Philippians 1:22-26 “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.”
When Candida Lycett Green discovered the lump then she went for tests that would confirm or deny the presence of breast cancer. In a few days a call confirmed that the tumour was malignant and soon she was going through the ordeal of the treatment. When that was over she set out on a journey on horseback from Yorkshire to the Scottish borders. The ride raised money for the Abernethy Cancer Centre. She writes about the journey in her book “Over the Hills and Far Away” (Doubleday, 2002) where she is also trying to make sense of the other journeys of her life, whether geographical or emotional. There is no self-pity and plenty of sound advice about coping with cancer. She concludes, “Only when faced with death does the purpose of being alive become so clear.” But the Bible inverts that order and insists that it is when one discovers the purpose of life that one can face death. All men face death, but few there be that find life. That is the unique contribution Jesus Christ makes to our lives. He alone gives us life’s purpose because he made life and is life itself. It is in knowing him that we can face death.
Paul tell us that to live is Christ, and to die is gain, and in this happy situation – life with Christ, and the gain of death in Christ – every Christian lives. “Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two” (vv. 22&23), writes Paul. Both were wonderful options for the apostle. While he lived in this world nothing could separate him from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. All things were under an obligation to work for his good. All grace would always abound towards him so that he could glory even in his infirmities. That would be Paul’s portion while he remained in the body. But if he were to die then he would be with Christ and that would be “better by far” (v.23). What wonderful options are before all of us who are in Christ. The Lord has us today in the grip of redeeming grace. He will have us when we die in perfecting and glorifying grace. If we could choose between these two (and we cannot) which would we choose? Submit to death and so give all my energies to preparing my soul for that? Or push those thoughts to the back of my mind and immerse myself in the needs of the churches and believers around me? “I don’t know,” says Paul. Some Christians are never perplexed concerning guidance. They always seem to know the Lord’s will, but Paul didn’t, and he tells us that he is torn between all that is involved in staying or going. Certainly the gospel of Jesus Christ had for Paul made sense of death, and thus it made sense of life too. No one’s living will be right until the following truths about life and death are anchored in his heart.
1. LIFE IS FRUITFUL LABOUR FOR CHRIST.
Paul knew what his duty was while God kept him alive. “Fruitful labour!” (v.22). In other words, hard work which under God’s blessing would produce fruit for the Lord, for other Christians, and for Paul too. The apostle is thinking about the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy and peace. He is thinking about the fruitfulness of the word of God sown in men’s hearts and producing a sixty-fold increase. He is thinking about the fruit of his labour in Philippi, such as Lydia and the jailer. Fruitful labour! Until we die those two words must be written over every day – “fruitful labour.” What am I doing for the Lord? How am I working for him? What remarkable theological and spiritual excuses might I be devising for taking a back seat and doing nothing? Every rationale for idleness is from the pit. Do I judge things “too small for a man of my talents”? Or are things for Jesus too big for me to render the dedication and the sacrifice which they would cost? But am I content to go on living as a saved man or woman without fruitful labour? The fields are white unto harvest, says the Lord Jesus. There are few labourers, and so pray! Ask that the Lord of the harvest will send forth labourers to bring in the fruit. You all know that as soon as you start praying earnestly about labouring for the Lord you yourself start to labour for him. You cannot pray about working without soon working yourself.
What form did Paul think his fruitful labour would be? “I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith” (v.25). He would continue with them in his prayers for them, writing this letter, finding out about how things were going and doing what he could for their progress. Paul did not want them to stagnate, remaining just where they were as he had left them some years earlier. He wanted progress in knowledge of the Bible, progress in conscientious living, progress in victory over remaining sin, progress in evangelistic concern, and so on. There are folk in every congregation who come to the minimal number of meetings and show no indication of progressing in the Christian life. Are they converted but temporarily backsliding, or are they stony-ground hearers? Philip Hacking observes, “I meet some older Christians who are coasting home, who don’t think things are like they used to be and they fear that things can only get worse. May I point out that there is a danger sometime with older Christians (which many of us are) that we don’t have this apostolic longing to see fruitful labour being done. But here’s Paul saying, ‘Right, Lord, I’m ready to go to glory, but if You want me to stay then it’s going to be fruitful labour'” (Philip Hacking, “Servants of the King”, Keswick Ministry 1989, STL Books, ISBN 1 85078 063 3, p.30) – fruitful labour is for Christian progress in the faith.
