“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.’” (John 11:25, NKJV)
Over my decades of pastoral ministry I have conducted scores of funerals. Tim Keller, one of my profs at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, suggested that when we moved to a new area to take up a pastoral call it would be a good idea to connect with local funeral homes to offer our services. He said it was a wonderful opportunity to minister the hope of the gospel.
I followed his counsel. The result was that I led many funerals for my congregation and their families but many more for referrals from funeral homes. As with every pastor I have stories to tell, but perhaps another time.
Most of the time I would try to vary texts for my funeral message. Psalm 90 was wonderful, focusing on the eternal God and bringing the everlasting to meet the temporal. I might focus on brothers who had a hope as opposed to others who had no hope from 1 Thessalonians 4:13. Psalm 23, of course, was a go-to text. If the person had died around Christmas or Easter, I would tailor my talk accordingly. My goal was to bring God’s perspective to bear and to extend God’s hope of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Toward the end of my pastoral career, however, I decided that I didn’t need to mix it up. What was the point when Jesus Himself ministered at a funeral? John 11 is basically a sermon waiting to happen. It brings to bear all the things that should make up a funeral message. It lifts up Jesus and His claims to those with death staring them in the face. It even presses it home with the voice of Christ Himself: “Do you believe this?”
One funeral message. No grand theological insight or exegesis. I just tell the story. I know it well so I can look the mourners in the eye and tell them about Jesus. I open by asking them, what would Jesus say if He were here? What words of comfort and hope would He bring? And I tell them.
You might be thinking, what if someone has heard your message before? That’s okay. They need to hear it again. I want to share it again. If they feel I have short-changed them by not coming up with a brand new message, I don’t mind if they don’t pay me. Another piece of counsel I follow from my days in seminary with Tim Keller is “never charge but never refuse pay.”
That doesn’t mean all my funerals sound the same. When family members step forward to read something or friends from the congregation stand up to share a memory, everyone in attendance is helped to know the person better. Readings, songs, and tributes meaningful to the one who died all personalize the service.
But one constant has to be Jesus. He is the hope of the gospel. He is the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Him, even though he dies, shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Him shall never die. Do you believe this?
- How was Jesus’ message to Lazarus’ sisters in John 11 better than condolences?
- What claims did Jesus make that invite faith in Him?
Lord Jesus, we exalt You as our living hope, who died but are now alive forevermore. You alone hold the keys to death and Hades. Grant us opportunity to speak words of life into the lives of those who grieve.
Scripture quotations marked NKJV are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, copyright ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Those marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.