Philippians 2:16-18 “As you hold out the word of life – in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labour for nothing. But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.”
There is no point at all in Christians complaining about ‘this bad world.’ Of course it is crooked, depraved and perverse. The daily papers chronicle man’s appalling actions. The Bible’s teaching about the fall of man and his lost condition give us the sole explanation. Some people in the world are so depressed about the situation that their escape is not only into non-stop entertainment but into drugs and alcohol too. Others do unthinkable acts because they are so discouraged; life is not worth living for them or their families. But the Christian is delivered from despair by the good news that Jesus Christ who died for our redemption lives and reigns, and the Christian has been given a commission from God to hold high this light before men. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says. God helps us to shine by providing for us “the word of life.” In other words I don’t shine by my silent example alone. The explanation of why I seek to live as I do, and why I have hope, has to come from words I speak. Alec Motyer says, “Life without word is uninterpreted parable; word without life is idle gossip.” So in this dark world we are to shine as lights, and God helps us by giving us the Christian message – which Paul calls here “the word of life.”
1. THE CHRISTIAN IS MADE STRONG BY THE WORD OF LIFE.
By that phrase ‘word of life’ we are certainly talking about a book, one special book, the Bible. We are also talking about the message that is found in that book. We are talking about the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. We are talking about the preaching of the Scriptures. All of that may properly be referred to as the word of life. There are a number of reasons for this particular title:
i] It is called the word of life because it explains life. It says that life is more than human physiology, and biology, and surviving. We have been made for a purpose by the Creator. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Life is discovered in knowing this God for ourselves. Then, and only then, do we come to know our own selves. We can’t know what we are until we know who our Creator is, because we’ve been made in his image. That is the extraordinary Christian claim. This great Creator has made himself known by speaking to us through men like Abraham, Moses and the prophets, but especially he has revealed himself through his Son, Jesus Christ, who said on one occasion, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father.” The proof for the existence of God is the life of Jesus Christ. The word of life tells us about him – Jesus is the resurrection and the life – “he came all the way from heaven and its glory, and imposed such limits upon himself, in order that he might come upon the earth. Not only that, on Calvary he went down into the pit, he took upon himself your guilt and mine and he made atonement for it. He has taken away the barrier between us and God – the things that blinded our eyes – and has raised us up. He has taken hold of us by identifying himself with us; he gives us his own nature, and there we receive this life. He sends the Holy Spirit and we receive power and understanding and development” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Life of Joy”, Hodder, London, 1989, p.218). So the word of life explains what is the purpose of our existence on this planet.
ii] It is called the word of life because it gives life. Dr Monty White was a student here in Aberystwyth. He came to college as a teenage atheist, though as a child he had some contact with the gospel of Jesus Christ and he had prayed this prayer for many years, “Speak to me, for your servant is listening.” He had not attended church throughout his teenage years. His parents were not church-goers, but when he got to university in this town he met some Christian students and one Sunday night went along to church with them. The word he heard that night was to become the word of life to him, but first he came under terrible conviction. He says, “I returned to my lodgings determined to put all this stuff about sin and judgement out of my mind, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I couldn’t sleep or work, I lost my appetite, and all I could think about was my sin and God’s holy hatred of it. Although I was unaware of it at the time, God was answering my childhood prayer. A few days later, my friend asked me if I had enjoyed the service. I told him what I was going through and asked him a question straight from the pages of Scripture: ‘What must I do to be saved?’ He carefully explained the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross and showed me that I could be made right with God by trusting in that wonderful means of salvation that he had provided. There and then, on 25 February 1964, I repented of my sin and put my trust in Jesus Christ as my own personal Saviour” (as quoted in John Blanchard’s “Is God Past His Sell-by Date?”, Evangelical Press, Darlington, 2002, p.29). That is how he received that abundant life which is in Jesus Christ our Lord. That word gave life to Monty White.
