“If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
What happens when a Christian dies? We know that in death the spirit and body separate (Ecc. 12:7; Jas. 2:26). We also know there will be a future resurrection but what happens to the faithful until then? God hasn’t revealed much on this issue but he has given us a glimpse through the inspired writings of the Apostle Paul.
Writing to the Philippian Christians from prison, Paul contrasts “departing” this world to be with Christ with “remaining” in the flesh (Phil. 1:19-24). If Paul is acquitted he will continue to “live in the flesh” and honor Christ in his work with the churches. If he is found guilty and executed, he considers this a “far better” situation because he will then “depart” from this world “and be with Christ.”
He says in another place, “We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Cor. 5:6-8) So, while we are faithfully serving the Lord here on earth (walking by faith, not by sight) we are “at home in the body” and alive “in the flesh” but “away from the Lord” (locationally not relationally). If we die, we “depart” to be “with Christ” and are “at home with the Lord.”
But how does all this work with the resurrection? Scripture teaches that when the Lord returns there will be a bodily resurrection and he will hold the world to account in an ultimate act of judgment (Jn. 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; 17:30-31). We may not understand all the intricacies of this but here’s what we know for sure: Unless the Lord returns first (and thus initiates the resurrection and judgment), we will all face our death, or as Paul puts it, our “departure” from this world (2 Tim. 4:6). If that departure occurs before the resurrection, we will then go to “be with Christ” to await the resurrection (Heb. 9:27).
Paul teaches that when the Lord returns, he will “bring with him those who have fallen asleep” in Jesus, and these will rise first (1 Thess. 4:13-18). This makes sense if the faithful go to be with Jesus when they die. Jesus told the penitent thief on the cross, “today you shall be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). While Jesus’ body lay in the tomb, before his resurrection, he was in Paradise where the tree of life is in the presence of God (Rev. 2:7).
But why the resurrection? If when we die we are “with the Lord” why do we even need to be raised from the dead? The answer lies in God’s eternal plan to redeem all that has been corrupted by sin since Genesis 3, including our sin-cursed bodies. God created us in his image as embodied beings not disembodied spirits (Gen. 2:7; cf. 2 Cor. 5:1-5). God’s goal, which he has initiated in Jesus’ resurrection, is to “unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10), to “reconcile” all that sin and death estranged from him (Col. 1:20). Part of that process of reconciliation is to unite our spirits with our renewed and incorruptible bodies in the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:50-57).
Our resurrection will then signal the freedom of “all things” that were subjected to corruption and death. Paul says, “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). Both Peter and John borrow a phrase from Isaiah and call this new creation, which has already begun in Christ but is not yet complete (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15), the “new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1-4).
This “new creation” will be finally realized only when the Lord returns (2 Pet. 3:7-12; Rev. 20:14). In the meantime, we have an imperishable inheritance kept in heaven for us (1 Pet. 1:3-5). We are to live holy and hopeful lives awaiting the day when we “attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10-11). If we “depart” before then, we will “be with the Lord” to await that day.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Some have defined faith as “belief in something you know can’t be true” or “the illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.” But Biblical faith is not unthinking, irrational or gullible. It's not a "blind" leap as we often say. Instead faith is a measured step we take based on evidence provided by God himself. There is confidence in that step of faith because there is a sure foundation of trust beneath it. The word translated "assurance" can mean "substance" or "confidence," indicating that which provides the foundation for trust. "Conviction" is sometimes translated as "evidence," indicating the proof or reality of something. So faith is not belief despite the evidence but trust because of the evidence. This does not mean faith is always based on scientific demonstration. We sometimes forget, still living in the glow of the Enlightenment, that there are other forms of evidence.
Though the Bible makes some extraordinary claims, we have strong reasons for believing in the existence of God and the truthfulness of his promises. We can see four of those reasons by looking back, looking up, looking down and looking in.
Look back to the beginning of the universe. Just in the last 100 years, the majority of scientists have come to believe that the universe had a beginning. We are able to detect the expansion of the universe in size in all directions indicating a fixed starting point in time and space. In other words, as Stephen Hawking said, “the universe has not existed forever… it had a beginning.”
The opening verses of the Bible give a reason for that beginning: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). If God did not create the universe then what is the alternative? Criticism without alternative is empty. One popular alternative is that it simply came into existence for no apparent reason. But can something come from nothing? If the universe has a beginning, there must be a reason for its existence.
Look up to see a universe finely tuned for life. Imagine playing poker with someone who draws twelve straight royal flushes, the odds of which are about the same as winning the lottery twelve times in a row. Something similar could be said with respect to the universe. There are many features of creation that need to be precisely as they are for life to be possible, not just life on Earth or life as we know it, but any form of life anywhere.
How are we to explain these amazing “coincidences”? The rational conclusion is that the universe is not a result of random forces but of a purposeful mind. Paul says, “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible attributes - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
Look down into the empty tomb. The historical evidence of Jesus’ bodily resurrection agrees with what the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, that he was raised from the dead and appeared before many people. Christians proclaimed this resurrection even under threat of death. Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor in the first century wrote, “I ask them if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and a third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution.”
