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Death Sentences & Deliverances

Noose

by Dennis Pollock

We usually see death as an enemy, and rightly so. Regardless of race or culture, people world over value and cling to life above all else. The Scriptures, likewise, speak negatively of death, declaring it to be the consequence of rebelling against our Creator's holy laws. All of this makes  it rather strange when we read in Paul's epistles of  death working positively in our lives. Paul does not refer to physical death, but death experiences that make us eminently useful in the service of Christ. Using himself as an example he refers to death working in him, resulting in life working in the believers to whom he ministered (2 Corinthians 4:12).

As we study the Scriptures we find this theme repeated a number of times. It appears God makes great use of death experiences in the lives of His children. By "death experiences" we mean those situations and circumstances where failure and collapse appear certain, and where hope seems lost, and even irrational. Any study of those men and women God has used in significant ways to advance His kingdom, from the Scriptures or from biographies of more current examples, will almost always reveal certain seasons of their lives which were painful, filled with pressure, and which threatened to destroy their ministries and sometimes even their lives.

Death is the ultimate in hopelessness. We have a saying, "Where there's life, there's hope." The inference is clearly that where there is no life there is no hope. When a loved one is in the hospital, regardless of how serious the illness, Christians will request prayer from other believers, knowing that with God all things are possible. But once death occurs, prayer for recovery immediately stops, funeral plans are made, and we begin adjusting ourselves to the reality that we will never again see that person in this life. Such is the nature of the death experiences Paul refers to – those times and experiences where things don't merely look bad – they look dead! 

Treasure, Death, & Life 

Treasure

Let's look a little deeper at Paul's theology of how God uses death to produce life. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: 

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh (2 Corinthians 4:7-11). 

Connected to God's use of death in our lives is the treasure that every believer carries within – the Holy Spirit in us manifesting the life of Jesus to those around us. Herein lies our value to this world. All that the secular eye appreciates and prizes – youth, beauty, talent, intelligence – are of small importance in the eyes of God. The true measure of the value of a man or woman is the measure of Jesus Christ manifested through their life. Anything that increases that measure is to be prized and heartily embraced; anything that decreases that measure is to be avoided and shunned. If standing on our heads somehow brought out more of Jesus, we should all be standing on our heads daily. If coloring our hair purple did the job, it would be the duty of every believer to go through life with purple hair. Of course these things have nothing to do with the manifestation of Jesus. But this dying Paul speaks of has everything to do with it!

Paul lists some of his own death experiences: hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. In each case we find pressure and something not particularly pleasant, but we do not find total collapse. Paul seems to have made his peace with this sort of thing. He's not complaining; he's just giving the facts. This is a part of the Christian life affirmed in Scripture that is not so well advertised. Many pastors are deathly afraid to mention anything that hints of the least little pain or discomfort in the Christian life. "Come to Jesus and your husband will adore you, your children will be honor students, your bank account will swell, and your dog will always obey you. You will enjoy one blissful, ecstatic day after another, while you feast on mountains of chocolate cake, never gaining a pound."

Paul doesn't just refer to a once or twice experience. He states that he is "always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus..." Having been through more than a few death experiences myself, I can tell you there is nothing so euphoric as seeing these seasons lift, and knowing you are finished forever with that particular trial. It is right to be joyful and thankful, but we should not be naïve. Though we may never see that unique pressure again, there are others lurking in the shadows of our lives, waiting for their time to come. We have not seen the last of them. We may enjoy a season of rest for a few months or a few years, but new Goliaths will eventually arise to challenge our faith once again. This is the nature of the Christian life.

In another place Paul writes: 

For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of our trouble which came to us in Asia: that we were burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead (1 Corinthians 1:8,9). 

The phrases "beyond measure" and "above strength" may seem not quite right to us. After all, doesn't God promise not to tempt us beyond what we can bear? How can He allow a burden on Paul or any of His children that is "above strength"? Although God will not allow us to be tempted beyond our ability, He will at times allow us to experience pressures that, apart from His grace, are beyond our measure – they require a strength we do not possess in ourselves. 

