The Reverend Mr. David Strain: It’s my privilege to welcome to our pulpit Dr. Joel Beeke who is probably, I hope at least, well-known to many of you. He is a well-known author; his books have been an enormous source of encouragement to me. He is a well-known preacher and we are glad to have him come and open the Word of God to us tonight. Dr. Beeke.
The Reverend Dr. Joel Beeke: I’m grateful for the opportunity to bring you God’s Word, grateful for your pastor, grateful for this flock, and grateful to be here. Again, I bring you the warm greetings of Puritan Reformed Seminary and The Heritage Reformed Church in Grand Rapids. Let us first seek God’s face in a prayer for illumination.
Great God of heaven, glorious and beautiful in Thy every attribute, full of desire for Thy people who desire Thee, we pray that this evening we would be enabled to preach one of the biggest texts of the Bible with freedom and liberty and that the hearts of Thy people would be stirred up to lay hold of the afresh and may rejoice in the God of their salvation that Thy children may leave this house tonight more filled with Christ than when they’ve entered and may learn to live Christ and to die gain. Help us, Lord, to understand, to grasp, to drink in, to relish, to be satiated with the glory and beauty of Thy well-beloved Son. And we with those who do not know Thee savingly. Stir them up to holy jealously tonight and bring them to faith and repentance. This may be the evening of their salvation. Bless this church, bless the pastors, bless especially Reverend Strain as he leads this flock from week to week. We ask Thy benediction upon him and we pray, send reformation and revival not only to this church but to our land, our needy land, and illumine us with Thyself. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
Turn with me if you will to Philippians chapter 1; Philippians chapter 1. As we turn there, let me remind you that Paul is writing this book to the Philippians, this epistle, when he’s in prison, probably in Rome, and he is not allowed to preach. He has some freedom to have people come and go and see him, but the great burden of Paul is always to preach, and so you would think that he would be very sad and distressed, but this epistle is called the epistle of joy because he has learned that in whatsoever state he is in, therewith to be content. And so he writes to the Philippians, “Rejoice, and again I say to you, rejoice!” He’s very grateful to them for the gifts they’ve given to him. They’re not a wealthy church; stretched out, reached out, they’ve given beyond their means. And he says, “What’s most important to me is that it comes from you because I love you even more than the gifts you’ve given. And then he goes to encourage them that even his imprisonment will work together for their good and for his good as well and that all things will work together for good to those that love God. We’ll pick up there at verse 12 of chapter 1. I’m reading from the Authorized Version:
“But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened to me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel; so that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places; and many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife; and some also of good will: the one preach Christ out of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds: but the other preach Christ of love, knowing that I am set for the defense of the gospel. What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretense, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice. For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labor: yet what I shall choose I know not. For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you. And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith; that your rejoicing may be more abundant in Jesus Christ for me by my coming to you again.”
May God bless the reading of His sacred Word.
Charles Spurgeon once said, “There are some texts in the Bible that are so big, that if the preacher did nothing but just repeat the text the whole sermon long you’d have a great sermon.” And I want to, with God’s help, bring you one of those big texts this evening. You can find our text in verse 21. “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” And our theme tonight is simply this: The only way to live and die. With two simple thoughts - how Christ can be our life and how death can be our gain. Now in the original Greek, because Greek does not need linking verbs, this text is sounding even more pungent. It’s a banner over Paul’s life. It’s a summary of his life. It’s a title of who he is. That’s why in the Authorized Version the two “is”s are in the italic print because they’re not needed in the original. So it’s simply this: “For me to live, Christ, to die, gain.” Gain because I’m in Christ.
I.We Have Linkage in Christ
And so that begs the question, doesn’t it, “What does it mean to live Christ?” I’d like to suggest to you tonight that it means at least four things. First of all it means we have linkage with Christ. We’re linked with Him. Theologians call this union with Christ or sacred union with Christ or sometimes sacred mystical union with Christ. This union with Christ is foundational. We must be in Christ by faith and have a relationship with Him. This is what we call justification. We’re justified in Christ. Recently I was speaking with someone and I asked him, “Do you know such-and-such a person?” and the answer was, “Oh, yes. I’m connected with him.” And that’s really how a Christian feels. Though we don’t know Christ as much as we’d like to know Him here, we can’t deny that we’re connected with Him. Like a link of a chain on a necklace is connected with the next link, we have linkage with Christ. We are united with Him.
