The Messianic Jewish Perspective On Death
I was too close to the edge! I tried to veer away but stumbled on a rock and was suddenly over the cliff. I grabbed for something, anything, to break my fall, but there was only the rush of air as I plummeted down, down, down. I wanted to scream but could not. My whole body tensed—and I awoke with a start.
Maybe you know the terror of such dreams and the relief of awakening. Perhaps you have also known real tragedy and you understand that death does not just come dreams. Death and dying are as real as life itself.
Saturated as our society is with violence and images of death through all types of media, it is surprising how most people exclude the subject from conversation. Death is a ubiquitous enemy, yet we find ways to anesthetize ourselves to its painful presence. People keep their thoughts and fears about death to themselves. There is a conspiracy of silence. Even believers may try to ignore the fact of death, postpone it for a while, but eventually it will lay claim to each of us and to those we love.
Fear of the Unknown
Most unbelievers know that they do not have hope. My father tells the story of the funeral of his father, Nathan. Cancer had claimed Nathan’s life at an early age, but he, along with his wife (my grandma), my father and his brother had become believers just days before his death. At the graveside, my great-grandma was overcome by the loss of her son. Wailing and crying, she moaned in Yiddish, “Oh my Nathan, he’s in the ground, he’s in the ground. Oh my Nathan, he’s in the ground.” My grandma spoke softly through her tears to reply, “No, Mama. Nathan is not in the ground; he is in heaven with the Lord.” What a contrast! Had my grandfather died a few days earlier, his wife would have had no hope to share with his mother.
This contrast does not exist merely on an ordinary personal level. Uncertainty about the hereafter is even woven into the very fabric of Judaism.
When Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai fell ill, his disciples went in to visit him. When he saw them he began to weep. His disciples said to him: Lamp of Israel, pillar of the right hand, mighty hammer! Wherefore weepest thou? He replied: If I were being taken today before a human king who is here today and tomorrow in the grave, whose anger if he is angry with me does not last forever, who if he imprisons me does not imprison me for ever and who if he puts me to death does not put me to everlasting death, and whom I can persuade with words and bribe with money, even so I would weep. Now that I am being taken before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He who lives and endures forever and ever, whose anger, if He is angry with me, is an everlasting anger, who if He imprisons me imprisons me forever, who if He puts me to death puts me to death forever, and whom I cannot persuade with words or bribe with money—nay more, when there are two ways before me, one leading to Paradise and the other to Gehinnom, and I do not know by which I shall be taken, shall I not weep?3
The pious Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai profoundly articulated the uncertainty, and thus the terror, death holds for those who have not accepted the reconciling work of the Messiah, Jesus. Most rabbis today do not speak with the certainty of Rabbi ben Zakkai regarding everlasting life and everlasting death, any more than they speak of a personal God who judges and determines eternal destiny.
Today’s frequent omission of statements about God and eternal destiny are part of the anesthetization that keeps people from a proper fear, a fear that tells them to concern themselves with God’s requirements. (After all, the Scriptures teach that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.) But what has not changed since the first century is the unbeliever’s statement, “I do not know…”
People try to deny their terror by saying that all paths lead to God. They do not realize how very correct they are! All paths do lead to God. One path leads to Him as Father and Savior; the rest lead to Him as Judge. This adds great urgency to our obligation to tell others—especially our loved ones—of our hope in Yeshua. A heart of wisdom recognizes that those who don’t know the Messiah do not share our hope, and it also recognizes that there are limited opportunities to expose them to the hope that we have in Jesus.
The good news is, we don’t have to be afraid!
Compare Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai’s thinking to that of another first-century rabbi.
“For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.…Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?'” (1 Corinthians 15:53-55).
That same rabbi, Saul of Tarsus, also wrote that he was eager to depart this world and be with the Messiah, but he knew his death would leave a void among the living. Paul did not fear death; in fact he had to curb his desire for death in order to fulfill his responsibilities to younger believers who needed him.1 He had full confidence in his eternal destiny as well as the eternal destiny of all believers.2
We share the same hope as Rabbi Saul, that springs from true faith in God’s provision, Yeshua, through whom we can and do know our destiny. The Messiah came to release those who, through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:15). Fear of death causes bondage, but Jesus has liberated us. We need not be part of the conspiracy of silence. We have a hope that is unlike that of the rest of the world. We have confidence in our eternal relationship with God through Yeshua. For us, death is but a door through which we pass into the presence of our Lord. We know that we will be united with Him and reunited with those we love in the Lord who have gone before us.
Whereas fear of death subjects people to bondage, confronting death liberates and produces something of great value. “The days of our lives are seventy years; and if by reason of strength they are eighty years, yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. …So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:10, 12).
It is time for us to speak frankly and help one another face the facts of mortality so that by God’s grace we may gain that heart of wisdom. Wisdom will help us recognize realities and overcome temptations in matters of life and death.
The fact of death should stimulate us to renewed vigor as we tell those who don’t know Messiah about our hope in Him. We have no idea how long we will be around to tell it, just as we do not know how long they will be around to hear. Physical death always looms larger than spiritual death, yet which should concern us more? In the grand scheme of things, spiritual death is far more significant. Yet it is physical death that makes the condition of spiritual death permanent.
