The frightening reality of death.
Death which is working in you right now. Death which is unavoidable for everyone, everyone who hears my voice, unless the Lord Jesus Christ comes before that moment of death. Death which takes everything from us. Death which takes our loved one from us so that we never see him again. And death which is the certain reality of our life. Concerning our lives in the future we may say many things. But we may say one thing for certain: you shall die unless you are living when the Lord returns.
Death which plunges us into waters of sorrow. Death which brings us to the fires of anguish.
Is there a word able to stand before death? Is there a sure, invincible, true word, a word in which all who put there trust in it shall never be left desolate or ashamed? Yes, there is. There is only one word that stands before death. That is the Word of God. It is the Word of God which centers in His Son, Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Savior, the one who died upon Calvary’s cross, shed His blood for the forgiveness of sins, and is risen again on the third day, the conqueror of death. It is the word that points to the cross. It is the word that points to the empty tomb. It is the word that points to the Lord Jesus. He says to all of His own: Be not afraid. Behold, it is I. Look unto Me and be ye saved.
When we think of death there are two things we must never lose sight of. Jesus spoke of them in Matthew 22. In this chapter certain Saduccees who denied the resurrection, denied really that there was any life after death, tried to tempt Jesus and to catch Him in His words. They brought to Him an example of a man who died leaving no children behind him, and his six brothers married the widow, each one in succession dying, so that the woman had seven husbands in her lifetime. They ask, “Now which one will have her for wife in heaven?” The Lord exposes them in their folly. These religious leaders were filled with unbelief and skepticism, and they thought that they had put Jesus on the horns of a dilemma concerning the after-life. But Jesus calmly and powerfully answered, and said, “Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. Ye Saducees,” said Jesus, “are all mixed up because you are ignorant of two things: the content of the Scriptures and the unlimited power of God as it is shown to His saints.”
It is the light of those two great realities – the Word of God and the power of God – to which I will speak to you today. From the Scriptures I will speak – the Spirit-inspired, infallible Word of God – in which we have the true and certain comfort. We have that comfort only as we know the Scriptures. The Scriptures are true. Everything in the Bible is true!
Secondly, as we confront death, we speak of the mighty power of God revealed in the Scriptures. We read in Jeremiah 32:27, “Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh: is there any thing too hard for me?” Is He able to give you peace as you face death? Is He able to fill the void that death causes in your life, taking from you a loved son, a loved child, a loved husband or wife? Is He able to do that? Is He able to give you rest and peace and confidence? Such peace that you can say, “Have Thine own way, Lord. It is well with my soul”? The answer to those question is “Yes.” Yes, God is able to do that. God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all you could ask.
The Scriptures as the truth and the power of God – with these we confront the reality of death.
We read in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Now, you understand that those two are inseparable. You cannot say that death is gain (advantageous to you) unless you live in Christ. And if you live in Christ, then you can understand that death is gain. Death is gain for us because through death we are brought fully to be with our Lord Jesus Christ. But death is also gain for us who are left behind. When the Lord takes away from us a beloved one, one who is dear, dearer to us, we say, than life – that, too, is gain because through that God teaches us the reality, the only reality: for to me to live is Christ.
Let us ask three questions about death today. The first is: Where is the child of God who dies? The answer of the Bible is: he is with Christ. And that is why death is gain. Death is gain? We can hardly bear thinking about death. Death is separation, separation from our loved one. And it is so final. Of itself, death is because of sin. Death is not natural. Death is the curse of God. Because of sin we die. And, in itself, death is the Word of God that we deserve only the curse. But now, the Bible makes plain, in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that for all who belong to Jesus Christ, death has been swallowed up in victory (I Cor. 15). Jesus has made death the door which brings us to the Lord, the one who has bought us with His own blood. The body of our loved one is placed in the casket before us. And shortly after, we lay that body in the cold earth. But the soul of our loved one is not in that casket. The soul does not float somewhere in the atmosphere, but that soul, our loved one who dies in Christ, is at home with Christ.