Now of course that was not always the case with the Apostle Paul. Originally, as a Pharisee, he persecuted those who were connected with Jesus Christ. Prior to his conversion if you handed him a piece of paper, “For me to live…” Put it down Paul, in one word! He would have said, “Moses!” He gloried in his manmade legalism, his manmade righteousness. But on the way to Damascus that all changed. You know the story. A light shone from heaven, Paul fell to the earth trembling, astonished, blinded, conquered by God. And you know how his friends brought him to Damascus. For three days he couldn’t see, couldn’t eat, couldn’t drink; could only pray. And there in the street called Straight, the Holy Spirit showed him who he really was in the mirror of the Holy Law of God and then if you said to Paul, “Summarize your life in one word,” he would have said, “For me to live, sin! I’m a lost sinner before a holy God, without God, without Christ, a stranger of grace in this world.” And that was something he never learned at the feet of Gamaliel, the greatest of teachers. His uncircumcised heart was humbled and Paul accepted there the punishment of his iniquity. But there too in the street called Straight the Holy Spirit led this persecuting Pharisee to Jesus Christ. The scales fell from Paul’s eyes and he says, “It pleased God to reveal His Son in me.” What a glorious time that was. Paul says He did it, “so that I might preach Him among the heathen.” His Creator became his Redeemer. And what a beautiful thing that is.
That’s really what salvation is all about isn’t it? You young people, children, sometimes justification seems like a big word, especially when you’re six, seven, eight years old. Just let me tell you a story to illustrate it; maybe this will help. There was a boy named Tom and he built a special boat and Tom took that boat every day down to a little stream, tied his string to the boat, took the string in his hand, and he’d run along the bank and the boat would go behind him in the stream. Until one day a wind storm came along and as Tom was running along the wind ripped the string out of his hand and the boat sailed away. Tom was very upset; this was his pride and joy, this boat. But a couple of days later, he’s walking along in the downtown area in his town and he comes by a store and see his boat in the window. And he walks in and he says to the storeowner, “That’s my boat! I want my boat back.” Well the store owner says, “I bought that boat. You have to buy it if you want it back.” And so Tom went home and he scraped together the twenty dollars that the shop owner wanted. He went back and bought the boat. He’s walking away from the store, boys and girls, and he hugs the boat to himself and he says, “Now twice I’ve owned you. First I made you and how I’ve bought you.”
And you see, children, that’s exactly what happens when God saves a sinner. First He makes us; He creates us. Everything you are, everything you have you owe to God. You can’t blink without God. You can’t move a hand without God. God gave you every body part. He made you and you’re called to serve Him. But we fell, as we just heard in the little story, we fell in Adam and we’ve become sinners before God. But when Jesus comes back to work in our hearts by His Holy Spirit, you see, He buys us with His own blood; not twenty dollars but everything. He gives His own blood so that when we, by grace, believe in Him alone for salvation and repent at His feet, we become linked to Him; we become justified. He buys us back and He then looks at us and says, “Now twice I’ve owned you. First I made you but now I’ve bought you and I claim you to be mine.” And so when you can say, “For me to live, Christ,” the first thing you mean is He’s bought you, He’s taken you as His own, He’s linked you up with Him inseparably, never to be torn asunder again, and He’s done it with His own blood.
Actually He’s done it with two things. There’s two things that we cannot do that we need to have done for us if we’re really going to be saved and go to heaven in the end and be with Jesus forever, children. The first thing is, we need a Savior to pay for our sin because we can never pay for it. Sin is too bad in the eyes of God to have a finite person like you and me pay for sin. We need someone who’s infinite, who’s very God, and yet who’s man in our nature to live perfectly and pay for our sin. And we call that Jesus’ passive obedience. That is because He suffered in His obedience and paid for our sin completely, dying on our behalf. But you see, that just wipes away our sin; that just makes us neutral before God. If it weren’t for the fact that Jesus also had to obey the Law perfectly, only if Adam would have obeyed the Law perfectly could he have inherited eternal life. And so we need a substitute also. Because we’ve sinned against every commandment, we need a substitute also who in His active obedience loves God above all and loves His neighbor as Himself perfectly, every second of His entire life without sinning once. And that’s what Jesus has done.
