My baptism looks on to my third birthday. What is that? It is the day entered from eternity in God’s private calendar, as my first two birthdays were, on which my heart is due to stop beating.
When or how it will happen I do not know—whether after or without warning, whether while I am nearer nineteen than ninety, whether at home, in hospital, or out of doors, whether peacefully or in agony, whether through natural decay as described in Ecclesiastes 12, or through some killing disease, or human violence or miscalculation, or even through Christ’s return to end this world. All I know is that some day, some way, my heart will stop, as sure as eggs are eggs, and that what the world will call my death-day will really be a birthday—the third in line.
Life to Come
What were my other two birthdays? Number one was when I left the womb, to see and feel and feed and shout as an inhabitant of this physical world; number two was when I came from spiritual darkness eighteen years later to see and feel and feed and shout about God’s salvation, and Christ’s love for me. By “birthday,” you see, I mean not an anniversary, but a day that sees me start enjoying gifts of God such as I had never before imagined. That is what heartstop day will bring; that is why my death-day will truly be a birthday. Said D. L. Moody: “Someday they’ll tell you Moody’s dead. Don’t you believe it! That day I’ll be before the throne; I’ll be more alive than I’ve ever been.” Yes; and so shall I.
A friend wrote: “O God, I am so grateful that I have asked you to be in control of my life, to be my authority, my Lord; I am so relieved that the decision is not mine to choose the time to write ‘death,’ ‘finish’ to this earthly walk; for, in my humanity, in my unknowing foolishness, I might choose never to choose! . . . For death is truly a door to more instead of less, a plus instead of a minus, an increase instead of a decrease, a filling instead of an emptying, a birthday instead of a wake!” Exactly.
The rite of baptism is an acted promise from God that death will not end my existence or my joy, for a new gift of life will override the death sentence.
We look on death as an exit, a way out from the light we love into a hateful darkness. So it is for unbelievers, but for Christians death is an entrance, a way leading from twilight here (spiritually, life here is never more than that) into the sunshine of seeing our God.
They stand before the throne of God and minister to him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will dwell with them. They shall never again feel hunger or thirst, the sun shall not beat on them nor any scorching heat, because the Lamb who is at the heart of the throne will be their shepherd and will guide them to the springs of the water of life; and God will wipe all tears from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:15–17 NEB)
As Paul said, “to depart and be with Christ . . . is far better” (Phil. 1:23). A Christian’s death is promotion, not tragedy, however early in life it comes; the mourners weep for themselves, and for those left behind. When Bunyan’s Christiana died, “her Children wept, but Mr. Great-heart, and Mr. Valiant”—two men of faith who knew what death was about—“played upon the well-tuned Cymbal and Harp for Joy.” “If we knew what God knows about death,” said George MacDonald, “we would clap our hands.”
Sign of Hope
How can I be sure of all this? First, from my Bible; second, from my baptism. Jews were landlubbers, and in Scripture water (waves, depths, storms) is often an emblem of chaos and death. “Water closed over my head; I said, ‘I am lost’” (Lam. 3:54). So in baptism going under water signifies dying with Jesus physically, as well as morally by repentance and self-denial, and emerging from the water is a sign of continuance with Jesus after death into physical resurrection, as well as being a token of spiritual renewal now.
Thus the rite of baptism is an acted promise from God that death will not end my existence or my joy, for a new gift of life will override the death sentence; and the fact that I was passive when God’s minister baptized me teaches me that I may and must depend on God’s active grace thus to bring me home. God’s promise to me in my baptism extends to my deathbed and after, when the Lord Jesus takes me to himself (John 14:1–3; 17:24). When Browning wrote “the best is yet to be,” he was right. My third birthday is still to come.
This article is adapted from Growing in Christ by J. I. Packer.
As we remember the life of J. I. Packer, join us in thanking God for his profound writing ministry and the legacy of his faithful service to the church.
Consider reading these passages if you are together with someone nearing the end of their life and you are searching for comfort in God's word.
May this generation turn from the greatest of wickednesses, the placing of any created thing in the place of the Creator, getting its feet out of the paths of death so that it may live.
Death often brings reality to light. When individuals are thrown onto their last resources, they show where their true hopes lay.