Two famous deaths around 2,000 years ago occurred during this March-April time of year. On March 15 (the Ides of March) in 44 B.C., Julius Caesar was assassinated. In about 30 A.D. Jesus Christ was crucified on a day now remembered as Good Friday.
Julius Caesar died badly with a critical knife wound administered by his close friend. Brutus used illegitimate means, but he was right to oppose Caesar's plan to make himself dictator, kaiser, czar. Mark Anthony, according to Shakespeare's drama, was a highly successful spin merchant who turned a crowd into a mob bent on revenging Caesar's death, but the JC he eulogized was not a martyr to any cause greater than his own ambition.
Jesus Christ, on the other hand, died well. Not only did he live in perfect righteousness and die in perfect humility, but on Easter next month we will once again celebrate the way his death led to new life as he rose from the grave. The wonderful hymn "And Can It Be" has it right: "And can it be that I should gain/An interest in the Savior's blood? Died he for me, who caused his pain? For me, who him to death pursued? Amazing love! how can it be/That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?"
Christ's death was the ultimate in perfection-but we should remember that his last hours on this earth, before the resurrection, were the ultimate in pain. Others who died well also died painfully. In Chapter 7 of Acts, Stephen, "full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God." Then he was stoned, and as the big rocks hit him his final words were, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."
Martyrdom is one form of dying well, although not peacefully. We need to be willing to follow in Christ's, and Stephen's, steps-but our prayer can still be that we might die at home after a long life, as Genesis patriarchs did. Abraham "breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years, and he was gathered to his people." Isaac "breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people, old and full of years."
Ideally, we can even die at home surrounded by our children, having given them our faithful and kind last words. It's worth noting, however, that the ideal familial death depicted in some 19th-century popular novels was biblically rare. Biblical writers were honest, not smarmy, and they showed how many families of saints of old were what today we might call dysfunctional. Jacob had tough but true things to say about his sinful sons, in their presence. Three of David's oldest sons were not around for his death because they had majored in rape, murder, and dad-despising rebellion.
Other good deaths were marked not so much by closeness to family as closeness to God. When Moses was 120 years old, God would not let him enter the promised land because at one point "you did not uphold my holiness among the Israelites." But God did show him the entire land from a mountaintop, and then the Lord himself buried Moses. That scene is tender. Joshua lived to 110, and he had the pleasure of giving a farewell address to the people he had led into Israel and hearing them three times affirm, "We will serve the Lord."
To die, for Christ's sake, surrounded by God-hating enemies, or to die, through Christ's kindness, amid loving family members: Both can be good deaths. The bad kind of death is Julius Caesar's, and there are many examples in Scripture of despairing, Ides of March deaths: See Judas, hanging and disemboweling himself, or Saul, turning to a witch and then, grievously wounded, with his three sons dead in the battle, pleading for his armor-bearer to kill him. The bad deaths go from A to Z, from Abimelech and Absalom, to Zimri. But the examples of dying well are those I come back to as Easter approaches.
A popular saying of a culture that veers away from God is, "Living well is the best revenge." No, dying well is the best lesson of God's grace. Blessed indeed are those who can say, as death approaches, words of the fifth verse of "And Can It Be": "No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in him, is mine! Alive in him, my living head, and clothed in righteousness divine, Bold I approach th'eternal throne, And claim the crown, thro' Christ my own."