And you see, by nature, when we’re not saved, we’re actually sinning against God every tick of the clock. Tick, tick, tick, tick. Every moment we’re not loving God above all, we’re not loving our neighbor as ourselves, and we’re never doing that apart from grace we’re sinning. Maybe we’re not committing sin but we’re omitting to do what the Law demands - loving God above all every moment; loving our neighbor as ourselves every moment. And so when the Holy Spirit comes like He came to Paul, we learn “in my flesh dwells no good thing.” Everything about me is sinful. I’ve got a back record because I’ve got a bad heart and I’m never living the way I ought to live. My entire life is sin. Have you ever experienced that? Have you ever been emptied of your own righteousness? Have you ever needed a Savior? Both in His active and passive obedience - Calvin put it this way, “It’s through His double obedience, active and passive, that we can be justified before God, linked with Christ unto our eternal salvation.”
II. We Have Life in Christ
But secondly, if we can say, “For me to live, Christ,” we not only have linkage with Christ, we have life in Christ. Life in Christ. He’s our daily life. He’s the aim of our life. We want to know Him better, don’t we? If we’re saved we want to know Him better in His person, in His natures, in His offices. We want to be more in communion with Him. We call this sanctification. Another big word, children, but it simply means being made holy, being made more like Jesus, being made more like God. And you see, when your life is Christ, no matter if you’ve just been born again or if you’ve been on the way for fifty or sixty years, you will want to know Jesus better. There was a great theologian in the 16th century; his name was William Perkins. He’s called “the father of Puritanism.” And Perkins once gave a list of fifteen marks by which you may know if you’re a child of God. And he got done with all fifteen and he said, “Well maybe you still don’t know. You see all the depravity of your heart and you’re still not sure. Well I’m going to give you one more,” he said. “And this one, you will be able to know for sure whether you are a child of God. Yes or no.” The smallest babe in grace can say it; the most advanced in grace can say it. And if you can’t say it you’re not a believer. And what do you think he said? He said, “Every child of God yearns to know Jesus Christ better and learns to find all his life in the Savior.” No life in me; no life in you. Life in Jesus. And it’s as we find life in Him that we really live. He’s our teaching Prophet. He’s our interceding, sacrificial Priest. He’s our ruling, guiding King. And you see, the aim of my life, if for me to live is Christ, the aim of my life is to commune with Him daily.
If you lay your head down on your pillow at night and you think back over your day and you have to say, “You know, there’s been no communion with Christ all day long,” that’s an empty day, isn’t it? There’s an empty feeling inside of you. But if you can lay your head down on your pillow and say, “Today I’ve had some sweet moments with Jesus Christ, communing with Him in prayer or reading His Word, and He was sweet to me,” you’ve had a meaningful day and you cry out, “For me to live, Christ! He’s my life! He’s everything to me. Outside of Him is death. He’s real life and sin is real death.” And so for Paul, you see, Christ and sin are antithetical to each other. And that’s why Paul is still so grieved with indwelling sin. That’s why he cries out in Romans 7, “The good that I would I find myself not doing. The evil that I would not I find myself doing. O wretched man that I am!”
What about you tonight? Do you have that inward grief when you don’t have communion with Christ? Do you see the emptiness of all of life outside of Christ? Do you see death in the pot for everything that is not connected with Christ? Does it matter, ultimately does it, if you’re a straight A student in college and perhaps just a wonderful athlete and you’re handsome or beautiful and you’re popular, if you don’t have Christ, your life is empty and you’re on the way to hell. Charles Spurgeon said it this way. He said, “If you’re not in Christ you’ve got a coffin on your back and you’ll soon have grave dust in your mouth if you don’t repent and believe the Gospel.” You see, life is nothing but eternal condemnation if you’re not in Christ. This is the one thing needful - you must be in Christ. To live, to live, to really live is to live in Christ and by Christ and for Christ and to Christ and through Christ. That’s how Paul feels. That’s what he means when he says, “For me to live, Christ.” So tonight if we handed out paper to all of you and it just said, “For me to live…” and it was a blank and you could only fill in one word and you were to be honest before God and before men, what word would you put in that blank? Would you be able to say, “Christ, He’s my life. He’s everything to me.” What would you put? Would you have to be honest and say, “Well, for me to live - reputation, friendship, money, work, my spouse, my kids, or would it be Christ”?
