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A Lesson in Dying, Part Two

From Series: The Hand of God, Volume 2

Ever since the serpent tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, humanity has been seduced by illusions of immortality. Stripping away these deceptions, the Bible reveals how we can face death with confidence and be victorious over it. Christians need not fear death, teaches Alistair Begg. Our assurance lies not in the hope of a prolonged life, but in the faithfulness of our covenant-keeping God and Christ’s finished work on the cross.


Sermon Transcript:

Now, can I invite you to turn with me again to Genesis? And anywhere between 46 and 50 is a fine place to be—we’re moving around as we cover this matter.

And before we turn to the Scriptures, let’s pause again in a moment of prayer:

Speak, O God, we pray, to our waiting hearts, and where there is no sense of waiting, create it within us, we pray. Come to our expectant souls, administer your grace; and where there is no expectancy, forge it in us we ask, so that with light shining on the path of our lives afresh, we may walk in obedience to your Word and live in the joyful light of your provision. Accomplish then by your Spirit what only you, O God, are able to do through the voice of a mere man so that we might give you all the praise and the honor and the glory, for Jesus’s sake. Amen.

We’re returning this morning to what we have noted as society’s only remaining taboo subject—namely, death. Some may immediately be perplexed by that, especially if you’ve come to join your friends and family and are hoping for a somewhat tranquil Thanksgiving message that would allow your turkey to settle a little further and allow you to go home with a spring in your step. You haven’t perhaps anticipated the rigors that would be represented in the consideration of this most vital of subjects, and yet I put it to you that here, in this matter of death—and indeed, the issue of victory over death—is, at least for the Christian, our greatest expression of thanksgiving. Indeed, when Paul, in writing 1 Corinthians 15, reaches the conclusion of his great chapter on the resurrection, he reaches a high note by exclaiming, “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[1]

The Christian perspective on death is radically different from anything that the world is able to offer.

In other words, the Christian perspective on death is radically different from anything that the world is able to offer; and indeed, men and women today are largely threatened by the whole prospect of life’s demise. When we recognize the fact that the world that we have invested so much in is about to pass us by; when we realize our place in the great continuum of time is so ephemeral—it’s so transient, we’re here just for a moment; when we look up at a starlit sky and realize that we will be long gone before the very radiance from those stars reaches us on Earth; when we visit medieval castles and recognize that people have trod these thoroughfares many times before us, and then that others will come after and walk the same paths we have walked, we’re confronted by the one subject that we do not like to face. It’s much more attractive to listen to the pundits who tell us that the world as we know it is going to go on forever; that’s why we have to pay so much attention to looking after it, after all, “It’s all we’ve got. Don’t mess it up. It’s the only thing we have,” and indeed all of our prizes and all of our successes will be able to follow as likewise. Hardly surprising that these things should be prevalent in our day because the very seduction of humanity that is recorded for us in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis points to this very thing, and if you’ll turn for just a moment to Genesis 3, let me show you exactly what I mean by that.

Men and women today are seduced into thinking that we won’t really die and that we will go on forever. Where did this strange notion appear from? Well, we’re told in Genesis 3. When the evil one, Satan, the serpent, comes and tests and tempts the couple in the Garden of Eden, he says in verse 1, in response to the affirmation of the statements made by God, “Hey, did God really say you must not eat from any tree in the garden? Is this something God really said?”[2] And you can see that that same strategy has run down through time, even to our very day where, surrounding the message of Advent, as with other Christian celebrations, we will find continuous and frequent references within various publications which will essentially simply ask the question, “Do you really think that God said this? Do you really believe that God has spoken in this way?” thus challenging the conviction of faith. And in the woman’s affirmation of God’s statement comes the further response of the evil one. It says, Eve to the serpent, “God did say,” in verse 3, “you mustn’t eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you mustn’t touch it, or you will die.” Then comes the response, “You will not surely die … you will be like God.”[3] And in the last decade, there has been a quite dramatic flowering of interest in death and dying—despite the fact that it is a taboo subject—and a tremendous body of literature and theory which has blossomed under this very heading here from Genesis 3: the notion “You will not surely die—you will be like God,” a sort of pantheistic idea, whereby God is everything, and we are part of everything, and therefore, somehow or another, we are God; and we have found ourselves, as it were, caught up in some strange, mythological way with immortality. And yet, reality slaps us on the face, hits us with a stark and stirring, crushing blow. Old age, the onset of illness, strips away all of our illusions of immortality. Every funeral procession that catches us in our rearview mirror is a reminder to us of the fact that all of these pagan mythologies have no basis or substance to them at all, and indeed if we are to find any answer for this issue of death, we must, indeed, look somewhere else.

