January 19, 2020
lTo Die is Gain – 1.19.20
As a church family it is good to be together and decompress! I saw many of you-most of you-at Gabby’s visitation. I think we’d all agree that some days are harder than others, some weeks are harder than others-this has been a hard week for everybody! This is a week when we realize how much we really do need each other! Someone to cry with, someone to pray with, someone to talk to and process what’s happened. I’m sure many of us have asked the question why? Why God? Why would you take Gabby? Why wasn’t she healed? Those are the real, honest questions from our heart. And let me say-God is big enough to handle it! God is not surprised by your questions. You won’t upset Him or anger Him. He wants to hear from you! Pour out your heart to Him. And yet the why is hard to understand from our perspective. We know God does all things for good-and yet death doesn’t seem very good. Death stinks! I thought about making that the message title this morning-because it’s so true. We hate death-we can’t stand it. It’s so abnormal to how we’re wired. We embrace life-not death. Saying goodbye to someone isn’t a good thing-it’s awful! The great writer CS Lewis has etched on his grave stone-Men must endure their going hence. On the one hand, what a lovely way to describe death! It makes it sound like a Sunday drive to Grandma’s house or a walk in the park. We’re just going hence. But Lewis knew what going hence meant, and so on the other hand he said it’s something we have to endure because it’s not easy. And Gabby endured a lot. We all saw it, we all prayed for her, we all watched how she suffered and fought this battle. She endured her going hence. And as much as it’s hard for us to deal with it as we miss her and mourn her loss-it’s not hard for Gabby anymore. She has gone Hence and Hence is a good place! What does God’s Word say? Phil 1:21. These are the words of Paul-and I’m sure Paul would agree with all of us that there’s a large part about death that stinks! And yet beyond the pain of the mourning and grieving, beyond the tears and the loss of a loved one Paul would unashamedly say-For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. So what is gained in death? What happens after we die? Where do we go? That’s what we want to explore today.
Now we’ve all been to funerals where we’ve heard the statement-He or she is in a better place now-and I’m sure we’ve all been to funerals where we’ve known the individual and thought-I’m not so sure about this guy! He may not be in a better place right now! So it ends up being a hollow statement-just something nice to say. But for those who’ve their trust in Jesus-it’s not a hollow statement but the truth. Believers are in a better place. Gabby is in a better place. The question: what’s that place? Where’s it at? Maybe you’ve heard people say He’s up there fishing where the fish are always biting, playing golf where there’s never a bad swing, walking the streets of gold, or talking with Peter at the pearly gates. But is that where we go when we die?
To begin answering that question I want to look at a statement Jesus made just before the end of His life. Open your Bibles to Luke 23. Jesus was on the cross, along with the two criminals, and the one mocked Him but the other said-Luke 23:42-43. Now Jesus didn’t say-Today we’ll die together, today we’ll enter the grave together. He said Paradise when referring to death-so what does that mean? Well, the actual word that Jesus is using-paradeisos-refers to the Persian word for garden or enclosed park. It was used to describe the great walled gardens of King Cyrus’s royal palaces. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, this was literally the word used for the Garden of Eden. It’s describing a carefully cultivated area of plants and animals. Maybe you can think of some beautiful parks or gardens that you’ve toured or walked through. As a family we like going into the walled garden at Caumsett. But there are few gardens more beautiful than the ones at the Palace of Versailles in Paris. Strolling through them was one of the best days Monica and I can ever remember-talk about Paradise. But that’s the biblical image that Jesus is communicating to the thief on the cross. Today you and I will be hanging out in these gardens. He’s giving this thief a very real hope. Jesus isn’t describing the idea of heaven that’s common today of floating on the clouds or wearing robes or getting angel’s wings-as if where we go when we die is some kind of nebulous, foggy, cloudy place. Jesus didn’t say-Getting your new robe today, buddy! What are you medium, large? No-Jesus is describing a garden-something tangible and real. So Pt1:Where do we go when we die? A real place-but not our final destination. As we talk about life after death there’s two parts to it that you have to remember-there’s the intermediate state and there’s the eternal state. Today we’re talking about the intermediate state-that transitional time between when we die and our bodies are buried in the ground versus when Christ returns to give us new resurrected bodies. What is death like in that intermediate state? And we can safely say-Pt1. I like what Randy Alcorn says-Heaven, 44.
