|Book: Becoming a Secure Christian|
Part 1 : Setting the Scene
Part 2 : A Biblical Security
Part 3 : Personal Security
(Practice and Theory)
Chapter 16: Secure Facing Death
“ …so that by his death he might… free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death ”
(Hebrews 2:14.15 )
Before we come to the end of this book on personal security we need to cover one more area that upsets many people, that of death. In this chapter we'll look at facing death, facing the path to death, facing the thought of appearing at the Judgement and facing the very thought of eternal life. This is a subject about which we could say a great deal, but for the sake of space we'll try to keep it short and simple.
16.1 Facing Death
When we're young, death seems a far off thing that has little relevance for us. It perhaps takes the death of a loved one, or a life threatening personal experience, or of passing middle age, to make some of us face the realities of that one thing in life that we can actually guarantee - that life will end. The same truth is clearly there in both the Old and New Testaments:
Eccles 7:2 “death is the destiny of every man”
Heb 9:27 “man is destined to die”
Yes, that is the truth, every single one of us without exception is going to die - sometime! For most of us we don't know when that will be. For a few, for those with a terminal illness, we may have a good idea how long we have left. But, whether at this moment we are conscious of how limited our days are, or whether in the flush of youth we almost believe it will never happen, the reality is that it IS going to happen and we should, therefore, be quite clear about it.
Beyond the End of Life?
Now you may feel that some of what I say is merely academic but the truth is that many people are genuinely worried about these things. For instance THE crucial issue first of all is, is there anything after death? It is a worry that many people have. Many people seem to live as if they were convinced that there is nothing more after death, they gamble on that great assumption, yet is a very shallow assumption.
From the earliest times of history mankind has had a belief in an afterlife. World religions have always made death a key issue. In the latter half of the twentieth century came a number of after-death-through-resuscitation accounts from people who had experiences purporting to have been through death and back again. Yet, for the Christian, the Bible is the only sure source on which to base belief about life after death.
So what is Death
Trying to be as simple as possible, death is:
The fear of death that the writer to the Hebrews was referring to at the top of this page is, in most of us, both fear of the unknown after death, and fear of the way we might die. We'll deal with the latter fear in the second part of this chapter. When it comes to the first fear, we have to say that the picture is not absolutely clear, which is why there are a variety of views from scholars on it. Rather than lay out all of the views of what happens after life on earth ceases, I would rather suggest a simplified description of what happens.
Trusting in God's Goodness
When we are unsure about the future, it is sometimes helpful to look back and see what the past tells us that might bring confidence for the future. Whatever may be suggested about what happens after death, may I ask you to remember everything that you have read so far in this book about God's love and acceptance of you that can help you feel secure in your life on earth. That love is not going to suddenly disappear the moment you die. All of the work of God through His Son, Jesus Christ, was with the one aim - to bring you into a place of blessing, a place where all the goodness of God can come to you. That does not change at death; in fact that goodness to you multiplies a million fold. You're going to get the culmination of all of God's promises to you!
Comfort from the Cross
When Jesus rose from the dead (and this is the point the Hebrew writer was making) the fact that he came back from death indicated quite clearly the thing that he had been saying throughout his ministry - there is another reality called heaven and that death was not just the end. Again and again Jesus had spoken about his existence with the Father before he came to earth (e.g. Jn 6:33 ,38 etc.) and had prayed about returning to heaven to his previous existence with the Father (Jn 17:5).
As he hung on the Cross, to the penitent thief Jesus declared, “ today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). Clearly there is no room to believe he meant anything other than heaven. After his resurrection, on the road to Emmaus, he chided two of the disciples with the words, “Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory ” (Lk 24:26). Again his glory can only refer to his place at the Father's side in heaven, to which so much other Scripture testifies (e.g. Mk 16:19, Acts 2:33, Eph 1;20, Phil 2:9, Col 3;1, Heb 1:3 etc. etc.). Thus before his death, on the Cross and after it Jesus testifies to us to the reality of life after death with his Father in heaven.
A Place for Us?
Speaking of heaven, in his Last Supper discourse, Jesus says to his followers, “I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am.” (Jn 14:2,3)
I don't want to go into details here (because of lack of space) about the time or order of what happens after we die, but the above verses clearly indicate that Jesus' objective is that we will be with him in heaven. Will we be like we are now? No, in the same way that Jesus' resurrected body seemed to be capable of new things so, the Bible indicates, will ours be:
1 Cor 15:42-44 “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”
“Sown” means buried in the earth at death. When we die our body is perishing, it is submitting to death, dying in weakness, a natural physical body at the end of it's time. In heaven the body you will have will not be subject to decay or degeneration, it will be glorious and powerfully recreated, a spirit body to enjoy a glorious life with God who is spirit.