If we were school teachers we would tearing our hair with frustration at the end of the school year concerning some of the children in our class. How can they go up to the next year of schooling? They are exactly where they were a year ago. They don’t know arithmetic and reading and English and history or any subject any more than they did twelve months ago. There is no progress at all. It is a case of total stagnation. But I tell you one thing more, neither is there any joy in the lives of those children. Are these the children who love school, and enjoy study, and feel any affection for their schoolteachers? None at all. They love it when the school closes. They love play, and their ideal for a school would be playing games. They are making no progress and they are strangers to joy. Paul is concerned that while he is alive he will labour hard for Christian progress and joy in the faith. Joy is the barometer of progress. It is a mark of the activity of the Spirit of truth and light. It is Paul who emphasises that, not me: “through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me” (v.26). Paul knew that he had a job to do with the Philippians, yes, but with every other congregation too. Making progress in our Christian lives is our priority, and its result is overflowing joy.
Hitler lifted this idea of “Strength through Joy” from the Bible and made it the motto of the Hitler Youth movement. The secularization was grotesque, but the psychology was sound. Strong maturing Christians are always joyful believers refusing to be discouraged. Let me explain the clear connection between progress and joy. Christians who make progress in grace are showing that they are not prisoners of their past or present. The powers of forgiveness and a new creation are at work in their lives. Before them there is heaven and they have the assurance of being with Christ. In his presence is fulness of joy. At his right hand there are pleasures for evermore. That is where they are heading, and so they never give in to that wretched feeling that life is never going to become any better than it is now. Rather, it is going to shine brighter and brighter until the perfect day dawns. All things are going to work together for our good. The future is going to be far lovelier that our fears will allow. Mature faith assures them of that fact. Again, as Christians progress, their hearts and souls and minds expand in the knowledge and love of God. So their joy expands also.
Dr J.I.Packer shares this memory with us: “A generation ago I was close to a certain Christian family. Spiritually, I owe more to them than I think they ever realized. Life was not easy for them. The father died young, after being immobilized for years by heart disease. The daughter never grew normally and died in her teens of rheumatic fever. One son was so retarded mentally that he had to be institutionalized. The mother remarried, but died of cancer in middle age. Thereafter her second husband lived alone for some years, totally housebound with crippling arthritis.
“When I visited him, his gentle, sunny joyfulness in Christ, free from all complaint and self-pity, was a tonic from which my memory still draws nourishment. It is of him that I think when I hear Balaam’s words: ‘Let me die the death of the righteous, and may my end be like theirs!’ (Num. 23:10). I saw in him the power of joy, and it was a revelation. Now I celebrate the power of joy as part of the gospel. Beethoven wrote on the score of his Missa Sollennis ‘From the heart; may it in turn go to the heart.’ . . . God grant that we all get the message . . . ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’ (Rom. 15:13)” (J.I.Packer, “Hot Tub Religion”, Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton IL, 1987, p.160).
There is one more example of Christian joy in a recent letter which so captures the spirit of the apostle in his letter to the Philippians. They were penned by a Christian who was bed-ridden for the last eight years of his life. During these years, he suffered much pain, weakness, sickness, insomnia and nervous debility. He was almost completely shut off from people, but shut in with his God and Saviour.
“My ever dear brother,
“I am happy to see you are in Arran. I pray our most gracious Father to use your quiet rest both to renew your weak body and anoint your spirit through communion with Himself. His treatment of me is absolutely perfect, both in its adorable wisdom and astonishing grace. He patiently teaches me two great lessons I so much need but am so slow to learn: not to trust in myself at all, but to trust with all my heart in my faithful God, expecting everything from His infinite grace in Christ Jesus.
“I did not see you when you were here last summer, as I had hoped. But there is something much sweeter than seeing each other: to find our deepest delight in the most holy will of God.
“Therefore wait in simplicity on Him, committing your all to His absolute disposal, and ready to welcome whatever in love and wisdom He appoints you. I do not know how to praise Him for His wonderful love, in view of my own unworthiness. Often in my long, sleepless nights He fills my heart with singing.
“The above represents an entire day’s writing. I am now very weak. But I am as strong as God sees it best for me to be. And I desire His will, all His will, and nothing but His will.
“With hearty love, In Him, J.D
That letter is the outpouring of Christian joy in the Lord. There is no pleading for the right to assisted suicide so that the sufferer may ‘die with dignity.’ The joy of the Lord is this person’s strength. His testimony is, “God fills my heart with singing.” Without God men have nothing. With him, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”
So Paul saw life in Christ to be characterised by fruitful labour, and as his ministry was necessary for the progress and joy of the Philippians he was persuaded that it would be some time before he had to die; “I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you” he says (v.25).
