Behind Death’s Grinning Mask (Luther)

Many Christians for many years have been comforted by Paul’s words in his letter to the Philippians: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21 NIV); [ἐμοὶ γὰρ τὸ ζῆν Χριστὸς – καὶ τὸ ἀποθανεῖν κέρδος]. I appreciate these comments of Martin Luther on Paul’s words:

It is a great thing that death, which is to others the greatest of evils, is made to us the greatest gain.

And unless Christ had obtained this for us, what had He done that was worthy of the great price He paid, namely, His own self? It is indeed a divine work that He wrought, and none need wonder, therefore, that He made the evil of death to be something that is very good.

Death, then, to believers is already dead, and hath nothing terrible behind its grinning mask. Like unto a slain serpent, it hath indeed its former terrifying appearance, but it is only the appearance; in truth it is a dead evil, and harmless enough. Nay, as God commanded Moses to lift up a serpent of brass, at sight of which the living serpents perished, even so our death dies in the believing contemplation of the death of Christ, and now hath but the outward appearance of death. With such fine similitudes the mercy of God prefigures to us, in our infirmity, this truth, that though death should not be taken away, He yet has reduced its power to a mere shadow (Mt. 9:24) For this reason it is called in the Scriptures a “sleep” rather than death (1 Thes. 4:13ff).

The above quote is found in: Luther, Martin. Works of Martin Luther with Introductions and Notes. Vol. I. Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915, p. 148.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002