Our People Die Well
From time to time, we hear of how someone has died suddenly, but peacefully, in their sleep. Many, when coming to hear of such deaths, may secretly wish that their own death would be as peaceful. This way of dying is considered as a good death. But we also know that we do not have any control over how we will die, whether quietly in our sleep or struggling on a hospital ICU bed in the last ravages of a deadly disease.
The Bible is full of accounts of people dying. Some accounts are a matter-of-fact mention of the event, while others are poignant in their details. The death of Jesus is one such example. Jesus did not quietly die in his sleep, but struggled painfully on a cross, fully experiencing the physical agony, psychological loneliness, social humiliation, and spiritual despair. In the midst of it all, he demonstrated a good death in the way He talked with His Father and loved even His persecutors. Even in the painful throes of His death, Jesus prayed that His enemies would be forgiven, met the needs of His mother and the sinner hanging on a nearby cross, and committed His spirit to the Father. Watching Jesus die impressed the observant centurion, who was taking it all in, so much that he praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man (and Son of God)” (Lk. 23:47; Mt. 27:54; Mk. 15:39).
Later the disciples of Jesus would understand the full implications of His death – that He died for our sins so that we may be saved from our sins and eternal death, and that He came to die with us, to help us die a good death. Those who know and believe that Jesus died for their salvation would then be able to die with His presence, and therefore die a good death like Him. It is significant that the first martyr of the church, Stephen, died like his Saviour. When he was stoned to death, he prayed for his murderers and commended his spirit to Jesus (Acts 7:59-60). A good death, indeed.
Each of the disciples of Jesus, with the exception of the treacherous Judas, was martyred for Jesus in some way, and died a good death. Peter, who ran for dear life when Jesus was arrested, later met the risen Lord who told him how we would die as a martyr – a death that “would glorify God.” Jesus then asked Peter to follow Him (Jn. 21:18-19). All who believe in Jesus for their salvation are called to carry their crosses and follow Jesus to a good God-glorifying death (Lk. 9:23).
Paul himself, sensing approaching martyrdom, looked to Jesus, recognising His loving presence (“The Lord is near” – Phil. 4:5) and “the crown of righteousness” that awaited him (2 Tim. 4:6-8, 16-18). Earlier he wrote about the hope of resurrection found in Christ, who came back from death to reassure us, and whose death took the sting out of our own deaths (1 Cor. 15). It is for this reason that one who believes in Jesus can die a good death. Death is no longer the end, but a doorway to true blessedness (as George MacDonald puts it, “we climb the stairs where death is one wide landing to the rooms above”). Paul urges us not to lose heart but to “fix our eyes not on what is seen (which is temporary), but on what is unseen (the eternal) (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
John Wesley was a young pastor when he sailed on a ship to
This assurance helps people face death. Wesley saw how Methodists lived out this faith in life and death, and once remarked: "Our people die well! The world may find fault with our opinions, but the world cannot deny that our people die well." Wesley started publishing a regular magazine – the Arminian – in 1778 to carry the Methodist message and ethos. From its beginning to 1791 (when Wesley died), the magazine carried numerous articles on the death of Methodists, and offers an interesting window to the holy art of dying well. Wesley’s own death demonstrated the art of dying well. In his dying moments, he found lingering strength to sing some hymns. He bade farewell to his associates gathered around him, telling them: “He is all, he is all. We have boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Christ.” Among his last words were, “The best of all is, God is with us.” He had found the secret of dying well.
Those who know how to die well, then, will know also how to live well. They will know the difference between what is important and what is not, between the transient and the eternal, between what lasts forever and what fades away quickly, between illusion and reality. Indeed, God’s people live well and die well –like their Lord Jesus.