iii] It is called the word of life because it supports life. It is also referred to as the bread of life and the water of life because it feeds us and strengthens us. Consider one man whose life was transformed by it. Dr Boris Dotsenko was born in Siberia. He did scientific study in the field of rocket technology and nuclear Physics in Russia. There were three occasions in his life when he stumbled across the forbidden Bible. The first was in a barn in the Ukraine in 1944 and for two weeks he fearfully and secretly read there such words as these: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The second time was in the university of Leningrad where he saw it prominently on the shelves of one of his heroes, the world-renowned scientist Jakob Frenkel. That professor was not ashamed to show that he had a Bible. The third time Boris found a Bible was when he came to a conference in Canada in 1966. He says, “as I unpacked my luggage in Edmonton, Alberta, I found another Bible, this time one which had been placed in my hotel room by the Gideons. To my astonishment, the Bible was open at the very words which had struck me so forcibly in that Ukrainian barn twenty-two years earlier: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ I began to read the Bible at every opportunity, and within a short time I came to put my trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal Saviour. My understanding of the nature of God has grown steadily over the years through Bible study and prayer” (as quoted in John Blanchard’s “Is God Past his Sell-by Date?”, Evangelical Press, Darlington, 2002, p.72). The Bible supports and strengthens new life in the new Christian.
iv] It is called the word of life because it shows us how to live this life. It says to us, be this kind of father. Be this kind of wife. Be this kind of neighbour. “This is how you should live,” it says. It tells us what the good life really is. It explains to us what love is. It defines for us marriage. It tells us about death and how to prepare for it. It explains what prayer is, and it teaches us how to pray. It tells us that man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever. It is quite detailed, for example, it speaks to working men and it says to them these words, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Cols. 3:23). That is how we are to live. We learn from the word of life.
So, we are strengthened by the word of life, and we need to mature if we are going to keep living in a blameless and God-pleasing way right in the midst of a crooked and depraved generation, when all the currents flowing around us would discourage us from living like that. But the word of life is a powerful and efficacious word, that is, it achieves its God-given purpose in us. It makes the people of God perfectly mature and complete, and it thoroughly equip them for every good work in a thoroughly bad world. They can stand in an evil day, and having done all they keep standing. They shine as stars in this dark world. In other words there is no secret why there are mature congregations and strong believers. They have committed themselves to ministries that are intent under God of achieving holy change in the lives of God’s elect. Their preachers remorselessly plough the word of life, and sow the word of life, and water and nourish the word of life, and harvest the word of life in their congregations every Lord’s Day. The people who attend to such a word are thus enabled to keep shining as lights in a depraved world.
Let me give you some illustrations of this. One day American President Woodrow Wilson was in a barber’s shop when a man came in for a haircut. “He was rather a stoutish man, nothing to look at, and yet the moment he came in everything changed in that barber’s saloon: conversation changed: there was an obvious and evident difference. When this stoutish man had gone out, Woodrow Wilson asked the barber, ‘Who was that man?’ and he received the reply, ‘That was Dwight L. Moody the evangelist.’ Moody did not preach in that barber’s saloon. He was just being the Christian he was” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones op cit, p.220). He was being a light in the darkness.
Let me give you another illustration. A young Christian went into the R.A.F. “He was being badly handled one night by some of his mates who had been heavily drinking, and the very way in which he took it, his manliness, his refusal to grumble, his just being what he was, so affected the ringleader of that crowd that he began to take an interest in Christian things. He wondered what it was that this young man had. He felt that he would rather like to be like that, and he began to take an interest in that young man and in the gospel of Jesus Christ” (ibid.). The word of life had equipped that young man to live like that.
One final illustration of this same important point. I had a friend who was the foreman in a printing works in the Midlands. He was once kind enough to offer me a couple of sacks full of off-cuts of fine paper at the end of certain printing run – a strip of quality paper that was destined to be thrown out. I still have a lot of it – it’s a strange shape – but I use it for a special purposes, for example, the Agenda for the Church Meeting on the notice board is printed on a piece of the paper he gave me those years ago. That paper will last me the rest of my life. Now, this man’s minister told me that one day a businessman came to those printers with the offer of a job. He had a girlie magazine with pornographic photographs and he asked them would they print it. The manager looked up at him and smiled, saying, “Oh, I’d have no problem doing that for you, but do you see that man there?” and he pointed down to my foreman friend as he walked around the machinery on the shop floor, “he would never allow that to be printed here. I’m sorry.” My big strong friend, who once worshipped with us here, had been changed and strengthened by the word of life over many years to live like that. He could shine like a light in the depraved world in which we live.
