This summer we have had plenty of reminders of the fragility of life. We have seen young Irish students die in a balcony collapse in California, there have been the shootings in North Carolina and Tunisia, and much closer to home we have had the death of our beloved sister Flora. Many people ask the question ‘why?’ when death comes to our door, but I also want to look at the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of death.
1. We are not told why tragedy strikes some and not others
In Jesus’ day the popular thinking was that if tragedy struck your home you must have done some specific wrong. Yet Jesus takes two events from that time and says that they did not happen because the people were worse sinners than others.
This passage begins with some people telling Jesus about people from Galilee who Pilate murdered, and then added their blood to the sacrifices they were offered. They were the victims of someone else’s brutality—like the victims in Tunisia, North Carolina. Many people asked, ‘where was god on 9/11?’
Jesus knows what these people are thinking and asked, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?’ He then answers his own question, ‘I tells you, no!’
Then he reminds them of the terrible accident where eighteen people died when the tower in Siloam fell on them. A tragic accident—like the collapsing balcony in Berkeley! Again Jesus asks, ‘Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?’ ‘No …’
There are times when God punishes those in blatant rebellion against him and even uses illness to lovingly discipline his children. But the passage that we have before us reminds us that we can never assume that anyone’s illness or death is due to a particular sin in their life. My favourite Bible Commentator, Don Carson, writes:
'Practically speaking … it is almost always wrong, not to say pastorally insensitive and theologically stupid, to add to the distress of those who are suffering illness, impending death, or bereavement, by charging them with either some secret sin they have not confessed or inadequate faith … The first charge wrongly assumes that there is always a link between a specific ailment and a specific sin; the second wrongly assumes that it is always God’s will to heal any ailment, instantly, and he is blocked from doing so only by inadequate or insufficient faith.'
We are not told why some people live to an old age and others die in the prime of their life. We are not told why all of the apostles, except for John, died before they were old. We are not told why Elijah was taken in a chariot to heaven while Elisha dies of an illness. Job’s children had committed any specific wrong to cause them to die in a disaster. There is something of a frustrating silence when we ask ‘why me?’, ‘why this?’, or ‘why now?’
2. We are told how death entered our world
The Bible might not tell us why some suffer in some ways and others suffer in different ways, it does tell us how we ended up living in a world where death affects everyone.
The book of Genesis tells us of the rebellion of the original humans. Satan tempted them saying, ‘eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and you will be like God.’ It was an act of treason—an unwillingness to live under God’s loving rule. Everything changed with that act of evil. The apostle Paul writes, ‘just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned’ (Romans 5:12). The reality is that even those who survive accidents and avoid illness eventually die too. I walked by a funeral home yesterday and was reminded of the story of the unpopular undertaker who used to sign his letters, ‘yours eventually.’
The great Christian thinker Francis Schaffer died of cancer. In the latter part of his life, when he realised that he was dying, he said that it was the Bible’s teaching on the fall that helped him and his family grasp what was happening from a Christian angle. In an article he said, ‘I think I can best explain my own reaction to the news that I had cancer by telling you the response of my four children. Each said the same thing in their own way. “Dad, we couldn’t have taken it if you hadn’t emphasised the fall so completely in your teaching.” It is the same for myself,’ wrote Schaffer, ‘I feel that no Christian can face honestly the troubles and the obscenities of this life—the sorrows, the tears, the ugliness, the cruelties unless we have a very firm belief and comprehension of what the fall is all about; and what we have to realise is that we live in an abnormal world, and not to be surprised when these things come upon us as they do other people.’
3. We are told who is the answer to death
No words are more triumphant, in the face of death, than when Jesus declares, ‘I am the resurrection of the life, they who believe in me, though they shall die, yet will they live.’ Jesus is the person who is the answer to death.
Death and life are deep words in the New Testament, with a number of layers of meaning. Death can refer to the physical death that all people face, the spiritual death of life lived without outside of a personal relationship with God, and the eternal death that results from passing from this world without having turned to Christ in faith—for hell is referred to as the second death! Life is the fact that we live and breathe, and a description of the blessing of living in a personal relationship with God, and the eternity of bliss that the Christian looks forward to.
Jesus says, ‘No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you too will likewise perish.’ Every death we witness is a reminder that life is fragile and that we must be prepared for life beyond death.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). Through her living faith in Jesus, Flora knew life in all its fullness, as she enjoyed a love relationship with God through Jesus. Because of her faith in Jesus she has being brought from this life into an eternity where there will be no more cancer of tears. All this is because Jesus died as a substitute for her guilt on that cross, satisfying the demands of God’s holy justice, and making a people who are washed and transformed by the grace of God.
David Watson was a well-known speaker who died of cancer in 1984. He wrote about his struggle with that illness in a book entitled “Fear no evil.” In it he says, “The actual moment of dying is still shrouded in mystery, but as I keep my eyes on Jesus I am not afraid. Jesus has already been through death for us, and will be with us when we walk through it ourselves. In those great words of the Twenty-Third Psalm: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me . . .” ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ (1 Corinthians 15:54).