FacebookTwitterRSS FeedPinterest

By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at / Published Life BPC 8am Service, 2004-08-08

Text: Hebrews 11:21-22

Our subject for this morning's message is one that many people do not like to think about. In fact people who are superstitious would even say that we should not mention it all, lest it should become prophetic. But we all know too well that death is the grim reality of life. The sober fact that we all must learn and accept in this life, is that sooner or later life ends in death. No matter how hard you may try to avoid this truth or to keep it out of your mind, it comes back to you in one form or another!

You hear of it in the news everyday: Tragic deaths in local road accidents, and in fires, including the one last Sunday that killed over 300 people in a supermarket in Paraguay. You hear of deaths in suicide bomb attacks and killing of hostages almost every week. You hear of awful murders and suicides. In fact, there is not a single day of life on earth that ever goes by without death, and so the pages of obituaries in the newspapers will never be empty! Even as you sit there in the pews right now, someone out there is taking his last breath. Death stares at you in the face whenever you attend a vigil service or funeral and look in the casket. And death especially brings sorrow and pain to your heart, when the one who lies in that casket is a close friend, relative or loved one. 

And this may sometimes cause you to wonder: When will the 'grim reaper' come for you? When will it be your turn to have your name and picture appear in the obituaries? When will your turn come to lie down in a narrow casket, all cold and lifeless? Dear friends, if that is to be your final end, with absolutely nothing more after that, then all the joy of living now becomes senseless, for there is nothing, absolutely nothing at all to look forward to in life if this is the way that it must end.

The good news for us is that there is something that those who are in the Lord Jesus Christ can look forward to, even with the reality of death. How can we look forward to it? The answer is, by faith in what Jesus Christ can do and will do for us beyond death. This faith that triumphs over death is sometimes expressed in the last words that are spoken by those who died. It is interesting to study the last words that are spoken by people before their life comes to an end. There are many things we can learn from them. There is even a book that has been written called, 'Famous Last Words.'

A person's last words sometimes reveal some deep philosophical insights that have been distilled out of a lifetime's experience. For example, when Queen Elizabeth I was about to expire, her last words were: 'All my possessions for a moment of time.' 

Last words sometimes inspire us to take up the challenge to follow an exemplary life. For example, Joseph Addison (1672-1719) was an 18th century English poet who wrote the hymn entitled 'The Spacious Firmament on high.' (RHC No. 6) What he said on his death bed to all those who were present was: 'See in what peace a Christian can die.' Six centuries before him, there lived a godly archbishop named Thomas Becket (1118-1170). Just before he was martyred at the age of 52 Becket said, 'I am ready to die for my Lord, that in my blood the Church may obtain liberty and peace.' Some of the finest last words spoken by men have brought glory to God, like the words of a godly British general called James Wolfe (1727-1759). When he was mortally wounded at the Battle of Quebec, James Wolfe said, 'Now God be praised, I will die in peace.' 

Dearly beloved, when your turn comes to utter your last words, what will you say? May we be like these godly people who glorified the Lord before leaving this world. The way that Christians face death cannot be that same as those who do not have Christ. Romans 14:8 tells us, 'For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord.' The Scriptures give us accounts of the way that some men of faith have lived and died unto the Lord.

In our passage of Scripture two of such men are mentioned: Jacob and Joseph. Both of them spoke with great expectation even upon their death beds. Let us turn our Bibles now to our passage of Scripture to find out what the faith of these men enabled them to do and say upon their death beds. Hebrews 11:21-22 'By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff. By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones.'

I. Faith Triumphs over the Futility that Death Brings.

The first death mentioned here is that of Jacob. To understand his dying words, it is good for us to know something about him. Jacob was the younger son of Isaac, and the grandson of Abraham with whom God had made a covenant. In this covenant, God had promised that his descendants would become a great nation that would one day inhabit the land of Canaan. The most wonderful part of this covenant however is that through his descendants all the families of the earth would one day be blessed (Genesis 12:2,3).

However when Jacob was born, there did not seem to be much hope that this covenant would be fulfilled through him or through his brother, Esau. This is because both of them were rascals. They strove and fought with each other even when they were still in their mother's womb. Since Esau came out first, he enjoyed all the benefits of being the first-born son - this was something that Jacob resented a lot. Esau turned out to be a carnal man, seeking only to please himself and satisfy his own appetites and desires. He threw away his birthright when he was hungry, just for a bowl of delicious hot red pottage. And he married two wives against the will of his parents. 

Jacob was quite different from Esau, He was a selfish schemer and supplanter. He was the one who had cooked the delicious red pottage just to get his brother's birthright. Jacob had no scruples at all about deceiving his own aged father (taking advantage of Isaac's blindness), in order to steal Esau's blessing from him, and he succeeded. As a result of all this, the enraged Esau went after Jacob's blood. So Jacob had to flee for his life and live in exile far away from home for about 20 years. He had learned avery painful lesson: that a life of foolish scheming and deceit only brings futility and the fear of being killed. But after those 20 years, Jacob learned another lesson. He learned that a life of faith in God brings freedom from danger, and fullness of divine blessings.

