‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep My saying, he shall never see death.’
I. Christ’s antipathy to death.—What a startling statement it is! There is nothing, I think, in all our Lord’s utterances more striking than the persistent aversion to death which breathes through them; so that it has been said with truth that death is the one natural fact, the one human experience, to which Christ showed antipathy. And why, we may ask, did He take up this attitude towards death, which is an incident as unfailing and as natural as the return of old age? If He declined to speak of death as death, it was because He saw through it, because He knew its true nature, and ever looked on beyond it to that higher and fuller life of which it is intended to be the portal. He is told that the daughter of Jairus is dead, but He declares that she is only asleep. And so again, when the news was brought to Him of the death of His friend at Bethany, He put the hated word from Him and declared that Lazarus was only sleeping; and He would not change the phrase till the dullness of the disciples compelled Him. It is clear enough that He aims at teaching a new mode of thought and speech in regard to the close of man’s earthly life. The early believers, taught by the Resurrection of the Lord, treasured this new term with deepest gratitude and devotion. They always spoke of physical death as sleep. Now were this the only service which Jesus Christ had rendered, had He done no more for us than to give us the right to substitute this word ‘sleep’ for ‘death,’ would he not have been among the greatest benefactors of mankind?
II. He is the Life.—But now let us go on to see what is it that ensures our right thus to think of death. In the words of the text, just as at the grave of Lazarus, our Lord sets Himself forth as the guarantee that death is not what it seems. How is it that union with Christ and obedience to Christ put us beyond the reach and power of death? Through Christ life has become a ruling power. He stands in the midst of humanity for an eternal reality, and He came that man might know it and embrace it. If they believe in Him, if they are grafted into Him and assimilated to Him, then they acquire His right to overlook death, to face it as an unreal experience, a transition not a state, a gain not a loss, an expansion not an extinction of power.
III. Life in Christ a present thing.—And we need to be perpetually reminded that this life in and through Christ is a present thing. Men relegate it to the future. They talk about going to heaven or to hell as if the whole issue lay outside present experience. But Christ has set forth salvation as a life, an eternal thing which begins now and here. And does not this thought light up our Lord’s words? Already, through obedience to Him, the outer life may be quickened which will pass unscathed through the change of death day by day. If we are living unto Him, the seed of eternity and truth and love and purity may be sown within us, and bear fruits which will suffer no blight in the chill passage of the grave. Our Lord reminds us that the one thing that differentiates men both here and hereafter is obedience to His law. He knows who are His, who are keeping His sayings, who are living in His spirit, and who therefore have in them the charm of that life which shall endure, and over which the grave shall have no power. But some, perhaps, will say, Is this all real? Are you not making too light of that great fact of death? Did not Christ die, and do not we die even if we have believed in Him ever so truly, and served Him ever so faithfully? Yes. In one sense Christ did die. But He carried with Him that which lighted up the darkness. He bore into the other world a Divine principle of being which could not undergo dissolution, and He tells us that we shall do the same. On one condition He offers to make death as harmless a thing to you and me as it was to Him. He says, Come to Me, believe in Me, follow Me, feed upon Me, live by Me, and you shall be scatheless, you too shall have the secret of immortality, you shall see through the terrors of death and decay as I have done and shall defy them. In you, as in Him, spiritual life shall triumph gloriously over physical death.
‘Is not this the characteristic of Christianity, that all that it implants and fosters of faith and obedience is summed up for us in the one great term of “life”? It is the keynote of that Gospel which has preserved for us our Lord’s deepest thought. He says of Himself, “I am the Life.” He says also of us, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” All that He taught, and all that He did here was for one end, that we might have life. This is the final all-embracing purpose of His Incarnation, to be the life of men.’