I’m a city dweller these days, just like most of you, but as a boy I lived in a small town in western Montana. My step-dad was a veterinarian—an animal doctor who actually made calls to the ranches and farms. Nowadays, most of the vets ask people to bring their livestock to a clinic for treatment, but he was one of a disappearing breed who traveled to where those large animals were kept—on the ranches and farms out in the country; so I loved to go with him out there in his Chevy coupe to watch how a horse doctor took care of not only the horses, but the sheep, cattle, and other larger animals. I was about 8 or 10 years old at the time when we drove out in the night to help a momma cow who was trying to deliver a calf. I was watching that procedure very closely, amazed as usual, when all of a sudden I saw out of the corner of my eye, and then more directly, a large shadow on the wall of the barn. It seemed to be moving in a very threatening way, like some huge dragon looking to reach down and grab us or to shoot fire out of its mouth to incinerate us. Of course, I had a wild imagination in those days! So then I just had to look up to see how close the monster was to grabbing us!
I, of course, wanted to run, and I’m sure I must have at least gasped at that point. But I soon found that there was actually no reason to run or to fear. When I looked up I saw what was casting those huge, unsettling shadows—a lone moth flying around one light bulb high overhead. The shadow was scary, but the reality behind the shadow wasn’t very scary at all.
I’d like to talk with you for a few minutes about the scary shadow. There’s a big shadow that has bothered all of us at one time or another, and to be honest, it can be pretty frightening. You see that shadow sometimes when you’re in the doctor’s office, or when you have a close call in traffic, or when you’ve been to the funeral of someone you know. The shadow that I’m describing to you is, of course, the shadow of death, but why does Scripture call it a “shadow?”
The great Jewish King, David, wrote about that shadow in what may be the best-known passage in the Bible, Psalm 23. In the fourth verse of that Psalm from the Word of God, the inspired writer says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.” The “You,” of course, is the One David talks about at the beginning of his Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.” Now, when David’s loving Shepherd allowed him to go through a place where death threatened, He was saying, “David, you have nothing to fear.” Nothing to fear? Why is that true?
Let’s consider David’s situation through much of his young adult life. I think a large reason for David to fear was that he was often fleeing from Saul. Saul wanted to kill him. Why? Because David was Saul’s competitor for the throne of Israel. So David was in that “valley of the shadow of death” often in a very personal way as he fled and hid for his very life. Think about this! God put Psalm 23 in the Bible for us too, and we also can very gratefully consider death to be a mere shadow. For the follower of Jesus Christ, when we know that our lives on this earth are coming to an end, fear may be displaced by great anticipation and excitement. There is biblical reason to think of death as just a passing shadow.
Perhaps you don’t have that kind of peace and confidence about what happens on the other side of your last heartbeat. For many, the thought of death and what may be beyond it is more than just a shadow. It’s an unsettling, even frightening, reality. It all depends on where one stands with the God Whom we will meet on the other side. I know that when many people think about that confrontation, they remember every person they’ve hurt, every lie they’ve told, every promise they’ve broken, every selfish or immoral thought or deed, every dark secret in their lives—in other words, every sin they have committed throughout their lives. And there’s no way you or I can get into God’s heaven with sins unforgiven.
But there is some exceedingly wonderful good news for us in Hebrews 2:14 and 15. God tells us that Jesus Christ died on a cross to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” What a wonderful thing—to be free from the slavery we experience due to our fear of death! This is the truth that we love to share — that Jesus actually absorbed all the guilt, all the hell of your sin and mine when He died on the cross. He paid the death penalty in order to provide forgiveness for all our sins—past, present, and future. The Bible says that when you put your trust in Jesus to personally rescue you from the penalty of your sins, those sins are erased from God’s book and your name is entered in His “book of life,” a list of those who are going to heaven when they die.
Many of us are trying to be good enough in order to make it; so please think about this. That means that we are then trusting ourselves, and that would be like trying to climb to heaven on a 10-foot ladder. We would fall far short trying to make it by that method. We need to transfer that trust in ourselves to trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. He is very capable and He’s the One we can trust. The Bible makes that clear. Trust in Him, not on the good things you do and the bad things you avoid doing in order to make yourself right with God. An amazing benefit of trusting Christ alone for salvation right now means that not only are we guaranteed a place in heaven when we leave this world, but God provides an “abundant life” for as long as we reside here on planet earth. It’s “abundant” because He lives inside us. Death becomes a mere shadow, scary-looking, but, shall we say, “toothless.” Paul put it this way: Death, where is your sting?” or “Death, where is your bite?” It has no bite to the person who has accepted God’s gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ. It’s nothing but a shadow!
We grieve. Of course we grieve when someone is no longer with us, but the Scriptures say, “We grieve, but not as those who have no hope.” It’s our hope that demotes death to the status of “mere shadow,” and “hope” in the New Testament actually means “guarantee.” We have a guarantee from the maker of heaven and earth who loves us so much that He has made dying just the doorway to heaven, a place and an existence that is just too wonderful to even attempt to describe.
I would like to extend an invitation to those of you who may be searching. In order to view death as a mere shadow, you need to reach out and grab the nail-scarred hand of the Savior. Tell Jesus you’re His from this day forward. If you want to begin your life-saving relationship with Jesus, tell Him so. He’s listening. Then when that shadow comes around, whatever your age, you may say, “I believe it’s time for me to say my goodbyes.” Then it’s simply going through a door—a transition into glory, and the follower of Christ exits earth and enters heaven. For Christians, death is not a permanent “goodbye.” One can anticipate seeing believing friends and family joining you at an amazing reunion in heaven.
If a person does not belong to Jesus, death is a monster that should be feared, but if one belongs to Him, then death becomes just a shadow because death is now a doorway to all that heaven holds. Such anticipation, such joy to make that transition—especially as these bodies of ours get run down and wear out, and they do, don’t they!?
Even though we will all walk through that valley of the shadow at sometime in the future. We need not fear. If you have not done so, please trust in Christ to lead you through life and then to take you through that door to life everlasting—whenever He calls you home. The shadow of death is not frightening when Christ is with you.
– Jay Oertli (my Dad)