III. We Have Love for Christ
Well thirdly, if we can say, “For me to live, Christ,” we have not only linkage with Christ and life in Christ but love for Christ; zealous love for the Savior. You know if you have a really, really good marriage, you just sometimes look at your spouse and you’re overwhelmed. You just feel like you’ve married up, big time, and you just love your spouse so much you’d almost say, you don’t really mean it of course, but “I could love you to pieces!” because you just love her so much. “I think you’re so special!” That’s the way Paul feels about Christ, times a thousand! So he says to the Ephesians, “I yearn for you to know the love of Christ and all its depth and height and breadth that passes understanding.” He says to the Corinthians, “The love of Christ constrains me.” It’s the engine that makes the train of my life run behind me. It makes me tick all day long. It fills my mouth, it fills my heart, it fills my life! You know it’s always amazing to me that if you open to one of Paul’s epistles - I’m just looking at the page in front of me - “Jesus; Jesus Christ; Christ; Christ; Christ, Lord Jesus; Christ; Jesus Christ; Christ.” That’s just only one quarter of one page. It’s everywhere! Everything for Paul leads him to Christ. Martin Luther said, “Paul could not keep Christ out of his pen because the Holy Spirit kept Christ in his heart.” There’s an old saying, you know, that “All roads lead to Rome.” Well for Paul, all matters, large and small, lead to Christ because Christ is all. Paul could have been a great philosopher; Paul was a very brilliant man. He could have succeeded in all kinds of professions, but he said to the Corinthians, “I discipline myself. I’m determined to know nothing save Jesus Christ and him crucified.” He said to the Colossians, “Christ is all and in all.” “I love Him,” you say, “and because I love Him everything in my mind is sort of geared and constructed to Him.” Have you ever met a young woman who was engaged to a young man who she just really loves and she doesn’t even tell you this name; she just talks about “him” and “he” as if there’s only one “him” and “he” in all the world.
You see, that’s the mentality of Paul. Christ is everything. And so when he’s writing to all these different churches - now the pastoral letters of course are a different genre a bit - but when he’s writing to the churches, basically he’s writing about problem. Paul uses a sandwich principle in every epistle. He puts it on a slice of bread, tells them how wonderful they are, he loves them, he’s praying for them, he’s endeared to them, and then he puts in various levels of criticism. “I hear you have a problem among you” - and he gives them a solution. With the Corinthians there was like seven or eight problems in 1 Corinthians! It was a fat sandwich; lots of meat! And then at the end he puts on another slice of bread. “I long to be with you. Kiss one another. Give a holy kiss. I long to be with you, etc” and they eat the sandwich! It’s a very, very wise way to criticize someone still today. You sandwich it in a realistic way. But you see, what Paul does is amazing. Every slice of meat is Christological. He writes to the Corinthians, “Are there divisions in the church?” He says, “Is Christ divided?” “Is there a problem with an immoral man in the assembly?” He says, “Purge out the old leaven that you may be a new lump for Christ, our Passover is sacrificed for us.” “Is there a man involved with immoral temptations? Such were some of you, but you’re washed, you’re sanctified, you’re justified in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
How are you to live as a Christian husband? Ephesians 5, you’re to “love your wife as Christ loves the church.” How are you to live as a wife? Well, you’re to “respect your husband and show him submission as the church shows to Jesus Christ.” How are you children to relate to your parents? “Obey your parents, children, in the Lord,” that is, the Lord Jesus Christ. You see, for every aspect of life, every problem, every relationship, everything practical, everything spiritual Paul takes us to Christ. When he says we are to forgive each other, he reminds us of Christ who forgave us - Colossians 3. When he exhorts us to be generous in our giving, he reminds us of Christ who gives everything for us - 2 Corinthians 8. When he exhorts us to humility, he says “put on the mind of Christ” - Philippians 2. When he exhorts us to everyday holiness, it’s on the ground that we are crucified and risen with Christ - Romans 6. You see, Christ is the answer to every problem. He’s the one the lost need; He’s the one the saved need. “It’s all Christ. It’s all I preach. He’s the sum and substance of my ministry. For me to live, Christ, because I love him with all of my heart!”
