A HYMN OF GLORY LET US SING (Fourth IN A SERIES)
What terrified thoughts and emotions might well torture the mind and grip the heart of an unbeliever facing imminent death! While still in good health and favorable circumstances, some unbelievers—if they ever think about the afterlife at all—might for a time delude themselves that they are “good enough” to go to heaven, or even that heaven and hell are not real. Some may even express foolish bravado such as “I’ll go to heaven when I die because I’ve lived through hell here.” However, when faced with the reality of their own impending death, many unbelievers find these self-delusions fading away like last night’s dreams, and then the innate knowledge that there is a God (Romans 1:19-20) and that we are sinners (Romans 2:15) brings only fear.
Even some long-time Christians may experience misgivings when they know that their death is near. John Bunyan pictures this circumstance in his classic allegorical novel Pilgrim’s Progress when, after a long pilgrimage with numerous trials, marked by steadfast perseverance in the faith, Christian (the protagonist) must cross the final river (symbolizing death) before entering the Celestial City. He is daunted by the prospect, and cries out to his companion, “Ah! my friend, the sorrows of death hath compassed me about; I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey; and with that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see before him. . . . All the words that he spake still tended to discover that he had horror of mind, and heart fears that he should die in that river, and never obtain entrance in at the gate.” Hymn 206 in The Lutheran Hymnal also acknowledges the possibility of such last-minute anxiety with the words “Though the night of death be fraught/ Still with many an anxious tho’t” (v. 1).
I do not know with what attitude I shall face death when the time comes, but I do know that the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ gives Christians a solid basis for confidence, so that as we remember His victory over death and the fact that it was our victory also, we can approach death with confidence—even with joyful anticipation—rather than dread. The author of Hymn 2061 points us to the historical fact that Christ rose from the dead, and that His resurrection carries also the promise that we, too, shall rise to eternal life: “Jesus Christ, my sure Defense/ and my Savior, ever liveth;/ Knowing this, my confidence/ Rests upon the hope it giveth” (v. 1). Our certainty of eternal life in heaven has nothing to do with our subjective, emotional feelings—whether at death’s door or at any other time. Rather, it is to be found in the objective, historical fact of Christ’s victorious bodily resurrection from the dead.
Verse 2 of this hymn advances a line of reasoning that may escape many today. It is the last line of the verse: “Shall I fear, or could the Head/ Rise and leave His members dead?” The word members is not used here in the modern, egalitarian sense of co-equal affiliates of some organization, as though the assurance of our own resurrection is based on our membership in that organization. The Holy Christian Church is the body of Christ. All Christians are members of that body (see Ephesians 5:30, “For we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones,” as well as 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, especially v.27, “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually”). The word members is used in these Bible passages and in this hymn in the sense of bodily organs—all different, but together all making up one entire body. Now, apply that understanding to the last part of v. 2 of this hymn (“Shall I fear, or could the Head/ Rise and leave His members dead?”), and we understand what the hymn is actually saying. It’s assuring us that since Jesus rose bodily from the dead on Easter, and since Christians are members (organs) of His body, then certainly we too shall rise from our graves to be with Him in heaven.
Death is the universal experience of all, except of course those still living when Christ returns. We will not otherwise escape it. So verse 4 of this hymn reminds us, “I am flesh and must return / Unto dust, whence I am taken.” However, that end to temporal life is also the beginning of a glorious and eternal life: “But by faith I now discern/ That from death I shall awaken/ With my Savior to abide/ In His glory, at His side.” For Christians, death is little more than a door through which we pass to eternal life. A believer on his death bed should not think “by tomorrow I’ll be dead”; but rather, “by tomorrow I’ll finally be alive!”
Our certainty of eternal life in heaven has nothing to do with our subjective, emotional feelings—whether at death’s door or at any other time. Rather, it is to be found in the objective, historical fact of Christ’s victorious bodily resurrection from the dead.
The hymns in The Lutheran Hymnal are thoroughly biblical, and verses 4-8 of this hymn reflect the biblical teaching of Job 19:25-27: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, And He shall stand at last on the earth; And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, That in my flesh I shall see God, Whom I shall see for myself, And my eyes shall behold, and not another.” God’s revelation to us in the book of Job clearly teaches the bodily resurrection that will occur on Judgment Day. In heaven, we shall have physical bodies, and in Hymn 206 we sing that divine revelation: “In this body I shall view/ God, my Lord, with eyes unclouded; / In this flesh I then shall see/ Jesus Christ eternally” (v. 5), and “Here our sinful bodies die,/ Glorified to live on high” (v. 7).
Furthermore, the bodies we shall have in heaven, while being versions of our present earthly bodies, will be wondrously changed (Philippians 3:21). Think of it as “Bill Jones, version 2.0, final and perfected release.” In heaven, our bodies will not be heir to all the physical complaints to which the flesh is subject here. There will be no aches and pains, no chills or fevers, no faulty vision or poor hearing, no weakness of joints, not even such bothersome inconveniences as failures of memory—our heavenly bodies will be perfect.
This freedom from earthly bodily weakness and ills extends also to a complete freedom from worrisome earthly circumstances. We sometimes hear people say, “I’m O.K.—under the circumstances.” In heaven, we will not be “under the circumstances.” Our circumstances, and especially our fellowship with the Lord, then will be the very thing that gives us perfect joy, love, peace, and happiness; and gives them without waning for all eternity. “Then the weakness I feel here/ Shall forever disappear” (v. 6). Perhaps most comforting of all to us is the knowledge that in heaven, we shall be free also from our sin. That, too, is included in the “weakness I feel here” from which we shall then finally be liberated.
With what attitude, then, shall we consider our own impending death? In his most famous sonnet, “Death, Be Not Proud,” John Donne shows us. He mocks a personification of death as being powerless against him (or any other Christian). His closing couplet says, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” Hymn 206 does the same in
verse 9: “Laugh to scorn the gloomy grave/ And at death no longer tremble;/ He, the Lord, who came to save/ Will at last His own assemble./ They will go their Lord to meet,/ Treading death beneath their feet.”
Death is not our end; it is our glorious beginning. On Easter morning, our Savior rose victorious from the grave, and His resurrection assures us also of our own resurrection and eternal life. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” “But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”
(1 Corinthians 15:55 & 57, KJV).
Craig Owings is a retired teacher and serves as assistant editor of the Lutheran Spokesman. He lives in Cape Coral, Florida.