Death Swallowed Up (Young/Cyril)

Isaiah 25:7-8 is an awesome prophetic promise: “On this mountain he [Yahweh] will destroy the burial shroud, the shroud over all the peoples, the sheet covering all the nations; he will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face and remove his people’s disgrace from the whole earth, for the Lord has spoken (CSB)”.

E. J. Young (d. 1968) wrote some great comments on these verses:

Isaiah uses the definite article with death to stress the fact that it is well known that death bas been a terror to mankind.  Hitherto, death itself had swallowed up all else.  As in Genesis 2:17 so here, the word ‘death’ includes all the evils which attend it.  When death is swallowed up, so also are all the miseries that it brings.  Furthermore, death is to be swallowed up forever; it will never again reappear. Paul’s interpretation is entirely true to the Old Testament: ‘death is swallowed up in victory’ (1 Cor. 15:45b).  The book of Revelation brings out the meaning clearly: ‘there shall be no more death’ (Rev. 221:4b).  [Young, The Book of Isaiah, vol. 2 p. 196]

Here’s how Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444 AD) similarly reflected on Isaiah’s prophecy:

Death overcame our forefather Adam on account of his transgression and like a fierce wild animal it pounced on him and carried him off amid lamentation and loud wailing. Men wept and grieved because death ruled over all the earth. But all this came to an end with Christ. Striking down death, he rose up on the third day and became the way by which human nature would rid itself of corruption. He became the firstborn of the dead, and the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. [ACCS, Vol. X]

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

No More Tears, No More Reproach (Smith)

 I’ve been enjoying Gary Smith’s Isaiah commentary in the “New American Commentary” series.  I haven’t read it all, but so far so good!  This morning when studying Isaiah 25 I was looking at verse 8, which says this: “…he [Yahweh] will swallow up death forever.The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces;he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth.The Lord has spoken” (NIV).

Here’s Smith’s helpful commentary:

…When God rules over his kingdom, death will have no power over people in this new world.

As if that were not enough, God also promises the removal of all tears. This includes tears shed when people die, but certainly also tears of oppression, sickness, pain, disappointment, loneliness, rejection, military defeat, financial trouble, and other kinds of loss. All these experiences will be obsolete in God’s kingdom.

Finally, God’s removal of the reproach of “his people” (ʿammî 25:8b) should not be interpreted as a specific reference to removing Israel’s reproach of the exile, for at this point all people (ʿam, “people,” is used in 25:3, 6, 7, 8) in God’s kingdom are his people. When people are reproached they are objects of derision, mockery, shame, and humiliation by others. These evil actions will not be experienced any longer. If the enemies of God are defeated, there will no longer be people to give a reproach, and there will be no sinful people who will deserve to be reproached. This paragraph ends (25:8b) with the affirmation that God has declared that this is what will happen; thus, one can know that all these statements are true.

Gary Smith, Isaiah, (The New American Commentary), Isaiah 25:8.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

All Other Ground is Sinking Sand (Luther/Bernard)

Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount Martin Luther, in his Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, noted how some people build their house upon the sand by resting on their own works or merits for acceptance with God.  Luther then gave a helpful insight from the life and faith of Bernard of Clairvaux:

St. Bernard himself had also to feel and acknowledge this, who had nevertheless led a very strict life, with praying, fasting, bodily mortification, etc., so that he was deficient in no respect, and served as an example for all others, so that I know of no one among the monks who wrote or lived better than he. Yet, when he came to die, he had himself to pronounce this judgment upon his entire holy life: ‘O, I lived a damnable life, and spent my life shamefully!’ Ah, how so, dear St. Bernard? You were surely a pious monk all your life. Is then chastity, obedience, your preaching, fasting, praying, not an admirable thing? No (says he,) it is all lost and belongs to the devil. There comes the wind and rain, and throws foundation, basis and building all into a heap, so that he would have had to be eternally damned, by his own judgment, if he had not turned about, and, made wiser by his loss, deserted monkery, seized upon another foundation and clung to Christ, and been kept in the faith that the children use in their prayers, when he said: “Although I am not worthy of eternal life, nor can attain it by my own merit, yet my Lord Christ has a double right to it, once as Lord and heir to it, inherited from eternity; secondly, attained through his suffering and death. The first he retains for himself; the other he bestows upon me,” etc.

 Martin Luther, Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, trans. Charles A. Hay (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1892), 487–488.