That is the word of life and Paul says that we are to hold to it. It could mean we hold it fast, gripping it, and never letting it go, or it could mean we are always holding it out as the word of life to a dying world. Scholars and commentators and versions are equally divided over the correct translation. It is a nice linguistic problem. Holding out the word of life is evangelism. Holding fast to the word of life is evangelicalism. We have to have both. Evangelism without evangelicalism is sentimental vague religion. We have no interest at all in making people religious. Evangelicalism without evangelism is cerebral religion. There must be a concern for truth and a concern for the lost, and we have to hold both, and more so as the years go by. Whatever might be the correct translation of that verb ‘hold’, all would agree that we must hold the word of life for all the benefits that the word of life gives. It will help us to be pure and blameless; it will encourage us to shine like stars. Hold your ground in Christian living and in evangelism. There is no other way. Hold on and hold out! Hold firm!
Last week the besieged leader of the Tory party, Iain Duncan Smith, told a story of his father’s bull terrier, named ‘Prang’. He’s been exhorting his dispirited party members to hold on. His father was serving in India with the RAF after the second world war. “Early one morning,” Iain Duncan Smith said, “my father was taking Prang for a walk, and the dog was running on ahead. Then my father heard the sound of hunting horns, and a pack of hounds came streaming over the hill ahead of the hunt. They were big animals, because they hunt jackals in those parts. The hounds caught the scent of the bull terrier and came charging towards him. My father ran to try to intervene, but couldn’t make it. Prang saw the hounds hurtling towards him but, whereas most dogs would have run, he just turned slowly so that he was facing them head-on. Everything about him, my father said, was rock-still except for his tail which just twitched from side to side. When the hounds got to him, it was like waves hitting a rock. They didn’t go for Prang; they just circled him. Father said Prang’s eyes followed each of them as they went past. He was just waiting for the first one to make a move, and saying: ‘Come on, then, be my guest. Who’s the first?’ By being determined and unafraid, he survived. Eventually the huntsmen arrived and called the hounds off. One of them said, ‘Thank God your dog didn’t run.’ Father said: ‘He never would.’ The point my father was making in telling me the story was: always stand your ground” (quoted in The Spectator, 9 November 2002, p.12). The mark of the word of life doing its work in a professing Christian is that he holds firm.
2. THE STRONG CHRISTIAN WILL POUR OUT HIS LIFE FOR GOD.
What are you going to do with this new strength that this mighty word of life gives? We’ve been insisting that as you keep holding the word that you’re in possession of illimitable new resources. Through the word of life you can climb any mountain. You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. You can run and not grow weary. You can walk and not faint. You can mount up with wings as an eagle. You can overcome any temptation.
We sang this morning on this Remembrance Sunday these words about the security of the child of God:
“Under the shadow of Thy throne Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone, And our defence is sure.”
In other words, through the protecting grace of God, under the shadow of his throne, you are able to live a blameless life without grumbling and complaining. Bishop Handley C.G.Moule writes about talking to a young Christian who was preparing for the gospel ministry, and he was meeting some coolness from people who were telling him how impossible he’d find that vocation. He – the young student – said so artlessly and earnestly to the old Dr Moule, “Ah, they all say that it is so hard; no one can really do it; no one can keep it up. But we must speak to them about the indwelling Spirit of God, about the Lord’s power in us; then they will find that it is possible, and is happy” (H.C.G. Moule, “Philippian Studies,” Hodder, London, 1908, p.120). Moule never forgot those words.