The turning point came at when he was making his journey back home to his parents and he heard the news that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men. Imagining that the very worst was going to happen, Jacob could not sleep, but struggled with the angel of the Lord until daybreak, until he cast himself entirely upon God for help to face Esau, and God delivered him: the meeting turned out to be a pleasant one. From then on his name was changed to Israel. This change of name also indicates his inward change to a life of faith. Later on, when he was 130 years old, Jacob's life of faith led him and his whole family to leave Canaan and dwell in Egypt, with the full assurance of God's continued care and comfort.

Having learnt to live the life of faith so well, Jacob ended his days in Egypt at the age of 147. While Jacob was dying, his son Joseph came to see him with his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. The aged Jacob laid his hands on the heads of the two boys and blessed them (Genesis 48:9-20). But the manner in which he blessed them was quite unusual. Following the usual custom, Joseph had placed the older boy (Manasseh) at Jacob's right side and the younger boy (Ephraim) at his left side, expecting his father's right hand to be on the firstborn son.

But Jacob crossed his hands when he pronounced his blessing on the boys. Why did he do this strange thing? Because he knew that the greater blessing would fall on his younger grandson, Ephraim (Genesis 48:19). God had probably revealed this to Jacob, and Jacob fully accepted and believed that it would happen just as God had said - Ephraim would become greater than Manasseh.

A few hundred years later, this prophecy was gloriously fulfilled, with the tribe of Ephraim becoming a dominant tribe in Israel. Out of this tribe came the man called Joshua, the great hero of faith whom God used to lead Israel across the river Jordan, to give them victory over the Canaanite forces, and to settle in the land of Canaan. The territory of Ephraim became very prominent when it became the very first location where the Lord's Tabernacle was set up (at Shiloh) as the centralized place of worship for all the tribes of Israel.

Our text in Hebrews 11:21 tells us that Jacob worshipped when he blessed his grandsons. This last act of worship shows that Jacob ended his life looking to God and trusting Him fully for the future. What a difference that trust or faith had made in his life. In his early life Jacob had lived without faith at all, and all that he had reaped was only futility and more futility. But when he died, he died full of faith and he reaped an assurance of a blessed future for all his posterity. 

Dearly beloved, faith in God can also make a great difference in the way that we encounter death today. Faith enables us to know that there is a glorious future that awaits God's people beyond death. God's Word reveals to us that death is not thekend of the soul's existence. Those who die without Christ will find themselves suffering in hell. But those who die believing in Christ, receive the divine promise of eternal life with Him in heaven. Faith enables us to say with the apostle Paul, 'For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.' (Philippians 1:21). Faith enables us to have the confidence that death is not a loss to us but rather a blessed, wonderful gai.. For it is 'to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.' (2 Corinthians 5:8). Now, in the same way that Jacob was enabled by faith to see the rich future blessings of his descendants in Canaan when he died, so the Christian who dies can see by faith the future bliss of his soul in Heaven. And with such faith, he can triumph over death!

A few months ago I had the privilege of witnessing this kind of faith in a dear member of our church, a few weeks before he went home to be with the Lord. Some of you may know him - the late brother Chua Too Swee. When we visited him, he told us that he was looking forward very much to going to heaven and to being with Jesus, and he was just waiting for God to take him home. To him death was like a day of promotion up to glory. He eagerly told us who visited him that he had made a special recording of his last words and testimony on a CD, that he would have duplicated and distributed to all his children and grandchildren. He wanted to instruct and challenge them to have faith in the Lord. Isn't this a wonderful legacy for a Christian to leave behind to all his loved ones? The legacy of a triumphant faith!

The Bible records that the OT man named Joseph did something similar to this. He left behind a wonderful legacy that also inspired others to have faith in the Lord. We are told in 22 of our text - 'By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones.'

II. Faith Triumphs over the Fear that Death Brings.

The actual words that Joseph spoke to his brothers when he died at the age of 110 are found in Genesis 50:24 'And Joseph said unto his brethren, I die: and God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land unto the land which He sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.'

Now these words of Joseph were spoken with the same confident faith that Jacob, his father had when he died. It was faith in a promise that God had personally revealed to him. But here in Joseph's death we see how faith triumphs over death in a different way from Jacob. In Joseph we see a faith that triumps over the fear that death brings. Although Joseph was among the youngest of the 12 sons of Jacob, God eventually made him the greatest among them. 

Joseph's brothers had been so jealous of the good favour he enjoyed from their father, that they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God used this wicked act of theirs to make Joseph the prime minister of Egypt. Joseph was then able to bring his whole family to dwell in the best part of all Egypt - the land of Goshen which is the eastern part of the fertile Nile delta area. As long as Joseph was alive and in power in Egypt, the brothers had nothing to fear. Even though they were all aliens in a foreign land, Joseph was their protector. No Egyptian would dare to harm them. Joseph was also their provider and sustainer. Through him, they had access to all the granaries of Egypt, and they did not have to worry at all about famine or drought.