2. DEATH IS BEING WITH CHRIST.
What are the common characteristic views of death at the present time? Dr. Lloyd-Jones suggests three: “First, there is a fear or hatred of death. Death is the last enemy, that haggard person that comes ever nearer and nearer, and we have a horror of it. Another attitude is that of resignation. It has got to come and I have to face it, so it is no use worrying or being annoyed about it. Then a third view, which men have tried to make popular in the last hundred years or so, is that we must have courage, we must stand up to it and refuse to be frightened; not resignation but a kind of defiance. And then, lastly, there is the Christian’s attitude” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Life of Joy,” Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1989, p.101)
The Christian attitude is that after death every believer goes into the presence of Christ. The Shorter Catechism puts it so perfectly: “What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death? The souls of believers are at death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory, and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.” There is that statement of the Lord Jesus in his story of Lazarus and Dives: “It came to pass that the beggar died and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom.” That is death to the Christian.
It is so important that Christians often consider the theme of heaven, and not in a superficial way, but to think about it so that we understand it better, and that it makes a fruitful impact upon us. Progress and joy in the faith can only come to us with a growing understanding of heaven. A number of good books have been written on the subject in the past few years, but one in particular is outstanding and that is Edward Donnelly’s “Biblical Teaching on Heaven and Hell” (Banner of Truth, 2001, 127 page paperback). Yet we need to address ourselves to many more books, articles and sermons on this theme. Baxter spent time each day considering the hope of heaven. Out of his meditations came his classic work, “The Saints’ Everlasting Rest.” It was written to give Christians energy and direction for present living. The New Testament point is Christians should know what their hope is, and draw from it power to resist whatever discouragements and distractions present circumstances produce. Today in the professing evangelical church triumphalism reigns. There is an unreadiness for pain and death, and that contrasts so unhappily with the realism and hope the New Testament writers inculcated in their readers to prepare them to leave this world in peace when their time came. So Christians should think and speak about heaven more, and ministers preach more on this theme. The world is curious as to what happens after death, and we have something to say to mankind, and it becomes the most wonderful news to all those whose trust is in the finished work of Christ, the Son of God.
The sad fact is how little true Christians think about heaven. One reason is that we are so preoccupied with this world. Ted Donnelly uses this illustration: “If I take a coin in my hand and hold it close to my eye, it will block out the sun and I will see nothing but that small shiny coin. Now the sun is bigger than a coin, but because the coin is close it blocks from my sight something incomparably greater. The daily realities of life may be neither big nor, ultimately, important, but because they are close to us, they impinge upon us. And the danger is that the very closeness of this world blocks out the infinitely vaster prospect of the glorious world which is to come” (ibid, p.65).
There are other reasons that we neglect to think about heaven; for example, we are too comfortable in our materialism. Our toys make us happy. Many also consider heaven as nothing more than the ‘inevitable next stage in man’s existence’. They are drifting to some vague world created by their own imaginations. People are also unexcited about what they imagine heaven could be like: “As a child I had no desire to go to heaven, for it seemed to me a boring place. My vision was of a church service which went on and on for millions of years, while I had to sit in a spotlessly white suit on a marble seat, not allowed to move throughout all eternity. Such a view of everlasting life was of limited appeal to a small boy! Of course, when the subject came up at home I feigned a decent enthusiasm, but it was largely synthetic. I didn’t like the sound of heaven and was in no hurry to get there” (ibid. p.66).
The pew may not be very enthusiastic about the pulpit speaking on heaven. It is frequently bringing pressure to bear on ministers to preach something ‘practical’ and ‘relevant’. It says, “We need something here and now for today. What concrete benefit will I get from sermons on heaven?” But limited temporary improvements to your life now – is that all you think the church has to offer? “We can give you a better marriage, instruct you in how to raise children, tell you how to find inner healing.” Is that what the pulpit is all about? Are there not study manuals, conferences, dynamic speakers and 12 week seminars on offer everywhere dealing with those kinds of themes? What about this fact, that the Lord Jesus Christ can bring you to glory for ever? We shall soon meet at Jesus’ feet! If we are not talking about that in tones of wonder love and praise it is little wonder that men are not interested in the gospel.
That Christians are “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use” is the lie inspired by Satan. It was Professor C.S.Lewis in his book “Mere Christianity” who said, “If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were those who thought most of the next. The apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who made the Middle Ages, the English evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on the earth precisely because their minds were occupied with heaven.” They were men whose happy spirits were like those of children looking forward to going off to the seaside, packed and ready to depart a long time in advance. The formula for this readiness is ‘Live each day is if thy last’ (Thomas Ken) – in other words, keep short accounts with God. J.I.Packer says, “I once heard Fred Mitchell, at that time director of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, enforce this thought shortly before his own instantaneous homegoing, when the plane in which he was travelling disintegrated in mid-air. Mitchell lived what he taught, and his biography was justly given as its title the last message radioed by the pilot of the doomed plane – ‘Climbing on Track’. I hope never to forget his words” (J.I.Packer, “Knowing Christianity,” Harold Shaw Publishers, 1995, p.246).