So you have this power, because God is working in you. Well, then, what do you do with this strength? Do you develop a personality cult? Do you make a lot of money out of your religion? Do you cultivate fame, power and a world-wide name? Of course not! None of those tawdry things. What are you going to do with your life? For whom are you going to live it? For whom or what will you lay it down? Our newspapers this past month have been filled with stories of the behaviour of the top families in England, the Windsors and the Spencers. If half of the reports are to be believed what a degree of depravity they indicate both in language and behaviour at every kind of level! With all their wealth and privilege they behave as shamefully as any gutter journalist who gleefully reports their falls. But the question is not what that fallen world gets up to with its limited resources – those people do not have your Saviour – rather, what are you going to do with your vastly superior knowledge and power? We men and women who are in the kingdom of God by a birth from above are without excuse.
Paul says this, that with this new strength that he has in Christ he pours out his life before God in the service of the church. He writes, “But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me” (vv. 17&18). What is he talking about? Is the reference to a pagan temple ritual or to the Old Testament Levitical sacrifices? It could be either, and James Montgomery Boice chooses the former. He says, “A Greek or a Roman performing such an offering would first take a valuable animal, kill it and then burn it on an altar. Following that sacrifice the ancient worshiper would make an additional offering called a ‘libation.’ He would take a cup of wine and pour it on the altar, thus pouring it upon the sacrifice that was already burning. Because the altar was hot, the libation would immediately disappear in a puff of steam. Paul is referring to this offering” (James Montgomery Boice, “Philippians,” Baker, 1971, p.153&154). J. Alec Motyer believes that the reference is to the Levitical sacrificial system. “The word refers to the ‘drink offering’ of the Old Testament. The regulations for this part of the sacrificial system are not absolutely clear, but we can at least say that the drink offering was the accompaniment of a larger sacrifice; it was the small thing which brought a major offering to completeness (e.g. Nu. 15:8ff). (J. Alec Motyer, “The Richness of Christ,” IVF, London, 1966, p.100). Sinclair Ferguson agrees with that interpretation (“Let’s Study Philippians,” Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1997, p.59).
Whether it is a pagan ritual or the Old Testament sacrificial system the same picture is being presented. A man goes to the temple where he makes a sacrifice and he offers it to God, worshipping him. Then maybe alongside the altar, and not on it, while the sacrifice is being consumed, as part of his offering, he pours out some wine to his God. It is his final thank-offering. Perhaps the wine came from the first fruits of his own vineyard, and he offers it cheerfully to God: “They all belong to you,” he is saying, “like I and all of mine belong to you.” It makes the greater sacrifice of a bull or a red heifer complete. He believes that God has accepted him, because God has been reconciled and that they are able to sup in harmony together. God has blessed him with life and every good thing. There are two questions that then arise:
i] The first is this: What is the main sacrifice, if this drink offering is subsidiary? We have to conclude that Paul is referring to the sacrificial living of the Christians in Philippi. That is the man sacrifice.
Consider what happened as these people in Philippi responded to the gospel. When the Philippian jailor was converted he would have suffered much from his colleagues, neighbours and the members of his family who didn’t believe. They said all manner of evil against him for Christ’s sake. The sacrifice of his name and reputation he made for Jesus Christ. Did Lydia lose some of her customers when she professed faith, and refused to work on the Lord’s Day? That was the sacrifice she made to God. When a Jewish woman became a Christian her husband might immediately divorce her and throw her out. The sacrifice of her home and marriage she made for Jesus’ sake. When a Jewish son professed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah the family disowned him and held a funeral service. He was dead as far as they were concerned. The sacrifice of his parents he made for the sake of the Lord. When a slave became a Christian his owners made it particularly difficult for him. The sacrifice of his comforts he made for Christ. When a tax-collector became a Christian he had to pay back everyone he had cheated and might make himself bankrupt in the process. That was the sacrifice he made for the Saviour. All that suffering came from people who were presenting their lives to God. That is what Paul is referring to here “the sacrifice . . . coming from your faith.” In other words if they had not believed in Jesus Christ none of these troubles would have come into their lives. There’d have been no sacrifice offered to the Lord Jesus. There might have been as many as five hundred people in the Philippian church, and so there would have been a mountainous sacrifice being offered to God – five hundred sacrifices. Their faith had resulted in the sacrifice of friends, family, peace, prosperity, and even life itself. All those comforts went when they persisted in believing in the Lord Jesus.