Where is the soul of those who have died in the Lord? He is with Christ, which is far better. In Philippians 1:19 the apostle Paul piles up words: it is exceeding, it is far better. The moment the soul of a believer leaves his body at death, that soul is brought into the presence of Christ with exceeding great joy. At that moment that God knows about, at that place that God has marked out for our death (for nothing comes by chance, not even the most horrendous accidents, nothing, not even the moment of a sudden collapse in heart attack), at that moment the Lord brings His child before His presence, before the presence of the Lord in whom that believer trusted and loved, through the rough door of death. Through death, with all of its suddenness and horror, in a moment, God takes us to join the company of those just men made perfect.
Do you remember the story of the stoning of Stephen? You will find that in your Bible, Acts 7. At the end of the chapter we read that Stephen, being filled with the Holy Spirit, looked up steadfastly into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” At that moment Stephen’s body was being hit with stones. The life was being crushed out in a horrible way. But he saw heaven open. Our Bible tells us that the ascended Lord sits at the right hand of God. But Stephen saw Him standing on the right hand of God. And I believe that that means that so anxious is the Lord Jesus to receive the departing spirit of His servants that He stands up and He says, “Son, daughter, come home. I am waiting to receive you.” Do you not stand up to greet a loved one who enters into the room?
Where are those who die in the Lord? They are present with the Lord. They are with Christ.
But you ask, “How can that be?” And we answer with one word, no, with one Person: Christ. For to me to live is Christ!
The Bible teaches us that this means that the risen Lord Jesus Christ, by grace alone, enters into the hearts of His people so that even now we live in Him. Death does not change anything, really. Death confirms. Death makes final. Death makes perfect that which we have. Death is not the great change. Regeneration, what the Bible calls being born again by the Holy Spirit and being given faith and united to Jesus Christ in the reality of faith, that is the great change. One is risen from the dead right now when, by the grace of God, he is taken into Jesus Christ. That is the great change! And over that change the angels stand in marvel and in awe. Death does not change anything really. The great change is when one, by grace, says, for to me to live is Christ. Is that true of you?
The saint who dies, the child of God who dies, is now with the Lord, not because all men, when they die, go to be with the Lord. Not because all men by nature are God’s children and go to heaven when they die. Jesus said in Luke 16 that a rich man who died woke up in hell, in the flames and torments of hell. No, the child of God, when he dies, is not taken to be with Christ because of the fact that all go to heaven, nor do we go there because of any work that we have done of ourselves to merit or to earn heaven. We do not go to heaven because we were a good son. We do not go to heaven because we lived our life better than others, or because we deserved it of ourselves. Oh, yes, a child of God shows in his life that he loves the Lord Jesus and wants to please the Lord, as that will of God is made plain in the Bible. But we do not go to heaven because of what we have done. You cannot go to heaven because of your works. You cannot go to heaven because of a priest who says that your sins are forgiven. That is delusion. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
No, for to me to live is Christ. I live because of the work of Jesus Christ and the wonder of God of placing me into Christ by a God-given faith. The cross of Jesus Christ! That is why. Where the Son of God actually stood in the place of His children – no, in my place, in the place of all those given to Him of the Father – where He was forsaken of God so that we might never be forsaken. We sing of that, do we not? “What wondrous love is this, oh my soul? What wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul?”
To live in Christ is to live in faith. And that faith is not a mere word, it is not merely something external, but it is to be given over entirely to Christ in trust and obedience and love.
How are we united to Christ? We are united by grace. God works a wonder in our hearts. Very often He works that through a believing home, through loving instruction of believing parents.
Where is a child of God who dies? He is face to face with the Lord Jesus, which is far better.