16.2 Facing the Path to Death
For many of us, it's not so much death itself as the things that lead up to death. Some of us fear a lingering disease that leads to a painful death. Others of us fear the possibility of persecution that end with us being put to death by those who oppose Christ. These are very real fears, for both forms of death happen all the time somewhere in the world. There are at least two things that might help us here. The first is the grace of God available to us, and the second is the effect of the way we go to glory. Let's consider them separately.
The Available Grace of God
When Paul was struggling with his famous ‘thorn in the flesh' the Lord said to him, “ My grace is sufficient for you ” (2 Cor 12:9). Now what does God's grace mean in this context? It is the God-given supernatural ability to cope with the circumstances .
Apart from Jesus himself, perhaps the greatest illustration of this in the Bible is that of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. In the face of opposition, Luke records that Stephen was “ full of the Holy Spirit ” (Acts 7:55 ) and in that state receives a divine revelation of Jesus which seems to enable him to be gracious even as he is being stoned to death!
Those who study the deaths of Christian martyrs through the ages often comment on the grace that was there that enabled such men and women to face death, almost with equanimity. The reality is that whenever God allows us to go through such circumstances, He always provides the grace for us to cope with it. While we're not going through it we wonder at how the saints who do go through it cope. It's one of those things you can't really comprehend fully until you face it yourself.
As we look towards our future, each one of us has to come to a place where, in the light of all that we have read earlier in this book, we trust ourselves into the care of our loving heavenly Father, whether it be in respect of our physical health and well-being or in respect of what others might do to us.
The Effect of the Way we Die
Probably the greatest testimony in the Bible comes from the ‘famous three' in the book of Daniel who declared, “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know O king, that we will not serve your gods …” (Dan 3:17 ,18).
What they were saying was God can deliver us from this, but even if He chooses not to, we're going to stick with Him! Sometimes God comes to deliver us from it (as he did with these three) and at other times He delivers through it (as He did with Stephen). The effect of this statement from these three young men has had tremendous impact on countless believers down through the ages.
These young men faced death with a great testimony and as a result impacted many others. The way we live our lives can, said Jesus, be like a light on a hill (Mt 5:14 -16), we can impact others - and that means right up to the moment of death. In fact sometimes because of the way we face death our testimony can be even greater.
But it's not only the impact on the people who surround us, it's also the impact that we have on the heavenly watchers. Earlier in the book I spoke about Eph 3:10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms . As the angels look on and see the way you handle your closing days, they marvel at the grace of God and you become a source for praise to God. Even if, in your closing days, there are few people around you, the angelic beings see and they praise God for you. Right up until the last minute on earth, you and I have the potential for bringing glory to God in heaven.
So, can we, by the grace of God cope with the possibly incredibly trying circumstances that run up to our death, and can we in those days or weeks bring glory to God through it?
16.3 Facing the Judgement
The Fact of Judgement
After death comes judgement, the Bible is clear about that:
Heb 9:2 “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgement”
It is the thought of that judgement that brings fear to many. What will happen? Will God bring up all the wrong things I've done throughout my life? That is a very real fear for many, so what is the truth about it?
Mt 12:36 has Jesus saying: “I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgement for every careless word they have spoken,” which at first sight seems to create a somewhat negative impression of the judgement time. That verse leaves us with the impression that God will drag up every tiny thing we've done wrong throughout our lives, every word out of place, so that we are left standing in shame with head bowed receiving the scorn of heaven. Is that how it will be?
One of the main rules of interpreting Scripture is that any particular verse must be seen in context and also seen in the light of the rest of Scripture. Now we've seen previously in the book, clearly I hope, that Jesus' words of stinging rebuke are kept for the unrepentant (and in the above situation Jesus was speaking to the proud and arrogant Scribes and Pharisees). Jesus' words for his followers who sometimes got it wrong were gently corrective. For those of us whose hearts are fully turned towards him, his intent is not to make us appear foolish failures, we know that already!
Again and again Jesus' teaching, like the Law, drives us into the arms of God. An example of this is found in Mt 19:25,26 - When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." The point Jesus makes is that we human being have no grounds to stand on our own. Salvation only comes to us through the work of Christ on the Cross.
