WHAT SHALL I DO IN THE HOUR OF MY DEATH?
Dr. W.A. Criswell
4-04-66 12:00 p.m.
And thank you Lee Roy for that beautiful song. I just wonder what would happen had there been one more stanza and he had raised it one more note. And bless you for coming to begin this forty-seventh year of our annual pre-Easter services. The radio and the television and our newspapers have asked us, "The Palace Theater is only forty-four years old. And you say that you have been conducting these services forty-seven years. What did you do before there was a Palace Theater?"
Well, forty-seven years ago the world famed and illustrious pastor of the First Baptist Church, Dr. George W. Truett, began these pre-Easter services in the old Jefferson Theater located about a block down the street. And he conducted them there for about three years. Then when this theater was built, the first year it was open, they moved the services to the Palace. And ever since there has been a Palace Theater, these services have been conducted in this spacious auditorium. Dr. Truett conducted them for twenty-seven consecutive years, and this is the twenty-second year that it has been my high privilege to share in these meaningful hours.
Now, they are dedicated to our busy people downtown and to any other friend far or near who would choose to worship with us. But everybody understands that mostly it is a busy lunch hour, and when you have to leave, be at liberty to do so. Don’t hesitate or feel constrained to stay. If it’s in the middle of this message, if it’s one sentence before the end, if you can’t stay but five minutes, come, stay as long as you can and leave when you must. And everybody will understand and most of all will I.
The theme for the Palace services this week is "What Shall I Do?" Tomorrow, What Shall I Do In the First Five Minutes of Eternity? Wednesday, the next day, What Shall I Do at the Judgment Bar of Almighty God? Thursday, What Shall I Do With My Sins? And Friday, What Shall I Do With Jesus Which Is Called Christ? And the beginning message today is one of the most pertinent I think that any individual soul will ever face, What Shall I Do in the Hour of My Death? In the last verse of the ninth chapter of the Book of Hebrews, "It is appointed unto men once to die, and after that the judgment" [Hebrews 9:27].
The sentence of death has been passed by the Lord God Almighty upon every life. The Lord said in the beginning story in Genesis, "In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" [Genesis 2:17]. And our first parents died in their souls that day [Genesis 3:1-6]. And they died in their bodies in the day of the Lord. For Peter says that the day of God, a day in God’s calendar is a thousand years [2 Peter 3:8]. And it is an unusual thing that these patriarchs of the long ago who lived to such an ancient age, not one of them ever lived beyond that day of the Lord. Adam died at the age of nine hundred thirty years [Genesis 5:5]. Methuselah, the oldest of all, died at the age of nine hundred sixty-nine years [Genesis 5:27]. But no one ever lived beyond the day of the Lord. "In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" [Genesis 2:17]. And from that hour in Eden until this, the tomb has become the king of terrors.
The day of our death is set. It is appointed; it is known unto God. In the fourteenth chapter of Job, it reads, "Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not [Job 14:1-2]. His days are determined, the number of his months are with God, and God hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass" [Job 14: 5]. The ninetieth Psalm says, "We spend our days as a tale that is told" [Psalm 90:9]. God sees the end from the beginning. In Ecclesiastes the third chapter, the first verse it says, "There is a time to be born, there is a time to die" [Ecclesiastes 3:1-2]. And the day of our death is appointed by the sovereign elective choice of God. And when that day comes we shall die. There is no man who has power to change that rendezvous with the king of terrors. As the Book of Ecclesiastes says again, "There is no man that hath power over his spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death: and there is no discharge in that war" [Ecclesiastes 8:8]. However a man may fear, or however he may war against that heavenly decision, when the time comes for a man to die, he shall die. And that appointment is set by the Lord God in heaven.
King Ahab was told by Micaiah the prophet, "You go up to Ramoth Gilead and you shall die." And King Ahab said, "Take this fellow and put him in prison, and feed him bread of affliction and water of affliction, until I come in triumph and in victory." And Micaiah said, "If you come back alive at all, God hath not spoken" [1 Kings 22:13-28]. Ahab disguised himself, he covered himself beneath his clothing with solid armor. He took off his kingly raiment and put on the raiment of a peasant. And in that battle, the Bible says a man drew back his bow at a venture without aiming and let loose the arrow. And the arrow found a joint in the harness of Ahab and entered his heart, and his blood and his life crimsoned the floor of the chariot [1 Kings 22:29-38]. When God says a man shall die, he shall die.