So Paul speaks of the “sacrifice . . . coming from your faith” (v.17), but he also speaks of the “service coming from your service” and he is thinking about the evenings they left home and went to see someone who had a little interest in the gospel; the hospitality they showed to the new missionaries as they went through the doorway of Philippi and out into Greece and Europe; the hours they spent in prayer, alone or with others, crying for God’s salvation to be made known in all the earth. There was the care they showed for abandoned babies and children and their concern for the frail, and elderly and dying. Paul is thinking about the service they gave to those in need, their ministry of mercy, giving so sacrificially to the poor Christians of Jerusalem, and the sum of money they gathered and delivered to Paul by Epaphroditus. It was intended to purchase for Paul some creature comforts or to meet the cost of his trial. They were not wealthy people, and they sacrificed much in serving their Jewish brethren and Paul. They also served one another. The strong bore the burdens of the weak. So there was that mighty sacrifice and service there in the midst of Philippi, the first community in Europe to have a gospel congregation, and from it rose up and up to heaven itself an offering and a sacrifice, a sweet-smelling savour to Almighty God.
That was the main sacrifice and Paul looked at it in awe. They hadn’t been Christians for as long as a decade. Ten years earlier no church, and little knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth, existed in Philippi. Now there ascended to God from the lives of these people this daily service and daily sacrifice in that town, an offering of praise to the living God and fellowship with him – the Lord came and supped with them and they with him. They could rejoice in their affliction. They were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. What a privilege!
ii] The second question is this: How is Paul being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from the faith of the Philippian church? What is Paul referring to? He was referring to his death. He would walk onto the scaffold or execution block, carrying the 150 pounds of his own weight effortlessly, and five minutes later it would take two men to carry his body off that scaffold. Paul was facing death daily, but he is saying something like this to the Philippians, ‘I’m really all right. I know you’re worried about me and what might be the outcome of a ‘Guilty’ verdict. They may indeed put me to death, but my one life isn’t the important thing compared to the sacrifice and service that is coming from your faith year after year. What an offering to God comes from Philippi! When my life blood is poured out by the thrust of a Roman sword it will be a mere drink offering poured out upon the far greater sacrifice and service of your faith.”
That would immediately resonate in Philippi. The Greeks knew all about heroic sacrifice. In their great battle at Marathon against the Spartans many of them had laid down their lives fighting a more numerous foe, and then a messenger was sent to take the good news of victory to Athens. They sent their star athlete, Phidippides, who ran his hardest all that way, over 26 miles, even though he had been hurt in the battle. The people stood on the walls of Athens and watched a dot appear on the horizon slowly getting nearer, staggering, but forcing himself on and on. They said to one another with growing excitement, “Only good news could make him run like that.” With his heart bursting Phidippides entered the gates and came up to the city leaders, paused and said to them, “Rejoice, as we rejoice”, and exhausted, he fell, and he actually died. The Greeks in Philippi knew about brave sacrifice in the bringing of good news.
The Christian church knows about martyrdom. Luigi Pascali, the pastor of the Waldensian Church in Calabria, Italy, was in prison for months at the time of the Reformation, and his brother, as he came into the cell, broke down at the sight of the brokenness of Luigi. His legs gave way under him when he tried to kiss Luigi because he saw how cruelly Luigi had been treated by the Inquisition. Luigi, who was soon to be burnt at the stake, spoke to him gravely, “My brother, if you’re a Christian, why do you allow yourself to be like this? Don’t you know that not a single hair can fall from our heads without the will of God? Trust in Jesus and take courage.” He was facing death but had more composure than his comforting brother. That was the spirit of the Waldensian Christians, and that is the spirit of the apostle here. “I am going to die but it will make the sacrifice of my dear brothers and sisters in Philippi complete.”
Paul once told the Romans, “None of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we belong to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (Roms. 14:7&8). Paul saw everything in a God-ward manner. Everything that he met God would work for his good. Even my death, when I die and how I die, is all ordained by him.
“All my times shall ever be
Ordered by His wise decree
Plagues and deaths around me fly;
Till He bids, I cannot die.
Not a single shaft can hit,
Till the God of love sees fit.” (John Ryland, 1753-1825).