We are given the reason for this here: "that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead." As long as we can see a reasonable hope of a positive outcome, there is not the desperate need for God. If there is something we can do to fix our problems we should by all means do it. But what happens when our situation is so far gone, there is no plan, no program, no self-help book that offers the smallest chance of deliverance? For many it is time to despair; for Paul it is time to trust in "God who raises the dead." What a wonderful description of our Heavenly Father – He is the God who raises the dead. It is part of His job description to raise dead people, dead dreams, and dead hopes to life. 

Examples 

We see many examples of how God allows death sentences upon His children. At one point Paul was on a ship headed toward Rome where he would face trial. A terrible storm arose and buffeted the ship all over the sea day after day. At last we read, "Now when neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest beat on us, all hope that we would be saved was finally given up."

From a human perspective God had clearly let things get out of hand. No doubt Paul and his friends (including Luke) had been praying since the early days of the storm. Eventually they dumped everything overboard, even the ship's tackle. Nearly everyone was facing the harsh reality that all would soon perish. Their case was hopeless. If God was going to act He surely would have done it before then! And then Paul wakes up from a dream, and reports to all on board, "there stood by me this night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve, saying, 'Do not be afraid, Paul; you must be brought before Caesar; and indeed God has granted you all those who sail with you.'"

This word from the Lord must have caused incredible joy and relief to Paul and the other believers on board, but why did it have to come so late? God could have saved them all a great deal of anxiety had He told them this at the beginning of the storm, or better still, had He stopped the storm on day one.

Another example of a death sentence is found when God led the people of Israel, freshly delivered from Egypt, to the edge of the Red Sea. He tells Moses, "Speak to the children of Israel, that they turn and camp before Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, opposite Baal Zephon; you shall camp before it by the sea. For Pharaoh will say of the children of Israel, 'They are bewildered by the land; the wilderness has closed them in.'" God deliberately leads Israel into a place where only a miracle could save them. They end up with the Red Sea in front of them and Pharaoh's army coming up fast from the rear.

We like to sing "Glorify Thy Name" but we sometimes fail to realize that one of the major ways God does this is to lead us into impossible situations (or as Paul would put it, to place upon us the "sentence of death"). It is fun to read of miracles that happened to others in their hour of need, but it's a lot less pleasant to be in those circumstances that absolutely require a miracle in order for us to survive.  And yet this is an integral aspect of God's curriculum in growing His children into the place of maturity and usefulness.

It is a pretty simple matter to identify these "sentences of death." You know you have the sentence of death on you when: 

  1. No plan or scheme you can think of or imagine shows the least promise of succeeding.
  2. All reason and logic suggest that things will end badly.
  3. Your friends tell you that you are living in a fantasy world when you speak in hopeful terms about your situation.
  4. Only a direct intervention from God can save you from collapse.


Good News 

If all the Bible said was that our life was to contain these death sentences it would be pretty depressing. But that is not the last word. Listen to Paul as he speaks further: 

Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead, who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver us; in whom we trust that He will still deliver us… (2 Corinthians 1:9,10)

God specializes in overturning death sentences! Although Paul was in a storm where "all hope was given up" yet everyone was rescued. The children of Israel may have been led into an impossible place, but God parted the waters and brought them safely to the other side, destroying Pharaoh's army for good measure. In truth, the death sentences God's children experience are not what they seem. Things may look hopeless, but our Father's watchful eye is always on His sons and daughters, waiting for just the right moment to show Himself strong on their behalf and reveal Himself as the God who raises the dead.

The ultimate goal is Jesus. As we experience the dying of Jesus in our lives, we are sure to experience His life. Death working in us produces life in others. And because Jesus is our supreme love, and the advancement of His kingdom our great passion, we are willing to endure the death sentences that must come our way from time to time. Or as Paul would put it: "I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory."

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