What alternatives are there to Jesus’ resurrection? Was it a legend? History shows that it takes about three generations for a legend to develop and Christians were proclaiming his resurrection immediately after it took place. A hallucination? Could hundreds of people have seen the same hallucination? Not likely. Was it all an elaborate lie? What would these Christians have to gain from lying? Poverty, prison and persecution awaited them! Or could it be that God “has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31)?
Look in the pages of the Bible. For me, more than all the philosophical and scientific arguments for the existence of God, there is the Bible itself. And I don’t mean the many convincing proofs for the inspiration of Scripture. An even greater proof to me is the Bible’s message, the gospel. The beautiful story that unfolds in its pages reveal God’s unconquerable love toward flawed and sinful people like you and me. It tells of his power and wisdom to bring his eternal plan to fruition in Jesus. It tells of his amazing grace toward all those who trust in him. That’s reason enough for me.
“Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
God gave humanity something he didn’t give the rest of his creation: the dignity of moral choice. When we make decisions that go beyond mere animalistic survival, decisions based on principle, we reflect God’s image and glorify him in a unique way. God designed all of creation with an instinctual and irresistible impulse to “fulfill his word” (Psa. 148). Birds sing. Stars shine. Flowers bloom. They do what they are created to do. But God desires humans to choose to fulfill their purpose. Obeying a natural compulsion is one thing but weighing a decision and choosing obedience is a deeper and more profound action. It’s an action of love and it’s what we’re made for (Deut. 6:5).
After reading the Law to Israel before entering Canaan, Moses prophesied that future generations would fail to keep their promises to God. But after the curses of disobedience fell upon them, they would return and God would restore them (Deut. 30:1-14). In the shadow of this prophecy, Moses put the choice before his own generation between “life and good, death and evil” (Deut. 30:15). After conquering the land, Moses’ successor, Joshua, put the same choice before Israel (Josh. 24:14-15).
But this choice is not exclusive to the Jews. Today, the same choice is put before all people in the form of the good news of Jesus (Acts 17:30-31). There are three facets to our choice:
This is a personal choice. “Choose for yourselves…” Joshua said. In other words, no one else can make this choice for you. Even though Joshua decided how he was going to lead his family, he couldn’t force his wife and children to obey the Lord. All he could do was give them the best opportunity to choose for themselves (Eph. 5:25; 6:4). We are all personally accountable to God for our response to the gospel.
The is a daily choice. “Choose for yourselves today…” Though we may grow in our understanding on either side of that choice, there is a critical moment in which we make our determination to obey the Lord known. For ancient Israel, it was crossing the Red Sea or the Jordan River. For us, it means crossing over from death into the life of Jesus through baptism. We signify that death by being buried in a figurative grave of water and rising out of the water as Jesus rose from the tomb to “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:1ff; Col. 2:12; Acts 22:16). Our new way of life must continue to reflect that choice everyday. Joshua could have said, “Choose for yourselves today and everyday afterward whom you will serve.”
This is a choice of loyalty. In the words of the recently deceased Neil Peart, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” We all serve a master (Rom. 6:16-20) and we prove to be in the grip of the evil one either by putting off this choice for the future (Acts 24:25) or by believing we are our own master (Jn. 8:34; 2 Pet. 2:19). The truth of Jesus sets us free from this self-deception (Jn. 8:31-36) as we voluntarily come under his liberating and loving rule (Mt. 11:28-30).
Though this choice to serve the Lord, whether in the words of Moses and Joshua in the Old Testament or in the words of Jesus in the New, may sound like an ultimatum (“Serve God or else!”) it is much more of an appeal of grace. While it is true we will be held accountable for our choice it is still a choice nonetheless. The amazing thing is not that God would send those who have already rejected him away but that sinners could have the choice to live with him at all. God loves us and desires us to live (2 Pet. 3:9) but the choice is ours.
“Make room in your hearts for us…”
(2 Corinthians 7:2)
Have you ever been searching for a parking spot in a busy lot? You drive around in circles like a hunter stalking its prey. Then, that magical moment when you see a person walking to their car, keys in hand, “That spot is MINE!” you say to yourself. You position your car to make your claim on the spot clear to all in proximity. They open the door. They enter the car. They fasten their seatbelt. Their tail lights light up and the exhaust gases begin to putter. You wait for what seems like a reasonable amount of time for them to back out of the space so you can claim your prize… but they just sit there!
A study conducted with hundreds of drivers proved we actually take longer to leave a parking space if we know someone is waiting. The study also showed evidence that if the waiting car honks their horn or signals their rush in some way, drivers made them wait four times longer! Experts call this phenomenon “territorialism” and it can be witnessed in any crowded space: at the DMV, the doctor’s office, in traffic, in conversation, and at restaurants. The longer the line or bigger the crowd, the longer we linger when it’s ‘our turn.’
It is easy to become selfishly territorial and refuse to make space for others in these situations but nowhere is this mentality more dangerous than in our relationship with God. Our lives are filled with so many interests, pursuits, and obligations that we sometimes struggle to find space for the stuff that matters.