One of the ancient, one of the legends of the Arabic world is this: the servant of a master in Bozrah came hurriedly into the house and kneeling before the master said, "Oh, master, I met Death on the street of Bozrah, and he looked at me, and I’m terrified. Master, may I have your fleetest horse that I may escape to Baghdad?" And in deference to the terror of his servant, the master gave him the fleetest horse that he might escape to Baghdad.
The next day the master saw Death on the street of Bozrah, and said to him, "Why did you terrify my servant so?"
And Death replied, "Why, sir, I did not mean to terrify him. I was merely surprised to see him here in Bozrah, for I have an appointment with him tomorrow in Baghdad!"
No man shall escape that rendezvous. There is no discharge from that engagement. And the breath of our lives is but a moment. As the psalmist cried, "Behold, Thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before Thee: verily every man at his best estate — in his strongest manhood, and in his finest health is," and it’s translated here, "altogether vanity" [Psalm 39:5]. The Hebrew says it’s but a breath. Our life verily is but a breath. That is why that so many times – we read in the tragic story of a Hollywood star, she took her life, a suicide, unable to face the withering away of youth, and beauty, and glory. And that is a symbol of modern society refusing to face the harsh, stark reality of our death.
In the years past and in the days past, in the generations and centuries past, mortality, death was constantly brought before the mind of man. Every day centuries ago, a slave of the ruler of Macedon, King Philip, said to the great ruler, "Remember, thou must die." When you read the great dramas and epics, the great poetry of the generations past, so much of it in Greece, in Rome, in Elizabethan England had to do with the tragedy of death; the great stories and tragedies and epics of a Euripides, or an Aeschylus, or a Sophocles, or a Virgil, or of a Shakespeare. But today, all of that is studiously and studiedly avoided. Some of these art critics point out to us that in the last twenty years there has not appeared a major novel or a major drama that has in it the death of a major character. One of the great world famed newspapers of the earth has interdicted the word "death" from any of its columns.
Dr. Benjamin Spock advises and counsels these parents always to gloss over the fact of death with our children, and the modern cemetery looks like a Greek classical garden or park; all of which but points up the vacuity, the sterile emptiness of the modern secularists and materialists. They say and they boast, "We are realists," and they decline to face reality. They purport to have found the abundant life, and they live in a miasma of excess, and alcohol, and pleasure; the opiate of the self deluded. They avow to us that, "we have broken away from the shackles and the chains of theological conceptions." And they are bound down by indescribable weights and stocks of fear and not knowing. They have a faÃ§ade of bravery, but underneath they cower before the inevitable fortunes of life. And even when they speak of death, they do so in words of infinite despair.
The silver-tongued orator of the last century, Robert Ingersoll, at the grave of his brother said, and I quote:
Life is a narrow veil between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights.
We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry.
["The Life and Immortality of Man," p78, P. Eckler, 1898]
And one of our contemporaries, the mathematician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell said, "I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my body or life will remain." This is modern existentialist philosophy which is so fashionable today, which is nothing other than a repercussion of the infidelity of the hedonistic abandonment that Paul referred to when he quoted in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, "Let us eat, and let us drink, let us be merry; for tomorrow we die and rot" [1 Corinthians15:32]. That is modern philosophy.
How different when we turn to the incomparably glorious faith of the Son of God, the Christian hope and the evangel, the good news, of God’s victory over death and the grave? [1 Corinthians 15:51-57]. Why, my friend, the very words Nain, and Jairus, and Lazarus, and Golgotha bring to our minds historical allusions of the glorious power of our Lord Christ over this king of terrors. He referred to death as a sleep from which by the power of God He would raise us up [Daniel 12:2, John 5:28-29]. When they brought to Him the tragedy of the death of a little twelve year old girl, the daughter of Jairus, He said, "Why, the maid is not dead, she sleeps." And He took her by the hand and raised her up by the power of God [Matthew 9:18-19, 24-25].
And He said of His friend Lazarus, "Our friend Lazarus sleepeth, but I go, that I may awake him" [John 11:11]. And He spake the word, "Lazarus, come forth." And he that had been dead and in corruption four days was raised from the dead by the power of God [John 11: 43-44]. Somebody said, "Why did He say, ‘Lazarus, come forth’?" And the answer was, "My brother, had He not called the name of Lazarus, the whole cemetery would have been raised and stepped out of their graves and out of the dust of the ground to meet their living and reigning Lord." And that nomenclature of the Lord Jesus, that we but sleep in the arms of God awaiting the resurrection of the dead, entered into all of the symbolism of the Christian religion. Church history records that the symbol most often found in first Christian centuries, the symbol most often found in the graves of the Christian is that of sleep.