How Do We Interact With Others As We Grieve?
If a family member has died and your relatives are sitting shiva, no matter what it takes for you to be there, it is good to spend all seven days in mourning. This enables you to enter into the family grief and also to be a witness to the living.
How do you eulogize a loved one who didn’t believe? You need to speak of the things that you appreciated about the person, but you also want the chance to sensitively share the hope people can have in Yeshua. You can stand up and say, “First of all, I need to tell you where my father and I had some differences.” Then you can briefly and concisely explain that your faith is placed in Yeshua as the Jewish Messiah. For a transition you might say something like, “Dad never pretended to support my faith, but where some fathers might have turned their backs on their children, he respected my right to think for myself and arrive at my own conclusions.” Then go on to tell of his other attributes.
What about relating to bereaved in general, not merely our own family? We demonstrate our love for God by consoling those who grieve (James 1:27). Death is a wound to the living, and we must be willing to dress and wrap that wound. We can comfort survivors and pray for them to manage their grief well. During shiva we can visit and read Psalms to those who care to hear. We can send condolence cards. If we ask, God will give us the ability to weep with those who need to weep. Yeshua wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. He entered into the grief of Mary and Martha, and so should we enter into the grief of those people whom God has placed in our lives.
When we help someone who grieves, we must not seek to diminish reality with platitudes or say what the grieving person knows to be true. Most often it is not what we say but what we do that makes a difference. A heart of wisdom responds to grief in simple and sensitive ways: through an invitation to dinner, by inviting a child to a family outing who has lost his parent. Acts of kindness provide comfort and can go beyond comfort to encourage healing.
Facing the Death of a Believer
We face the death of a believing loved one with mixed feelings. We grieve, knowing we will live the rest of life on earth without that person. It could be a loss that requires us to regroup and figure out how to go on as a single parent. It might mean finding a way to live without the advice of a cherished mentor or the security of a loving parent. There is no denying the pain. Yet there is, or should be, a sense of rejoicing to know that these loved ones are in the presence of the Lord. Not only are they enjoying Him forever, but we will see them again!
It is important to allow ourselves to have those mixed feelings. If we deny that it is painful to go on without a believing loved one, we carry that pain alone. There is nothing nonspiritual about allowing ourselves to feel a terrible sense of loss.
One thing to do when a believing loved one dies is establish a memorial gift that shows the meaning of that person’s life. For example, at our training center in New York City we have the Rachmiel Frydland Memorial Chapel. Those who knew Rachmiel know of his untiring commitment to telling our Jewish people about Yeshua. It is fitting, then, to have such a place in his honor where Jewish people can hear the Good News. It is wonderful to have lasting tributes to those whom we love in the Lord.
How Do We Prepare for Our Own Death?
Many of us already have burial plots purchased for us by our families. Certain problems may arise from this. If you own cemetery property, it is probably illegal for anyone to keep you from being buried there. Yet I know of cases where this was done to Jewish believers because of their faith.
It would be wonderful if there were provision for Messianic cemeteries, but for most of us, this isn’t an option. Therefore, we have to ask, is it good to be buried in a Jewish cemetery by a rabbi? If an unbelieving rabbi performs your funeral, some might believe that you renounced Yeshua before you died. Your funeral might very well be used to prove that. You won’t have the gospel preached at your service, rather the message of one who does not share your hope will be the last official words spoken on your behalf. The most important thing about our funeral is not where but how we are buried. If you decide to make it so, what takes place at your funeral can be a story to unsaved family and friends that Yeshua is alive and so are you.
I think it is very important for each of us to have a will that includes our wishes concerning the details of our own funeral. Planning it yourself is the only way to be certain you will get what you want. You can pick the songs that you want sung. You can even make a recording to greet people who come to your funeral. You can decide now what you will tell them.
Some of us have gotten well past the fear of death, but we still fear the actual process of dying. We can ask the Lord to help us die well, not knowing what the circumstances will be, but desiring to glorify Him in all things. And though we might tremble a bit in thinking of walking through that door, we need not fear. For we will surely awaken, not as dreamers from a nightmare, but as beloved citizens of our true home, radiant as we greet our Heavenly Host. “But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave, for He shall receive me” (Psalm 49:15).
This article was adapted from “The Facts of Death” by David Brickner, originally published in our Mishpocha Message in April 1995.
- Philippians 1:21, 23
- 2 Timothy 4:7-8
- Ber. 28b
Executive Director, Missionary
David Brickner is executive director of Jews for Jesus. David oversees the world-wide ministry from its headquarters in San Francisco. David received his Master’s degree in Missiology with a concentration in Jewish Evangelism and Judaic Studies from the Fuller School of World Mission. He has authored several books, and has been interviewed on national television shows such as Larry King Live. David’s daughter Ilana is a graduate of Biola. His son Isaac is on the missionary staff of Jews for Jesus. Isaac and his wife Shaina have one daughter, Nora, and a son, Levy, which makes David part of the grandparent club, a membership he is very proud of. See more here.