And so it is with great joy that we’re able to turn to the pages of Holy Scripture and find that it is absolutely full of this victorious message of how an individual may face death and may be victorious over it. And as we said two weeks ago, it is foolish, really, to spend all of our life trying to learn how to live when we have never settled the issue of learning how to die, and we went further to suggest that until we have learned how to die, then we could never really learn how to live. And it is within the framework of our studies in Joseph, and particularly in looking at the death here of his father, that we’re confronted by this matter once again.

Jacob Knew When He Was Leaving

Now we said three things of Jacob, one of which we gave time to and left two behind. We said that Jacob knew when he was leaving. Now we noted that he didn’t know exactly when he was leaving, but we saw that there were certain pointers which are experienced in many people’s life which pointed to the fact of his demise. We then said that we would pick it up at our next point, which is where we now find ourselves.

Jacob Knew What He Was Asking

Not only did Jacob know when he was leaving, but he knew what he asking—he knew what he was asking. And his requests are largely twofold as you’re about to discover: He is concerned, first of all, about his burial; and he is concerned, secondly, about the blessing which he is about to bestow upon his posterity, and particularly upon his grandchildren through Joseph.

So, will you notice with me his concern then, first of all, about the place of his burial? And notice this—you may actually want to write this if you’re taking notes—Jacob’s concern for the location of his burial is not primarily about geography, but it is about theology. It’s not about geography, it’s about theology, and let me unpack that for you, and explain what I mean. Chapter 47 and verse 30 reads as follows: “Do not bury me in Egypt, but when I rest with my fathers, carry me out of Egypt and bury me where they are buried.” Very straightforward request born of what? Simply a concern for tidiness on the part of Jacob? “After all, that’s where the family plot is, and don’t let me get it out of sync; put me in the same place.” No. Is it driven by the fact that he really didn’t enjoy Egypt and wanted to be removed from it as quickly as possible? Certainly not, because the record provided for us of his final seventeen years of life enjoyed within the framework of Egypt are wonderful years. After all, he had lived for all that time thinking that his boy Joseph was dead to him, and now he is alive and he’s enjoyed his company. And a very embittered and disruptive kind of family life, especially in the early days, has known at least a semblance of harmony and purpose during these years lived in the wonderful provision of God under the hand of Pharaoh and within the framework of Joseph’s headship in Egypt—and the days have been wonderful. So, if it is not simply a desire for tidiness, and if it is not in reaction to perhaps a bitter and unhappy experience in Egypt, why then would Jacob be so concerned to be buried back in Canaan? That’s the question. Here’s the answer.

Jacob recognized that as in his life, so in his death, he was making a statement about his place in the unfolding plan and purpose of God’s covenant relationship with his people.

Jacob recognized that as in his life, so in his death, he was making a statement about his place in the unfolding plan and purpose of God’s covenant relationship with his people. Now, that may seem like a mouthful to some of you just now, but stay with me, and I’ll try and make clear what that actually means. Jacob wanted to ensure that his family after him would be fully aware of the fact that they did not belong in the land of Egypt—they did not belong in the land of Egypt; they belonged somewhere else. And the reason that they belonged somewhere else was not simply as a result of geographical ties, nor as a result of nationalistic fervor, but it was actually as a result of God’s sovereign purpose over all of time: that he had reached down into time and laid his hand upon Abraham and promised to Abraham that he would become the father of a great nation. This was fairly stretching for Abraham insofar as he was already an elderly man, and his body was as good as dead, and his wife was past childbearing age.[4] And so Abraham had nowhere to go and nothing to go on except in obedience to the promise of God, and stepping out in obedience to God’s promise, he had forged his way in life, and God had established with him this promise of his provision, passed through his son Isaac and on, then, into the life of Jacob. And so as Jacob gets near to the end of his days, he wants to ensure that those who follow after him will be absolutely clear about this.

