by Doug Redford
I’ll never forget the first time I saw a color television. After several years of viewing a black and white TV, to see people and scenery in actual color was incredible. Other developments in media, such as high definition TV, have provided similar “wow” moments to first-time viewers.
The difference in clarity when comparing these media forms may be compared to the difference one finds when comparing the way certain topics are covered as one moves from the Old Testament to the New Testament. The term “progressive revelation” is sometimes used to describe the manner in which greater (though not perfect) understanding is provided concerning these subjects, primarily because of the impact of Jesus’ life and ministry. Among these subjects are death and life after death. This is an area where Jesus’ coming would be expected to have a significant impact, since he has “destroyed death and . . . brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).
The teaching of the Old Testament regarding death and the afterlife may be summarized by the following categories of Scripture passages. Each of them highlights in some way that God has power over death and is thus paving the way for the ultimate triumph of Jesus over death through his resurrection.
Accounts of Bypassing Death or of Resurrection from the Dead
The Old Testament records two incidents of individuals who were taken from this life without experiencing death. They are Enoch and Elijah. Of Enoch the Scripture notes in Genesis 5:24, “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.” Nothing is said about specifically where Enoch was taken. That he was taken clearly separates him from the other individuals mentioned in Genesis 5, whose brief accounts all end with the predictable “and then he died.”
Enoch is not mentioned again in Scripture until Hebrews 11, the Bible’s faith chapter. There in verse 5 we are told, in terms very similar to those in Genesis, that “Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away.” Once again, specific details are lacking; but this statement does imply that Enoch was in God’s care even after his death. At the conclusion of the chapter, Enoch is included among those who were “commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised” (v. 39). Enoch, like all the faithful over the years, will be “made perfect” when the “something better” provided for the faithful comes to pass in eternity. Until that day, he remains in God’s hands.
The other person who did not experience death is Elijah, who “went up to heaven in a whirlwind” according to 2 Kings 2:11. Whether this is a reference to Heaven as described in the fuller revelation of the New Testament is subject to question; the Hebrew literally reads, “the heavens,” and may simply be saying that Elijah was taken up to the point that eventually Elisha, who was present to witness the event, could no longer see him. This, of course, did not end Elijah’s appearance in Scripture. Elijah was present on the mount of transfiguration with Moses (Matthew 17:1-3). Once more, we may assume that Elijah, like Enoch, remained in God’s care since his being taken from this earth.
It should be noted that during their prophetic ministries, both Elijah and Elisha were God’s instruments in working miracles of resurrection. Elijah raised a widow’s son from the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24). Elisha brought a couple’s son back to life (2 Kings 4:32-37). Later 2 Kings 13:20, 21 records how Elisha, even after he was dead, was responsible for bringing someone back to life when that person’s corpse touched Elisha’s bones. (Someone has remarked that Elisha dead had more power than most people do alive!)
These incidents coming from the ministries of Elijah and Elisha are of special significance, given what was occurring among God’s people at this time. Both men prophesied during a time when Baal worship was making serious inroads in the northern kingdom of Israel, due to the influence of King Ahab and his pagan wife Jezebel. Baal was a fertility god, believed to provide life to all facets of existence including crops, livestock, and human beings. The miracles God’s prophets performed during this time (especially bringing the dead back to life) demonstrated God’s superiority to the false god Baal.
Reflections of Great Hope from People of Great Faith
It appears as one reads the Old Testament that certain individuals who possessed particularly exemplary faith also possessed an equally strong measure of hope regarding the future. Their faith in God expressed itself in an awareness that, while the specifics of what lay beyond the grave were unclear, God was still in control of that realm and would not allow his faithful servants to be abandoned to an existence of futility and hopelessness. It was not fitting that the all-powerful Creator of the universe should be stymied by the presence of death. Certain Old Testament individuals who possessed exemplary faith possessed an equally strong measure of hope regarding the future.
Abraham is a good example of this. Two noteworthy perspectives on his faith are provided by the writer of Hebrews in chapter 11. The first one tells us that when he obeyed God’s call and went to a “destination unknown,” living in tents while doing so, he really had better surroundings in mind. “For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (v. 10).
The second perspective is found in verses 17-19 of Hebrews 11, where the writer highlights the faith demonstrated by Abraham in his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s command. Verse 19 notes, “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” Abraham’s journey of faith had brought him to the point where he acknowledged God’s power to raise the dead. Indeed, the patriarch had understood that the birth of Isaac to him and Sarah was in itself evidence of a kind of “resurrection” since he and Sarah were both, in view of their advanced age, “dead” (Romans 4:18-21).
