Summary: God makes death a gain for those who desire to be with Christ.
Bobby’s first deep-sea fishing trip turned into what he felt certain was the dumbest decision ever made. With every pitch and roll of the boat, he doubted he could survive the remaining four hours of the excursion. Who would believe that seasickness could be so awful? One of the deckhands tried to cheer him: “Don’t worry, young fella. Nobody ever died of seasickness.” Bobby responded: “You’ve just taken away my last hope for relief.”
Sometimes people speak of death like Bobby on the fishing boat—it’s only good is blessed release from pain. We even have the word “euthanasia,” derived from two Greek words meaning “good” and “death,” which is generally defined as “a deliberate intervention with the purpose of ending a life in order to relieve intractable suffering.”
A couple of weeks ago, I heard a student lament how terrible her life has been. She turned to me and said, “That’s how I know I will go to heaven; there has to be something to make up for the hell I have lived here.” Certain she deserved better than life provided, death would relieve her suffering.
But God does not make escape from misery the great benefit of death. Instead, both life and death are glorious because both offer opportunities of fellowship with Jesus. Last week we considered the first part: how to live for Christ. Today we discover the gain of death, promised in Philippians 1.21-26.
[Read Philippians 1.21-26. Pray.]
John Piper claims that a critical question for our faith is this: “If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?” (God is the Gospel).
In one sense the question is unfair because we cannot really separate the presence of Christ from the blessings which flow from his hand. The Bible describes heaven with images of delightful things. But Pastor John’s point deserves our thought: what have we set our hearts on? Is what I really desire from life a few pleasantries, an existence mostly free from sorrow and pain? Is a life worth living one in which I escape many of the troubles which threatens my ease? Not that it is evil to desire less trouble in life, but what do I live for—comfort for Glenn or communion with God?
It makes a practical difference, doesn’t it? When my heart longs for the pleasures of the flesh, then problems in this life turn me away from the pursuit of God. If, however, “my soul thirsts for God, for the living God,” then “trials of various kinds” which test my faith and “produce steadfastness” are all joy because there I share in the sufferings of Christ and experience the sustaining Spirit.
How do we know if we have that faith? One way is to answer Pastor Piper’s question, to ask myself what I hope to gain in heaven. If my heart longs for a closer walk with God, then “death is gain,” and I will live for Christ today so that I begin to have some of what I hope for in death. To live is Christ because death is gain! Such was Paul’s passion in life and hope in death, and God wants it to make it ours. Notice, first…
1. God Makes Death Gain for Those Who Long to Know More of Christ
Francis Bacon (English philosopher of the early 17th century) felt that “Men naturally fear death as children fear the dark.” What a surprise, then, that the Bible can call death, “gain.” How can this be? Because death instantly transports the believer into the presence of God and of his son, Jesus Christ. Look at verse 23: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Paul insists that leaving his mortal body immediately places him in the presence of Christ—which he wants that more than anything else!
Nor is this the only place which depicts death as the doorway into the throne room of God. Christ was crucified between two other men. One of the criminals railed at Jesus, demanding that if he were truly God he should save both them and himself. The other, however, rebuked the first, noting that though their punishment was deserved, this Jesus did nothing wrong. And for his faith, Jesus rewarded him with salvation: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23.39-43). Death moved him directly from earth into God’s presence. The Jesus he honored in death would be his friend forever in heaven.