Question: In John 8:51 Jesus says: "... if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death." Jesus must mean something other than death literally, so why doesn’t He just say what He means, or else explain why He uses “death” figuratively?
Jesus is not using the word “death” figuratively. Rather, He redefines the word to help us see what death really is, from God’s perspective, as opposed to the distorted human understanding of death. To do so He still uses our common vocabulary, yet reinterprets the term by applying it differently.
For example, a carpenter points to an assortment of lumber stacked in piles according to their relative size (2” X 4”, 1” X 3”, 4’ X 8’) and tells his newbie apprentice to go get a full sheet. The apprentice does not know that a “full sheet” refers to standard 4’ X 8’ plywood. Once the carpenter clears up the confusion, the apprentice has a new frame of reference for the word “sheet.”
From the human point of view, “death” typically means that a living biological organism as ceased to function. Since it no longer lives biologically, we say it has died. Interestingly, we can also say that something non-biological has died, such as a microwave oven or an automobile, and expect that others will understand. The way we use the term changes the meaning without requiring further explanation.
Jesus frequently re-defined the meaning of death. Whereas we see biological death as the cessation of life, Jesus treated death as a transitional stage of life, not unlike transitioning from sleeping to waking—a transition he had control over:
Mark 5:39 He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.”
We see death as a state from which there is no return, once decay has set in. For Jesus, death is not biologically defined. From God’s point of view, once human life has begun it exists eternally. Biological death is an anomaly—an abnormality in God’s created universe brought about by sin:
Rom. 5:12 …sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people…
Sin not only introduced death to the human experience, but it also traps humanity into an eternal existence cut off from God, who is the author of life. To correct this, God entered the human race as a sinless human being to rescue us and restore us to eternal life in His presence. This is why Jesus said to Mary, Lazarus’ sister, outside the tomb of her dead brother four days after his internment,
John 11:25 “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
John 11:43-46 …Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.