Although I have not used the King James Version much since I was in high school, the Apostle Paul’s victory poem of 1 Corinthians 15:54–55 always still ends for me personally in the KJV: “O death, where is thy sting?” This wins as the standard go-to passage for Scripture reading at funerals and prevails as the titan of encouragements regarding the death of a believer in Christ. The New Testament has many such encouragements for us regarding our own passing from this world, and these are important because they impact how we live now. I will highlight three of my favorite ways the New Testament characterizes the death of a Christian, all from the pen of the Apostle Paul.
- Death is like launching a ship. Paul said that his “desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil 1:23). The word depart is used elsewhere to speak of letting an anchor loose, of getting ready to launch a ship and put out to sea. Of course Paul could not have envisioned what we have available today in which to put out to sea. One luxury cruise line offers a cruise experience to Hawaii in a lavish suite with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a private balcony over the ocean. Included in the deal is constant entertainment, amazing views, games, spa services, shopping, multiple restaurants, desserts, wines, pizza, and ice cream. When we think about such accommodations, it is understandably easy to get distracted! But this was precisely the type of craving that Paul is describing. In fact, the word desire he uses to describe his eagerness is translated in the New Testament as longing, earnestness, and passion. Paul has not just conquered the fear of death; he knows how wonderful death will be! And similar to the Hawaii cruise illustration, not only is the journey itself desirable, but the destination—the ultimate point of the journey—is really the key to the longing.
- Death is like finishing a camping trip. Paul said “we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2Cor 5:1). It is interesting that Paul uses the illustration of a tent and not a house to speak of our earthly bodies. The culture he lived in was no longer primarily nomadic; people lived in towns and cities in houses. Paul was a tent-maker by trade, and likely prided himself on the quality of his work, but he knew that a tent was made ultimately to be temporary shelter. Tents do not last long but serve a temporary purpose, such as shelter on a camping trip. While on the camping trip, we are extremely grateful for our tent. But why is camping in a tent so much fun? Because it feels so good to get back to your house when you are done! Camping is wonderful, but we do not seal our tent stakes in concrete; we drive them just deeply enough into the soft ground for the tent to do its job, but we know that the stakes are coming up soon and that home is right around the corner. Speaking of which:
- Death is like coming home. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:8 that “we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Just a few chapters later, Paul writes of the experience of a man—very likely the apostle himself—who had a vision of heaven. It was glorious and he was forbidden from speaking openly of it (2Cor 12:4). But it is noteworthy that Paul is the only New Testament writer who speaks of heaven as home. It seems that he knew something exciting. He knew firsthand what Jesus was talking about in John 14:2 when he said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” Even for the Christian, the fear of death can be attached to the fear of the unfamiliar. But Paul calls heaven our home—a place of comfort, safety, calm, and familiarity. When I went off to college, I was so excited to get away from home and to spread my own wings. But the thrill of independence was nothing like the joy of that first Christmas vacation when I came home and slept in my old bed in my old room again. Paul was insistent that heaven is like coming home. Home is where your Father lives. Home is where your firstborn Brother, Jesus Christ, lives. Home is where all your brothers and sisters in Christ live. Home is where your inheritance awaits.
O Death, where is thy sting? For the Christian, it is gone. Fold up the tent; launch the ship; come home.