In the catacombs, it is everywhere, if you’ve been there, everywhere to be seen; you see the pagan believed that when the body died and rotted, it had no mortality, it had no immortality, it had no future incorruption, and they burned the body, pagan Rome burned the body. It was refuse, but the Christian had been taught in the resurrection of the Lord that the body is precious, that the death of God’s saints is precious [Psalm 116:15], and that God shall raise up from the dead these who sleep in the dust of the earth [1 Corinthians 15:51-57, 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17]. So the Christians, violating the commandment of Rome, the Christians took their beloved dead and lovingly laid them away where nobody could see and nobody could know, and we call them the catacombs. There are more than seven million of those Christians buried underneath Rome itself, each one of which is a witness to the Christian faith in the resurrection of the dead. They but sleep, they shall live again in the power of God.
It is down in the very nomenclature, the very words that the Christian used. They used the word koimaō, to sleep. Just an ordinary Greek word, koimaō, to sleep. But they used it to die, and their word koimeterion, koimeterion, it’s a Greek word meaning a sleeping place. But to the Christian it referred to where their beloved dead were laid away. And when you take koimeterion in the English, we pronounce it cemetery. Cemetery is a Christian word. It means a sleeping place, awaiting the great resurrection day of our Lord. And when that hour of death comes, we are to be unafraid.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me" [Psalm 23:4]. [Psalm 48:14], "This God is our God for ever and ever: and He will guide us even unto death." The fifteenth of 1 Corinthians 15:55-57, "O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? Thanks be unto God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." There is no fear in the king of terrors to a Christian [1 Corinthians 15:55, 57].
I saw the martyr at the stake.
The flames could not his courage shake,
Nor death his soul appall.
I asked him whence his strength was given,
He looked triumphantly to heaven,
And answered, "Christ is all."
["Christ is All"; W.A. Williams]
In my reading the other day, I came across a letter of a German sailor to his mother, and this is what that lad wrote to his German mother.
If you should hear our cruiser has been sunk and that no one has been saved, Mother, do not weep. The sea in which my body sinks is also the hollow of the hand of my Savior from whom nothing can separate me.
In my senior year at Baylor, the president died just a few days before commencement. We were so disappointed, thinking he’d left no message. But while we sat there in Waco Hall waiting for our diplomas to be given out, the dean reached inside his coat pocket like that and drew out a piece of paper. It was a message from Samuel Palmer Brooks to the graduating class, and these are a few of those immortal words.
This, my message to the senior class of 1931, I address also to the seniors of all the years. I stand on the border of mortal life, but I face eternal life. My own faith as I approach eternity grows stronger day by day. The faith I have had in life is projected into the vast future toward which I travel now. I have no fear.
My brother, the hour of our death is to be our finest. Its to be a day of triumph and of victory, when the trumpets sound on the other side of the river and one of God’s children is gathered home. "For," as the great apostle said:
I am now ready to be offered up, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing.
[2 Timothy 4:6-8]
And again, for we know – we who love God" – For we know that if the earthly house of this tabernacle be dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." [2 Corinthians 5:1]. "For," he avowed, "for me to live is Christ, and to die is a gain" [Philippians 1:21]. If for me to live is the world, to die is a loss. If for me to live is pleasure, to die is a loss. If for me to live is sin, to die is a loss. If for me to live is money, to die is a loss. But if for me to live is Christ, to die is a gain, our finest hour.
I want to close with a reference to the old hymns our forefathers used to sing. Do you remember one?
My latest sun is sinking fast,
My race is nearly run;
My greatest trials now are past.
My triumph is begun.
O come, angels’ band,
Come and around me stand;
O bear me away on your snowy wings
To my eternal home;
O bear me away on your snowy wings
To my eternal home.
["My Latest Sun Is Sinking Fast," Jefferson Hascall, 1860]
O precious cross! O glorious crown!
O resurrection day!
The angels from the stars come down
And bear my soul away.
["Service and Brotherhood," T. Shepherd,1692]
To the Christian, the hour of his death is the hour of his greatest triumph. God bless us in the faith.
And our Lord send us away in the preciousness of that holy promise that if we suffer with Christ, we shall reign with Christ [2 Timothy 2:12]. If we die with Him, we shall also live with Him [2 Timothy 2:11]. And when that inevitable hour chosen of God comes for us all, may we meet the king of terrors with victory in our souls, with songs in our hearts, with that eager expectancy that looks beyond the grave and the tears of this life to the glories God hath prepared for those who love Him [1 Corinthians 2:9]. In His precious and saving name, amen.