Do you love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity? Maybe you can’t say you love Him as you want to love Him because every believer never loves Him to the degree you want to love Him, but can you at least say with Peter, “Thou knowest all things, Lord. Thou knowest that I love Thee.” Do you find Him altogether lovely? Thomas Brooks, the Puritan, said, “Christ is lovely, Christ is very lovely, Christ is most lovely, Christ is always lovely, Christ is altogether lovely, Christ is the most sparkling diamond in the ring of God’s glory.”
IV. We Have Likeness to Christ
But then fourthly and finally, if we can say, “For me to live, Christ,” we have not only linkage with Him and life in Him and love for Him, but we begin to develop likeness to Him. Have you ever seen an old couple, maybe married fifty-five, sixty years, and they’re getting infirm but they’re still madly in love with each other and they’re doting on each other and they’re helping each other and it’s almost like they’re leaning on each other and they can finish each other’s sentences, and it’s amazing, they actually almost begin to look like each other, don’t they? And you say, “I can’t imagine the one without the other. They just fit together. They belong together.” You see, if for you to live is Christ, that begins to happen more and more in your life. And this is the goal; this is the whole goal of spiritual life. The goal is not just to get regenerated so that I quickly get to heaven or I can get to heaven in a minimal way. Romans 8:29 is pretty plain. We are predestinated to be what? “To be conformed to the image of Christ.” God’s great work in us and for us is to make us more like Christ. What a beautiful thing that is.
Thomas Boston, the great 18th century Scottish divine said this, “I made a holy resolution that wherever I go, with whomever I would speak, whatever I would do, I would aim to leave the savor of Christ behind me.” The smell of Christ. You see, the greatest compliment anyone can give you in this life, I think, is that if someone comes up to you and says, “You know, brother, sister, I really see Christ in you. The savor of Christ oozes out of you.” That’s what happened to Paul; it oozed out of him. The Fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, humility, temperance - that list of nine things in Galatians 5:22-23, those things were evident in Paul’s life. And what are those things but the moral profile of the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s why it’s called Fruit not Fruits because when you have one you have the whole package, even if it’s only weakly. But in Christ it’s the whole package in perfection and a believer wants to be more like that so that in the great day you will be like Him and you will see Him as He is and He will see no sin in His Jacob and no transgression in His Israel and you will be as holy because of His work, His justifying work, His sanctifying work, His redemptive work as He is holy! And that is overwhelming. That is amazing. That’s the ultimate of the Gospel - that future, utopian marriage. John says we shall be like Him.
But what does it really mean to be like Christ? I suppose it means a thousand things. John said, rather hyperbolically, that the world itself couldn’t contain all the books that should be written if everything were recorded about Jesus. But I think if you boil it all down there’s three major things that are involved in becoming like Christ. The first thing is, we begin to develop a servant heart. A servant heart. Christ was a servant. He came not to be ministered to but to minister, to be a servant. I do quite a bit of flying on airplanes and I often put my seat back and just try to catch up on some sleep, but there’s always people talking behind me, it seems. And it’s interesting when you can’t see people and you just hear their conversation. Most of the time it is so incredibly shallow and self-centered. It’s “I” this, “I” this; “I feel like this; I want this; I like this; I wish I had that.” And it’s like they’re passing each other in the night just talking about “I, I, I, me, me, me, my, my, my,” ad nauseam! That’s our nature, to be selfish. The moment we become like Christ we begin to think in terms of “we” and in terms of “God” and “us,” in terms of “His people” and “us.” We begin to think of Him and we want to serve Him and we want to serve others. And that’s really what life is all about, isn’t it? Being servants.