If you recall—and I’ve mentioned this to you before, but it is such a forcible illustration of the same kind of thing—if you recall in Fiddler on the Roof when the father sings about tradition, and as he bounces all across the hayloft there, and as he stops every so often and makes certain statements regarding tradition, at one point he stops and he says, “Tradition teaches us who we are and what God expects of us.”[5] “Teaches us who we are …” and you see, Jacob needed his boys and his grandchildren to know who they were.

Do you know who you are this morning? Well you say, “Well, I know my name; I know my social security number.” Yes, but do you know who you are? Or do you live with that sense of alienation that is almost palpable in our contemporary culture, that sense of facelessness, that sense of emptiness and meaninglessness that is all wrapped up in this transient human experience? And you have a sneaking suspicion that no one knows who you are, no one cares who you are; that you were born without reason, you will die by chance, and you will enter into oblivion. And it is small wonder, then, that you find yourself quaking at the prospect of the jangling of the keychain of the undertaker.

But Jacob knew who he was: He was Israel. He had encountered God; he’d been wrestled to the ground by God. He had come in all the fullness of his strength, in Genesis 32, and he’d had his hip displaced so that he had limped for the rest of his life, so that his boy and his boys would look and say, “Well, there’s yet another mark upon my father.” “And now,” says Jacob, “when you bury me, make sure you put me in the right place, not because I’m concerned about geography, but because I’m concerned about theology. I’m concerned that my grandchildren will know who they are. I’m concerned that they will understand the commitment which God has made to his covenant people in promising to them the land of Canaan.”[6] Genesis 46:3–4: before Jacob, you remember, goes down into Egypt to be reunited with Joseph, God speaks to him in a vision at night. And in verse 3 he says, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there.” Can you imagine? I mean, just try and put yourself inside Jacob’s head for a moment. Here he’s got about seventy or seventy-five people, a few carts and bits and pieces, he’s just discovered that his boy’s still alive, and as he’s trying to make sense of all of that, and as he gathers up his bits and pieces and the carts that have been sent from Egypt, and as he faces the prospect of this reunion, God meets with him in a vision, and he says, “I am going to make you a great nation down in Egypt.”[7] And he must’ve looked around and thought about his sons and all the rebellion and all the chaos of them and said, “Out of this you would make a great nation—out of this?” And what did he have to go on? He had nothing to go on except the strength of the covenant promise of God: “I’m going to do this. And not only should you not be afraid to go down, but I want you to know that I will go down to Egypt with you”—and here’s the crucial phrase—“I will surely bring you back again.”[8] “I will surely bring you back again.” And written into the very center of Jacob’s being was this faithful statement of God, what he was going to do; and so he gets his son near him and he says, “Now listen, this is how we’re going to do this, and these are my instructions for my funeral: I am not to be buried in Egypt. Take me out of here and take me there.”[9]

And so look at chapter 50 and a quite wonderful and dramatic description of this funeral procession. You see, nothing could make the point more forcibly that he and his family did not belong in Egypt than to hold his funeral in the land of God’s promise, and in verse 7, we read that Joseph went up to bury his father. And he didn’t go alone, in fact it was quite a company. All Pharaoh’s officials accompanied him—that would be quite a crew, you must imagine—and the dignitaries of his court and all the dignitaries of Egypt, besides all the members of Joseph’s household and his brothers and those belonging to his father’s household. The only thing they left behind were the children and their flocks and their herds, but they took with them chariots and horsemen, and “it was,” says verse 9, “a very large company.”

Those of you who remember the funeral of Winston Churchill—was it 1964?—and you can recall the scenes that were carried around the world as the procession went down the mall heading for Buckingham Palace. I’ve never seen anything like it before nor since. It was the great funeral to end all funerals. Horses and chariots and carriages and soldiers and dignitaries and everyone in the world was there that could be there. That’s the picture here; that’s the picture! This thing would’ve been covered CNN, C-Span, BBC, NBC, ABC—everything was there.