He’s saying that when believers in Christ die, they don’t go to the Heaven where they’ll live forever; instead they go to the intermediate heaven awaiting the time of Christ’s return to earth where He’ll resurrect every believer with a new body to enter the New Heavens and the New Earth. Remember what Jesus said about this-John 14:2-3. Jesus is actively preparing that place right now. It’s under construction. He was a carpenter on earth-now He’s using His carpentry skills to the nth degree building our eternal home. And when He returns to earth He’ll resurrect all who believe in Him to enter that place-which the book of Revelation calls the New Jerusalem-Rev 21:1-4. That’s the final destination we’re looking forward to; that time is coming one day. Jesus made this very clear in-John 5:28-29. So Jesus is saying that everyone will be resurrected, everyone will come out of the grave-and enter one of those final destinations-but right now when someone dies that’s not where they go. Right now death is a temporary cessation of bodily life and a separation of the soul from the body. Our physical remains stay here buried on the earth in the grave awaiting that resurrection while the spirits of believers go to be with the Lord in the intermediate heaven. Look at Eccl 3:20; 12:7. That describes our death really clearly. So Pt2:Where do we go when we die? A blessed state-but not our final form. Again, Jesus told the thief on the cross that they were headed to paradise that day. So although it’s not the final New Heavens and New Earth-it’s still a wonderful place. And if you’re like me you wonder what we’ll do there? What will life be like? Will walk and run and stroll through the lush gardens and paradise of the intermediate heaven in some sort of bodily form or will we just float around as spirits? Honestly, we don’t know. The Bible doesn’t definitively say what the nature of the intermediate heaven is like. It doesn’t describe our state of being there and Bible scholars are divided over whether we’ll inhabit some sort of transitional body or not. The arguments are made that on the Mt of Transfiguration Moses and Elijah came down to speak with Jesus and they had bodies-so maybe we will too. Certainly, Jesus is there in His resurrected body-that’s where He ascended to after His time on earth. So, we know that the intermediate heaven can contain physical form-but does that include our physical form-or just Jesus? We don’t know. What we do know is that the intermediate heaven is a conscious dwelling with God. It won’t be some sort of soul sleep or unconscious state of suspended animation-we’ll think and interact with God. We’ll worship Him and interact with others-and God’s Word promises it will be far better than this life.
Look at what Paul says-2 Cor 5:6-8. So, Paul clearly recognized that the intermediate heaven, although not our final destination, is still preferable to life in this fallen world-that’s where he’d rather be-away from the body and at home with the Lord. Look at what he says in Phil 1:21-24. Paul gives us the right perspective by saying that being with Christ is far better than remaining here in the flesh. To die is definitely gain. How many people do you know who truly feel that way? And that challenges how we ought to pray. Isn’t one of the most common prayer requests for safety? We pray to stay safe on the roads, we pray for traveling mercies when we’re going somewhere. Quite honestly, I think Traveling Mercies should be the name of a roadside convenience store that gives out free food. You’re traveling and they’re merciful by giving you a free cheeseburger. But obviously there’s nothing wrong with praying for safety, however, maybe we ought to be praying more for God to effectively use us for His purposes and building up His kingdom-and if we die doing it-well, than as Paul said to die is gain. It’s having that renewed perspective of what awaits us. As Paul said, living in the flesh means fruitful labor. He wasn’t on a suicide mission or foolishly throwing caution to the wind. His desire was to honor God and serve Him with however many years God chose to give him-but he had the right perspective of holding his life loosely because all the while He was looking forward to being with Christ-which is what? Far better-do hear you those words? Do you taste that hope? We should. As followers of Christ that is our longing and desire. So back to Pt2. Obviously the day when we inhabit our new resurrected bodies is our final form-but in the meantime we don’t have to fear death or worry about what’s up ahead. God’s Word gives us peace and hope of being in His presence. David said in Ps 42:1-2. He had the same hope as Paul-and we should too, serving God all the days He gives us, and yet longing to one day go and be with Him. And that means we can rejoice for believers who have died and gone to be in the Lord’s presence ahead of us. I like what Randy Alcorn says in his book on Heaven, 73, 359. What a wonderful hope! So Pt3:Where do we go when we die? A wonderful reunion-but only for believers. That’s the part we can’t forget!