But when Joseph was about to die, his brothers were probably concerned about what would become of them now. Suddenly they would be bereft of the one who had protected them and provided for them. Would the Egyptians take the opportunity toturn against them since Joseph was gone? Quite likely. Would they lose their privileged status in Egypt? They probably would. Would the Egyptians now abuse them and turn them into slaves? These fears were not unfounded, because the Egyptians eventually did turn the Israelites into slaves. What comfort could they have from all these fears, in the face of Joseph's death? Who will be with them to help them? This is where the words of Joseph gave them such wonderful hope 'God will surely vi3it you and bring you out of this land unto the land which He sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.' 

I would like you to notice what a firm tone of assurance and certainty there is in these words: 'God will surely visit you' These words leave absolutely no room for even the slightest doubt! And to strengthen their faith even more, Joseph went on to tell his brothers that when God visits them to bring them safely out of Egypt, they must not leave him behind! They were to carry his bones with them and rebury them in Canaan.

In the same way that faith enabled Josephe27s brothers to triumph over their fears when he died, faith can also enable us to triumph over our fears when we face the death of a loved one. When someone we love very much is taken away from us, it is most natural for fears to arise - how will we cope with life without them? Can life ever be the same from now on? What if the one who is taken from us is the sole breadwinner of the family? Who will take care of the family he has left behind? In the face of the awful sense of loss that death brings, there is only one thing that can bring sufficient assurance and comfort to us - faith in God's sure care and provision. The Bible tells us that God has a special care for those who face such loss. For example, in Psalm 68:5 we are told, 'A father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows, is God in His holy habitation.'

Dearly beloved, if you are fearful now that death is soon going to bereave you of someone that you love very much and whom you depend on very much for financial and emotional support, you must exercise faith now to trust in this promise of God. He will take care of you. He will not leave you nor forsake you. In the midst of all your loss and grief, He will surely visit you and help you. 

But perhaps your fear of death may be a different kind of fear from this. Perhaps it is not a loved one's death that you fear, but it is your own death that you fear! A few months ago, I was interviewing a catechumen to ensure that he is ready to be baptised at our Easter Sunrise Service. I asked him the question, 'Where do you think you will go after you die?' He was able to say with conviction, 'I know that I will go to heaven, but I only hope that the process of dying will be a very short and painless one.'

I think that many of us here can understand and empathise with this sentiment. We don't mind the outcome of dying, which is to be in heaven. But what we are most fearful of is the experience of dying. What will it be like to breathe your last breath? How will you feel when you close your eyes for the very last time? Nobody knows. But this one thing we know: 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me' (Psalm 23:4)

Here in the comforting 23rd psalm ,we have an assurance from the Lord that the experience of dying will be nothing for us to fear when we know that the Lord Himself is near, and He will be with us to see us all the way right through the portals of death. We think of how Stephen, as he was being stoned to death, saw the heavens open, and the Lord Jesus Christ welcoming him (Acts 7:56). And this turned his awful experience of dying into a most blessed one! Dearly beloved, may you be encouraged by this to have faith that will enable you to triumph over your fear of death. 

Now, there is one more comforting thought that can strengthen your faith to triumph over death. And that is to know that the Lord Jesus Himself has visited those same portals of death and gone through them. When he hung from the cross and breathed out his last words, 'Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit' Christ walked through those same portals of death that you and I will have to walk through one day, if the Lord tarries. And since our Saviour has already gone through it, surely we will find it much easier to go through it. By experiencing death, Christ now knows every detail of those portals - and He is now familiar with every little nook and cranny of them. And He lives forever to help us go through them well. Is He not the best guide you can ever wish for, who can see you safely through the portals of death?

This is one of the reasons why Jesus had to become a human being and die as a man. Without experiencing death, He would not be able to deliver us from the fear of death and the terrible bondage that such fear brings. This is stated in Hebrews 2:14-15 'Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise took part of the same; that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.'

III. Faith Triumphs over the Finality of Death

Now, our Saviour's death brings to us one more good reason why we can triumph over death. Jesus not only experienced death. He also conquered it! We all know that death could not keep Him in its power for long. His resurrection from the dead has taken away the sting of death. Death is now swallowed up in victory - His Victory! And so now we can look at death in the face and say, 'O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?' (1 Corinthians 15:55). All who die in Christ will one day be resurrected in new glorious bodies, never to die again. This, dear friends, is the ultimate triumph we shall have over death - the triumph over the finality of death through our own resurrection from the grave. Let us look forward to that glorious day.

As we partake of the Lord's Supper this morning, and as we remember as vividly as we can how our Lord Jesus died, and how His death has saved us from eternal death, let us express our fullest trust in Him to triumph over death. Dearly beloved, let us have faith to triumph over the futility of death, to triump over the fear of death, and to triumph over the finality of death.

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

October 15 & 22 - The Cost of Discipleship

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:25