It is estimated that 140 billion human beings have lived upon earth since the beginning of time. But life came to an end for each of them, for all must enter the portals of the grave. Death may not be a pleasant thought. Few look forward to it with joy and anticipation. Millions fear the very thought of death. It is said that Louis IV, when ascending to the throne of France, saw through the windows of his palace the church of St. Denis where his ancestors lay buried. The very thought that some day he too must be hurried along with those who had gone on before haunted him, and he could not bear to look upon his final resting place. He therefore ordered that another building be erected to separate the palace from the church to hide it from his sight. This, of course, did not forestall his death, for he joined the great caravan of those who, as the poet put it, "silently steal away."
Friend, what does happen when a man dies? And why does it matter? The confusion in men's minds today indicates our need of a revelation from God. And so, as is our policy here, we are going to turn to the Bible and, I hope, just pare away all of the man-made paraphernalia that has been attached to this great truth and ask again, "What says the Bible, the blessed Bible? This should my only question be. Teachings of men so often mislead us, What says the blessed Book to me?
Our first text today is one of the clearest texts anywhere in Scripture describing what happens when a man dies. It says, "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return to God who gave it." Now, it tells us, first of all, what happens to the physical part of men, the dust, the elements of which he is composed. Why, that decomposes, doesn't it, and returns to the dust? We know that. What happens to the other part? It says, "And the spirit shall return unto God who gave it." Is this spirit then some disembodied something that looks like you, and thinks like you, and can walk through a door without opening it? Just what is the spirit that returns to God? It seems that if we can define our terms here, it is going to clarify immensely the question to which we have addressed ourselves. A good place to begin is here in the New Testament, James 2:26, "For as the body without the spirit is dead...." Now we begin to get a little picture here of what the Bible means when it used the term "spirit". "The body without the spirit is dead." Then the spirit must be the life principle, that spark of life which God places in man to make him alive. Incidentally, the word in the New Testament from which the word "spirit" comes is "pneuma," from which we get pneumatic tire, and pneumonia-those things having to do with air, or the breath. Job 27:3: "All the while my breath is in me and the Spirit of God is in my nostrils." Here you see Job uses these two terms interchangeably-breath and spirit. And, we discover that they are translated from the same word.
What have we discovered thus far? That when a man dies his body decays, his spirit returns to God who gave it. We have found that spirit is the breath of life or the spark of life or that life principle with which God endows man that makes him alive.
Now, to the book of Genesis for the most concise description anywhere of how God put men together in the beginning. Genesis 2:7: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul." Notice, as we put these verses together without any interpretation, what we immediately discover. Man is created of the dust of the earth, and that dust is made alive when God puts into it the breath of life, or the spark of life, or spirit. Could anything be more clear?
Now, I have a question for you. True or false? Man has a living soul. The answer lies in our Genesis text, "Man became a living soul." Did God take a living soul and put it into man? No. Man does not have a living soul-he is a living soul. How did the soul come about? It was the result of the union of the body and the spirit or breath of life. When God put those two things together, then man became a living soul. Friend, it makes all the difference in the world that we understand the Bible's use of these three terms-the body, spirit, and soul. Please notice carefully that it takes a body and a spirit to make a living soul! One plus one equals two. That is not just good arithmetic, that is also good theology. When we put the physical form which God made from the dust of the earth with that life principle, the gift of life, then man becomes a living soul.
What happens when he comes apart-when he dies? Well, we discovered what happens to the body. That decays, returns to the dust. No problem there! What happens to the spirit? It returns to God-that gift of life that was entrusted to man is recalled and he no longer is alive. How does a spirit look? It doesn't look like anything. It is the spark of life. Ah, but what happens to the soul? "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." Ezekiel 18:4,20. In other words, when man stops living, he is dead. That may sound like a trite statement, friend, but really it isn't. When man comes apart, his body decays, God recalls the life principle, and he who is a living soul because of the union of these two things ceases to live. Let me illustrate.
