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January 22, 2012

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  2 Corinthians 5:1

Today as we continue our series about your future life, we’re going to focus on three questions…

  1. What is death? What actually happens when a person dies?
  2. What happens to a believer immediately after death? All of us have loved ones who have died. What are they experiencing now?  What will it be like for you?
  3. How can a believer face death with confidence and with courage? As Christians we have to face our fears in life, and we have to face our fears in death. How do we do that?  What will help us?

What is Death?

Death is a temporary separating of the soul from the body.  The union of the soul and the body tells you who you are.

Back in the garden when God created Adam, He made a corpse from the dust of the ground.  Then He breathed life, spirit into it, “The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7).

God created a corpse and He breathed life into it.  This is how God has made you.  You are a body and soul union, uniquely created by God.  So death is the separating of what God has joined together.  That is why death is such a fearful thing to us.  Death is the undoing of our nature.  It is the dismantling of what God has put together.

This is why the Bible calls death an enemy.  Jesus wept when He saw its effect.  He was outraged, and He came to destroy it.  But death is the last enemy to be destroyed.  Until Christ returns, all of us go through it.

Death is the last effect of sin and it is the surest evidence that this deadly disease is in us all.  Nothing shows more clearly that we are all sinners, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  Nothing shows more powerfully that we all need a Savior.

If you should be at my funeral and you happened to see my body lying in a casket, you could say, “There you go, my pastor was a sinner,” as if you didn’t already know that.

The Bible uses various pictures to teach us about the soul and the body, “Remember Him; before the silver cord is severed” (Ecclesiastes 12:6).

Solomon is saying, “Think of it like this: It is as if there is a silver cord that ties your soul to your body.  Death is the cutting of that cord.  When that happens your soul and body separate—without the life of your soul, your body is lifeless—like a puppet when the hand is no longer inside.

Think about Soldier Field here in Chicago.  On game day, the whole place is full of life.  The Bears are on the field, and the fans pack the stands.  The whole place is alive!  Soldier Field was made for this!

But suppose you take a tour of the stadium during the week.  The stands are empty, and nobody is on the field.  A strange quiet surrounds the whole place; the only noise is the cars and the city outside.

You feel a kind of awe for the stadium.  After all, this is a place where great things have happened in the past, and great things will happen in the future.  That’s a statement of faith!

But right now it rests silent.  The fans are the life of the stadium, and without that life, the stadium is just an empty shell.  And there is something unnatural about that.  The stadium was not made to be empty.  It was made to be filled with life.

It’s a bit like that with body and soul.  The soul brings life to the body as the fans bring life to the stadium.  They belong together.  They were made for each other.  Neither can fulfill their purpose without the other.

When a person dies, you come to the visitation and see their body.  You are looking at the stadium without the fans.  Here is the shell of the person you loved.  The soul has gone, the spirit has departed.

Temporary

So I want you to notice the word temporary in our definition: Death is a temporary separating of the soul from the body.  It is temporary because even though your body lie in the grave and decompose for a thousand years, the Bible teaches the resurrection of the body.  Jesus rose, and those who belong to Him will share in His resurrection.

When Christ returns in power and glory, God will clothe your spirit with a body that can no longer experience pain, sickness, decay or death.  The great theologian, A. A. Hodge says, “Death… is precisely defined as the suspension of the personal union of soul and body.” [1]

Death does not end the union of the soul and the body, it suspends the union.  The resurrection is the great hope of every Christian believer, and this will happen when Jesus Christ comes again in power and glory.  But until that day, when a believer dies, his or her soul is separated from their body, whether it is buried or cremated or lost at sea.
What Happens to a Believer After Death?
After death, believers are at home with the Lord

We know that if the tent, which is our earthly home, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 Corinthians 5:1

Paul was a tentmaker, and he knew everything that there was to know about tents.  He uses the analogy of the body being like a tent in which you life.  A tent is a flimsy structure.  It doesn’t last forever.

He says, “Think of it like this: You live your life in the body and then one day the ropes will be slackened, the pegs will be pulled, and the canvas will be rolled up.  What happens then?”  That’s the question here…

We know that if the tent, which is our earthly home, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  2 Corinthians 5:1

I live in this tent.  It is my home.  But here’s what I’m holding onto: If this tent is destroyed, I do not become homeless.  I have a home to which I will go.  What is the home?

Some people think the home is a reference to the resurrection body.  When my body dies, God will give me a new body in the resurrection.  That’s wonderfully true, but I don’t think it’s what Paul is saying here.  The question here is: “What happens to a believer immediately after death?”

