Better by Far! (Part One)

Philippians 1:23

I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far… (NIV).

The church at Philippi was a good church, though like every other gathering of believers, it was not perfect. Wherever you have people, you will find problems, since we all sin. In this blog, I write of God’s grace for sinners and strive to help people that struggle with sin. But I openly confess that I, like the Philippians, am far from perfect. Writing from prison, the apostle Paul sent the Philippian church this letter, because he was troubled about a weakness in their fellowship. They needed to work together in joyful love for the spread of the gospel, but they were pulled apart by strife between people.

Paul sought to bring his friends to greater unity by various means. Our text is taken from a section in which he did not hesitate to use himself as an example. What he urged them to do was not merely some fine theory. Instead, it conformed to how he was living at that time. He told them that he lived to advance the gospel. That was very important, but he was torn between two alternatives. He wanted to live on to preach the gospel, though he suffered, yet he also wanted to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far. He used his desire to be with the Lord to motivate them to change the way they currently lived. Today, we ask the first of three questions about this desire.

The first question is, why is it better to depart and to be with Christ? By the way, notice that Paul clearly believed that to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord. The Bible nowhere teaches soul sleep or purgatory.

To be with Christ is to be freed from suffering and trials. The apostle knew a great deal about these hard events of life. It was not pleasant to be in a first century prison. Consider also his other sufferings for Christ (2 Corinthians 11:23-33). Let us not pretend to be more spiritual than we are. No one likes suffering. The apostles rejoiced that they suffered for the sake of Christ’s name. We can rejoice in the blessed fruit that suffering brings. But suffering itself is not joyous.

After Christ’s servants die, this world can do nothing more to harass (Revelation 7:15-17; 14:13; 21:3-4). Certainly this is better by far!

To be with Christ is to be freed from sin. During our time on this old world, sinful desires wage war against the soul (1 Peter 2:11). This war lasts our entire Christian life. We sometimes ask, “When will this war be over?” But then we will be like Christ in purity and holiness. He did this to present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless (Ephesians 5:27 CSB; cf. 1 John 3:2-3; Hebrews 12:23). Certainly this is better by far! Is your hope to be like Jesus Christ? It is one of the signs of having new life.

To be with Christ is to be where God is always praised. Now we must live among a people that revel in their own perversity (Romans 1:28-32). They take pleasure in violence and moral degradation. They mock what is pure and good and right. But when we are with the Lord, we will only hear the voices of those who magnify the Lord with us (Revelation 5:9-14; 15:3-4; 19:5-8). Certainly this is better by far!

To be with Christ is to be with one who has overflowing joy. Even now we should rejoice, since we are in Christ (Philippians 3:1; 4:4). Too often, our joy is mixed with sorrow (2 Corinthians 6:10). To be with the Lord will be the experience of eternal joy. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11 ESV; cf. Matthew 25:21, 23). Certainly this is better by far!

Grace and peace, David

Heaven (Part One)

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things (Colossians 3:1-2 NIV).

One of the privileges of being a pastor or elder is the spiritual care of God’s people, especially as they approach the end of their earthly journey. Then, we see together what is truly important in this life, and it is not houses, cars, career accomplishments, victories by our favorite sports teams, vacations, entertainment, and gourmet restaurants. At the end, family and friends matter most, and if we are wise, our approaching meeting with the Lord. Our present purpose is to examine what the Bible says about life after death for believers, about what most people refer to in a general sense by the word “heaven”.

What do we mean by heaven? The term is used in two general senses in relation to God’s purposes of salvation. The first refers to the past ages and this present age. When we speak of heaven in the first general sense, the term is used in to speak of:

  • The sky (Matthew 8:20; 16:2-3)
  • The region of the stars and galaxies (Acts 7:42: Hebrews 11:12)
  • The place in the present age where God reveals his glory, where Christ resides in his glorified humanity, and where the angels and the spirits of the justified currently reside (Isaiah 66:1; Matthew 5:45; 18:10; Luke 22:43; John 12:28; Acts 1:11; 3:24; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Galatians 1:8; Hebrews 8:1)

When we speak of heaven in the second general sense, which is the primary subject of this study, we are speaking of the eternal destiny of God and his people. In this second sense, we refer to the new heavens and the new earth, and what the Bible reveals about them. “Heaven is the place where God most fully makes known his presence to bless” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 1159).