Shane Lems

Regarding the Death of Calvin’s Wife

Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (8 vols.) John Calvin’s wife Idellette died in 1549 from a lengthy illness.  They had been married for 9 years when she died; Calvin was 40 years old at the time.  Not long after Idellette died Calvin wrote a letter to Farel telling him of the news.  Here are some excerpts of that letter:

Intelligence of my wife’s death has perhaps reached you before now. I do what I can to keep myself from being overwhelmed with grief. My friends also leave nothing undone that may administer relief to my mental suffering.

…About the sixth hour of the day, on which she yielded up her soul to the Lord, our brother [Rev.] Bourgouin addressed some pious words to her, and while he was doing so, she spoke aloud, so that all saw that her heart was raised far above the world. For these were her words: “O glorious resurrection! O God of Abraham, and of all our fathers, in thee have the faithful trusted during so many past ages, and none of them have trusted in vain. I also wall hope.” These short sentences were rather ejaculated than distinctly spoken. This did not come from the suggestion of others, but from her own reflections, so that she made it obvious in few words what were her own meditations.

I had to go out at six o’clock. Having been removed to another apartment after seven, she immediately began to decline. When she felt her voice suddenly failing her she said: “Let us pray: let us pray. All pray for me.” I had now returned. She was unable to speak, and her mind seemed to be troubled. I, having spoken a few words about the love of Christ, the hope of eternal life, concerning our married life, and her departure, engaged in prayer. In full possession of her mind, she both heard the prayer, and attended to it. Before eight she expired, so calmly, that those present could scarcely distinguish between her life and her death.

Calvin then shared his grief – and faith – with Farel:

I at present control my sorrow so that my duties may not be interfered with. But in the meanwhile the Lord has sent other trials upon me. Adieu, brother, and very excellent friend. May the Lord Jesus strengthen you by His Spirit; and may He support me also under this heavy affliction, which would certainly have overcome me, had not He, who raises up the prostrate, strengthens the weak, and refreshes the weary, stretched forth His hand from heaven to me.

If you’re a child of God struggling with grief, I pray that you find the same comfort that Calvin did – comfort in the loving and almighty hand of God.

The above quote is from Jules Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 204–205.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Comfort for a Grieving Widow (Chrysostom)

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers First Series, Volume IX
Chrysostom (d. 407 AD)

A young Christian woman was grieving the death of her husband. It was a hard and heavy blow. John Chrysostom knew of her grief and wrote her a kind letter to direct her gaze heavenward, to the Lord. In this part of the letter (dated around 380 AD), Chrysostom echoes biblical teaching that “to die is gain” and that the glories of heaven are better than the glitters of earth:

Now if it is not the name of widow which distresses you, but the loss of such a husband I grant you that all the world over amongst men engaged in secular affairs there have been few like him, so affectionate, so gentle, so humble, so sincere, so understanding, so devout. And certainly if he had altogether perished, and utterly ceased to be, it would be right to be distressed, and sorrowful; but if he has only sailed into the tranquil haven, and taken his journey to Him who is really his king, one ought not to mourn but to rejoice on these accounts. For this death is not death, but only a kind of emigration and translation from the worse to the better, from earth to heaven, from men to angels, and archangels, and Him who is the Lord of angels and archangels. For here on earth whilst he was serving the emperor there were dangers to be expected and many plots arising from men who bore ill-will, for in proportion as his reputation increased did the designs also of enemies abound; but now that he has departed to the other world none of these things can be suspected.

Wherefore in proportion as you grieve that God has taken away one who was so good and worthy you ought to rejoice that he has departed in much safety and honour, and being released from the trouble which besets this present season of danger, is in great peace and tranquillity. For is it not out of place to acknowledge that heaven is far better than earth, and yet to mourn those who are translated from this world to the other? For if that blessed husband of thine had been one of those who lived a shameful life contrary to what God approved it would have been right to bewail and lament for him not only when he had departed, but whilst he was still living; but inasmuch as he was one of those who are the friends of God we should take pleasure in him not only whilst living, but also when he has been laid to rest. And that we ought to act thus thou hast surely heard the words of the blessed Paul “to depart and to be with Christ which is far better.”

John Chrysostom, “Letter to a Young Widow,” in Saint Chrysostom: On the Priesthood, Ascetic Treatises, Select Homilies and Letters, Homilies on the Statues, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. W. R. W. Stephens, vol. 9, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 123.