That’s the Christian’s confidence. My death shall be my final offering to God. “I give Thee back the life I owe.”
“All that I am and have,
Thy gifts so free,
In joy, in grief, through life,
O Lord for Thee!
And when Thy face I see
My ransomed soul shall be,
Through all eternity,
Something for Thee.” (Sylvanus O. Phelps, 1816-95).
This was no time for tears, Paul told them. “I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me” (v.18). “See it as I see it,” he was urging the Philippians, and exhorted them to rejoice with him. “If I suffer, or even lose my life, in an offering poured out on top of your far greater sacrifice, I am delighted. What I don’t want is to die a martyr’s death without any corresponding fruit in your lives. As it is, whatever small sacrifice I’m called upon to make is but a complementary capstone on that temple to God that you’ve erected by your lives in Philippi. In your sacrifice of praise I’ll rejoice and you too should be glad and rejoice with me.” Paul didn’t find it difficult to die because he died every day. Spurgeon said that such a man, “would have practised it so often, that he would only have to die but once more; like the singer who has been through his rehearsals, and is perfect in his part, and has but to pour forth the notes once for all, and have done. Happy are they who every morning go down to Jordan’s brink, and wade into the stream in fellowship with Christ, dying in the Lord’s death, being crucified on his cross, and raised in his resurrection.” (C.H.Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 1887, Volume 14, pp. 419-420). So when death itself comes it is not unfamiliar to them.
This week I received a fuller copy of the testimony of the young Edinburgh divinity student Ruairidh D. Macrae. All Scotland is reading this moving affirmation of his trust in God, and the church is being helped by this powerful ‘sermon’ of his. He is reaching more people by his words than I have ever reached in my whole ministry. His body is resisting widespread cancer and Ruairidh has had to focus on the possibility that he will not live for much longer. He is possessed with this same spirit that Paul evidences here, pouring out a libation of himself before God. He has just written the following:
“As I sit here this side of death I look ahead with fear and yet with hope. I don’t want to die yet. I’m young (despite what my friends in the Youth Fellowship say, 25 this month is young!), and I’ve been married for only two and a half years. I believe I’ve been called to the ministry and I’m in my second year of training at the Free Church College. Despite my cancer, the last year or so has been awesome, being in St. Columba’s Free Church here in Edinburgh, training with great guys who love the Lord, his cause, his people as well as the lost, growing together, being taught by some of the greatest theologians that Scotland (and much further afield) has today. I want to be there with them at graduation, working alongside them in the gospel, growing in our friendships, being married, having kids, etc.
“So you will excuse me if I don’t give relish the thought of death. I yearn for heaven, but not the means of entry. It is my enemy, robbed as it is. It is of great comfort to know that when Lazarus died, Jesus himself wept. Nor did he condemn Mary and Martha for mourning, rather he joined them and pointed them to himself as the resurrection and the life. Paul says that to die is to gain. He is not saying bare dying or death is gain – although it brings gain in heaven. Here is a subtle point I think we might miss. Perhaps the same meaning would be this, that going to heaven is gain. Paul is not talking about the dying process nor of death itself. My example here, as always, is Christ. He knew what was coming in Gethsemane and yet he was willing to do God’s will not his own will, but God’s be done.
‘As I’ve said I don’t want to die just now. I know that for me, if things go as medically expected, it will be painful and frustrating. I hate being weak, and hate crippling pain. I can’t get to college often, or do things with my friends as I would like, or get out to church as much as I want to. But the amazing thing is this, that God uses us in our weakness, our weakness as those made in His image and yet fallen, or whether it is particular weakness, like illness, dying, or whatever it is. I also know that all my pain, frustration, weakness and yes, even as I am dying, is in his will. We serve a sovereign God, who is in control of everything, right down to the very sub-atomic level. He is in control of all. So while I would far rather not be dying of cancer, I am able to be strengthened and can say it is his good will. That doesn’t mean I like cancer, but it does mean I can rejoice in his divine purpose being worked out for His glory, and our good. I don’t look at my cancer to answer the question “Does God love me?” rather I look at the Cross and ask it. The answer from Golgotha is, “So much!” Therefore nothing that happens to us can prove a denial of his love to his people.