Eternity is a most solemn and heart-searching subject. Our present life is but a very brief blip. Think on the following (cf. Ryle, Practical Religion, pp. 472-488):

  • We live in a world where all is temporary and passing way (2 Corinthians 4:18), whether beauty, strength, wisdom, or the worldly wealth we accumulate.
  • We are all going to a future where everything is eternal, whether for eternal happiness with God or for eternal misery under God’s wrath (Matthew 25:46)
  • Our state in eternity depends entirely on what we are in time (John 3:16-18, 36; Romans 2:6-7; Galatians 6:8)
  • The Lord Jesus Christ is the Great Friend to whom we must all look for help, both for time and for eternity (John 6:37-40; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 2 Timothy 1:10; Hebrews 2:15; 1 Peter 2:24; 3:18)

Next, consider the various terms used in the Scriptures to describe the future blessedness of the saints. Invest some of your time in reading and meditating on these verses.

  • Life, eternal life, live forever (Matthew 7:14; 19:16, 29; 25:46; John 5:24; 6:47, 54-58)
  • Glory, the glory of God, an eternal weight of glory (Romans 2:7, 10; 5:2; 2 Corinthians 4:17; Ephesians 3:21; Colossians 3:4; 2 Timothy 2:10)
  • My Father’s house, home with the Lord (John 14:2; 2 Corinthians 5:8)
  • Peace (Romans 2:10)
  • Salvation, eternal salvation (1 Thessalonians 5:9; Hebrews 5:9; 9:28)
  • Paradise (Luke 23:43; 2 Corinthians 12:4; Revelation 2:7)
  • The Jerusalem that is above, the city with foundations, the heavenly Jerusalem, the new Jerusalem (Galatians 4:26; Hebrews 11:10, 16; 12:22; Revelation 3:12)
  • A better country (Hebrews 11:16)
  • The kingdom, heavenly kingdom, eternal kingdom (Matthew 8:11; 25:34; 2 Timothy 4:18; 2 Peter 1:11)
  • Eternal inheritance (Hebrews 9:15; 1 Peter 1:4)
  • Eternal dwellings (Luke 16:9)
  • Glorious freedom (Romans 8:21)
  • To live and reign with Christ (2 Timothy 2:11-12)
  • Heaven (Matthew 5:12; 6:20; 19:21; Luke 12:33; 2 Corinthians 5:1; 1 Peter 1:4)
  • New heavens and a new earth (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1)

Each of the above ought to stir the hearts of followers of the Lord Jesus. They tell us what to set our minds upon. Make room for heaven in your thoughts today!

Grace and peace, David

An Important Personal Event (Part One)

Genesis 48:1-7

For most of mankind’s history, people everywhere have had a clear view of what it means to grow old and die. Even the multitudes who have worshiped false gods have focused on death and the afterlife. Part of the foolishness of modern man is his eager desire to hide his destiny from himself. Consider some happenings that point out how willing people are to forget about aging and dying.

  • The elderly are quickly abandoned to nursing homes by their children, grandchildren and other relatives. I’m not speaking about people that truly want the best personal care for their loved one. I’m referring to those that simply are too preoccupied with pleasure to care for their family.
  • The increasing refusal to attend funerals and memorial services. Again, I’ve seen people make incredible efforts to be there for their family and friends. But many do not care to make the effort to be there to honor others. People like to pretend that death is not real. They deliberately avoid such events.
  • The general lack of respect for those who are aged. Contrast Prov 16:31: Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained in the way of righteousness (NIV). People tend to disrespect those over age fifty, pushing them out of their jobs. Our culture does not value those with long life experience, blissfully unaware that soon they will be older. People do not like to listen to the wisdom and stories of the aged.

The Bible is God’s word to us about all we need for life and godliness. Therefore, it includes chapters like the one before us to confront us with the fact of aging and dying. In the midst of these solemn truths, it also speaks of hope. Fantasies and delusions provide no hope, but the truth does!