And verse 10, “When they reached the threshing floor of Atad, near the Jordan,” these who had been brought to lament, “lamented loudly and bitterly; and they observed the seven-day period of mourning for the father,” and look at this, verse 11: “When the Canaanites who lived there saw the mourning at the threshing floor of Atad, they said, ‘The Egyptians are holding a solemn ceremony of mourning.’” They didn’t understand, and frankly, the Egyptians didn’t understand either. The pagans, you see, will never really understand when the believers deal with death the way the Bible says we ought to deal with it. But the pagans will never be nonplussed when we simply deal with death in the exact same way as the world deals with death, when our funeral services are the same subdued little occasions, when they happen in the same funny little places, when we go through the same little routines and give out the same little sheets, and we miss a classic opportunity to say, in our dying, “We are not like you. And it’s not because of anything we have done; we have been made radically different. Thanks be to God he has given us victory in the Lord Jesus Christ![10] We’re not going into oblivion. We’re not in this box. We’re gone.” You know, I’m going to have a sign—if they have one of those boxes, I’m going to have a sign that says, “Not here. Look somewhere else.” You know, I mean there’s no way you’re coming peering at me and poking at me when they get me cold and dusty. I’ll close that thing up. I’ve got that taken care of already, and I, frankly, don’t want to see you. You don’t look that good as it is. Why would you look good then? I’ll get a few letters for that. I apologize in advance; send them. But the fact is, that’s not the issue.

Joseph’s wealth, the Egyptians’ ability at embalming, made the expensive journey a practicable one. And there in the family tomb in the cave of Machpelah, Jacob is laid to rest, and in being laid to rest he teaches a new generation that it is only a matter of time before this man’s descendants return to claim their possessions also. That’s what he was saying when he said, “Bury me in Canaan. I want everyone to understand where we do not belong and where we belong, lest they become comfortable belonging somewhere they don’t belong and find that all of their joy and all of their expectation, then, is tied to this locale.”[11] Isn’t that the temptation for us as believers? To live in the world and to become of the world; to become friends of the world and enemies with God; to like it so much here—our successes and our finance and our opportunities and all these different things—that we bear scant difference to any who are around us?

It is an opportunity for the Christian to proclaim that the King of Heaven has come to down to earth and made a radical difference.

There should be, for us as believers, that about our approach to death in every dimension certain things that leave no doubt in the minds of the watching world that we understand that death is not oblivion, that it is not entry to a realm where no voice can be heard and no smile can be seen. Rather, for the believer, it is to be reunited with our loved ones. It is an opportunity for the Christian to proclaim that the King of Heaven has come to down to earth and made a radical difference.

Have I told you before of the most dramatic funeral that I’ve been involved in since being here these last thirteen‑some years? Down there in the Berlin area in Amish country, down further south—Millersburg area? And going down on the evening when the news has just broken of the—from a human prospective—premature death of a young man in his early forties and getting out of the car and closing the door slowly and breathing a silent prayer, “O Lord, please help when I go in here to say something sensible and to be of some measure of help to these people,” little did I realize that all the help was coming my way and none was coming from me. In through the front door and taken immediately down into the basement of this family home—a beautifully laid out basement—and to be confronted by a circle of chairs and the father and the mother and the aunts and the uncles and the brothers and the sisters and the cousins all gathered around, and all with hymnbooks. “The pastor has come,” they said, “let us sing.” And they started to sing, and we must have sung for thirty-five or forty-five minutes continuously, with the children and the grandchildren and the nieces and the nephews calling out their favorite hymns. And I was awestruck by it. And on the day of the burial itself—dramatic! As those Amish carts pulled up, and different people from the surrounding communities came, and as we walked up through that graveyard out to the hillside where the grave had actually been dug in part by the family themselves; and there was no running away from the coffin, no putting it on those cords and running to get your car out and get up the freeway and imagine that they never put it in the hole, you know, that it’s just what we like just to remember it, like that. None of that escapist stuff—no! They put the coffin right in the ground right there and then, and the members of the family, the children themselves, took shovels and gathered the dirt which they had previously raised on the outside of the hole and poured it in on the coffin of the loved one who was gone. And as they shoveled the dirt in, they sang hymns of praise. And the watching world said, “Whoa! Now this is something different.” Either these people have completely lost their minds, or they have been brought into a dimension of life which is alien to the pagan world. And the Bible says, the latter is the case.