The second question we want to ask today is, Why? Why does God take us? Especially, not simply the aged. We seem to find more peace with that. But what about the young? What about a boy who is sixteen years old? What about someone standing in the church who, we believe, is needed? What about those youth in the church for whom we have many hopes of years of service in the kingdom of Christ? Why? Does it not seem to us that very often the children of God are cut off? And, from our perspective, could not the Lord have spared them? We do not ask that question irreverently, as though God is obligated to give an account to us of His ways. But we ask reverently, with an open Bible, right now we ask, Lord, does Thy Word give us light on this?
The answer is, Yes. The answer is, first of all, that the moment of death is determined by the wise and absolutely sovereign will of our Father. There are no accidents. Death is not something that God has no control over. It is not true, when disaster strikes our families and a loved one is suddenly taken in a car crash or in some other terrible way, that we say, “God had no control over this.” That is not the Bible, that is not the truth. There is no comfort in those words. That is an empty word. Ephesians 1:11 says that God works all things after the counsel of His will. He is the God who has loved us. And He uses everything, everything, for the good of His children. He is the mighty God who loves with a powerful, passionate love. And He controls all things after the counsel of His own will. In God’s perfect wisdom and love, He appoints the time and the moment of our death.
Do not say, concerning the life of a young saint, that that life was not finished, that it was cut off, that it was not completed. No, no. It was exactly to the point that God had intended to bring it. It was full. You and I do not determine the moment that our life is full. You must rest with Christ today who was fully content to leave all things in the hands of His Father (Matt. 11:26), “Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight.” Shall not the Lord of all the earth do right? Shall not the heavenly Father, who did not spare His own Son, shall He not do right? Press your heart close to God. He doeth all things well.
But more, we die the moment we do because of the desire of Jesus Christ. Listen to Christ as He expresses His desire before the Father in John 17:24, “Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am.” The Savior yearns for those for whom He shed His blood. Every time a child of God is taken from this earth to heaven there is an answer given to the prayer of Jesus: “Father, I will that those whom Thou hast given me be where I am.” How many times do we not pull against the will of our Savior who has so loved us? How many times do we not bend our knee and pray, “Father, I will that my loved one be with me where I am”? Christ prays, before His Father, “Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am.” It was time for our loved one to be with the Lord. Let us pray, “Lord, Thy purpose in my loved one who confessed the name of Jesus Christ was finished as far as this earth is concerned. It was time for him to see Thy glory and to fall, with a joyful heart, before Thy throne.”
For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.
What is the word, then, to you and to me today? It is the word that is very clear. Everyone who hears my voice can understand it. Whether or not you believe this word, whether or not you grit your teeth against it, makes no difference as far as its being true. This word is true. The only comfort in life and death is to belong to the faithful Savior Jesus Christ. There is no other comfort in life. God has spoken. Death is a reality. What is your life but a passing shadow? Where in this world are you going to find that which has comfort? There is only one Rock. And that Rock is Christ, the Christ of the infallible Bible, the Bible which is word for word the very Word of God. To live is Christ. And Christ is not a mere word. Living in Christ is not simply a pious phrase. It is a reality, a living reality of God’s wonderful love whereby I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.
Is that your confession today? Only in the risen Lord can you stand before the grave. Only in the risen Lord can you stand before the testimony of your own sin. Life is not money. It is not beauty. It is not sex. It is not power. It is not cars. It is not drugs, parties, food, drink. If that is all that you have, you are dead. Life is Christ crucified and risen.
Then, in death, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. It is I. Your loved one is not here. He is risen.”
Shall we then praise God also in death? Let us take the words of Scripture, the words of God, the power and the Word of God which is able to stand before death, the only Word that stands before death. And those who confess that word stand before death. Shall we do so right now? Shall we take the Word of God upon our lips: “For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen.”
Let us pray.
Father, we pray that we may not be as a fool who runs and avoids the reality of death, but that, by grace, our hearts may rest and trust in Christ and that in our lives it may be true, For to me to live is Christ and death is gain. Amen.