When I think about death, my first concern is not, “What will happen at the resurrection?” but “What will happen the moment after my eyes have closed.”  This is what concerns us when we think about people we love. “Pastor, where is she now?  What is it like for her now?”

The home you will move into when you die is not the resurrection body, which will be the gift of God to you when Christ returns.  The home you move into is heaven itself.

Heaven will be the immediate, conscious and joyful experience of every believer at the point of death.  The resurrection body will be my home when Christ returns in power and glory, but that’s my long-term future.

Paul says, “My life does not end when the tent is destroyed.  When I move out of this tent, I have a home in heaven.”  Death, for the Christian, is like moving house.  It’s like moving from a tent to a home.  This is not downsizing, it’s a big upgrade!

Here I am living in this flimsy tent that cannot last.  “In this tent we groan” (2 Corinthians 5:2), because we have to deal with sin, temptation, sickness, suffering, depression and fear—all that goes with life in this fallen world.  But one day all that will be gone!  You will move out of the tent and into your eternal home.  Life in the house is going to be far better than life in the tent.

So death for the Christian will be a kind of “homecoming.”  It’s coming to the place you belong.  It’s coming to Christ, to whom you belong, “While we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord (5:6).  We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (5:8).

After death, believers consciously enjoy the life of heaven  

Consciously—the Bible often refers to death as falling asleep.  For example, Paul says, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).  And when Lazarus died, Jesus said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep” (John 11:11).

Some Christians have suggested that when the body dies, the soul of a believer also goes to sleep, so that the next conscious moment for them is when Christ returns in power and glory.

I have never been able to square this view with the teaching of the Bible.  The soul of a believer consciously enjoys the presence of Jesus—to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord.  Paul tells us that to be with Christ is “far better” (Philippians 1:23).

The apostle Paul is not the kind of guy who’d prefer a 2,000 year long sleep, over the adventures of serving Christ in this world.  His anticipation was not that at the point of death the soul would begin a long siesta, but that at the point of death he would enter into the immediate, conscious presence of His Savior in heaven.  That’s what qualified as “far better.”

When the Bible talks about Christians who have died as “asleep,” it is referring to the body, not to the soul.  Calvin says “The reference… is not to the soul but to the body, for the dead body rests in the tomb as on a bed until God raises the person up.” [2]

Think about the apostle Paul’s words here, “He who has prepared us for this very thing [that is for death] is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 5:5).

When you become a Christian, the Spirit of God comes to you.  He gives you life, and the life He gives you is an eternal life.  Jesus says the Spirit is with you and in you (John 14:17).  The Holy Spirit gives life to your spirit.

When you die, your spirit leaves your body, but the Holy Spirit will never, never leave you!  How could He?  That is His pledge for all eternity.  He is the Spirit of the Living God, and His life is in you.  When you die, you will be more alive than ever before.

In his book on death, Brian Stiller says, “The single most important indicator that we continue to live with consciousness during the transition period [between death and the resurrection of our bodies] is the indwelling life of the spirit.” [3]

Richard Baxter quotes the dying words of Stephen, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” then he says, “If the Lord received it, it is neither asleep nor dead nor annihilated; but it is where He is and beholds His glory.” [4]

Enjoy—after death, believers consciously enjoy the life of heaven. Christian, there is nothing anywhere in the Bible to suggest that your soul will endure a long process of suffering after death.

All the preparation needed for you to enter heaven has been made by your Savior on the cross.  To be away from the body is not to begin a long process of rehabilitation; to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord.

Your loved ones who have fallen asleep in Christ have a richer, deeper, more joyful, conscious experience of the Lord than anyone could ever enjoy here on earth.  I have a friend who used to say, “No Christian who has ever died, has regretted it.”

You may say, “I find it very difficult to imagine life without a body.”  Everything we enjoy in life is experienced through the body.  We enjoy walking, running, listening to music and seeing new places.  We enjoy eating and building and playing sports.  All these things are done in the body.  None of them can be done without the body.

So, how could we have any kind of life, let alone a better life, without the body?  Here is something that might help.  Angels are souls or spirits without bodies, and yet we know from Scripture that they live full, conscious and joyful lives in the presence of Jesus.

Angels do not have eyes as we do, or eyeballs or retinas, but the Bible says, “They always behold the face of the Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:10).  Angels do not have voices as we do, yet they sing praises and appear to shepherds, communicating in language, “Peace on earth.”

There is a seeing that does not depend on eyes, a hearing that does not depend on ears, a singing that does not depend on vocal cords, a serving that does not depend on hands and a moving that does not depend on feet.

Thinking about the angels helps me at least begin to think about the life of believers whose souls, but not bodies are in heaven: Angels have active, enquiring minds that are caught up in the wonders of God’s redeeming grace (1 Peter 1:12).  That will be true of us in heaven as well.

