READ : John 8:21-24
Again he [that is, Jesus] said to them, “I go away, and you will seek me and die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come.” Then said the Jews, “Will he kill himself, since he says, `Where I am going, you cannot come’?” He said to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.”
John 8:21-24 rsv
I was a young college student preparing for the Christian ministry. For two summers, I worked in the baggage room at Grand Central Station in New York City. In those days (this was the mid-forties) that seemed like the center of the universe. Everyone who traveled came sooner or later to Grand Central Station.
One of my jobs was to wait at the end of a metal chute to receive luggage which had been checked upstairs in the station. I was to place the boxes and suitcases on the bed of an electric truck and then take them to the appropriate trains. It was a two-man operation and one of those who teamed up with me from time to time was a giant of a man named Zookie.
We spent quite a bit of time together waiting for the baggage to descend. Now and then I would try to talk to Zookie about Jesus Christ, to bear witness to what the Lord had done for me. Zookie always scoffed or changed the subject. He wasn’t interested in this religion business. I plainly wasn’t getting anywhere with him.
One day (I don’t remember just why) I happened to speak about death, what it would be like to die. I was astonished at how this affected my fellow worker. A look of what seemed like terror came over Zookie’s face. This huge brute of a man pleaded with me, “Don’t talk to me about death! I don’t want to hear about death!” I’ve never forgotten that. This man who seemed so big, so tough, so hardened, became pale with fright at even the mention of dying.
Since I have served as a pastor, I’ve known a number of people whose attitude toward death was vastly different from Zookie’s. I’ve known afflicted ones who longed for death, aged ones who greeted each new day with the hope and prayer that it would be their last. They surely weren’t afraid to talk about death. They seemed to welcome its approach. Every time I visited one dear friend of mine who was terribly afflicted, he asked me to pray that death might come for him soon.
Here are two very different perspectives for looking at death, two ways to die. I want to think about those with you today. Listen to these words from the Gospel according to John, chapter 8, beginning at verse 21.
Again he [that is, Jesus] said to them, “I go away, and you will seek me and die in your sins; where I am going, you cannot come.” Then said the Jews, “Will he kill himself, since he says, `Where I am going, you cannot come’?” He said to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.”
GOING TO GOD
Did you notice how Jesus spoke of His own dying? He said, “I am going away.” As I prepared for this message, I read through the Gospel according to John to notice how often Jesus said something like this. Here are some instances: “I know where I am going; I go to him who sent me.” Or this, “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father.” He was going to God. He said, “I go to the Father.” Again, “I am leaving the world and going to the Father.” And this is how He prayed to His Father, in His great High Priestly prayer, “I am coming to thee.”
For Jesus, death was a going away, a leaving of this life, a departing from this world. But more profoundly, it was an arriving. He would be with the Father. He would rejoin the One who had sent Him into the world. He would dwell forever in the Father’s house.
All of that He said while looking forward, anticipating what it would be to die. When death actually approached, in His last moments on the cross, He acted in accord with that conviction. Remember what His very last words were? “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). To die was to place His life in the Father’s hands, to go to God. And so for Him there were no fears about death. He knew, He savored, He rejoiced in what awaited Him on the other side.
All of us shrink from dying, and Jesus was no stranger to that human feeling. He was grieved, terribly distressed by the accompaniments of His death, the horror of great darkness that came over Him as He bore our sins and endured forsakenness for our sakes. But what lay beyond this life, beyond the sorrow and suffering, was in no way to be dreaded. It was the happiest kind of homegoing.
DYING IN OUR SINS
Jesus contrasts with that another way to die, something undeniably dreadful. Twice in this passage He speaks of people “dying in their sins.” What can He mean by that?
We find such expressions in the Old Testament. Listen to these words from the prophecy of Ezekiel, “If I say to the wicked, `You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand” (3:18). God is speaking here to His servant Ezekiel, telling him that he must warn sinful people. He must warn them that sin leads to death, warn them to turn from their wicked ways in order that their lives may be spared. Otherwise, this wicked person, this offender, will “die in his iniquity,” die in his sin.
In other words, to die without being aware of our own evils and of the judgment of God against them, to die without having recognized our sins, confessed our sins, turned from our sins, is to die still in them, still surrounded by them, still identified with them. And when we die in that way, still in our sins, then the judgment visited upon sin falls upon us. And since sin separates from God, those who die in their sins cannot go to Him. That’s why Jesus says to the stubborn ones who challenged Him, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” Anyone still wrapped in the garment of his sin cannot enter the heavenly banquet, cannot dwell in the Father’s house.