In the issues of life and in the issues of death, in the great crossroads of human experience, Christianity must make a difference.

You see, in the issues of life and in the issues of death, in the great crossroads of human experience, Christianity must make a difference. Otherwise, we find ourselves on the wrong side of the equation; as Paul says, “If Christ be not risen, then we are of all men most miserable” because we are propping up a dreadful mythology, but he says, “Christ has indeed risen from the dead.”[12] Therefore, where and how we’re buried says something.

Now, if I may just unpack this a little further, when Christianity speaks to this issue, it proclaims that God, in Christ, has come down from heaven in order that a number of things might happen. This segues us into a little Advent message within, you know, the larger message. So, for those of you who, you know, came wanting a Thanksgiving message, I told you that you ought to be thankful for the resurrection; and those of you who came wanting an Advent message, here is your Advent message—and I have five points for you in your own Advent message, alright?

Why did Jesus Christ come? He came to deliver us from our sins. He didn’t come to have us set up camels and donkeys and stuff in the public square. Don’t get sidetracked by that stuff. He came to deliver us from our sins. You see, the devil loves it when we start all that stuff, using all our energy, and all our time, worrying about whether we have a nativity scene and a nativity scene there, as if somehow or another Jesus came to establish nativity scenes. He came to deliver us from our sins, but all the time that we’re talking about establishing nativity scenes, we’ll never be telling the people that need to know that Jesus Christ came to deliver them from their sins. “Where do you get that from?” You get it from 1 John 3:5, it says it right in the Bible: “You know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins.” “Why did Jesus come?” says somebody. “You say you’re a Christian. You believe that Christmas is coming around. Well, can you tell me why Jesus came?” Yes, you can, 1 John 3:5—take your New Testament to work and turn it up. It says it right here: “He appeared so that he might take away sins.” “Anything else?” says the person. “Yes, I have a second one for you, just a few verses down in verse 8: ‘The devil has been sinning from the beginning, but the reason the Son of God appeared’—that sounds like an explanation for Christmas—‘the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.’”

Thirdly, the reason the Son of God appeared was in order that the books of heaven might be cleared. Do you have any debt anywhere? On a credit card, in a bank, somewhere you’ve got debt, and you look forward to the day when the debt would be cleared. The most awful debt of all is one that compounds itself as you go along, and what the Bible says is that we are indebted to God by virtue of our sins, but that the reason that God has come in the Lord Jesus Christ is so, in Hebrews 10:17, “that our sins and our lawless acts may be remembered no more.” In other words, that our debt may be canceled, that we may not have to live with the burden of our guilt. Now, you see, this is good news for people.

When I was a younger guy in Scotland and on Sunday afternoons, my father used to play these dreadful LPs on our little stereo … He used to put five and six on at a time and immediately go to sleep, and I stayed awake and had to endure it, and the only thing that would wake him up was if you turned the volume down; and so you had to keep the volume up to keep him asleep, but when you kept the volume up, then you had to listen to the thing. But in the course of that, I learned a lot of songs that I didn’t really think I was interested in, and one of them went like this:

There was a time on earth,
When in the books of heaven
An old account was standing
Of sins yet unforgiven;
My name was at the top,
And many deeds below,
And I went unto the keeper
And I settled it long ago.
Long ago, (down on my knees) …
Yes, the old account was settled long ago;
And the record’s clear today,
’Cause he washed my sins away,
And the old account is settled long ago.[13]

You see, so many people in a quest for religious experience—good, nice, clean‑fingernailed, starch‑collared, middle class American people—are afraid to go to sleep with the lights out or with the radio off ’cause you need the light and you need the voice, for you’re frightened that it may be last light or the last voice you ever see or hear because you carry with you a great debt of sin, and your account stands against you. And no matter what you have endeavored to do to wipe the record clean, you cannot do it. And that is where death holds its terror. So surely it is good news if there is one who has come, who by his death upon the cross would take and bear the brunt of all of our sin and of our rebellion, and by his blood would actually cleanse the record of all of my sin and my rebellion. That’s the message of the gospel; that’s actually the message of Christmas.

