Life after death

Outside of the twelve apostles that were Jesus’ constant companions during his three year ministry on earth, there are only a few people mentioned in the Bible that were close to him. One family in particular is mentioned in John’s gospel as being among Jesus’ closest friends. John tells us, “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, Lord, he whom you love is ill” (John 11:1-3). The love that Jesus had for Lazarus came from his heart and had to do with a personal attachment that had been formed between the two men. The Greek word that is translated love, phileo (ful-ehˊ-o) represents “tender affection” (G5368). John went on to say, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?’” (John 11:5-8). The Greek word that John used in this instance that is translated love is agapao (ag-ap-ahˊ-o). The distinction between the two kinds of love that Jesus had for Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus are more evident in Jesus’ conversation with Peter after he had denied the Lord (John 21:15-17). The context itself indicates that agapao, which is used in the first two questions that Jesus asked Peter, suggests the ‘love’ that values and esteems (cf. Revelation 12:11). It is an unselfish ‘love,’ ready to serve. The use of phileo in Peter’s answers and the Lord’s third question, conveys the thought of cherishing the Object above all else, of manifesting an affection characterized by constancy, from the motive of the highest veneration” (G5368). It was a deliberate assent of Jesus’ will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety rather than a desire to preserve Lazarus’ life that caused Jesus to respond to Mary and Martha’s request for him go to Judea in spite of the risk that it imposed to his own life. Jesus told his disciples, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4).

Jesus explained Lazarus’ situation to his disciples in John 11:11-16. It states:

After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Jesus compared Lazarus’ death to falling asleep in order to make it clear to his disciples that Lazarus had not gone beyond a point of no return. The Greek word that is translated death in John 11:13, thanatos (thanˊ-at-os) “has the basic meaning of separation of the soul (the spiritual part of man) from the body (the material part), the latter ceasing to function and turning to dust…Death is the opposite of life; it never denotes nonexistence. As spiritual life is conscious existence in communion with God, so spiritual death is conscious existence in separation from God” (G2288).

The thing that Jesus wanted his disciples to believe was that physical death does not separate us from God. The Apostle Paul said of God’s everlasting love, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38). Jesus told his disciples that he was glad that he was not there when Lazarus died, “so that you may believe” (John 11:15). The Greek word that is translated believe, pisteuo (pist-yooˊ-o) means “to have faith” (G4100). Hebrews 11:1 tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” When we are convicted of things not seen, we are either shown to be wrong, convinced of our error or given proof that we are right (G1650). Faith enables us to have an accurate perception of what is going on in the spiritual realm.

When Jesus arrived in Bethany, John tells us:

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” (John 11:21-27)

Martha’s attention was focused on the fact that her brother’s physical life had been cut short and she expressed her disappointment that Jesus hadn’t done something about it. Jesus redirected Martha’s attention to the eternal state of her brother’s soul. Jesus told Martha, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23), meaning that Lazarus was born again and therefore, would experience a restoration of his physical life at some point in the future (G450). Martha acknowledged this when she said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24), but Jesus wanted Martha to realize that Lazarus was still living, even though he wasn’t physically present with them.

Luke’s gospel contains a story that Jesus told to illustrate life after death. It states:

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” (16:19-31)

The place that Jesus described, Hades was known as the place of punishment, the abode or world of the dead. “According to the notions of the Hebrews, hades was a vast subterranean receptacle where the souls of the dead existed in a separate state until the resurrection of their bodies. The region of the blessed during this interval, the inferior paradise, they supposed to be in the upper part of this receptacle; while beneath was the abyss or Gehenna” (G86). When Jesus was dying on the cross, he told the criminal hanging next to him who asked to be remembered when he came into his kingdom, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43). After he was resurrected, Jesus ascended into heaven (Luke 24:51) and shortly before his death, Jesus assured his disciples that they would eventually join him there. Jesus said, “If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3).

In Jesus’ story, the rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them about the torment they were going to experience in Hades. “Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead’” (Luke 16:30-31). In this statement, Jesus made it clear that hearing, or you might say paying attention to what God says, is a prerequisite of faith. Paul told the Romans, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). The Greek word that is translated convinced, peitho (piˊ-tho) “in the active voice, signifies ‘to apply persuasion, to prevail upon or win over, to persuade’ bringing about a change of mind by the influence of reason or moral considerations…It also means ‘to persuade, to win over,’ in the passive and middle voices, ‘to be persuaded, to listen to, to obey’” (G3982). Believing in God and trusting in God are not exactly the same things. When Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25), he used the Greek word pisteuo. “Peitho and pisteuo, ‘to trust,’ are closely related etymologically; the difference in meaning is that the former implies obedience that is produced by the latter, cf. Hebrews 3:18-19, where the disobedience of the Israelites is said to be the evidence of their unbelief. Faith is of the heart, invisible to men; obedience is of the conduct and may be observed. When a man obeys God he gives the only possible evidence that in his heart he believes God. Of course it is persuasion of the truth that results in faith (we believe because we are persuaded that the thing is true, a thing does not become true because it is believed), but peitho, in New Testament suggests an actual and outward result of the inward persuasion and consequent faith” (G3982).

Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” and then, he asked her, “Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). Martha believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but she hadn’t yet gone so far as to put her trust in him. Jesus dealt with this issue when he instructed Martha to have the stone taken away from her brother’s tomb. John 11:38-44 states:

Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Jesus used the Greek word pisteuo when he told Martha that if she believed, she would see the glory of God (John 11:40) indicating that Martha may not have actually been saved prior to her brother’s death. Martha knew in her head that Jesus was the Messiah (John 11:27), but might not yet have been persuaded to the point that she had actually put her trust in him for salvation.

John tells us that before Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out of the grave, “he lifted up his eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me’” (John 11:41-42). What was going on between Jesus and his Father was a visible display of their cooperative effort to persuade the people standing around that Jesus was in fact “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25) and because of that, even though Lazarus was physically dead, he was spiritually still alive. It seems that Jesus’ ability to raise Lazarus from the dead was somehow being hindered by the unbelief of the people standing around. It’s possible that belief and unbelief are somewhat like opposing forces that compete against each other to determine the outcome of a situation. When Jesus told a man that wanted him to cast a demonic spirit out of his son, “All things are possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23), the man responded, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). The Greek word that is translated help, boetheo (bo-ay-thehˊ-o) means “to aid or relieve” (G997). The boy’s father had faith (I believe), but his unbelief was counteracting it and needed to be dealt with in order for Jesus to heal his son.

One of the biggest hindrances to the Jews accepting Jesus as their Savior was that they didn’t understand how things worked in the spiritual realm and therefore, couldn’t comprehend how a person could be “born again” (John 3:3-4). Jesus told a man named Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:6-8). Jesus indicated that the sound of the wind is evidence of its presence. Even though it’s invisible, wind exists and can be detected by its sound. When God the Father testified to Jesus’ identity, he did so with his voice. Matthew 3:16-17 states, “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” Likewise, at Jesus’ transfiguration, Matthew indicated “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’” (Matthew 17:5).

Jesus referred to himself as the good shepherd and told the Jews, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10:3-5). Jesus’ emphasis of the sheep knowing the shepherd by his voice suggests that spiritual connections are formed through vocal interaction. Jesus often used the statement, “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:43) to draw attention to the spiritual truths in his lessons and distinguished believers from unbelieves by stating, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (John 8:47). The Greek word that is translated words, rhema (hrayˊ-mah) refers particularly to “a word as uttered by a living voice; a saying, speech, or discourse” (G4487).

After Jesus instructed Martha to take the stone away from Lazarus’ tomb, John tells us:

So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11:41-42).

Jesus wanted everyone to know that God could see and hear what was going on at Lazarus’ tomb. By looking up to heaven and praying out loud to his Father, Jesus shifted the focus of everyone’s attention to what was going on in the spiritual realm. John went on to say:

When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:43-44)

Lazarus’ response to Jesus’ command demonstrated that he was able to hear what he said to him. It seems likely that Jesus intentionally used a voice command to bring Lazarus back from the dead to show everyone that even though he had died, Lazarus was still spiritually connected to Jesus. Before they left for Bethany, Jesus told his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him” (John 11:11). Jesus was speaking in a figurative sense when he said he was going to wake Lazarus up, but when Jesus cried out to him with a loud voice (John 11:43) Lazarus was not actually dead; his soul was just temporarily separated from his body.

Death

God’s plan of salvation included a provision for everyone to be reconciled to him through the death of his son Jesus on the cross (Romans 3:24). In order for there to be a level playing field, God provided salvation by grace, as a free gift, so that no one would be left out. Paul stated, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28). Paul’s comparison of the wages of sin to God’s free gift of salvation showed that there was no logical reason why a person should choose to live a life of sin. He stated, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). The Greek word translated death, thanatos “has the basic meaning of separation of the soul (the spiritual part of man) from the body (the material part), the latter ceasing to function and turning to dust…Death is the opposite of life; it never denotes nonexistence. As spiritual life is conscious existence in communion with God, so spiritual death is conscious existence in separation from God” (G2288).

