection is non-negotiable. In response to this problem, Jesus came not only to teach and serve as an example, but also to provide the solution. Romans 5:8 states, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” To use a theological term, Jesus became the atonement for our sins. Or to use a more common term of the recent past, He took the rap for us.
But this is where it gets really interesting. It’s more than having sins forgiven and gaining the promise of life after death, even though those are wonderful promises in themselves. The Bible teaches followers of Christ also receive life before death. That’s what Jesus was referring to when He told the Pharisee Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again…no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:3-8).
I’ll not attempt to delve much deeper. Hundreds of books have been devoted to expositions on this concept of being “born again” and its significance, both for this life and the next. But I believe it’s the linchpin of the Christian faith, perhaps the singular distinctive between it and all other belief systems. Sadly, it’s an understanding many followers of Christ never fully grasp. As a result, instead of experiencing “victory in Jesus,” they feel defeated, struggling constantly to live a life that’s impossible in their own strength.
Two verses helped to hammer home this truth for me about 30 years ago. One states, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). The other, 2 Corinthians 5:17, says much the same, only in a different way: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.”
For many of us, everyday experience says those verses doesn’t make sense. We’re only human, right? Nobody’s perfect. That’s true, of course, but sinful, ungodly behavior need no longer be the “default setting” for those who have received Christ and know Him as Savior and Lord.
One passage sums up this death-to-life perspective: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life…. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus… You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:4-18).