Try to imagine your life as a house and the things in that house represent all the stuff you’ve said “Yes” to. The house can only hold so much. What would it look like? Would you have to navigate through rooms of junk like a minefield? Would you see tilting stacks of papers like miniature skyscrapers? Would debris be scattered on every surface so that there is no place to sit on the couch or to eat at the kitchen table? Perhaps you’ve said “Yes” to so many unnecessary things that there is no room in your life for the really important things. How can we know when our life is overcrowded? Try asking yourself the following questions:
- When you think of introducing any additional spiritual activity into your schedule, like trying to come to more of the worship services, or spending more time in prayer and personal study, does it feel like adding to an already crushing burden?
- When you think of trying to be more hospitable or making more of an effort to get to know others, does it seem impossible to have the time and energy to make such investments?
We often think being busy is an inherently good thing. But what matters is what we’re busy with. An overcrowded life will actually pervert our priorities and values and turn spiritual pursuits into obligatory checklists. (Hag. 1:2-6; Amos 8:5) If you feel spiritually drained or just overloaded, God can help. Jesus lived the fullest, freest life possible (Col. 2:9) and he did so in part by using one special word very carefully: “No.” (Lk. 4:1-13)
It’s okay to say “No” to things, especially if they might damage or comprise you in some way. “No” is a powerful word in Scripture. Joseph was an expert on saying “No” (Gen. 39:8, 12) as were Daniel and his three friends in Babylon (Dan. 1:8; 3:18; 6:13).
When Nehemiah was helping to rebuild the walls and gates of Jerusalem the enemies of God tried to pull him away from his important work. He told them, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” (Neh. 6:3-4)
If we wield this one powerful, liberating word according to God’s wisdom, “No” can become the scalpel God uses to reshape our life. In fact, the more we say “Yes” to God and “No” to anything that pushes us away from him, the larger the capacity of our life grows until we are “filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:19)
“We give thanks to you, O God; we give thanks, for your name is near. We recount your wondrous deeds.”
Psalm 75 is a prayer celebrating the joy found in recounting God’s great reversals, when God “puts down one and lifts up another” (Psa. 75:7). Our God is one who turns the tables (Lk. 16:19-31), who exalts the humble and humbles the proud (Jas. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5; cf. Obad. 1:3-4), who has the power to shake up the status quo (cf. 1 Sam. 2; Lk. 1:46-55).
Our grateful praise springs from remembering and recounting those times (cf. Psa. 78:4). In fact, Israel was to re-tell the story of God’s deliverance publicly every seven years (Deut. 31:10-13) on top of observing their monthly and annual feast and their daily routine of teaching the story to their children (Deut. 6:4-9).
Keeping the story fresh in the minds of God’s people still remains an integral part of our worship today. We are to take the Lord’s Supper every week to recount God’s wondrous deeds because when God’s story of redemption is retold, his “name is near” (Psa. 75:1). But what is meant by God’s “name” and how is it “near”?
God’s “name” stands for all he is. When God disclosed himself on Mount Sinai he gave his name: “YHWH, YWWH, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” (Ex. 34:6-7, cf. v.14)
God’s “name” is also an invitation to call upon him. Peter quoted from the prophet Joel, saying, “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Acts 2:21; 22:16; Rom. 10:13)
God’s name is brought “near” in all his actions. At no time was his name more clearly expressed than in the appearance of his Son. Jesus prayed to the Father, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world…” (Jn. 17:6) “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known.” (Jn. 17:26) When Jesus left heaven to dwell among us (Jn. 1:14), the unseen Father was “made known” to us in a way he never has before (Jn. 1:18; Heb. 1:3).
The clearest revelation of God’s “name” (his power, character, grace, glory, etc.) was manifested in his most “wondrous deed” of all, that ultimate act of self-sacrificial love, the death of Jesus on the cross. God is nearest to us, “with us” and even “in us,” in the person of Jesus (Mt. 1:23; Jn. 14:17).
But practically speaking, what does all this mean? How can we have access to the power of that name? God is closer than we think (Acts 17:27). The psalms sing about the nearness of God.
He is near to all who call on him in truth.
“The LORD is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.” (Psa. 145:18)
He is near to the brokenhearted and crushed in spirit.
“The LORD is near to the brokenhearted
and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psa. 34:18)
He is near to all those who fear him.
“Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him,
that glory may dwell in our land.” (Psa. 85:9)
When something is “near,” it is close in distance, not far away. To be “near,” is to be close in relation, available. When someone is “near,” they are close in involvement, not idle. God’s nearness, in all its aspects, is found in Jesus today.
When you are hurting, discouraged, and weak you may feel like God is distant, aloof, and idle. But God sent his Son to walk through the valley of the shadow of death with you so that he could understand your suffering, share in it, and give you hope to overcome it (1 Pet. 2:21; Heb. 2:17-18; 4:14-16). Jesus is the Father’s final, ultimate revelation to us that his name is near.