Also, that he came in order that he might deliver us from every fear: the fear of judgment, the fear of the law, a servile fear of God, the fear of death itself—we noted that last time. “Since … children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity.”[14] Why did Jesus come, why did he share in their humanity? We’re told. You don’t have to guess of what Christmas is about: “so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death— that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”[15]

And he came in order to make us ready to live in his presence: 1 John 3:2, that “now [we are] the [children] of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be” —or what will be has not yet been made known—“but we know that, when he appears we will be like him for we will see him as he is.” “When he appears we will be like him for we will see him as he is.” When I die, I will be like him for I see him as he is. So the question about whether I get cremated, whether I die in a plane, whether I die in the ocean, whether I get buried in a box, or whatever it is, all of those things that I get letters and concerns about—and they’re justifiable concerns—they’re not really the issue. People ask me, “Do you think it’s okay to do this or is it okay to do that?” As I’ve searched the Bible, I can’t find any normative way of disposing with the dead that is actually laid down for Christians, so therefore it becomes, for us, a matter of conscience. What we can say with emphasis is this: that the Bible’s emphasis is on the change to which the Christian looks forward, a dramatic, visible transformation that is not tied to the state of our bodies at the time of burial but is tied to the believer’s union with Christ in God, for he alone has immortality, and he alone can bestow eternal life.

I think it was Evie years ago used to sing a little song that went, “Anybody here want to live forever, say ‘I do.’”[16] Anyone remember that song? “Anybody here want to live forever, say ‘I do.’” Okay, two people remember it; very good. I’m sure she made a lot of money off that song. But if you ask people, they all want to live forever when it comes to the crunch. The question is, “How?” The Bible is clear. John 17:2–3: “For you granted him” —that is Jesus— “authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” You see, everybody everywhere is basing their hope of eternity on something—basing their destiny on the forlorn dream that there is nothing, when deep in their heart they know there is. And some who are here this morning have never come to a personal, living faith in Jesus Christ, have never settled the issue of this great taboo subject of death, actually live tyrannized by it. You don’t have to. So why do you? Would you not just trust in Christ? Would you not just cast yourself upon him and say, “Lord, I don’t trust myself to anything or anyone else. I trust myself only to you, who is the one who came to give eternal life.”

“Now,” you say, “we’re a long way from Jacob.” No, we’re not, actually, because Jacob gave these striking instructions to affirm, as I said to you before, the radical difference between the people of God and the surrounding cultures. The Egyptians had become expert at saving the carcass, but they knew nothing about dealing with the soul. And if you’ve seen on the Discovery Channel lately, these people, I think it’s called the “Cryonic People” —cryonics, I think, is what it’s called—where they’re storing you in these big metal tubes at subzero temperatures, and they’re hoping for a day when they’re going to be able to bring you back out again and, you know if you don’t like your head, they can put someone else’s head on it and, and they’ll recreate you. Well-meaning people spending vast sums of money on total futility and stupidity, because even at the best of it, it doesn’t answer the essential questions of life: Who am I? Where am I from? Where do I go when I die? What happens next? And to that, Jacob stands as a radiant and classic testimony.

Jacob was revealing to his posterity the fact that God had plans and purposes for them. He was declaring again his faith in the certainty of God’s promises.