Joseph fulfilled his responsibility to show affection for his father (48:1-2). Four hundred years before the law was given, he honored his father (cf. Exodus 20:12). Joseph visited his father during his final affliction. Though heavily involved in the task of governing a country in crisis, he did not excuse himself from his filial duty. Two years ago, my mother died, and my brother and I and our wives stepped in to help my dad in his loss. Although I was in a difficult situation myself, it was time to be with dad.

Joseph took his two sons along with him. They, too, had a duty to visit their grandfather, who dearly loved them. There is also the hope that such visits will do the young good also. “It is good to acquaint young people that are coming into the world with the aged servants of God that are going out of it, whose dying testimony to the goodness of God, and the pleasantness of wisdom’s ways, may be a great encouragement to the rising generation” (Henry, Commentary on the Bible). In the name of sparing children from grief, many parents have also spared them from wisdom. It is useless to bemoan the sins of the next generation when we keep them from God’s teachers. Children need to visit their seriously ill relatives. They need to attend funerals and memorial services, so that they can see the reality of death, and hear the good news of the gospel of Christ in the face of death.

Jacob did what he could to make the visit profitable (48:3-7). Here is an example of his wisdom and humility. Instead of wasting the time with complaints about his afflictions, Jacob rallied his strength. The precious moments of life remaining to him could not be wasted! He reviewed God’s goodness to him to give hope to his son and grandsons. Here is also an example of self-control. In our fallen state, the soul has limited control over the body, but we are able to do a little when necessary. We should use our time of health wisely, when the soul is able to exercise greater control. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come (1 Timothy 4:8). Jacob told them the promise that the Lord gave him and his family. Let our conversations speak of the confident expectation of the righteous. Don’t waste your words.

Grace and peace, David

The Holy Spirit (Part Thirteen)

Romans 8:9-10

But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this one is not his. But if Christ is in you, on the one hand the body is dead because of sin, but on the other, the Spirit is life because of righteousness (my translation)

In this series about the Holy Spirit, we are looking at the gift of the Holy Spirit’s saving work in applying the salvation purchased by the Lord Jesus Christ. Why do we need this gift? We need it because humans are dead in sin. But the Spirit is able to meet this need by regenerating grace, which involves a washing and renewal (Titus 3:5), and which conveys an image or likeness unto God (Colossians 3:10). When the Holy Spirit uses the Word of God to cause us to be born again, four things happen:

  • He gives a new heart (inner person) and life
  • He gives the gifts of repentance and faith
  • He breaks the power of sin
  • He opens our hearts to Christ and his glory

The old person of the heart that was dead in sin is born again, so that we are now new in the Lord Jesus Christ. All this happens as the Holy Spirit brings us into union with Christ. “In Christ” is the key idea of salvation. All aspects of salvation, whether regeneration and conversion, or justification, or adoption, or sanctification, or glorification, happen because of our union with the Lord Jesus Christ.

In this article and the next, we will look more closely at this union with Christ that the Spirit of God produces. How does it affect us? Why do we who belong to Christ need to know this truth? To grasp what the Spirit does, we need to understand our present situation. Think carefully. As soon as the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ, we Christians enter into a new experience. There is the tension between life and death.

  • On the physical level, nothing immediately changes. The curse of Adam’s sin remains on our physical bodies (Romans 5:12). The body is dead because of sin (Romans 8:10). This explains why Christians still die physically. Our spirits are reborn, but the body stays in the realm of death.
  • Although saved by grace, we still experience the evil of our enemy, death. The last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Cor 15:26 ESV; cf. 2 Cor 4:7-12, 16; 1 Th 4:13).
  • This explains the reason for our “groaning” in this life. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Romans 8:22-25 ESV).

Christians should boldly face all of reality, including death. We can share in the sorrows of our unsaved family and friends. We know the truth of the separation that death causes.

Though not spoken of in this verse, the sinful, physical body continues to be the playground of sin. A large part of our struggle with sin concerns sin’s use of the body (Romans 6:6, 12-13, 19; 12:1). Our union with Christ demands that we take this struggle seriously (1 Corinthians 6:12-20).