Paul was full of longing for heaven: “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (v.23). Why did the apostle judge it to be better? Not because of the discomforts of the wretched prison existence. He had learned contentment in whatever state he was in, and he appreciated how to be abased in chains. Of course he would cherish his liberty, but he was not choosing death as the better alternative to his present sufferings. Nor was Paul longing for what lay beyond death as the ultimate escape from bodily existence. He did not think of himself as a soul trapped in a body and that it would be gloriously liberated by death. The Greeks all around him thought like that, but not Paul. His body would for ever be the temple of the Holy Spirit, and he longed for the day when his body would be raised from its grave, new, incorruptible and glorified. There was no trace of dualism or anti-materialism in Paul’s thinking. His body was from God and for God.
Nor were Paul’s longings for heaven some fantasy escape-mechanism, a figment of diseased religious imagination, that could keep his spirits going during those prison years. The concept of heaven was not created by Paul as a compensation for the sufferings many Christians were experiencing. Men have criticised the Christian teaching on heaven as a religious invention, to buy submission from those whose lives were characterised by decades of wretched poverty and injustice. Thoughts of heaven merely blunted the urge for revolution by its promises of future blessedness. This is what Karl Marx believed, religion was a drug, the opium of the people. Men and women, because of the wretchedness of their present existence, were encouraged to hope for something beyond this world, so Marx taught. There is the Marxian analysis of history and world affairs, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, feminism, racial equality, the slump-boom cycle of capitalism, false consciousness, . . . and no heaven. Men created the concept of ‘heaven’ because things have gone wrong on earth, but, Marx said, once society is sorted out and its ills put right then the need to fantasise about a world to come would disappear. This life would then provide the perfect fulfilment of all human aspirations. Until then, in this sad and unjust world, religious and social leaders preach heaven to take the minds of the poor off the troubles which are all around them. But Marxism itself is utterly utopian.
How do we answer that? Firstly in saying that the fact that some people long for something very badly does nothing to prove that their longed-for object is fantastic. I may long for cooked lobster, but there is none in our house. I long for a better car and I actually purchase one. The question of whether there is lobster or a new car doesn’t hang on my needs and desires but on how vital or worthy those needs may be. Is there a lobster for sale at the fishmonger’s shop, and can I afford it? Is there a car for sale at the right price? So it is with heaven. Some people long for it as a pre-eminent hope while others scorn its existence. The central question is this: is there a heaven before us, and how do we know? If heaven is a reality then let me adjust my living to that fact. The apostle Paul, and all who have believed like him, have been assured about heaven because they had grounds to believe in such a place. If they have been mistaken then let that be pointed out to us all. The question of truth always comes before questions of human fantasies and sufferings and needs. You say that you would like to believe in heaven but you can’t. Why not? What are your grounds for disbelieving? In a moment I will tell you the Christian grounds for hope, and what the content of that hope is.
So Paul did not desire heaven because it would mean the end of the discomforts of the prison existence, nor in order to be delivered from his physical body – that ‘wretched house of clay’, nor was the thought of heaven simply Paul whistling in the dark to keep up his spirits. Why then did he have this hope in death?
i] DEATH IS A DEPARTURE.
Firstly, he tells us that he sees death as a ‘departure’. He does not see death as annihilation. He cannot envisage himself crying on his deathbed, “Out brief candle!” and in the twinkling of an eye ceasing to exist. Death is not someone being snuffed out. “I desire to depart,” says Paul. The word is used of soldiers striking camp, packing up their ‘earthly tents’ and moving on to their final destination. They once were staying at that spot, but now they have gone – somewhere else. It is not that they have ceased to exist. The word ‘depart’ conveys the idea of leaving something permanently behind. “We can see this most clearly in the military operations of the Roman army. Whenever a party of Roman soldiers reached the end of a long day’s march they made a camp. This was no ordinary camp constructed out of a few tents and several fires. A Roman camp, even when the legion was under pressed marches, was always an elaborate affair. First, a rectangle was paced off, large enough to hold the contingent of soldiers. The troops occupied assigned places within the encampment. After the rectangle was paced out the entire encampment was secured by moat and rampart, often to a combined height of ten or twelve feet. The top was reinforced and the corners were strengthened. After this the soldiers settled down for rest and for their evening meal. In a day or two the camp was struck, and the soldiers moved on. Behind lay the camp with all its fortifications like a discarded chrysalis, mute testimony to the fact that they had been there. Paul suggests that in a similar way Christians break camp to be with Jesus, while all that is not useful lies behind – all of the sin, all of the pain, all of the care and anguish of this world” (James Montgomery Boice, “Philippians,” Baker Books, 1971, p.82). So Paul’s longing was to ‘depart’ from this uncertain earthly pilgrimage to his eternal home.
