The psalmist tells us that in the midst of life we are in death. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews speaks of those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. Every day the funeral procession wends its way across the land. Death is all about us.
We ourselves are also free neither from the fact nor the fear of death. As mortal human beings we know that the days of our years are numbered. Even though it be the twentieth century, the age of the atom, and of the antibiotic, the last great enemy remains. And because we are also sensible human beings, people who feel and fear, we dread the day when at last the silver cord shall break. Though we know we cannot escape the inevitable, we look to it with trembling and unhappiness.
Is there no deliverance from death and the fear of death? Is our total existence to be viewed as but one long process of dying, even from the moment we are born? Is all futile? Is there no comfort for the weary soul, no balm in Gilead?
Indeed there is comfort, there is a balm in Gilead. We must of course take it in terms in which it is given, but when so taken, we find it wonderfully satisfying. For it is comfort which comes from God. It tells us of the conquest and destruction of death, of the victory and eternal certainty of life. To learn of it we must listen to the Word of God, for there is no other voice which speaks with authority in this realm of life and death.
Now the Word of God does not try to gloss over the reality, the meaning or the misery of death. It does not try to comfort us by some foolish effort to deny the existence of the grave. The woman who is hailed as the founder of the Christian Science movement tried to have her followers believe that there was no such thing as death. But diligent though they were in trying to fill their minds with thoughts of life, there came the day when they had to find a replacement for their beloved Mary Baker Eddy. She died. A famous newspaper editor made it a rule that death should never be mentioned in his presence. But still he died.
The Word of God looks death squarely in the face. It tells us where it came from and what it means. The picture is not pleasant. For the Word insists that death is the punishment for sin. When God made man on the earth, He gave His creature the capability of living forever. Provision for this was actually present in the Garden of Eden. But the man disobeyed the command of God. He broke the divine law. In consequence he died, and in the same consequence all his descendants in the normal course of things likewise die. And you and I have the tag of death securely attached to us. We cannot remove it.
The Word of God goes still deeper. It tells us that, since we humans were made of two parts, as it were, soul and body, the death to which we are subject affects each in its own way. With reference to the soul, we are already dead. Paul says we are dead in trespasses and sins. Even while we walk about in this world, we are in bondage to the kingdom of evil, and that is spiritual death. And in due course, in the providential government of God, there comes physical death, the separation of soul and body, when the physical body returns to dust, and the soul enters upon the eternal state of separation from God.
The Word of God, as we said, does not gloss over these realities. In fact, the word of God insists upon them, insists upon the utter hopelessness of man's estate as he is now by nature. The dead cannot arise and walk. If they were merely sick, perhaps that could happen. But not when they are dead.
Where is there any comfort in all this, any balm in Gilead? Surely, to be told of the sad and hopeless estate in which we are provides no comfort. But it does at least contribute this, that if there is to be any comfort, it will not be through looking to ourselves, or even to our fellows who are in that same miserable estate. And so the Word of God never encourages us to seek escape or deliverance through our own efforts. It never suggests that we can pull ourselves out of the mire by tugging on our bootstraps. Instead it tells us something entirely different.
The Word of God tells us of another Deliverer, even Jesus Christ. It tells us to look to Him, to trust in Him and in Him we will discover deliverance from the fear of death, and even from the fact of death.
The Word of God does not present Jesus Christ to us as a Deliverer out of the blue. It tells us of a long period of preparation for His coming. In that preparation men learned, through the religious practices which were required in the Old Testament, that the way of deliverance from sin and guilt was through sacrifice, through the shedding of the blood of a substitute. The substitutes in the Old Testament period were animals, and the deliverance which came about through the use of such substitutes was a formal, external deliverance from "uncleanness," but a deliverance that could not reach the heart and conscience.
However, these Old Testament ritual sacrifices did tell a story. And that story was confirmed and enlarged through the message of the prophets. It was the story that one day a Substitute would be provided by God, who would be a real and effective sacrifice, and who would through His offering of Himself bring actual deliverance to His people from the guilt and power of sin and from its deadly consequence.
It is against this background that the Word of God tells us of Jesus the Christ. It presents Him to us as the "Lamb of God, who beareth the sins of the world." It pictures Him as not a mere man, but as the very eternal Son of God, who took upon Himself a true human nature that He might, "in fashion as a man," be obedient to the death of the cross. It tells us that He who knew no sin was made to be sin for us. It tells us that He bore our sins in His own body upon the Cross. It tells us that He died for our sins. He Himself was without sin. He in His whole lifetime did nothing that offended God, but in everything concerning Him God was well-pleased. When He died, then, it was not for Himself, but for His people.
The Word of God further tells us that the sacrifice which Jesus Christ offered for His people was accepted by God. It tells us this when it tells us that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the third day. Had there been some imperfection in the offering, some flaw in the sacrifice itself or some defect in the manner of its being presented, the Holy God would have been offended by it, not pleased. And the Victim would have been left to suffer also the penalty imposed by the offended God. But the empty tomb proclaimed to all the world that the sacrifice had been acceptable, that its full purpose had been effected, that God's holy justice with respect to those represented in the sacrifice had been satisfied, and that the Victim was thus freed from the pangs of death, never more to die.