But do not think that the sinful body is our only problem. The regenerate human spirit is also capable of sin (2 Corinthians 7:1; cf. Philippians 2:1-4; Colossians 3:5; etc.). Though we are new in Christ, we are not yet perfect in Christ. There is a very significant difference between (1) being a new person in Christ and having the reign of sin broken (Romans 6:14), and (2) what is still to come when we are perfect in Christ, free forever from the possibility of sin in glory. For this reason, we look forward in hope to the redemption of the body (Romans 8:23, quoted above).

So then, we must face the reality of our present condition. We are new in Christ and united to him by grace through faith. However, we still wait (patiently) for the fulfillment of all we will be in him. New life is tremendous, but in this present age, we still struggle. We are new creation people in an old creation world. Next, we will look at specifics about the way the Spirit of Christ helps us to live for God’s glory in this time.

Grace and peace, David

The Tragic Outcome of the Uncertain Journey

IMG_1017Ruth 1:3-5

We again look at a small family, who left the Promised Land of God’s old covenant people to seek an easier life. It wasn’t a far departure, but it was unnecessary and away from the people and worship of the true and living God. (Remember that under the old covenant, worship of God was closely connected with the place God had chosen for the tabernacle or temple.) What happened to that family?

First, Elimelech died. We must be cautious here, because the Holy Spirit does not say that his death was due to being in Moab or because he failed to return to the Promised Land. Physical suffering and death may come for a variety of reasons. You can be living for God’s glory and still suffer or die. But for Naomi, this was a great tragedy, regardless of its cause. For a woman in ancient times, like Naomi, the death of her husband had serious financial consequences. Most women had no job they could fall back on, and there was no insurance or social security or welfare system. A widow basically had three options: to return to her parent’s home (if she could), to beg, or to become a prostitute. In addition, Naomi and her sons are resident aliens, away from family and the people of God. All that Naomi can depend on, in a worldly sense, is support from her two sons.

Second, Mahlon and Kilion married Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. This is to be expected in the circumstances. Young people tend to make friends and fall in love with available companions of the opposite sex. If there are not godly people available, they will be guided by mere physical and emotional attraction. Marriage to anyone from a Canaanite people group was forbidden by the law (Deuteronomy 7:1-4). Although Moabites were not Canaanites, the Lord restricted them from entering the congregation of his people, even for ten generations (Deuteronomy 23:3-6). Later in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, intermarriage with Moabites was considered to be a cause of guilt before the Lord (Ezra 9:1-2; Nehemiah 13:1-3). The Lord wanted his people separate from those who worshiped idols.  How much influence Naomi had over her sons at this point is unclear. Please do not blame either parents or children for the choices that the other generation makes! Parents and children are alike responsible to God for their choices. And do not expect God to bail you out of unwise marital choices! For every Ruth, there is also an Orpah. Now Naomi has to deal with the complications of having Moabite daughters-in-law. Seemingly, they got along well, and everything appears to be viable for Naomi.

Third, Naomi’s sons die by the time they had been in Moab for ten years. Again, the text does not say that her sons were being punished for sin. But it is a reminder that death can strike younger adults. Two of my best friends died around the age of thirty. Seek the Lord while you are young! Now Naomi is left without any provision in a foreign country. Picture her grief and fear as she stands beside three graves. Her hopelessness is accentuated in the story by not mentioning her name. In the Hebrew text (cf. ESV, NASV), she is now simply “the woman”; she has lost her family and with it her identity.

What hope was there for Naomi at this point? Was there any? She was living as a resident alien among an ungodly people and without the protection that God and his law covenant provided for the widow. Had this rushing river of tragedy proved that God has abandoned her? Before you rush to give a “spiritual sounding answer”, please stop and feel the horror of her situation! The Bible seems too good to some people, because they fail to read it as a story of real life. However, the story is filled with many stories of suffering and hardship for even the best of believers. Stop and read thoughtfully. Yet, the good news is that God calls wandering people back to him, regardless of the reasons and ways of their wandering. If you feel “alone in Moab” like Naomi, God welcomes you back home through his one and only Son, Jesus Christ. He says, “Come home! Find friendship and joy with me and my people!” This good news can be yours today. Don’t let pride hinder you. Return to the true and living God today.

Grace and peace, David