So, you see, he knew what he was asking when he asked about where he was going to be buried. And he also knew what he was asking—let me just mention this to you—when he was concerned about the blessing of his grandchildren. It is interesting that the context, once again, is God’s prior promise to him. In Genesis 48:4: “I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you.” That was the promise, and so when Jacob blesses his grandsons, and when he crosses his hands to the head of Ephraim who is to become the head of the whole twelve tribes, this was not a formality. And indeed, when the writer of the Hebrews describes an incident from the life of Jacob that is representative of his faith, what does he describe? He describes this. He doesn’t describe him wrestling with the angel in Genesis 32, he doesn’t describe his journey back into Egypt, this is what he says: “By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff.”[17] Is that really such a big deal? Yes, it is, because once again in this incident, Jacob was revealing to his posterity the fact that God had plans and purposes for them. He was declaring again his faith in the certainty of God’s promises. He was convinced that the land promised to him would be given to him and to his descendants, and his blessing upon these boys was only significant if God’s word proved true. If we’d gone, for example, to Jacob and said him, “Jacob how do you feel about this blessing? I mean do you feel it’s going to happen?” I think Jacob would’ve said, “I’m sorry I don’t even understand that question. How I feel is actually an irrelevancy. God said it’s going to happen. My fluctuating feelings do not alter that one way or another. It’s going to happen, so I blessed the boys, and the boys will live in the benefit of it.”

People come to me and say, “You know I have a problem. I don’t feel forgiven.” I say, “Well, did God promise in his Word that he would forgive you?” “Yes.” “Have you come to God in repentance and faith and confessed your sins?” “Yes.” “Well then, frankly, how you feel is a secondary matter in relationship to the fulfillment of the promises of God. God said he promised to forgive you; therefore, you are forgiven, whether you feel it or whether you don’t.” I used to go through it with my children, they would wake me up at night and say that they’d said their prayers, but they didn’t necessarily feel that they’d been forgiven of their sins. So what do you do, turn music on for them? Sing songs to them, try and create an atmosphere in which they feel it? No. You affirm for them the promises of God’s Word. And when Jacob says, “Hey, give me these boys here on my knee” and he takes his hands and he pronounces the blessing of God on them, this is no mere formality. He is declaring to all who watch and listen, “These are the truths concerning God from generation to generation.” Fathers and grandfathers, the blessings that we bring to bear upon our children and our children’s children will emerge from the core convictions of our lives, and all who truly walk with God know that, irrespective of any financial or material benefit that may be conveyed from one generation to another, there is only one lasting blessing that really matters, and that is the blessing of God’s continued abundant provision upon those who are his covenant‑keeping family.

Jacob Knew Where He Was Going

Now I have one final point; I’ll just make it and we’ll conclude. I said, first of all, that he knew when he was going, he knew what he was asking, and, finally, he knew where he was going—he knew where he was going. Genesis 49:29, and with this we draw it to a close: “Then he gave them these instructions: ‘I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave ….’” Now I want you to notice carefully the way the verse reads. The reunion that he anticipates with his people is not created by his burial in the family plot. The reunion does not come to fruition because of where he gets placed. The burial in the family plot is at best simply symbolic of a reunion which has already taken place. You see, Jacob knew that he would’ve already been gathered to his people before they managed make the journey [from] Egypt and bury him the cave. Jacob was going to take his place in the family mausoleum with Abraham and Isaac, and he would be marked and sealed for posterity in that way, and the record would be written so that we can refer to it this morning, but the great truth about Jacob was that he wasn’t there—he was gone. He was already gathered to his people.

Death holds no fear for the Christian; what we fear most we don’t experience. To be absent from our body is to be present with the Lord.

You see, death holds no fear for the Christian; what we fear most we don’t experience. To be absent from our body is to be present with the Lord.[18] We cannot be separated from the love of God. So actually the location of our burial, and I thought about this last week when I was in Britain, and as I drove past without mentioning it to anybody, the plot where my family is buried, and I said to myself, “What do I really believe about this? Do I really need to get shipped from America over here? Does it matter that much to me anymore? And why does it matter?” Well, it matters for sentimental reasons, it matters for emotional reasons, but it doesn’t matter for theological reasons. And when I think about it theologically, then I say, “Put me anywhere you want to put me because I am not going to be there.” And neither will you. That, you see, is the significance of the Scottish folk song:

By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes
Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond
Where me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.
For you’ll take the high road and I’ll take the low road,
And I’ll be in Scotland afore you.[19]

What’s that all about? It’s about two Scottish prisoners held in an English jail and the song is penned the night before one is to be hanged and the other is to be released, and the one who is to be hanged will reach Scotland by the low road of death before the one who is to be released will reach Scotland by means of the journey on foot or horseback. And the one who is about to be released feels bad for the one who’s about to be hanged, and the one who’s about to be hanged says, “Don’t feel bad for me,” ’cause “you’ll take the high road and I’ll take the low road and I’ll be in Scotland before you!” Now that’s marginal in comparison to this, but this is the issue of death for the Christian: “Don’t cry for me.”