Jesus speaks for us
So what will happen before the judgement seat? Will God produce a massively long list of our failures? The Bible doesn't actually say but it does show on occasion Satan as an accuser. Is it possible that it will be one of Satan's last permitted acts, to stand in the throne room of heaven and accuse YOU? If he does, before he can get even a few words out, I see Jesus stepping forward and quietly saying, “No, they're one of mine.”, and that's it! Satan slinks out while Jesus throws his arms around you and introduces you to his Father, saying, “We've so looked forward to your coming home”. Well it may not be like that - it may be far more glorious!
It was the apostle Peter who said, “ Love covers a multitude of sins ” (1 Pet 4:8), and everything I'm learning about Jesus these days tells me that he wasn't in the business of demeaning his disciples - correcting yes, but demeaning, no! Think of the parable of the prodigal son again and remember how the father welcomed home the son - without a word of rebuke, just with love. That's how it's going to be when you go to heaven and come before God, gloriously holy, utterly perfect where there is nothing but nothing that you can do to add to your salvation, it's just reward time!
16.4 Facing Eternal Life
Eternal life started the day you became a Christian. Remember Jn 3:16 " For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life . That truth is repeated again and again throughout the New Testament: believers receive eternal life! What is eternal life? It is life that has no end and if you are given eternal life at the point you come to Christ, it means that from that moment on you will not die. So what happens at death, how does that tie in with what we've just said? Well a number of times in Scripture you'll find those who have just died being referred to as having “fallen asleep”. Isn't that nice! When you “die” here on earth you're simply “falling asleep” and when you “wake up” you'll be in heaven.
The Picture of Emigration
A picture I've always had of death and eternal life has been of someone emigrating, say going to Australia from England on a one-way ticket, except in this case the “ Australia ” is going to be so much more glorious than anything we've ever known. Sometimes I've been involved in discussions about what heaven will be like. My wife, who likes watching air shows maintains God will allow her to fly in one of the fastest supersonic jets. I've often replied that I think God will let me fly like a supersonic jet!
What were we saying? Whatever the picture we get of heaven it is going to be so much more gloriously wonderful than anything we've ever known here. Eternal life is not going to be boring! You're not going to worry about time (lack of it that causes stress, or too much of it that makes for tedium), you're going to be taken up with the sheer wonder of God and all that He's made for our pure enjoyment.
God's Sensual World
You think that's too hedonistic? Think again. When God made this material world he made it perfect and for our pleasure. He gave you senses that seem to make us different from any other creatures in His creation. Think about it, eyes that take pleasure in beautiful sunsets, the almost infinite number of shades and hues in His creation, taste buds that could rejoice over the incredible variety of foods that He had provided for us, hearing that could marvel at the song of birds or the roar of a waterfall or delight in music, touch that could cause shivers down our spine!
It was the apostle James who said Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father (Jas 1:17 ). So often we forget these things because Sin has spoilt life on earth. Put aside sin and see what you are left with, and if you think eternal life is going to compare with life on the sinful earth, think again!
Struggling for the Reality
Imagine living in a single room with the curtains drawn shut so only a filtered light gets through, so your life in that room sees everything in dark hues, slightly blurred, imagine living like that all your life. Then imagine being taken outside into the full wonder of the created world outside on a bright Summer's day where you have unrestricted access to the entire world with its multitude of colours and shapes. It's a poor analogy but I think that is a vague measure of the comparison between life on sinful earth and eternal life after life on this earth. I may be wrong but only because I understate it.
Read again the last two chapters of the Bible where it's as if God says, OK after we've run the gamut of time-space history we'll recreate everything anew so what we have will not be tainted in any way by what has gone before, but it will be there for all you, my children ,who have responded to my news about my Son, Jesus. Yes, the vision was in language and using pictures that John, two thousand years ago could cope with, that would communicate something to him, but remember it was a prophetic vision and a vision is only a poor reflection of the real thing when it comes. If we have a poor image of eternal life, it's probably because our eyes have been too long on the woes of sinful earth. It's time to lift them.
16.5 And So?
What have we been saying in this chapter? We have spoken about
Facing the Path to Death
Facing Eternal Life
You are a Christian? You know it? You know it is not because you are nice, have done good, or attended? You know you are what you are, a child of God, only because of the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross of Calvary? You know you are what you are, a child of God in whom the Spirit of God lives? You know that you are fully loved and accepted by God? Then also know that the eternal things spoken of in this chapter are yours as well. Rejoice in your future. It is glorious!