Dying Well (Part 1)
It would be easy to write Deuteronomy 34 off as a throwaway chapter that had to be included to bring the story of Moses to a conclusion. Moses dies. That's it. Perhaps we approach the chapter with questions that we can’t really answered with certainty. For instance, "Did Moses write these words before he died or did someone else write them after he died? How did a 120-year-old hike up a mountain? How was Moses able to see the entire country from the top of Mount Pisgah? Where did God bury Moses?"
Both of these approaches--the throwaway and the trivializing--fail to do justice to God’s explanation of the Old Testament in the New Testament, that all Scripture is written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come (Romans 15:4; I Corinthians 10:11). The death of Moses was written for us not only because it happened, but to teach us. One of the most important things it teaches us is how to die by faith.
Christians speak often about living and walking by faith. We’re familiar with Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:7, “We walk by faith, not by sight,” and in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of god, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” But we don’t think much about dying by faith, although the author to the Hebrews speaks of it with regard to all the believing people of God who died before entering the Promised Land: “All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13).
Moses shows us how to die in faith in at least two ways. First, Moses dies believing the promise of God spoken to him again on Mount Nebo:
“This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’” (Deuteronomy 34:4)
Moses came as close as anyone did to receiving what was promised without actually receiving it. To be sure, by allowing him to see it, there is a sense in which God, according to Ancient Near Eastern custom, was giving it to Moses in title – it was legally his. But he never stepped foot in it, he never built a house or planted a garden in it. He died in faith, believing God’s promise that the offspring of Abraham whom he had shepherded from Egypt would receive the land as their own possession. He had to trust the Lord to fulfill His word to His people.
Moses not only died in faith with regard to God’s grand promise to all of His people, he also died in faith with regard to his own personal situation. Deuteronomy 34:7 tells us that Moses was 120 years old when he died, and that his eye was not dim and his vigor was not abated. Moses did not die of old age. He did not wear out, nor was he sick. He could have led the people into Canaan if God had wanted him to do so. Moses died because the Lord took him home, it was his time to go. Thus he had to trust the Lord and His ways with him individually. He had to trust that God was all-wise in the timing of his death.
Of course, the story is a bit more complicated than that. There's a reason why it was Moses’ time to die, and why he was not allowed into the Promised Land. The rationale is found in Deuteronomy 1:37; 3:23ff.; 4:21; and 32:48ff. God forbade Moses from entering into the land because of his sin, his outright disobedience when the people were complaining about their lack of water. God had commanded Moses to speak to the rock, but instead he struck it twice. He had irreverently failed to treat God’s name as holy, and had arrogantly and angrily implied that he would bring water out of the rock. For these sins, God’s kept His servant out of the land. Moses had to trust God, submitting to Him in the timing and wisdom and righteousness of His discipline.
In these ways, we too are called to die in faith. We are called to trust that the time God takes us home to be with Jesus is His appointed time, and that the time He appoints is best. We are not in the same situation as Moses in terms of being kept out of a physical (and typological) Promised Land because of our sin, although certainly throughout our lives (and perhaps even in our deaths, cf. I Corinthians 11:30-32), God’s fatherly hand of discipline is upon us for His glory and our ultimate good. But we are in the same situation as Moses in relation to God’s promise: we die, not having received everything that is promised us. Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and all the pre-Promised Land saints desired a better country than the land of Canaan – that is, a heavenly one, the city that has foundations, whose author and builder is God. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them, and for us with them. We live and we die in confident possession of what is already ours, and confident hope of what is not yet ours. We face our deaths, knowing that we are not as holy as we ought to be, knowing that there is still sin and misery flowing from sin, not only in ourselves individually, but in our churches, and in our cities. We die in faith, believing that one day Jesus will come again, and give us new bodies that will never sin or suffer. The holy city, Jerusalem, will come down out of heaven from God, as a city of justice, righteousness, and love. We die acknowledging with the patriarchs that we are strangers and exiles here, that this age, under God’s curse, is not our ultimate destiny. We die in faith, believing the Lord’s promises, trusting His wisdom, goodness, plan and purposes.
Pastors are called to equip the saints to walk in those good works that God has prepared beforehand for them to walk in. Every saint (except those alive when Jesus returns) will have to walk through the good work of dying well. May the Lord enable us to prepare Jesus’ sheep to live by faith and to die by faith.
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