On the morning of Good Friday our Senior Pastor, Dr. James Montgomery Boice, received word that cancer had been discovered in his liver. Later that day he preached powerfully and persuasively on the crucifixion of Christ and the absolute necessity of coming to Christ for salvation.
The news of Dr. Boice’s cancer was reserved for close family and friends until after the Philadelphia Conference on Reformation Theology (April 27-30), when it was announced to the general public. Dr. Boice addressed the congregation the following Sunday (May 7), at which time he encouraged us to trust not only in God’s sovereignty, but also in his goodness. Rather than praying for a miracle, he encouraged us to pray that God would be glorified through suffering, which was the way that he glorified himself in the life and death of our Savior Jesus Christ.
The form of cancer that now invades Dr. Boice’s body is very aggressive. The doctors who are caring for him initially prescribed a round of chemotherapy, in the hope that it would slow the disease. This proved ineffective, and given the advanced state of the cancer, no further treatment of any kind is possible. Apart from divine intervention, his days on this earth will soon come to an end, and he will enter into the joy of his eternal reward.
Like any disease, Dr. Boice’s cancer is an evil thing in itself. Nevertheless, it is part of God’s good plan and God is using it to glorify himself. We would be ungrateful not to mention the blessings that we have experienced in recent weeks. We have been brought to the point of sober reflection about our own mortality. There has been a renewed commitment to prayer in the life of our church, and a great outpouring of prayer throughout the Christian community. In the past two months several people have come to faith in Christ, in one way or another through our pastor’s ministry. We have been greatly helped by the singing of Dr. Boice’s hymns, many of which touch on the theme of death. And in our time of need, we have found the greatest comfort of all in the words of Scripture which Dr. Boice taught us to love.
And make no mistake, even in the face of death, God’s will for Dr. Boice himself is good, perfect, and pleasing. In his great mercy, God has spared our pastor from great physical pain. Although he is sometimes uncomfortable, and often tired, he is not in distress as he rests quietly in his bed. His abiding confidence in God’s goodness has enabled him to endure this hour of trial graciously and cheerfully. As Dr. Boice has received cards and letters of encouragement, he has had the joy of discovering how God has used his ministry to bless people around the world. And this has been a time for the Boice family to be together, away from the pressures of a life in ministry.
We can praise God for all those things, but at the same time, we must be honest about the fact that our pastor’s illness and expected death have plunged many of us into grief. Already we grieve Dr. Boice’s absence from the pulpit, and we are filled with sadness at the prospect that we may never see him on this side of eternity again.
There are many reasons for our deep sadness. Dr. Boice has many close personal friends and co-laborers within the church who feel his absence especially keenly. Others who do not have a personal relationship with Dr. Boice have derived great spiritual benefit from his teaching ministry. In more ways than we can express, our growth in grace has been promoted by his faithful exposition of God’s Word. There is also a sense of loss over what our pastor might have accomplished in days to come—the sermons he might have preached, the books and hymns he might have written. Then, too, his illness may remind us of other losses we have experienced, losses that we continue to mourn.
The Bible says that there is “a time to weep” (Eccl. 3:4), and this is such a time. Each of us will mourn in his or her own way, but it is necessary, it is right, it is good for us to be saddened by the impending loss of our pastor. One of the things that can help us as we grieve is Dr. Boice’s own teaching on the subject of death, and I want to close with a selection from one of his books. The Wednesday morning theology class that I teach here at Tenth Church has been studying the book Foundations of the Christian Faith for the past two years. A few weeks ago we came to the following passage on the doctrine of the resurrection:
The Christian doctrine of the resurrection recognizes that death is an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26) and is therefore something unnatural, something evil that was not God’s original intention for humanity. It is important to stress this because some forms of Christianity encourage a false optimism that denies the reality of the three great evils: sin, suffering and death…
We sometimes see it in relation to a person who is dying. I read the story of a Christian who was in the last stages of cancer and who described what had been happening. She said, “I can see the people who come to visit me because there is a mirror in the hall and they are reflected there as they come by. Many pause to put on a pleasant expression. Then they come into the room and talk about what is going to be taking place at church next week or the week after that. They speak of the time when I am going to be better and be with them again. But they know I won’t be. They know I’m dying. I know I’m dying, but they don’t want to talk about it. So they put on a pleasant face and pretend that the evil isn’t there.”…
Do we deny because we think that somehow it is more spiritual to pretend that death is not real? I do not know. But I do know that such attempts are unsuccessful… . Although in one sense denial might satisfy us if we are not now facing death—at least to the extent that we are not thinking about it—it does not satisfy anybody who is face to face with it. False optimism does no good.
On the other hand, the Christian doctrine of the resurrection speaks of victory over death provided for us by the Lord Jesus. After writing about death as an enemy, Paul went on to speak of the ultimate victory to come. “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ ” (1 Cor. 15:54). He concluded, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 57).
What a victory that is! It is an entrance of the soul and spirit into the presence of God, to be followed in God’s own time by a physical resurrection… . Assurance of these things is ours because of Christ’s resurrection.
[The quoted material comes from pages 708-709 of the revised edition of Foundations of the Christian Faith, first published by Inter-Varsity in 1986. Regularly updated information on Dr. Boice’s condition is available by internet (www.tenth.org) or telephone (215-735-4491 ext 555)]
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org