From whence did Paul get these ideas of immortality? From the Word of God. For example, in the very first book of Moses, Genesis, we are introduced to Enoch, and we are told, “and Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him” (Gen. 5:24). It is not recorded that God annihilated Enoch so that he ceased to exist, but that he was not on the earth one day longer. An old time Welsh preacher would put it like this: “Here was this man, Enoch, walking with God. Every day he would go and look for God, and they would have a walk together. And then God would say, ‘Well, I must leave you now; you go home and sleep. Get up in the morning and do your work and I will look out for you again tomorrow.
“This was the life that Enoch lived [said the preacher]. This was his greatest delight. Enoch had his work to do, of course, but he always looked for the times when he could give himself utterly and absolutely to taking a walk with God and enjoying his companionship. He had been enjoying this every day, as we are told in the record, for several hundred years. Then one day he finished his work and went as usual to the meeting-place where God was waiting for him, and they walked together, and it was wonderful. God had never been so loving, he had never been so kind, and Enoch had never been so happy.
“The time came, the usual time, for God to say, ‘Very well, I must leave it at that for today, and we will meet again tomorrow.’ But on this occasion God didn’t say that. He said, ‘Enoch, we have been doing this together now for so long. You enjoy it; I enjoy it. Tonight, I’m not going to say to you, “Go home and rest and sleep and get up and do your work and look for me tomorrow. Enoch,” he said, “don’t go home. Come with me.” So God took him and he was not. God took him to his everlasting habitation. The perpetual fellowship was to be absolute. There was never to be another break or another intermission” (quoted Dr D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Heirs of Salvation,” Bryntirion Press, 2000, pp.44 & 45). Enoch departed to be with the Lord.
When King David’s baby son died the heart-broken king cried, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23). David departed to be with his son. The Lord Jesus tells us that the living God identifies himself as ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ (Matt. 23:32). The bodies of those patriarchs were buried and had turned to dust, but those men as to their spirits, were in the presence of the God of the living. “I will always be their God,” says the Lord. The heroes of faith of Hebrews 11 considered themselves ‘strangers and pilgrims on the earth.’ One day they were going to depart for the heavenly country that God had prepared for them (Hebs. 11:13-16). The body dies, but the spirit survives and departs to be with Christ. It departs this world and joins the vast company of “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebs. 12:23). So Paul believed in immortality from the plain teaching of the Scriptures. Death for him consisted of departing. This old tentmaker from Tarsus would one day pack up his own earthly tent for the final time and move on to his permanent home, the mansions that the Lord was preparing for him.
The greatest reason the apostle believed in life after death was his never to be forgotten encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ as he was on his way to arrest and imprison followers of Jesus Christ. This is how he recounts the incident to King Agrippa: “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord said. ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you” (Acts 26:12-16).
Now it is the easiest response for men of the world to slip into unconsidered and automatic amateur psychiatry in dismissing this incident and talk of “the pressures of guilt in Paul”, and a “vivid imagination”, and “the heat and light of the sun causing the apostle to see things”. But there is one factor in particular that you must consider if you are tempted to judge like that. Paul recounts this story three times in the Acts of the Apostles, and on all three occasions he tells us that everybody in his group on the road going to Damascus saw the glorious heavenly light, “blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground” (Acts 26:13&14); “The men travelling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone” (Acts 9:7); “My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me” (Acts 22:9). They all saw the light, they all fell to the ground, when they got to their feet they were all speechless, they all had heard the sound of the voice, but could not see Jesus nor understand what he was saying. That was given to Saul alone. The Holy Spirit did not give that particular revelation to the others. Like the initial sight of Jesus by the two men on the road to Emmaus, “they were kept from recognizing him” (Lk. 24:16).