Thus the Word of God tells us that Christ died to sin once, and that henceforth He lives forever more. Death had no more power or dominion over Him. He had conquered it, because He had conquered that which caused it, sin, and He had conquered sin by satisfying God's justice regarding the sinner. The penalty had been forever paid.
This is all very wonderful - so far as Christ is concerned. But where in it is that comfort for which we were looking? Where, in the fact that Christ died to sin and rose again is there for us any balm to ease our fear of death? Why does the Word of God tell us about Jesus Christ, whose life on this earth is now many centuries past, who is far from us, and who, so it may seem, is available to us only in the pages of an ancient book?
But again the Word of God speaks, and now, if we have read carefully what it has said on these other matters, its voice is indeed one of comfort and peace. For it tells us to put our trust in Christ as our Deliverer, as our Saviour. No, the Word of God is not concerned primarily that we shall follow the example of Christ. It does not tell us that we shall trust God as He seems to have trusted God, or that we shall obey God as He seems to have obeyed God. It tells us that we shall trust in Jesus Christ Himself.
How can we do this? Well, Jesus Christ rose from the dead. So He is living now. We may not be able to touch Him as Mary Magdalene or Thomas did. We may not watch Him eat as the disciples in the upper room did. But we can trust Him, for He is today a living Person, and He invites us to trust Him.
But what good does it do for us to trust this Jesus the Christ? The Word of God makes it clear again, speaking indeed in a variety of terms but always indicating the sense, that through faith in Jesus Christ we are united to Him, made one with Him. Since in the historic situation, those who believe in Jesus are joined to the company of believers, and since this association receives its outward seal through the rite of baptism in the name of Christ, Scripture in several places speaks of baptism as signifying the reality of faith. And it says, for example, that they which have been baptized into Christ have "put on" Christ. As believers we have been brought into such union with Christ, that what was ours - our sin and guilt - are made His, and what was His - His perfect righteousness and the satisfaction of divine justice - are made to be ours.
The Word of God again is even more explicit in setting forth the consequence of this union with Christ which is the issue of faith in Him. For the Word tells us specifically that we are united to Him in His death, also that we are united to Him in His resurrection. Paul says, that we thus judge, that one died for all, therefore all died. We might say, if one died for all, then all were delivered from the necessity of dying. But that is not what Paul says. He says, that because one, that is Christ, died for all, therefore all died. The believers died in the dying of Christ. Paul is most emphatic in insisting on this. They who were baptized into Christ were baptized into His death. We as believers were buried with Him through baptism into His death. We were planted together with Him in the likeness of His death. We were crucified together with Him. In that He died to sin, we also in His dying ourselves died to sin.
For whom is this true, and under what circumstances does it become true? It is true of everyone who trusts in Jesus Christ, and it becomes true for that believer the moment he believes. Our union with Christ is the immediate outgrowth of our faith in Him. Where one is, the other is also.
We do not die with Christ by some separate act of our own, some separate choosing to put ourselves to death with Him. We do not slay our old man by some slow or lengthy step-by-step process. The whole reality is there, accomplished in the very fact of the faith itself. Through faith we are united to Christ. Being united to Christ we are united to Him in His death. As He died, so we died in Him. Our dying is not separate from His dying, but is His dying.
And here is the comfort we seek, here is the balm of Gilead. Since we have already died to sin, in the dying of Christ, we never again can die under sin. Our sin and guilt have been washed away. We have been freed from the bondage of that kingdom of Satan in which we were held slaves. Since Christ Himself was raised from the dead, and since we have been united to Him, we have been united to Him also in that resurrection. His resurrection is our resurrection. Hence Paul says, reckon yourselves indeed to be dead to sin on the one hand, and alive to God in Christ Jesus on the other. And again the apostle is unable to restrain himself as he declares: But God, who is rich in mercy, on account of His great love wherewith He loved us, while we were dead in trespasses and sins made us alive together with Christ - by grace ye are saved - and raised us up together with Him, and seated us in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, in order that in the ages to come he might show the abundant riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (cf. Ephesians 2:4-7).
You see, it has happened. It is all over. And we are delivered in Christ. Because we are creatures of time and space, time must pass and space must be passed before these realities are fully accomplished in our consciousness. But in principle, they already exist. And for God, who has determined them and who knows the end from the beginning, they are present truth.
And that is our comfort. We have died to sin. The penalty for our sin has been meted out. It has been imposed upon our substitute, the Son of God Himself, Jesus Christ. And we have been raised up together with Christ. We are already in the resurrection as we are in Christ. So true is this, that the living Christ lives in us, and the life we now live in the flesh we live in faith which rests in the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us.
Hence, for us, as we are in Christ, death itself as the penalty for sin has been put to death. Christ has destroyed death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel And we are in Him.
This is the comfort of the Gospel. This is the balm of Gilead. This is the meaning of "Easter." This is why Christ could Himself say to Martha, "He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die." And this is why they who today believe in Christ do not fear that physical death which remains in human experience, for they know that if the earthly house of this tabernacle - their physical body - is destroyed, they have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens - their glorified and perfected heavenly body.
Small wonder that Paul speaks of desiring "to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord." Or that he can take up again the cry drawn from the Old Testament - Oh death, where is thy sting? a grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be unto God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!