Paul used the analogy of a woman that was freed from the law of marriage by the death of her husband to explain how a believer is dead to sin as a result of receiving God’s free gift of salvation. Paul stated, “But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter” (Romans 7:6). Paul’s primary concern was that believer’s understand that freedom from sin was something that had to be dealt with apart from the sinner’s justification by faith. Although the guilt of sin is removed instantaneously when a person is born again, the desire to commit sin does not go away. Paul admitted, “I do not understand myself. I want to do what is right but I do not do it. Instead, I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15, NLV). The Apostle Paul, who is considered by most to be a model Christian wasn’t exempt from the natural human tendency to rebel against God. His description of the believer’s struggle to overcome sin (Romans 7:13-25) is thought by some to be a personal testimony to the weakness of his flesh.

Paul suggested that sin is a powerful force that operates in believers and unbelievers alike. He argued, “Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me” (Romans 7:20-21). Rather than giving believers an excuse to commit sin, Paul’s identification of the sin nature that dwells in everyone was most likely meant to explain why Christian’s are not made perfect when they are reconciled to God. Paul stated, “For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin” (Romans 7:15:14). The point Paul was trying to make was that his human body or flesh was still subject to sin as evidenced by the physical death he would eventually experience. It was only his spirit that was regenerated when he accepted Christ. Paul stated, “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:23). It seems likely that Paul was thinking of his own physical death when he exclaimed, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24).

Final words

The four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; each capture unique pieces of the final words Jesus spoke while he was dying on the cross, except for Matthew and Mark who both recorded the same question, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34, ESV). The Greek word translated forsaken, egkataleipo suggested God deserted Jesus while he was hanging on the cross (G1459). The separation that occurred was likely the result of a curse that prevented God from looking at anyone that was crucified. Under the miscellaneous laws recorded in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 it states, “And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.”

Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross meant that even though he had not committed any crime himself, God treated him as if he was guilty of every sin that had ever or still will be committed by the human race. The Apostle Paul explained this transaction in Galatians 3:6-14 where he stated:

Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

While Jesus was hanging on the cross, dying for the sins of the world, a man that was hanging next to him realized the significance of what he was doing. Luke’s gospel captures the irony of the moment in a conversation between the two men that were hanging beside Jesus. Luke stated:

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:39-43)

Jesus knew that his condemnation by God was only temporary. His act of obedience would ultimately put an end to the curse of sin that separated him from his Father. In his last statement from the cross, Jesus declared his belief that he would shortly be reunited with God in Heaven. He succinctly stated, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” then Luke reported, “and having said thus, he gave up the ghost” (Luke 23:46) revealing his expectation to be by God’s side momentarily.

Upside down religion

The purpose of the Mosaic Law was to keep the Israelites from being separated from God. Over the years, the content of God’s message to his people was transferred from generation to generation by means of a religious system that focused on purity or “cleanness” (Psalm 18:20), which meant you were undefiled or without blemish, i.e. perfect, complete, whole in God’s sight. At the time of Jesus ministry, the Jewish religious system had gotten so far off track from God’s original intent that Jesus called its leaders hypocrites (Matthew 15:7). They pretended to know what they were talking about, when in actuality, they were blind to the truth of God’s word. Jesus said of these religious experts, “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8).

What was happening among God’s people could be referred to as upside down religion. In other words, they were doing the opposite of what God wanted them to. An example Jesus used to illustrate his point was the fifth of God’s Ten Commandments, which stated, “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee” (Exodus 20:12). The Jews were being taught that it was lawful for them to take resources that could benefit their parents and give them to God as a gift or sacrificial offering (Matthew 15:5-6). Jesus said about this practice, “Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition” (Matthew 15:6). The Greek term Jesus used that is translated none effect is akuroo (ak-oo-ro’-o), which means to invalidate.

Jesus described this upside down form of religion as the blind leading the blind. He told his disciples, “Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into a ditch” (Matthew 15:14). Even though the Pharisees false teaching was harmful to those that believed it, Jesus knew it was useless to try and change the minds of those who were unable to see the error of their ways. Instead, Jesus presented them with the truth and left it up to each individual to believe or not believe what he said. Mark tells us of Jesus’ response, “And when he had called all the people unto him, he said unto them, Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand: there is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man. If any man have ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 7:14-16).

The problem with the Jews upside down religion was that it took the emphasis off of being separated from God and put it on cleanness or what could be described as self-righteous religiosity. When his disciples asked him to explain what he had said to the people, Jesus asked them, “Are ye so without understanding also?” (Mark 7:18). This remark revealed that even Jesus’ twelve apostles had been influenced by the Pharisee’s false doctrine about the importance of making sacrifices to God. In order to set the record straight about what actually separated them from God, Jesus stated, “Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into man, it cannot defile him; because it entereth not into his heart…for from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: all these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (Mark 7:18-23).