Here is a pile of boards, and here is a pile of nails. We could put them together just right and make a box. The box is a result of the union of these two things. Now, when we pull out the nails, where does the box go? You say, "It doesn't go anywhere. It just isn't anymore. You must have the boards and the nails together to get the box." Of course, you are right. And friend, you must have a body and the breath of life together to get a living soul! When we take these two apart, we no longer have a living soul. Now you see, when we define our terms, and let the Bible explain itself, it becomes so crystal clear that we need not go astray.
The Bible speaks of a resurrection-future-but what purpose would there be in a resurrection if when men die they went immediately to their rewards? The Bible speaks of a judgment-future-but what purpose would there be in a judgment if the rewards were handed out when a man died? The Bible speaks of the second coming of Jesus-yet future-but what purpose would there be in a second coming of Christ if when a man died he went to his eternal reward?
The word "mortal" means subject to death, capable of dying. The word "immortal" means not subject to death. Now, if when a man dies he doesn't really die at all, he just goes somewhere else and goes on living, then man is really immortal, isn't he? 1 Timothy 6:15,16, speaking of God, "Who only hath immortality." Then God is the only one who has immortality. God is the only one who is not subject to death. Friend, "the living know that they shall die, but the dead know not anything." Ecclesiastes 9:5. When a man dies, he doesn't go to heaven. When a man dies, he doesn't go to hell. When a man dies, he doesn't go anywhere-he is dead, and he ceases to be alive. Some day when Jesus comes he will receive the gift of immortality-if he is among the righteous.
Jesus said that when a man dies he goes to sleep. John 11:3. This is one of the most precious passages left from the entire ministry of our Lord. Sometimes we read over it quite quickly and lose some of its significance. "Therefore his sisters (of Lazarus) sent unto him (to Jesus) saying, Lord, behold he whom Thou lovest is sick." They wanted Jesus to come and heal their brother, Jesus' friend. However, you will remember Jesus didn't come right away, and Lazarus died. Verse 11. "...He saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth, but I go that I may awake him out of sleep. Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep he shall do well. Howbeit Jesus spake of his death, but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep. Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead." Notice here that Jesus likened death to a sleep. Now, notice verse 23. "Jesus saith unto her (Martha, Lazarus' sister) Thy brother shall rise again." Notice, too, that Martha had her theology straight, because she replies in the next verse, "I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection, at the last day." Jesus didn't correct her, she was right in what she said. Jesus went out then to the grave, asked that the stone be rolled away from the mouth of the grave. Verse 39.
Martha was afraid that it would be an embarrassing experience for all of them, for her brother had been dead for four days, and already she knew that decomposition had begun. "By this time he stinketh, for he hath been dead four days." There was no question but that Lazarus was dead. Now, verse 43, "And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus come forth!" Why not down or up? Because Lazarus had not gone anywhere in those four days-he was in the grave, asleep. Friend, if Jesus called Lazarus back from glory, he played a terribly cruel trick on one of the closest friends he ever had. Anyway, why doesn't Lazarus give them a Bible study on the glories of heaven, or the torments of hell? What an impressive first-hand account he could have given!-except for one significant fact. He hadn't been there. He had been only in the grave. "The living know that they shall die, but the dead know not anything."
There is something else in the text as well that is thrilling to me. "When he (Jesus) thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus come forth." Do you know why He said, "Lazarus come forth"? If He had said simply, "Come forth..." every grave on that Bethany hillside would have opened. That is the power of the Lifegiver, friend, that we serve! "Lazarus come forth." That is the same call of victory that is going to ring around this old world some day soon when Jesus comes to claim His own.
I read of this man David, who is called in Scripture, "A man after God's own heart." Now, that is a fine compliment, wouldn't you say? I would like to have that epitaph, wouldn't you? Surely, with an evaluation like that we can know that David will be granted eternal life when the rewards are distributed. But, what does it say about him? Acts 2:29, 34. "Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulcher is with us unto this day. For David is not ascended into the heavens!" Why not? Because that isn't where a man goes when he dies, friend. He goes to the grave where he rests until Jesus calls him forth again.