Eaten alive. Roasted on a grill. Lit on fire. Hit with rocks. Skinned alive. If we think about the way we’d like to die, these sorts of deaths never make the list. They are not what we’d call a “good death” or a “blessed death.” And yet these and many other grisly deaths are the means by which the martyrs of the Christian church have entered into eternal life. So what exactly does the truly good and blessed death look like?
Because many of us have not personally faced death, our preferences for how we’d like to die are often abstract and contradictory. For example, many would like to die suddenly, but would also want doctors and medical teams to use any and all means necessary to keep them alive. Yet there usually is no way to die suddenly but also be kept alive by any means necessary. Usually the tools and techniques used to accomplish the latter ensure that the former will not occur.
Likewise, we think the “blessed death” might be one surrounded by loved ones on our deathbed. This too involves contradiction, for such a death cannot then be a quick or quiet one—in order to gather loved ones (some from great distances away), it must necessarily be a prolonged death if we are to die in their presence, and most likely a painful death as well because of how it is prolonged.
So then, when our definition of a “blessed” death contradicts itself, how can we hope for a truly blessed death? We must come to terms with the fact that death never looks blessed and is never easy. Sudden deaths are often violent and deeply traumatic for those who witness them. Deathbeds are often tortured by prolonged sickness and frailty. The dead may be beautified with makeup and pleasant apparel, but death itself never will be. It contorts and corrupts, spoils and stinks.
It is sin and all its consequences laid bare.
If we think of death in terms of its outward appearance, no death can be a truly blessed death. So the good and blessed death we desire cannot be considered according to what we think a good death should look like.
Think back again to the various and terrible deaths of the martyrs. Think specifically of Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian church: But [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him (Acts 7:55-58).
To view this death with the world’s eyes, it appeared gory, horrendous, full of pain and shame. Yet his death was graced by God and all the company of heaven—Christ Jesus Himself received Stephen’s soul into paradise—a truly blessed death! And despite the violence and horror of this death, Scripture describes it as nothing worse than Stephen simply falling asleep (Acts 7:60). We must therefore keep this in mind if we pray for death to come to us suddenly while sleeping: Scripture includes being stoned to death as such a blessed death!
What could possibly be the reason for this?
We can look no further than Christ Jesus, who Himself suffered a horrific death—by which all nations of the earth are blessed. On His cross, the Lord of Life suffered the full punishment for the world’s sin and died the human death all humans owe because of sin. Since He paid the price and drank death down to its dregs, through faith in Christ there is no punishment left to go around. “It is finished,” Christ declares to you as He gives up His spirit for you (John 19:30).
The “blessed death” doesn’t have to look pretty to human eyes. The truly blessed death is any death in the assurance of faith: forgiveness, life, and salvation that is ours through Christ Jesus.
For this reason, we can rejoice that “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me” (Psalm 23:4). Christ is with us because Christ has gone before us into death’s darkness and “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). In Him alone, death is destroyed, the Devourer devoured, and by faith in Him alone, all may be joined to Him and receive His blessed comfort of everlasting victory.
Christ rose alive from death and ascended into heaven “Captive leading death and hell” (Savior of the Nations, Come, ELH #90, v. 4). Your death leads nothing and rules nothing, but follows Christ Jesus as His captive, chewed up and swallowed and slain. And Christ drags this dead death only to one place: the death of death at the final resurrection of the dead. Christ Himself proclaims to us, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and hell” (Revelation 1:17-18). Death can do nothing but hasten your imperishable and immortal resurrection, for that is what Christ Jesus commands and wills it to do, and it must obey Him. For those with saving faith in Christ, the blessed death is the only death possible.
No matter the outward trappings in which death disguises itself, no matter its terrible teeth and bad breath, a blessed death is already your sure possession. “Death is swallowed up in victory” at the final resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:54), when God Himself “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Death can now do nothing to you except bring you to that bright and blessed dawn. This is exactly what is meant when we hope and pray for the truly blessed death: Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints (Psalm 116:15). God grant this blessing to us all!
Rev. Jacob Kempfert