So Paul’s conversion cannot be dismissed as some intense private experience of a guilt-ridden man. This experience was sudden, public, corporate and observed by many others who were utterly overwhelmed by what they saw, though certain aspects of it were hidden from them. The consequence for Paul was a revolution of thought and value. He experienced a moral transformation, and for the rest of his life he lived a modest holy life telling people exactly the same message Peter and John and the other apostles told them, that Christ was the Lamb of God who had died for our sins to be forgiven, and on the third day he had risen from the dead, and hundreds of people had seen Jesus alive talking, eating and drinking with him. That was another unanswerable reason Paul opposed any idea that at death we pass into non-existence. His Saviour Christ had risen from the grave. Jesus is more powerful than death! That is the gospel. So death is a setting out, a departure for another destination.
ii] HEAVEN IS BEING WITH CHRIST.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was often asked why we are not told more in the New Testament about life beyond the grave. What did he reply? “I have two answers to give. The first is this and I am sure that it is right: We are not told more because there is a sense in which we cannot be told more. Everything in this world is sinful, even our language. I do not hesitate to assert, therefore, that if the New Testament had given us a detailed description of heaven and of being with Christ our language would misrepresent it. Our language is not pure enough, the thing is so wonderful that all the vocabularies of the universe are not adequate to describe it. it is so glorious and wonderful that we need to be qualified and perfected before we can take the description or are capable of understanding it. I am sure that is the first answer.
“The other answer is that we are deliberately not told, in order that we may think of it only as Paul though of it. Paul only put it in one way . . . The only reason for wanting to go to heaven is that I may be with Christ, that I may see him. That is why the little word ‘and’ is so important – ‘to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.’ The only man who is really happy about death, the only one who can say confidently, ‘to die is gain’, is the man who has said, ‘to me to live is Christ.’ . . . That is what enabled Paul to say it. Christ was the consummate passion of his life: to know him, to dwell with him, that is the thing, said Paul. that is my life, and therefore to die must be gain; to go home, to be with Christ, is very far better” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Life of Joy”. Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1989, p.107).
In the Bible there is not one reference to believers going ‘to heaven’ when they die. Instead they go to be ‘with Christ.’ In other words, heaven wasn’t at all a natural hope. For example, young people have a hope of growing up, and getting married, and working for forty years, and retiring, and enjoying some years living on their pensions. That is their hope for the future. It is completely natural. You don’t need a revelation from heaven to tell you that this lies in the future of many men and women in Europe. All you need is observation and deduction. It can all be explained by biological, political, and economic changes. But the hope of heaven is not like that at all. It cannot be compared to anything in the natural order, like the caterpillar becoming a butterfly. It is not like going to bed after a long period of working, sweating and toiling. It is not like spring following the winter. I don’t want any of you to think of heaven like that. That is a profound and dangerous error.
Heaven means Jesus Christ, that is, being with Jesus. That is the only heaven there is. It is Christ’s home and he is never away from his home for a moment. What are the implications of that? The first must be that there is no sin in heaven. There is no unbelief there. There is no idolatry there. There are no false prophets there. The Beast is not there. There are no works of Satan there. There is no lying, no lust, no anger, no violence, no theft, no greed, no drunkenness, no pride, no hypocrisy, no gambling, no dishonouring parents, no discontent, no fretting, no self-pity, no frustration. Heaven is an utterly pure and spotless place. “There is a city bright, closed are its gates to sin. Nought that defileth can ever enter in.” It is a hallowed place.
In other words, there is no gradual, imperceptible and inevitable transition that takes all mankind through this life and they all end up in heaven; no universal cosmic conveyer belt to glory! Heaven is the kingdom of Jesus Christ. All unrighteousness is banished from that place. He alone has done what was essential to be done for sinners to join him there. Consider this, that the merest glimpse of heaven’s glory – let its door open a chink for a glance at the tiniest portion of its holiness – and you would know instantly, “I have no right to enter such place. I am unworthy to pass through those doors and see that sight. I could not exist there.” Sooner an earwig aspire to become a nuclear physicist that a sinner stroll into heaven as his right. Have you seen that you have no entitlement to heaven, that it is closed to you for ever? It will never happen that by hook or by crook you will get there. No! The only heaven that exists is closed and barred to you while you go on without Jesus. He is the one and only way. No man comes to the Father except through him. To taste heaven is the fruit of the blood of God the Son.
“He died that we might be forgiven,
He died to make us good.
