The story is told of a pastor who had a group of children gathered around him one Sunday morning for a special children's message. He asked the kids, "Who wants to go to heaven?" Every child raised their hand eagerly. "And what do you have to do to get to heaven?" the pastor continued. The expected answer, of course, was, "You must believe in Jesus Christ who died on the cross and rose again for the forgiveness of sins." But that is not the answer little Timmy had in mind. No, Timmy pursued a different route. What do you have to do to get to heaven? "You have to die!" Timmy proudly pronounced.
Death is never a desirable thing. And yet, there are some instances in which death is a necessary thing. If I want really good deer sausage, a deer must die. In order for us to enjoy beautiful foliage in the fall, leaves must enter into senescence, on their way to death as they eventually fall to the ground. And in my house, if I don't want pesky ants raiding my kitchen, I must put out ant baits so that the ants will die. Death is not desirable. But it is sometimes necessary.
In our reading for today from Hebrews 9, we read of something else which necessitates death: "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (verse 22). Death - the shedding of blood - is a prerequisite for sins to be forgiven. As the preacher of Hebrews explains:
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance - now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living. (verses 15-17)
The Greek word for "covenant" in verse 15 and "will" in verses 16 and 17 is the same: diatheke. This word describes a last will and testament. In other words, it is a word connected to death. The covenant of forgiveness that God has made with us, therefore, can only be put into effect upon a death. In this case, it is the death of God's Son that enacts God's covenant. Death is necessary to our forgiveness. Yes, death is at the very heart of the gospel.
But it's not just Jesus' death that is at the heart of the gospel. No, our deaths are vital as well. As the apostle Paul says in Romans 6:8, "We died with Christ." But this death, counter-intuitively enough, leads to life: "We died with Christ so that we will also live with him." Death to sin, death, and the devil is a prerequisite for eternal life with Christ.
I suppose Timmy was right after all. You do have to die to go to heaven. But the good news is, when you die, you don't stay dead. For you are raised to new life in Christ!