Now, is this your faith? Is this your faith this morning? Do you live with a sense of fear? Can I ask you a question—just two questions—and I’m done? If you died tonight, would you go to Heaven? Do you know? And secondly, how do you know that you won’t die tonight? Now if your answer is anything less than “Yes” to question one, and since you cannot answer categorically to question two, are you prepared simply to throw the dice for another time? For another day? Another bedtime? Another week? Another plane flight? And since you’re gonna base your hope of your destiny on something, I say to you again, why not—why not cast yourself on the strength and authority of this Book? After all, it has stood the test of time. Cast yourself on the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only one who has walked through death and come out on the other side. Why live your life on the basis of mythology and pagan superstition? Why in the world would you ever do this? I’ll tell you why: because your eyes are blinded by the evil one, and you cannot see the truth of the gospel. Therefore you need to cry to God, “Take the scales off my eyes so that I can see that I ought to be really afraid of death ’cause I have no hope beyond it, and then come to me and show me the wonder of your Son the Lord Jesus Christ in whom I can have forgiveness and my record wiped clean. And then place within my heart the assurance and hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who will change our earthly body that it may be ‘like unto his glorious body,’ according to his mighty working ‘whereby he is able … to subdue all things’—even death—‘unto himself.’”[20]

Jacob says, “Hey, I’ll be leaving soon; get it ready. Secondly, I don’t want buried here; I want buried over there. And thirdly, when I put my feet up on the end of the bed and go, realize this: I’ve been gathered to my people.”[21] Is that your faith? Your hope? Your assurance? That was the Pilgrims’ message. That was the conviction on the Mayflower. Those were the celebrations for those who were lost in the early cruel winters.

Let’s bow in a moment of prayer:

Father, we thank you that we’re not left to stumble and bumble around, but that you’ve given your Word to us. We thank you for the vast heritage which is ours in this place as a result of those who, through the years, have known that they were leaving and where they were going and knew what they were asking—and they’ve asked aright, and we have become the beneficiaries of their gracious testimony of faithfulness. We bless you for all the saints who now rest from their labors, who spoke to us the Word of Life; we revere their memory. And we pray that more than that we may too, in our day, grant such blessing, and live in the light of such truth, that generations yet unborn will arise and bless and praise you as a result of our journey on the path of faith. Hear our prayer; for Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.


[1] 1 Corinthians 15:57 (NIV 1984).

[2] Genesis 3:1 (paraphrased).

[3] Genesis 3:4–5 (paraphrased).

[4] See Romans 4:19.

[5] Norman Jewison, dir. Fiddler on the Roof. Beverly Hills, CA: United Artists, 1971 (paraphrased).

[6] Genesis 49:29–32 (paraphrased).

[7] Genesis 46:3 (paraphrased).

[8] Genesis 46:4 (NIV 1984).

[9] Genesis 49:29–32 (paraphrased).

[10] 1 Corinthians 15:57 (paraphrased).

[11] Genesis 49:29–32 (paraphrased).

[12] 1 Corinthians 15:19–20 (paraphrased).

[13] Frank M. Graham, “The Old Account Was Settled Long Ago” (1902) (paraphrased).

[14] Hebrews 2:14 (NIV 1984).

[15] Hebrews 2:14 (NIV 1984).

[16] Evie Karlsson, “Say I Do” (1980).

[17] Hebrews 11:21 (NIV 1984).

[18] 2 Corinthians 5:8 (paraphrased).

[19] Traditional Scottish Folk Song, “The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond.”

[20] Philippians 3:21 (paraphrased).

[21] Genesis 49:29–32 (paraphrased).

Thankfulness: A Mark of Grace
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