I want you to turn backwards in your Bibles a few pages to Luke 16-because Jesus tells a parable about the separation of loved ones at death-and what it means for you and me. This parable is our best snapshot of life after death and what takes place there. Look at Luke 16:19-so obviously we’re talking about someone who enjoyed the best that life had to offer. He’s wearing the best clothes-purple was considered a luxury back then, a color suited for royalty-and he’s feasting sumptuously every day. So picture a guy in a bright purple suit sitting down to steak and lobster every night! Doesn’t that sound great! But this guy is perfectly dressed in designer cloths and living at The Plaza Hotel. Life doesn’t get any better. And then meanwhile-v. 20-21. Here’s the opposite end of the spectrum-a guy with nothing but pain and misery in his life. He’s gnawing on the leftover chicken bones that fall from the rich man’s table-he’s drinking the leftover soggy cereal at the bottom of his bowl; dogs are licking his sores-it’s gross. But like every parable that Jesus tells-there’s a big twist and it comes in v. 22-23. So at death the tides turn, everything is reversed. Here the rich man is now the one suffering-in torment-as the text says since he’s in Hades and the poor man, Lazarus, is at Abraham’s side in heaven, basically sitting next to him at a heavenly banquet. What’s being pictured here is a time of celebration where Lazarus and Abraham are hanging out together enjoying a sumptuous feast. Ironically, that’s what Lazarus was excluded from on earth as he just ate the scraps from the rich man’s table, but here in heaven this is now his new reality. He’s at the table enjoying the sumptuous feast and celebration.
And I love this description of heaven! Who doesn’t like a great feast and celebration-whether it’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, a summer BBQ or even a big wedding feast-who doesn’t love hanging out with family and friends, talking and laughing together over a huge table of food? That’s the description of heaven Jesus is giving us as He tells this parable. We talked about this concept at Christmas time-that the best earthly description of heaven is the holidays. Jesus isn’t talking about wearing a robe, strumming a harp and sitting on the clouds. He’s describing heaven as a great feast and a big party-the very things we love! I came across an amusing quote from a retired British politician who said-When I was a boy, the thought of Heaven used to frighten me more than the thought of Hell. I pictured Heaven as a place where time would be perpetual Sundays, with perpetual services from which there would be no escape! Maybe you’ve thought of heaven like that too! A never ending church service where you’re singing hymns with an infinite number of verses-and it all sounds really dull and serious! That’s sort of the image our society has of Heaven-eternal boredom. Meanwhile Hell seems like the party with all your friends and loud music and spicy hot wings. And yet that couldn’t be more backwards. Lazarus is the one having a great time celebrating with Abraham enjoying the party-and the rich man is the one in torment. So he cries out for relief-v. 24. Notice again the vivid language of suffering. Anguish is no party! Hades is the Greek name for the place of the dead. It’s the NT description of where unbelievers go prior to their final judgment in Hell. Remember, just as believers are resurrected for eternal life, unbelievers will also be resurrected but for eternal judgment. That’s what the rich man is waiting for-and it’s what he wants relief from-but unfortunately he won’t get. Look at Abraham’s chilling response-v. 25-26. Clearly that’s a very sobering and scary reality because it’s saying that once you die your destiny is fixed-there’s no crossing over from one to the other. People in Hell can’t escape their torment by passing into Heaven-it’s not possible. Those experiencing punishment won’t be able to enter paradise. This rich man is stuck. RC Sproul says it this way-Death is decisive for our destiny. That once you die the opportunity to repent is gone; the door to God’s grace is shut. That may sound harsh-here’s this man suffering terribly-and yet think of how much time he had in his life to turn to God. We spoke about that thief on the cross-obviously he was a terrible guy-he was being executed by the Romans for his crimes. He was someone God should have given up on, and yet even at the final hour of his life God still held the door of grace open and he was saved. As Peter says-God is patient, not wanting any to perish-but once death comes that opportunity is over and a person’s destiny is fixed.