David was another individual whose heart for God brought him to a point where he understood that the God whose power and majesty he so frequently praised in the Psalms could not be limited by death. Particularly in the Psalms, David expressed a clear confidence that there was something awaiting him beyond this present life. Consider his words in Psalm 17:13-15:
Rise up, O Lord, confront them, bring them down; rescue me from the wicked by your sword. O Lord, by your hand save me from such men, from men of this world whose reward is in this life. You still the hunger of those you cherish; their sons have plenty, and they store up wealth for their children. And I—in righteousness I will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.
In this passage, David contrasted the destiny of his enemies with his own. Their “reward is in this life.” But David understood that his personal reward would be far greater—something that was clearly beyond the scope of this life. He will not be consigned to some kind of shadowy, uncertain existence; he will see the “likeness” of the Lord.
Job voiced a similar hope during his time of intense suffering. His most compelling statement of faith is found in Job 19:23-27. Verses 26 and 27 are particularly noteworthy: “And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” Job’s sentiments amount to a statement of faith in life beyond the grave—indeed, to a belief in a personal bodily resurrection. His faith certainly set him apart from his three friends and gave him a perspective that eluded them because they were too intent on looking at issues like suffering from the perspective of their own preconceived ideas.
Deliverance of Individuals from Certain Death
Another way in which Old Testament believers could grasp God’s power over death was not as much in his power over death in the context of what happened after death; it was in his ability to provide deliverance from situations in which death appeared inevitable. In a sense, a figurative resurrection was experienced by those involved, much as that noted previously involving Isaac and his near-sacrifice (Hebrews 11:17-19). Other examples of this would include Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s deliverance from certain death in the blazing furnace, Daniel’s rescue from the den of lions, Jonah’s release from the belly of the fish, and Hezekiah’s gift from God of 15 additional years of life.
On a national level, the power of God over death was demonstrated through Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, recorded in Ezekiel 37:1-14. God’s people, who at this time had been exiled to Babylon, were pictured as a vast array of dry bones, exhibiting absolutely no signs of life. When Ezekiel spoke the word of the Lord to the bones and commanded them to come to life, they became transformed into “a vast army” (v. 10). God then issued his promise that his covenant people, though in a state of despair at this point, would one day return to their land. Death by exile would not have the final say over them.
Prophecies of Jesus’ Resurrection
The final area in which God’s authority over death is demonstrated in the Old Testament is through those prophecies that were fulfilled in Jesus and his own resurrection. Peter quoted David’s words from Psalm 16:8-11 on the Day of Pentecost. He then declared that David was given prophetic insight and “spoke of the resurrection of the Christ” (see Acts 2:25-32). The prophet Isaiah pictured the coming messianic age as one in which God “will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth” (Isaiah 25:7, 8).
Two New Testament references use Isaiah’s language to proclaim the impact of Christ’s resurrection. Paul employs the idea of death being “swallowed up” in 1 Corinthians 15:54, and the language of Revelation includes references to the wiping away of tears in describing life in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 7:17; 21:4). Paul also uses the words of Hosea (Hosea 13:14) to address death as a beaten foe in 1 Corinthians 15:55. Jesus used the experience of Jonah in the belly of the fish as a “sign” that validated his claims before the Pharisees and teachers of the law who were questioning his credentials (Matthew 12:38-40).
Incomplete, But Not in Error
One of the telephone books in Cincinnati, where I live, includes a section of city maps in the back of the book. Each page includes a certain section of the city; and if you know the street you are looking for, you can check the index and see which map includes that street. Occasionally you turn to a certain map, thinking the area you want to find is there. After checking, however, you realize the section of city you are looking for isn’t on that particular map. The map you have before you isn’t wrong; it’s just too limited.
In considering what the Bible says about death and the afterlife, the Old Testament is helpful; but it is not an all-sufficient or complete guide any more than the sacrifices under the old covenant were all-sufficient. The Old Testament records the beginnings of God’s efforts to reverse the devastating impact of sin upon humanity and to challenge the bitter reality of death. It provides significant evidence of God’s power over death and provides examples of those who illustrated that power; but its “map” leaves us in the “shadows,” to use the language of Hebrews 10:1. Only Jesus dealt the “death blow” to death and “rescued us from the dominion of darkness” (Colossians 1:13). The Old Testament provides, through the means described above, evidence that the dominion of darkness is only temporary. The Lord of light and life will, in time, vanquish the darkness; and the rest of the “map” will be made clear.
Dr. Doug Redford is a freelance writer and Professor of Old Testament at Cincinnati Christian University, Cincinnati, Ohio.
How Did They Die?
In this article, some biblical deaths were discussed. If you’d like to delve into the deaths of other biblical people and find out what you can learn about life from their deaths, look into this resource:
Devotions by Dead People
by Lynn Lusby Pratt
This book pulls back the shroud, looking into the deaths of biblical people and shedding light on the spiritual lessons we can learn from beyond the grave.
Each chapter includes bizarre facts, quotes, headlines, statistics, and epitaphs on the subjects of life and death. Devotions by Dead People is geared for teen readers or older.
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