By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
For all who live, death is certain. Yet, our level of certainty about what happens after death is shaped by how we live and in what we put our trust.
As regular consumer (and sometimes writer) of biographies, I have found that much can be learned from and about a person’s thoughts on eternity not only from reading about what they said and did in life, but also by examining their final days–and even their final words.
Consider two examples:
Steve Jobs (1955-2011)
Five years ago in October, the unarguably brilliant genius and entrepreneur, Steve Jobs of Apple fame, passed away. The stuff of legends, the story of Jobs’s life and career has been and can be told by many—and if not by many then there are still many more who were impacted by the things he made. The just 10 year old iPhone alone exists now in global ubiquity and was one of many innovations that contributed to Jobs’s estimated net worth of $10 billion at the time of his death.
To my knowledge, and from what can be read, Jobs did not claim to follow Christ. He was a devotee to Zen Buddhism and allowed that belief system to influence and direct him. Further, in his early career he cited his experimentation with psychedelic drugs as one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life.
On October 30, 2011, the sister of the late Steve Jobs published in the New York Times the eulogy she delivered at her brother’s memorial service earlier that month. In it she gives her recollections and assessments of her iconic, brilliant, and world-changing brother. She speaks of his work ethic, his humility, his love for his children and wife, and his overall happiness. She describes his admirable battle with cancer, fought while the world watched.
But she concludes with the following:
“What I learned from my brother’s death was that character is essential: What he was, was how he died. Tuesday morning, he called me to ask me to hurry up to Palo Alto. His tone was affectionate, dear, loving, but like someone who was already on the beginning of his journey, even as he was sorry, truly deeply sorry, to be leaving us ….
When I arrived, he and his Laurene were joking together like partners who’d lived and worked together every day of their lives. He looked into his children’s eyes as if he couldn’t unlock his gaze …. Then, after awhile it was clear that he would no longer wake to us. His breathing changed. It became severe, deliberate, purposeful ….
He made it through the night …. His breath indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude …. But with that will, that work ethic, that strength, there was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment, the artist’s belief in the ideal, the still more beautiful later.
Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times. Before embarking, he’d look at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.
Steve’s final words were: OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.”
What Steve Jobs saw at the conclusion of his life or what he meant by his “Oh Wow,” I do not know. Nor do I know what he claimed to believed about Jesus Christ in those final hours. But if his belief claims had not changed—as great of a person that he was to society and his family—he sadly was not prepared for eternity (Acts 4:12).
Henry Jessey (1601-1663)
In the 1600s, there lived in London an obscure pastor unknown today and forgotten. By human standards he did not change the world. Although he was brilliant, he never became a billionaire nor had world-wide much less city-wide influence.
Henry Jessey was the pastor of an independent (non-Church of England) church during the years of great political upheaval in England. Out of his church would come the early English Baptists from who many Baptists and Evangelicals can trace our heritage and history today.
Jessey had an affinity for the biblical languages and was even commissioned by Parliament to help produce a new translation of the Bible to replace the King James authorized version. Regrettably, this project was never completed due to political turmoil in London, but it does reveal Jessey’s lifelong devotion to the Bible.
Of Jessey’s Bible affection, one biographer said, “The Hebrew & Greek Testaments he constantly carried about him, frequently calling the One his Sword & Dagger, & the Other his Shield & Buckler …. For by his thorow study of the Scriptures he … became so familiar with its language & phraseology that it was to him like his Mother Tongue, both in Preaching & Conversation: this way of speaking he thought most Savory & best becoming those that professed Christianity.” Another biographer recounted, “Who ever begun to rehearse a place [from the Bible] he could go on verbatim with the preceding and following context: who ever enquired after a Scripture, he could presently name the book, chapter and verse so that he was not undeservedly called by one (a living Concordance).”
In 1663, Jessey grew fatally ill. On the night of his death, he like Steve Jobs, had loved ones gathered and here is the account of Jessey’s final words:
“As for the last night he lived, first part thereof he spent in blessing the Lord, and singing praises to his Name, and fell asleep about 11 a.clock, and waked again between 2 and 3 …. But this good mans memory, which was beyond comparison, for the quotation of the Text, began now to faile him, at which he seemed to be troubled, earnestly calling them to help him therein, which was done, and much please him;
Thus he lay some time calling for more Julip, more Julip, meaning more Scriptures, for he drank in much comfort and consolation from the promises which the Lord had given him, a steadfast Faith and hope to trust his soul, and eternal state upon, for he continued unto the last gasp his praising of God.”
Henry Jessey concluded his life by calling for more Bible and his last words were spent praising God.
When compared to the successful and happy Steve Jobs who voiced only uncertain expressions at his end, how was this unknown pastor able to rest in something more certain?
Jessey’s ability to rest in peace with God at the end of his life derived from the surrendering of his life to God many years earlier. When preparing his last Will and Testament, Jessey included the following preface that explains:
“I Henry Jessey of London, a servant of Jesus Christ in the ministry of the Gospel, do declare, that form the Lord’s most gracious manifestation of his most free love in his Son to me the chiefest of all saved sinners, I have committed my soul to him, as to a faithful Creator and Redeemer being assured by the witness of his good Spirit, that Jesus Christ hath loved me and washed me from all my sins in his precious blood, and that he will save me everlastingly.”
For all those who live, death is certain, and our certainty of what happens after death is determined by how we live and in what we trust. Facing eternity uncertain of God, trusting in someone or something other than God, or even opposing his existence in word, deed, or indifference is something the Bible says we should fear (Matt 12:36-37). However, by learning from other lives (Matt. 11:29), when we come to our end our final words do not have to convey a fear of death or uncertainty of what is to come after death.
Jesus Christ came to earth to destroy death by sacrificing himself so that all who oppose or are uncertain about God could find peace with God (Rom 5:1). Jesus did this loving act to help the helpless no longer to fear death (Heb 2:14-18), but rather to find deliverance from fear and uncertainty at death and, instead, eagerly wait for him.
For more of the life and thought of Henry Jessey, see this newly released volume from BorderStone Press.