Angels rejoice over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7).  They celebrate the triumphs of God’s grace, and so will we, in the presence of Jesus.  If you come to Christ today, and you have a loved one in heaven, God will make sure that they share in the joy of His redeeming work in your life.

I don’t think our loved ones with Christ are taken up with observing our lives here.  They have far more interesting things to take up their lives with there.  But where there is good news of eternal consequence that is celebrated by angels, don’t you think God would find a way to communicate this with our loved ones?

Richard Baxter has this wonderful comment about the souls of believers at death:  “Angels will be their convoy; Christ will be their company… heaven will be their home, and God will be their happiness.” [5]

After death, believers anticipate the resurrection

A few years ago, Val Savage, who many of you will remember with great affection, was diagnosed with a terminal cancer.

When she received her diagnosis and learned that she had only a short time to live, she wrote to Steve Brady, pastor and professor, who had spent years researching the Bible’s teaching on what lies beyond death.

She wrote to Steve Brady, a pastor and Bible college principal in England who had spent some years researching the Bible’s teaching on what lies beyond death.  Her question was simple: You’ve spent years studying this, and here I am with a terminal cancer.  What am I to expect after death?

Steve wrote a wonderful letter in which he drew attention to Revelation 6:9-10.  John looks into heaven and he says, “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:9-10).

Steve made these observations about the question: What do the righteous do while they wait for the Lord’s return?

  1. They worship, for they are before God’s throne, and so will you!
  2. They wonder. They do not have all their questions answered yet. They ask “How long?” Like us they have to be patient for some things to become clear, so don’t worry if you don’t get it all sorted out now.

iii. They wait. Although perfectly happy, the spirits in heaven are still waiting for that great reunion, when in resurrection glory we shall shine.

  1. This presupposes some kind of time in the intermediate state—time without our tyranny, but time nevertheless. These souls have a past they remember, a present they enjoy and a future to which they hasten.

Our loved ones in Christ enjoy a life that is better by far (Philippians 1:23), but while it is better, the best—the day when He will come in power and glory—is yet to be.  That day will come at the resurrection, which we will look at together, God willing, next week.

How Can a Believer Face Death With Confidence?

We are always of good courage.  2 Corinthians 5:6

Paul is talking about the context of death.  I would like that to be true of me in the face of death.  Wouldn’t you like that to be true of you?  We all have to face our fears.  How can you do that?  How can you face your fears in death and be of good courage?

God is preparing us for death

He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.  2 Corinthians 5:5

Do you see what he is saying?  It is God who has been preparing you for this.  He’s been working on you and in you with this moment in view.  We talk about preparing for death, and that’s important, but Paul says, “Here’s what will give you courage in the face of death: God has been preparing you for this very thing!”

He began the preparation for you back in eternity when, before you existed, He set His love upon you.  He was preparing for this very thing when He sent His son into the world, born in that manger.

He was preparing you for this very thing when the Savior hung on that cross, taking your sins into His death, so that you would not take them into yours.  He was preparing you so that you wouldn’t be in your sins.

He has been preparing you for this very thing in every joy and every trial of your life, and when the moment of your death comes, nothing will be left to chance.  God in Christ has been preparing a place for you and He has prepared you for the place.  Everything has been done.

I want to end with the closing words of the letter I referred to earlier, written to a believer who knew she only had a short time before passing through the valley of death, and entering the presence of Jesus.

“I desire more than anything that you simply be assured that no one and nothing , anywhere or at any time, will ever be able to separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Catherine Booth, wife of William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, as she was dying at age 60, sent her final message to the Army.  This is what she said: ‘The waters are rising, but so am I.  I am not going under, I am going over.’

You are not going under; but over.  By God’s grace, we shall meet on the other side where all will be well forever.  With loads of love, my sympathy and prayers, I commit you afresh to Him who has the keys of death and hell; until He puts the key in the lock of the door of your testament you will be here, and when He does open the door—He, the risen conquering Lord Jesus your Savior, will be the first One you will see.”

 

[1] A. A. Hodge, “Evangelical Theology,” p. 371, Banner of Truth, 1977

[2] Cited in John Stott, “1 & 2 Thessalonians,” p. 96, IVP Academic, 1994

[3] Brian Stiller, “What Happens When I Die?” p. 114, Pinion Press, 2003

[4] Richard Baxter, “The Saint’s Everlasting Rest,” p. 95, Christian Heritage, 2000

[5] Ibid., p. 96

 

© Colin S. Smith

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By Colin S. Smith. © Colin S. Smith. Website: UnlockingtheBible.org



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