I heard a long time ago that it is the pastor’s duty to help believers die well. I assume that means to face death secure in our hope in Jesus Christ. But it means something else, too.
As soon as Peter first affirmed, “You are the Messiah,” Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things … be killed and after three days rise again.” Which is when Peter promptly fell flat on his face, a failure he recounted to his protégé Mark.
He [Jesus] spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Mark 8:32-33)
Makes a person wince just to read it! The Cross of Jesus turns mere human thinking about life and death upside down. Now, of course, we glory in the Cross. “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” So, we won’t make that blunder again! But Jesus had more to say about the Cross.
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. (vv. 34-35)
That is the other sense in which pastors must help our people die well. The three interwoven strands of discipleship—self-denial, cross-bearing, and Christ-following—are a blessed death sentence, shot through with resurrection life. We are called to die daily, putting to death our old nature, and sometimes sharing in the sufferings of Christ.
These paths of righteousness are often a slow, uphill slog. Jesus’ disciples are still prone to have their minds set on the things of man rather than the things of God. That’s where pastors come in.
We do Wordwork. God renews the minds of his people, in part, through our preaching, teaching, counseling, and conversations. The harder part is that we’re also their models of dying well. They’ll never know our struggles with self-denial and cross-bearing that have sculpted our hearts. But they will certainly benefit from having a shepherd who is gentle and humble, deeply committed to Jesus and to them.
Thankfully, in helping our people die well we’re not on our own! God has embedded within each believer the very Spirit of Jesus “who for the joy set before him endured the cross.” Thus, the cross-life isn’t foreign to the born again, nor must it be met with foreboding or resistance. “Those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (Rom. 8:5).
Pastors are essential if Christians are to develop Spirit-shaped thinking. Everything in the Bible is counterintuitive to the natural mind which is why “all Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness ….”
Satan tries to intrude on every text, especially any word that “bids [us] come and die” (as Bonhoeffer put it), so we preach on. We open our Bibles so that our people might die well now. We show them the joy and wealth in cross-bearing; the freedom, power, and grace. To recast Jesus’ words in v.38, “If anyone is not ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will welcome and reward them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
Be ye glad!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.