When I was sixteen years old I had a brother who was nineteen. He walked into my bedroom one day and he said, “You know I’ve figured out what life is all about and I can say it in one word.” And I said, “Well that’s cool. What’s that?” He said, “Service.” I said, “What? Explain.” “Well,” he said, “it’s quite simple. God made us serving Him, Adam served Eve serving one another, and serving creation, to dress and keep the garden. And so we fell from that and we become unhappy when we live for ourselves which is counter to the reason why God made us and we won’t be truly happy until we’re saved and become more like Jesus by having a servant heart and it’s only when we learn to serve again - serve God, serve our neighbor, serve this perishing world - that we will become truly happy again and meet the purpose for which we were created in the first place.”And I said, “Well, that sounds pretty good.” Forty some years later I think it sounds very good. Would you husband, would your wife, would your children, would your parents say of you, “I can see that he or she is growing, growing, in an unselfish, servant heart”?
But secondly, to become more like Jesus is to develop a loving heart. Has it ever struck you how loving Jesus was to people? He even loved the rich young ruler! And He loved babies and little children that were brought to Him in a day when it wasn’t kosher if you were a prophet to pay any attention to kids. That’s why the disciples came and discouraged the parents from bringing their children to Jesus. But Jesus was upset. He loved children! He even loved lepers. He didn’t run away from lepers as soon as they came into sight. He went up to them. He touched them. He was a people person. The more you become like Christ the more you learn to love people and the more you learn to see every unconverted person as a mission field with a never-dying soul going to eternity. Are you growing and developing a loving heart?
And then the last one’s the trickiest one. To be like Christ is to have a humble heart. I say tricky because the more we grow in humility the less we realize we have humility. But Jesus was meek and lowly and the more we’re like Christ the more humble we are. But really that’s true of every grace, isn’t it? The more you have of a certain grace the more you realize how little you have of it. My mother was the greatest prayer warrior I’ve ever known in my life. She would pray a couple of hours a day and she’d just be praying for us constantly. I mean if there was one quality my mother had it was that she was a prayer warrior. My parents had their 50th anniversary and all of us kids thanked my parents each for one thing. All five of us chose to thank my mother for her prayers. And when she was eighty years old I asked her, “Mother, if you had to live your life over again, how would you live it differently?” She said, just like that, “Oh honey, I’d pray more.” Pray more! You’re making me feel terribly guilty! But you see, that’s what grace does. The more we see, the more we know, the more we experience grace, the more we’re in the presence of Christ the more we feel how little we have learned about humility and yet the more humble we actually are becoming. “He must increase and I must decrease.” That’s John the Baptist’s testimony which is really the essence of sanctification and the essence of humility.
And so if you want to know if you’re growing in humility, what you really have to do is you have to ask yourself this question. “When I think back on my life, say three years ago, do I think more of Christ now than I did then?” If you can say “Yes” and you can answer the next question, “Do I think less of myself now than I did then?” and also say “Yes” you’re actually growing in humility. Augustine was once asked, “What are the three most important Christian graces we need in the Christian church today?” and his answer was, “Humility, humility, humility.” “For me to live, Christ.” No, I’m not asking do you feel you have measured up on all four of these marks of grace I’ve just given you at the highest level you want to be, but I’m asking you, “Do you have something of these things? Are you linked with Him? Do you find your life in Him? Do you love Him? And are you growing in some measure in likeness to Him?” Well then you too can stammer, “For me to live, Christ.” And that’s the only way to live.
It’s only when you live in Christ that you can die well. And therefore Paul said, “And to die, gain.” Don’t you see, it’s at that point that our minds go, “Whoa, wait a minute, Paul, wait a minute. For me to live, Christ, that’s beautiful, that’s wonderful, but to die, gain? Paul you’re stretching it. You’re going over the top now.” I’ve been a pastor nearly forty years and I’ll tell you something, I’ve never seen a beautiful death yet. I mean I’ve seen God’s people say some beautiful things but I’ve never seen a beautiful death. Death is ugly. No one looks good in a casket quite frankly. And we ministers get in awkward situations because people come around us, relatives, and especially if it’s an unbeliever they don’t know what to say and finally they just kind of stammer something like, “Well doesn’t he look good?” And you don’t know what to say. He doesn’t look good! Death never looks good. Death is unnatural. What do you mean, Paul, “Death is gain”? Death is terrible!
