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Stöckhardt on Lent 5 – John 8:46-59

by pastorjuhl ~ April 7th, 2011

It’s sad, but most mortals despise his Word and so see and taste death in eternity. So let’s seal up this precious word in our hearts and retain this comfort for ourselves for the hour of death. So many pious Christians have already by their death interpreted, strengthened, and confirmed this word of the Lord for us. Upon Luther’s death, his friends testified at his grave that in him the words had been fulfilled: If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death. And stories about the deaths of other men of God attest to the same truth. So let’s not permit this comfort to slip by us. For the Lord has sworn it to all of us: Whosoever keeps my Word, regardless who he is, every mortal human being, every sinner, who accepts Christ’s Word will, just as it reads, never see death.
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The one who correctly understands what it means to taste death forever will be anxious to learn what it means never to see death. For where is there a person who does not wish with all his heart to be spared the fear and torment of death, of the bitter cup? And the Lord expressly assures us of the other possibility that man may never see death eternally. Yes, there are men who will not see death, will not see death in eternity.
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From the opposite, from what we have said about death, about eternal death, we want to understand what it means not to see death, not to see death forever. God has already quickly, suddenly, unexpectedly pulled out of life, from the earth, many of his beloved children so that they were not even aware of their departure. They were spared the agony of separation. Thus Luther in the evening before his death was still happy and in good spirits and during supper had all manner of pious discussions with his hosts and friends. And in that same night his hour came; quickly, easily, and gently he departed this life. That is verily is what it means not to see death.

Nevertheless, this promise is also fulfilled for those Christians who die slowly, who gradually waste away, step by step see death approaching nearer and at the end still must suffer a great deal. Even in this case departure from life is often very easy. The bonds which have secured one to earth, to the earthly, to the visible, have long since been severed. The one dying has already concluded life inwardly and is ready and prepared for eternity. Yes, he longs for the hour when the last bond that keeps him still on earth, when the rudder of his ship will be loosed so that set on a speedy course it can hurry to its peaceful port. He rejoices at his leave-taking when he is able to say a last farewell to the wicked, evil world. Yes, full of composure and confidence he looks forward to the moment when body and soul are separated from each other. He longs to lay off the body of this death, the sinful flesh. He wants gladly to give his spirit, the chosen pledge, into the hands of his God and Creator. Yes, he hurries from here and greets death as his best friend. Yes, that’s what it means never to see and taste death.

Through death they come before God. The hymn of God’s pilgrims during their sojourn upon earth goes like this: My soul thirtest for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God? O my soul, hope thou in God:for I shall yet praise him for he is the help of my countenance and my God. And this longing and hope are fulfilled in death. The saints, who led a godly life here below, will then first really live in God and out of God. And this is the true life for which man was fashioned from the beginning. God gives his children eternal life. For God’s children the most blessed hours on earth, the greatest hours of joy are when God’s sweet light of grace, goodness, faithfulness, and mercy floods through and renews body, soul, life, when they see and taste how gracious the Lord is. Such hours of joy are but a foretaste of the joys of eternal life, when the soul then lives and moves in God, sings and rejoices in the light of his countenance, when the flesh will again live and be permeated by the glory of God.

And the blessed will taste life forever, see and taste only life, light, joy, blessedness. They know nothing and have no idea, have absolutely no idea of hell, judgment, damnation, of the torments and sufferings of damned souls. Yes, the remembrance of their sins and guilt, the remembrance of the misery and woe of this earth, of this life, is purged from their spirit. All that remains is the remembrance of former grace. As yet we are unable to understand this great word; when we experience it ourselves, when we die, then will we rightly understand what it means that we shall never see death.
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No man has experienced the bitterness of death in such measure as did this Son of man, Jesus, God’s Son. He was torn out of the land of the living. He endured death’s frightful torments on the cross, and his soul suffered, labored. He wrestled with death to the point of drawing blood. He tasted all the terrors of death, of eternal death, tasted hell, wrath, and damnation in Gethsemane, on Golgotha, in those final, fearful, gloomy hours. Heaven and earth were appalled at this horrible death. But it was just for us that he tasted death. And whosoever at the end of his life takes comfort in Christ’s death, cross, blood, and wounds and in his mortal terror and deadly peril sees the Redeemer’s misery on the cross, that one conquers the terrors of death, that one will never see death. Christ by his death has overcome the power of death; he died, really died and saw and tasted death and yet in dying amid the terrors of death and hell he has throttled death, has broken its sting, has crushed the head of the serpent, himself died, gave up his own life. But he was not doomed to death; before he voluntarily commended his spirit into the hands of his Father with his victory cry: It is finished!, he laid at his feet death, sin, curse, hell. As the Living, Eternal One he died and then rose from death, took his life back again and lives and rules in eternity. And now he calls to us: I am the Resurrection and the Life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. And whoever approaches death with such words on his lips and upon dying looks towards the Prince of Life, whom they slew on the cross, will not die, will never see death.

And keeping Christ’s Word then means that one believes in Christ, accepts the crucified and living Christ in his heart through the Word, that one sincerely takes to heart the Gospel of Christ and keeps it in a good heart. The one who listens to God’s Word half-heartedly retains nothing of it when the assault comes, when final tribulation arrives. The Gospel of Christ must take deep root in our hearts so that we hold fast to it when death assails and sends a shudder through us. God’s Word must be dearer to us than life itself. In the power of Christ and his Word we must even now deny natural life, flesh and blood, the world, all its beauties, amid life and activity to withdraw, inwardly withdraw from all that, withdraw from what will be taken from us anyway in death.

In the power of Christ and his Word we must already on earth make our way into the heavenly existence, we must be earthly yet heavenly. We must walk before that God and with that God upon whom our hope is focused. We must through good works have our eyes trained on eternal life and make sure our future inheritance. He who believes from his heart and keeps Christ’s Word has already passed from death into life. To whom the Gospel has become a power of God, a power of God to the overcoming of the sinful, mortal existence, a power of God unto salvation, that one then in the power of Christ and his Gospel at life’s end lays aside with little trouble the last vestige of the mortal. And he takes hold of eternal life, unto which he is called, which he has already laid hold of in faith. And he comes to God, to whom he was joined already on earth. He never sees and tastes death.

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