That we might go at last to heaven
Saved by his precious blood.” (Cecil Alexander)
It is because Christ all by himself obtained eternal redemption for us that he himself entered into the heavens. It is Christ, and Christ alone, who has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. It is Christ and Christ alone who has gone to prepare a place for us, that those whom the Father has given him may be with him where he is. The dying thief cried to Jesus that he would remember him. “I will certainly never forget you,” the Lord replied, “but more wonderful than that is my grace to sinners. You will be with me in paradise today.” There is no possibility of heaven without Christ getting us there. Heaven is the achievement of his redemption. Entrance and the entitlement to remain there for ever is made possible by him. It is made actual by him; it is the crowning gift of his redeeming grace; it is the ultimate blessing. Christ brings us to heaven, keeps us in heaven, and Christ is our heaven
Ted Donnelly’s father had a friend named Noble who was a millionaire. “He had not always been a millionaire, for as young men they had both been poor. But after he became wealthy their friendship continued. He regarded my father as his best friend, the one man who did not want anything from him, who liked him simply for himself. On one occasion, however, he persuaded my father to accept a gift. It was a holiday on which he wanted company. In the early 1950s the two men travelled by ocean liner across the Atlantic to the United States, and then throughout that country. It was an unusual journey for those days, the experience of a lifetime. Afterwards when speaking of that trip my father would rarely say, ‘When I went to America.’ It was usually, ‘When I was with Noble’. The trip was so completely his friend’s gift and provision that he couldn’t think of it without remembering the one who made it possible. And we should never think of heaven apart from thinking of Jesus, for we owe it utterly and in every conceivable way to him. In Richard Baxter’s words, ‘Let “DESERVED” be written on the door of hell, but on the door of heaven and life, “THE FREE GIFT.”‘ How then is it possible to distinguish between gift and Giver? Christ is central because it is Christ alone who brings us to heaven” (ibid., p.84).
Heaven is utterly Christ-centred. The Lamb is in the midst of that throne which itself is at the very heart of heaven. So Christ is the focal point of heaven. He is its centre, its axis, its divine energy, and its illumination. He makes heaven live. He makes it sing in perfect harmony. The Lamb is all the glory in Immanuel’s land. Paul’s desire, as death comes nearer, gets increasingly focused. “This one thing I want!” It is to be where Jesus is, to see him as he is, and to be like him. It is to discover if there might be anything he can do for Christ, to serve him with total love as long as he can. His longing is that his serving the God-man will never come to an end. The Lamb of God is worthy of that, and Paul can’t wait for that moment to begin. “I desire to depart and be with Christ.” That is heaven.
Dr J.I.Packer says useful things about the variety of delights in glory: “There will be different degrees of blessedness and reward in heaven. All will be blessed up to the limit of what they can receive, but capacities will vary just as they do in this world. As for rewards (an area in which present irresponsibility can bring permanent future loss: I Cor. 3:10-15), two points must be grasped.
i] The first is that when God rewards our works he is crowning his own gifts, for it was only by grace that those works were done.
ii] The second is that essence of the reward in each case will be more of what the Christian desires most, namely a deepening of his or her love-relationship with the Saviour, which is the reality to which all the biblical imagery of honorific crowns and robes and feasts is pointing. The reward is parallel to the reward of courtship, which is the enriching of the love-relationship itself through marriage” (J.I.Packer, “Concise Theology,” Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, 1993, p.266).
Samuel Rutherford compares our experience in heaven with a bride’s delight on her wedding day. What delights her the most? Not the service, nor the guests, nor the reception, not the flowers, and not even her beautiful dress, but her dear bridegroom’s face. Rutherford says, “The bride takes not, by a thousand degrees, so much delight in her wedding garment as she does in her bridegroom. So we in the life to come shall not be so much accepted with the glory that goes about us, as with our bridegroom’s joyful face and presence.” “They will see his face,” the book of Revelation says (Rev. 22:4).
That is how it must ever be in heaven. It is a fixed place compared to your place and mine. Here our families may serve other gods, and go from one idol to another. Today our country may lie in utter darkness. Now different false prophets sway the masses in turn, tyrants rise and influence millions, and they fall again. Change and decay in all around I see. But heaven is not at all a place like that. There is nothing transitory there. You don’t graduate from heaven to some other place. There is nowhere else. You enter heaven after the last judgment. There are no more purgings of our sins, no more evaluations and examinations; no more tests to pass; no promotion; there are no more ladders to climb. The moral character of the believer can never decay. There will be growth in every grace of course, and in continual delight in God, and in the new heavens and new earth, but there will be no spiritual declension at all. No one in Jesus’ presence can ever want to sin. Our glorified natures will not tolerate that. We will be so constituted and reconstituted that we cannot sin. We will not even wish to desire to sin. In other words, being with Christ we shall be like him the very moment we see him. Christ was tempted, yet he could not sin; God cannot sin. So we will be in that condition for ever, growing in our knowledge and love of God and of every other creature, working for our Saviour and with him, but without a spot or a wrinkle or any such thing to mar the beauty of the place.