Perhaps these words can be of comfort today for those who have lost a beloved Christian spouse, family member, or friend.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Comfort on the Deathbed (Or: A Pastor’s Most Important Resource)

Simon Goulart was a Reformed theologian and pastor from France who served in Geneva in the middle of the 16th century.  His preaching and teaching were solidly biblical, clearly doctrinal, and very applicable.  One example of this is his biblical comfort he gave to Christians on their deathbed.  Scott Manetsch gives a good summary of Goulart’s pastoral care:

As Christians approach death, Goulart recognizes, they are frequently tempted to doubt God’s promised salvation and despair of their future hope.  In this spiritual drama, Satan is especially active.  Goulart’s discourse ‘Remedies Against Satan’s Temptations in our Final Hour’ enumerates the stinging accusations and doubts that Satan launches against God’s children as they struggle on their deathbeds.  The voice of Satan accuses: ‘You are a miserable sinner, worthy of damnation.’  ‘Your sins are too great to be forgiven.’  ‘How do you know that the promise of the gospel pertains to you?’  ‘Are you certain that your repentance and faith are genuine?’  ‘How do you know that you are among God’s elect?’  In response to each of these attacks, Goulart provides the faithful Christian a ready answer, drawn from the pages of Scripture.

For example, when Satan questions the believer’s election, the Christian responds: ‘All true believers are sheep of Jesus Christ, elected in him to eternal life.  Psalm 23 says that ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’  And Psalm 100 says ‘Know that the Lord is God.  It is he who has made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.’  So too, Jesus Christ says in John 10, ‘My sheep hear my voice.’  I have heard this voice and heeded it.  Thus, I am one of the sheep of this Great Shepherd, who has given his life to bring me into his sheepfold, having rescued me from your jaws, O roaring lion.’

Clearly, Goulart believed that God’s Word was to serve as the pastor’s most important resource in caring for Christians on their deathbeds.  Scripture is like a ‘pharmacy’ for wounded souls, he asserted.  It offers a ‘secure harbor for agitated consciences.’

The above quotes were taken from Scott Matnetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors, p 297-298.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

End of Life: On Refusing Treatment (Meilaender)

 Tragically, it happens: we are diagnosed with an illness or condition that means death is inevitable sooner rather than later.  To knowingly face death is one of the hardest things in life, and it leads to some very difficult choices.  Should we undergo treatment(s) trying to prolong life?  Or should we forego them and perhaps better enjoy the short time we have left?  This isn’t a black-and-white ethical area.  There are various factors that lead Christians to different decisions in this area.

I like Gilbert Meilaeander’s wisdom here.  In chapter seven of Bioethics: A Primer for Christians he talks about refusing treatment.  The entire chapter is very much worth reading, but since I can’t put it all here, I’ll summarize:

“On the one hand, we ought not choose death or aim at death.  But on the other hand, neither should we act as if continued life were the only, or even highest good.  It is not a god, but a gift from God.  Thus, we should neither aim at death nor continue the struggle against it when its time has come.  ‘Allowing to die’ is permitted; killing is not.”

“If I commit suicide (an am of sound mind), I intend to die.  I aim at my death or choose death.  But, of course, there might be occasions when, if I refuse a certain treatment, I will also die.  Are they therefore morally equivalent?  Is treatment refusal the same as the forbidden suicide?  Although they could sometimes be morally equivalent – I could refuse treatment so that I will die – they need not be.  To see why we must think about the aim and the result of the action.”

“[For example] a soldier may charge the enemy, knowing that he faces almost certain death in so doing.  He does not thereby commit suicide.  He does not choose to die, even though he foresees that death is the likely, perhaps almost certain, result of his action.  …Dying is not part of his plan of action, just its very likely result.”

“This distinction between an act’s aim and its result is crucial to bear in mind when we consider decisions to refuse or withdraw treatment.  The result of such decisions may be that death comes more quickly than it might have.  Nevertheless, the fact that we ought not aim at death for ourself or another does not mean that we must always do everything possible to oppose it.  Life is not our god, but a gift of God; death is a great evil, but not the ultimate evil.”

“There may come a time, then, when it is proper to acknowledge death and cease to oppose it.  Our aim in such circumstances is to care for the dying person as best we can.  …Because life is not our god, we need not accept all burdens – no matter how great – in order to stay alive.  …Treatment may be refused or withdrawn when it is either useless or excessively burdensome.  In either of those instances, refusal of treatment is not the forbidden suicide or euthanasia.”

These are just a few highlights of an excellent chapter that gives some ethical Christian wisdom on when to accept treatment and when to refuse it.  If you have – or are – wrestling with this difficult decision, I very much recommend Meilaender’s contribution in Bioethics.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI