Romantic death is rare. More common are involuntary groanings and screams of pain. The ignominy of dying is pathetic. It is more often hellish than heroic.
The apostle Paul uses two words to capture death's degrading assault. The first is "dishonor." He says that the death of our physical body is like a seed being sown in the ground. How is it sown? "It is sown in dishonor" (1 Cor. 15:43).
During my college days, my father's mother died, leaving my grandfather very alone in Pennsylvania. His youngest son, my father, brought him to South Carolina to live with us. I was glad, and my mother was gracious, as always. Over time, his condition worsened and my mother was unable to care for him in the absence of my dad, who traveled as an evangelist. So the painful decision was made to move him to a nursing home. There I watched him decline from the strong toolmaker-turned-pastor to skin and bones. The last time I saw him alive was with my father while I was home from seminary. We drove to the nursing home together, expressing the expectation that this would be the last time I would see him alive. It was.
There he lay in a diaper, curled up in a fetal position. His eyes were glazed over and crusty. His breathing was labored. My father spoke with me about his dad for a few minutes and then suggested we pray very loudly by putting our mouths next to his seemingly deaf ears. Ignoring the others in the home, we almost shouted our prayer. When my father stopped, his father heaved with all his fading might and said, "AMEN!" That was the last sound I ever heard him make. If I had ever seen a body sown in "dishonor," this was it. And there are millions like him.
Then there is another word that Paul uses to describe the humiliating condition of death. In Philippians 3:21, he says that Christ "shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body" (KJV). The word "vile" translates the Greek tapeinoseos. Before the New Testament transformed this word into a virtue, because of Christ's glorious "lowliness," the word had only negative connotations of "humiliation, debasement, defeat" (Liddell and Scott).
I recall reading a biography of Julius Schniewind, a German New Testament scholar who was born in 1883. He became deathly ill in the summer of 1948, but few knew how serious it was. Hans-Joakim Kraus was with him when he taught his last "lay Bible hour," and heard him groan as he was leaving, "Soma tapeinoseos! Soma tapeinoseos!"the phrase from Philippians 3:21: "Body of humiliation! Body of humiliation!"
Christianity is deeply aware of the humiliation, degradation, and dishonor of the body in death. The death of Jesus stamped forever our expectation. Is the disciple above his Lord? Should we expect anything better? His back was torn from scourging, his face swollen from punching, his face bloodied from the thorns and beard pulling, his hands and feet swollen and mangled with the spikes, his side pierced with a large spear. And he was shamefully naked. He died with "a loud cry" (Mark 15:37).
How precious it is, therefore, to all followers of Jesus, that he rose from the dead with a body of glory, never to die again! And how precious is the promise of Romans 6:5, that "if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection." And the promise of 1 Corinthians 15:43, "It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory." And the promise of Philippians 3:21, "[He] will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory." And the promise of Matthew 13:43, "Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father."
O let us learn how to help each other die! It will not be easy. But, by grace, we will help each other say in our final pain, "To die is gain."
Used by permission of Bethlehem Baptist Church (slightly edited). Bible quotations are from the NASB. For additional resources by John Piper, call Desiring God Ministries at 888-346-4700. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2001.