I think some such fear as that was troubling my friend Zookie. I had gathered from other hints he dropped that he had an uneasy conscience. He knew that some of the things he was doing were wrong, ugly and mean, but he wasn’t willing to abandon them. He wasn’t about to repent and begin a new life. So the thought of dying, of death, was profoundly troubling to him. Somewhere down deep, he was aware of, he had a premonition of, coming judgment.
I’ve reflected since that this very sense of uneasiness was like a messenger from heaven for Zookie and for others who feel it. The only really terrible thing about dying is to die with our sins unrepented of, unforgiven, still weighing us down, still binding us, staining us, ruining us. This is what makes death venomous. The apostle puts it just that way, doesn’t he: “The sting of death is sin” (1 Cor. 15:56). Sin that still clings to us, sin that we’ve never been willing to leave behind – that’s the poison.
So today I want to be like a prophet, like an Ezekiel to each of you hearing me speak. I want to say to you, “Why will you die in your sins? Why won’t you turn from the things that can destroy you? They can make your death something frightful, can block your way to the Father’s house, to the heart of God! Why won’t you let them go, and choose life?”
Friends, there are many things we’re afraid of and worry about that don’t amount to anything. Most of the evils we’re anxious about prove to be only imaginary. They never befall us. There’s only one supreme tragedy in life, only one thing at all costs to be avoided, and that is to die in our sins. I plead with you today at all costs to avoid that, to shun that, to run as for your life from all that would keep you from going where Jesus went.
WHAT MAKES THE DIFFERENCE
But I don’t want to end on that note. I want to tell you about the great alternative. Listen to these words I read just a moment ago. Jesus says, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.” Did you hear that? Jesus says that dying in our sins is a sure thing. We’re going to do it. That’s what’s ahead for everyone of us unless we do something, unless we believe that He is the One.
Isn’t that a striking expression, “Unless you believe that I am he”? In the Greek text, it reads exactly like this: “Unless you believe that I, I am.” His Jewish hearers knew what Jesus meant by that. “I am” was the awe-filled name for God. That’s how He had revealed Himself to His ancient people: “I AM that I AM.” And Jesus, throughout the Gospels, especially this Gospel according to John, used that expression again and again. I am the bread of life. I am the door. I am the way. I am the resurrection and the life. All that God is to needy, lost, sinful people like us, Jesus is. Jesus is God coming to visit, God reaching down to save, God in human form here to meet our deepest need. When we believe that, when we believe Him, that He is the One, that His Word is true and He is indeed the Son of the living God, then we don’t have to die in our sins. Do you know why? Our sins will be forgiven. They’ll be blotted out. They’ll be removed from us as far as the east is from the west. They’ll be buried in the depths of the sea. They’ll be forever gone.
That, you see, was at the heart of Jesus’ mission. He came to do something about our sins. He came to take them upon Himself. He came to bear the accumulated load of our guilt and condemnation. He came to suffer for our sins, to die in our place, to take the stroke of judgment we deserve. Yes, He came to be forsaken by His Father so that we might never need to be forsaken.
Now that wonderful, saving work is done. He has borne our sins, carried our sorrows. Those who believe in Him are forgiven, cleansed and free. Not that they’re perfect now; not that they never stumble, never fall. But as they live in fellowship with the Lord, as they walk in the light of His presence, as they keep on acknowledging their failures and sins, He keeps on washing them away. “The blood of Jesus Christ,” says the apostle, “keeps on cleansing us from sin” (1 John 1:7).
So you can live, friends, as those who are no longer living in their sins, as those who have repented of them, left them behind, cast them upon the sin-bearing Savior. That’s why you’ll never die in your sins: as you live, so you die. If you live in your sins, you’ll die in them. But if you live in Christ, as one pardoned and delivered, you’ll die also in Christ. You’ll die accepted, and for you, death will be the dark gateway into everlasting joy.
Believers die as Jesus died. They go to God, but with this difference: they recognize that the God they go to is the one they meet in Jesus. Jesus in His dying says, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” Stephen, the martyr, cries as he dies, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). And whenever the apostle Paul talked about dying, he always used language like this, “Absent from the body, present with the Lord . . . (2 Cor. 5:8). “I have a desire to depart and to be with Christ which is far better” (Phil. 1:23). That’s what Jesus promised to the penitent thief on the cross beside Him, the man who said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The Lord said to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Whoever you are, listening to my voice today, my plea to you, my prayer for you is that you may never die in your sins, but instead you will believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior come for you. May you live in Christ all your days and so die in Christ. That’s a way of dying that leads to God, to the Father’s house, to everlasting life.
Prayer: Father, may everyone sharing this program be delivered from all dread of death and dying, in the knowledge of Jesus Christ our living Lord. Amen.