So Pt4:Where do we go when we die? A time of comfort or anguish-but a final decision. Abraham is reminding the rich man that he decided to pursue riches in life, he wanted comfort, he sought earthly pleasures and happiness-no doubt good things-but he didn’t chose the best thing which is Christ. He didn’t pursue the Lord-probably didn’t think he needed Him. This rich man missed grace and that cost him eternity-ouch!-and now he’s suffering the consequences for his decision, realizing the hopelessness of condition. Isn’t that worst feeling when you’re watching your favorite sports team lose-and for a while you’re hoping they can make a comeback and win-but with about 2 minutes to go in the game you or with 2 outs in the 9th you finally realize it’s hopeless, we’ve lost this one. That’s what this guy has realized-he’s lost. But the problem is that he hasn’t just lost one game, he’s lost for eternity, he’s lost forever! None may cross from there to us. How hopeless would it be to hear those words! We shudder to imagine it! So he does the only thing that makes sense-Go warn my brothers-v. 27-29. Abraham’s referring to the Bible. He’s saying that they have the truth of God’s Word to show them the way of salvation and that’s totally sufficient. God wrote down what they need to know in a book-read it! Hearing and believing what the Bible says will lead them to eternal life. But look at his response-v. 30a–my brothers don’t read-don’t bore them with some long book–v. 30b. And like so many people today, he’s saying-No, not the Bible. I’m not talking about reading. I’m talking about a person who’s come from the other side, someone from heaven, I’m talking about proof, just show them, spell it out for them and they’ll get it. As if God’s Word doesn’t spell it for us already, giving us all the proof we need. But here’s how the parable ends-v. 31. And irony upon irony-that’s exactly what happened! Jesus is talking about Himself! He rose the dead and we have the historical details recorded in God’s Word so that we might do the very thing the rich man wants his brothers to do-which is believe. What the rich man wants happened Woven within the fabric of our world is the truth that on Easter a guy was resurrected to new life, his tomb was empty, the stone was rolled away-the question is if we believe it in our hearts!
Isn’t it interesting that the final request of a dead man in hell is for his loved ones to be warned and not suffer the same fate he is. He’s not saying, Join me down here fellas, this place is one hot party-the more the merrier! He’s saying this place is awful, it’s full of torment and anguish, and you can never leave. And so he wants them to be warned and make a better choice. But to do that means to believe the truth. And yet that’s exactly what we can do because we have the authority and sufficiency of Scripture telling us what we need to know about facing death. What did Jesus say-John 11:25-26. That’s what we’re called to believe. Jesus has come to conquer death so we can live forever and not die or suffer the punishment for our sins. Think about this-all the pain the rich man is experiencing is the punishment he deserves for being a sinner and rejecting God-and we’re not any different. Our sins deserve the very same punishment-we have rejected God and tried to go our own way-and yet we have a Savior who still comes for us. This destination, this hopelessness and anguish is exactly what Jesus has saved us from. He faced all that punishment and endured all that torment and anguish for us on the cross. He suffered so we could be forgiven, He died so we could live and be in His presence forever. And He has risen from the dead to tell us it’s all true. If you’re saying what this rich guy is saying-v. 31b-it’s happened! But what we believe in this life becomes our final decision.
Do you remember that show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? I mentioned it a few months ago. They’d ask you these multiple choice questions of increasing difficulty-and you got the 3 different lifelines-50/50, Ask the Audience and Phone a Friend. But when the contestant was trying to give their answer after they narrowed down their choices-what would Regis Philbin always say-Is that your final answer? And that was the really stressful part, especially if the person had used up all their lifelines. Often their answer was nothing more than a guess, a shot in the dark-hopefully B is the right answer and I’ll get lucky-but with Christ our final answer, our final decision isn’t a guessing game. It isn’t a shot in the dark; it’s not wishful thinking or good luck that we’ll end up in heaven. With Jesus there is the promise that anyone who believes in Him will never die. The question is do you believe this? Have you trusted in Jesus alone to save you? It does you no good to put Him off, or say you’ll get more serious about following Jesus later when life settles down. Don’t think you can be spending all your time seeking worldly stuff now like that rich guy and assume you’ll take care of the spiritual things later-because you don’t know what later will bring. To live is Christ and to die is gain. That’s a fact, a known commodity-and when you die you’ll enter His presence and one day be resurrected with a new body into a new heavens and earth. God’s Word spells it out. What’s unknown is the day of our death. We don’t know when that will be. So turn to Christ today and make Him your final answer. Make your final decision to believe in Him-and don’t wait until it’s too late. Back to our original question-is life after death a better place? Yes-absolutely yes-but only if you’ve trusted in Christ! It’s a sad reality that many people will suffer the same fate as that rich man-but that doesn’t have to be you. Jesus has come to so that even though you’ll die, yet shall you live!