“I fear what lies ahead. I have wanted to live, to grow old with my wife, work with my brothers in the ministry for the extension of the kingdom, upbuild the Lord’s people and live for his glory. I want to grow with my friends, see their kids grow up, and see what the Lord has in store for us. There was a very encouraging part in the new biography of the late Jackie Ross where he basically said it was all right to want all these things just now, but when the ordained time came then he believed God would in a sense take earthly desires away, and he would be thoroughly and unequivocally prepared for heaven. I think such is a gift of grace given when it is needed.
“Yea, even when I walk through the dark valley of death I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me (Ps. 23:4). The everlasting arms are underneath us all, sustaining and holding us through everything. They are everlasting, because they are the arms of the eternal God, our refuge (Deut. 33:27) and so they hold us even through dying and death. It is not what we want that is important, rather God. That is difficult and yet it is glorious. For not one of us will in time turn around and say I wish it had been different, because it is all in his plan and we’ll see it was perfect, even the pain. We see a tiny corner of the tapestry, and even then just the back with all the mess of threads, criss-crossing and loose. One day it will be completed and we’ll see the whole finished masterpiece from the front, and see all the mass of seemingly messy unplanned threads form a thing of such great beauty that we will bow down and praise the Artist all the more.
“Death is our great enemy, and I will not trivialise or apologise for my fear and loathing of it for all it is, and all it stands for. However, my Lord has taken its sting for me, and for that I am eternally thankful. I can therefore with confidence be assured with the Psalmist, “You will keep on guiding me with your counsel, leading me to a glorious destiny,” (Ps. 73:24), and “Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the LORD for ever.” (Ps. 23:6) Whatever God has chosen for me whether it is that I will soon die or whether it is for me to be healed, I hope and pray that I and all my friends and family will rejoice in the Sovereign Lord for working out his purposes for our good and His glory. We serve a gloriously good God.
“But as for me, how good it is to be near God! I have made the Sovereign LORD my shelter, and I will tell everyone about the wonderful things you do (Ps. 74:28). I don’t feel particularly close to God just now. In fact, because of pain, difficulty in concentrating and my own sinfulness, prayer is difficult. I rejoice that our groanings are made perfect by the Spirit. I know that He is with me because He has promised to be here always as He is with all His children. Death is awful, but I am glad that it will be a temporary separation from my loved ones and that I will see them perfectly in Glory when they die or the Lord Jesus returns.
“What makes death more hated and awful for me looking at it is all my loved ones who are not in Christ. For them death has not been defeated, which makes it all the more painful preparing for mine. All that is to say that I hate death as I hate sin. I know I will die whether it is soon or not, (unless Christ returns) and I fear the process of dying. I hate all death represents, our fallenness, weakness, sinfulness, corruptness etc. I don’t want to be separated from my loved ones. I want to work for the gospel cause now. I fear that I will fail and not die well. Yet the marvellous hope giving such awesome things is that Christ has gone before. He has defeated death, robbed it of its victory. It is still awful in its unrobed state, but nothing compared to what it was, or what Christ has done. It is nothing compared to the reunion we will have after our separatedness if we are in Christ. Death has been defeated, the Resurrection guaranteed. Death, along with all mine, and all your sufferings, is nothing compared with what lies before us in Glory.
“I long to go Home, though I do say ‘Not yet!’ I hope my clinging is a lot more to do with concern for my loved ones and the cause of Christ than my own fear and sin. I know it is both. Death is powerful, but Christ is greater. My hope and prayer is that I will in his strength die well and bear testimony with my last breath to the Lordship and uniqueness of Christ, with the praise of him on my lips.’ And they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads.’ (Rev. 22:5).” Those are the moving words of a young Christian who is being poured out like a drink offering, and is finding increasing grace to rejoice in the will of God and the enabling strength of Christ. We are glad and rejoice with him. His letter has made us a blessed people.
“I fear no foe with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight and tears no bitterness,
Where is death’s sting? where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.” (Henry Lyte, 1793-1847).
10th November 2002 GEOFF THOMAS