Our joy will stem from the vision of the invisible God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. We will increasingly grow in Christ’s love as he ministers to us. We will fellowship with our loved ones in Christ and with the whole body of the redeemed. There will be continual growth, maturing, learning, enrichment of abilities, and enlargement of powers that God has in store for us. But there will be no unfulfilled desires, and this blessedness will never end. Its eternity is part of its glory. Endlessness is the glory of glory. Hearts on earth say in the course of joyful experience, “I don’t want this ever to end,” but it invariably does. The hearts of those in heaven say, “I want this to go on forever.” And it will. There can be no better news than this.
This is the Great Story going on forever, each chapter being better than the one before. Doesn’t the thought of heaven take your breath away?
To step on shore,
And that shore heaven!
To take hold of a Hand,
And that God’s hand!
To breathe a new air,
And feel it celestial air.
To feel invigorated,
And to know it immortality!
To pass from the storm and the tempest
To one unbroken calm!
To wake up,
And find it GLORY.”
How do you step on that shore? It must be through you and Jesus Christ becoming united. Hand in hand with Jesus. You have to receive the one who said, “I go to prepare a place for you.” Now who are you going to believe? The secularists, or the man who preached the Sermon on the Mount? Who is going to influence your life? The one who spoke and the winds and waves obeyed him, or all the despairing muddled men who say that ultimate reality is the coffin and the stinking corpse?
John Bunyan at the conclusion of Pilgrim’s Progress describes Christian and his friend reaching heaven in these words: “I saw in my dream, that these two men went in at the Gate; and lo as they entered they were transfigured, and they had raiment put on that shone like gold. There were also those that met them with harps and crowns, and gave them to them, the harps to praise withal, and the crowns in token of honour. Then I heard in my dream, that all the bells in the City rang again for joy; and that it was said unto them, ‘Enter ye into the joy of the Lord.’ I also heard the men themselves, that they sang with a loud voice saying, ‘Blessing, honour, glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb, for ever and ever.’
“Now, just as the Gates opened to let in the men, I looked in after them; and behold, the City shone like the sun; the streets also were paved with gold, and in them walked many men with crowns on their heads, palms in their hands, and golden harps to sing praises withal. There were also of them that had wings, and they answered one another without intermission, saying, ‘Holy, holy. holy, is the Lord.’ And after that, they shut up the Gates; which when I had seen, I wished myself among them.”
Unbelievers, hear! O that God might open the gate of heaven a little tonight, and show you what glories lie before favoured sinners, so that you could start to think, “I wish myself among them.” Longings like that are the first encouragements that the grace of God is at work in your life. But you might be thinking, “Would there be room for someone like me there? I have many doubts and have been a real hypocrite.” Hear a distinguished Welsh preacher answer your question: “Friend, heaven is an enormous place: ‘in my Father’s house are many mansions’, said Jesus Christ. God told Abraham how numerous his children would be (that is, his children by faith, the elect that would be in heaven): they would be as numerous as the sand of the sea or the stars of the firmament. [Can’t you be contented to be a little grain of sand on the streets of heaven? Wouldn’t you be happy to be a tiny star twinkling quietly in the new heavens? Wouldn’t you be pleased to be even a bruised reed that was on the banks of the rivers of life that flow from the throne of God and the Lamb? That is salvation!] John in his Revelation saw a multitude that no one could count. It is a big place; do not entertain the thought that heaven is small. God’s grace is never-ending and men and women invited to believe in Christ are welcomed there” (Gwyn Williams, “Heaven”, Bryntirion Press, 2000, p.18).
But you have to entrust yourself to Jesus Christ alone. You have to cry mightily to him until you know that he has given even you the right to heaven. If Christ were just one of many illuminaries of heaven it might be possible to think of reaching heaven without him. But the Lamb is the single Lamp of heaven. No other unoriginated light is found there but Christ. “Can you visualise yourself explaining to God why he should admit you to heaven while you remain an unbeliever? ‘I had no interest in your beloved Son’ you will say. ‘I repudiated him, made little of his death, shut my ears to his invitations, disregarded his warnings. Jesus Christ meant – and means – nothing to me. As far as I am concerned, your sending of your Son to earth was unnecessary, a pointless waste. But in other respects I have tried to be a decent person. For some of the time, I have done my best. So I expect you, O God, to allow me into the heaven of the Christ I despised and refused.’
“Doesn’t the idea of it make you shudder? Can’t you hear how crassly blasphemous such words sound? Yet that is, in essence, the unbeliever’s plea, and nothing could be more foolish. Without Christ there is no hope of heaven. So come to him now. Cry to the Saviour of sinners to change and forgive and receive you. If you ask him with all your heart, he will do it, and heaven will be yours” (ibid., Donnelly, p.94).
28th July 2002 GEOFF THOMAS