Nothing about leaving this life is appealing to most. Bodily death is arguably one of the most terrifying things to think about. It feels like finality. It strikes fear into even the greatest of warriors. In contrast, this type of death though for Christians reminds us of the hope on the other side: the hope of glory; the stepping out of one and into another; the reward.
It is the opposite of finality.
This is why Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians can quote Isaiah 25 by saying, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" This fear of death was taken from us by Jesus Christ, the One who made a way for the sting of death to be swallowed up forever.
We must understand the way in which Jesus died. The mystery of Christianity is that Jesus didn’t just die in our place, but that we died with him that day. We, with Christ, suffered on the cross with him, went into the grave with him, and were resurrected again on the third day with him. We were with him because he wanted us to be there. This is why Paul tells the Galatians, "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
The death that he died IS the death that we died, not just the death that He died for us.
So what sense then do we make concerning the death that Christians are called to in the lives that they live in the flesh? What sense does it make for Scripture to say in Romans 8:17 and 2 Timothy 2:12 that we must “suffer?” Or why does it seem in Philippians 3 that our resurrection is tied to this kind of suffering in a death like Jesus’? I thought Jesus took our suffering? What does it mean to take up my cross and follow Him? Didn’t Jesus already do that? This is the dilemma of Christianity, the very reason Jesus’ parable of counting the cost in Luke 14 cuts to the core of our very souls. This death is what many in the faith struggle to understand and participate in.
Recently, I heard a story from a friend who described something that too many families have had to go through, the heartbreaking and devastating situation of giving birth to a still-born baby. She said that as she walked into the room during the labor, there laid her sister-in-law. She and the father were waiting for the delivery of their child that they would sadly never get to meet. But as the mother labored with the father at her side, they were singing songs of praise to the Lord. They were worshiping the God of the universe, praising and thanking Him for all the wonderful things that they had experienced in their lives. They were suffering, and yet loving Jesus.
This was faithfulness.
This was Truth.
In the face of such a tragedy, this couple still recognized the beauty of Christ and that God was in their midst. As my friend described the scene she used the phrase “laboring for death.” I realized in that moment that this was a description of the Christian life. This is what Christians are called to do and be.
NO ONE likes this idea though! No one “labors for death” on purpose.
What sense does it make to knowingly labor for something that you know will end in death?
What if you had to work every day knowing your wouldn’t get a paycheck? Or what if you studied for a test all night but knew you were going to fail? Or even worse, what if you knew that every time you tried to have a child it would be still-born, but you had go through the entire process anyway? Laboring without a reward is absurd, but laboring for death is completely nonsensical.
Although this is true, it is this kind of death that the Spirit of God calls us to. Chris Green states it rightly: “He is our life because he is the resurrection; in other words, God does not save us from death but through it.”
We die every day to our flesh in the same way that Christ died on the cross. It is a mysterious foolishness to the world and even to those of the Christian tradition. We suffer in ourselves against our instincts. We are called to silence instead of lashing out, patience instead of indolence, turning the other check instead of striking the striker, giving all instead of hoarding, loving our neighbors that hate us instead of hating back, and so on.
It is difficult and painful to hold our tongue. It is not easy to love those that want to destroy you. But isn’t this really what Easter is all about? Isn’t this why we take communion, in order that we might taste Christ’s sacrifice and suffering? That when we accept Jesus as our own, we accept our own death? That we now have no right to anything other than death so that Christ might live in us and also raise us?
Can God be in a place where death is being labored for? Jesus, the Son of God who IS God, labored his entire life for death. But it was a death that created a place for us to live. Now we labor for death in a way that creates a place for Jesus to live, and in a way that the Spirit draws all men unto himself.