My dad died twenty-two years ago now. It’s in my mind like yesterday. He was on the pulpit and he just fell over. He went straight from the pulpit to glory. Some people say, “Well that’s a wonderful way to die,” I’ll you it was hard at the time. My dad would call me every Monday and say, “How’d the sermons go yesterday?” I was bonded to my dad. It’s tough. You know what it’s like to lose a loved one who’s very close to you. Most of you know that. How can death be gain, Paul? What do you think? Is it gain for you to leave behind your dear friend, Timothy and Silas? You know what Paul would say to you? He’s say to you, “My relationship with Timothy and Silas will be even better in heaven than it ever was on earth.” You know there was once a man who came to me - I had the privilege of preaching in Met Tab in London and he said to me, “You know you preached about heaven tonight and I agreed with everything you said, but there’s one thing that really troubles me. I have a really close relationship with my wife and I’m going to miss that in heaven.” I said, “Brother, don’t worry about it. Your relationship with your wife will be even better in heaven than it ever was on earth because together you will be fixated on Jesus Christ and there can be nothing better than that, worshiping the Lamb in the midst of the throne. When you’re in Christ, to die will be the greatest gain that you could ever possibly imagine!”
How so? Well in two ways. First, because of what you leave behind and second, because of what you receive. Let’s look at them both briefly before we close. First, because of what you leave behind. What do you leave behind? You don’t only leave behind good things like Timothy and Silas but you also leave behind burdensome things. Paul’s going to leave behind this body of sin and death. He will no more have to say, “Evil is present with me.” That’s a good thing. He leaves behind that condemning, lamenting language. “I am carnal, sold under sin.” He leaves behind a life which, at best, is labor and sorrow, a life of afflictions. He’s no more beaten with rods, no more stone, no more suffering from criticisms of others, no more suffering shipwreck. He’s in the deep for a night and a day and perils of water and city and wilderness and perils of false brethren and weariness and painfulness and hunger and thirst and fastings. He suffers cold and nakedness no more! He leaves it all behind. And he leaves behind a life of temptation. Not even being tempted to be tempted any more. He leaves behind a buffeting Satan, an enticing world. No more problems with the lust of the eye and the lust of the flesh and the pride of life. No more trouble with that troubling thorn in his flesh which he never could quite figure out what it was. No more unanswered prayers, no more vexing riddles. I think I was ten or eleven years old when my dad said to me one day, I’ve never forgot it, he said some of God’s people step into the grave with more riddles than answers in this life.
But no more. Death, death, dear believer sitting here tonight, will be gain for you as well. You’ll leave behind your sinful heart, the hardships of your difficult life, your temptations, your thorns in the flesh. Think about it, there’ll be no more sin! Can you imagine that day? John Owen said, “The greatest burden for every believer in this life is his ongoing sin and he hankers for the day when he may see Christ and be sin-free forever.” Perfect soul, perfect body, no more Satan, no more worldliness, no more old nature; all evil walled out, all good walled in. No more tears, no more pain, no more night, no more death, no more curse. “To die, gain,” because of what I leave behind.
But then finally, “To die, gain,” because of what I receive. Even in the very act of dying actually astonishing things happen. Dying brings us into communion with Christ’s suffering. Dying gives us a unique experience of Christ’s all-sufficient grace. Dying transforms us even more into the image of Christ. Dying is our last and perhaps greatest opportunity to witness for Christ’s glory. And dying brings us into the presence of Christ forever. One old Scottish divine said, “My death is my wheelchair that brings me, rolls me into the presence of my King of kings where wheelchairs are needed no more.” Christ is heaven’s heaven. That’s why the Bible doesn’t speak very often about believers dying and going to heaven; it speaks about believers dying and going to be with Christ because He’s the center of heaven; He’s everything in heaven. Samuel Rutherford said, “Were there a thousand heavens piled on top of each other, my Lord Jesus Christ would be the centerpiece of them all.” Oh what a glorious life awaits the people of God. You know Spurgeon was right when he said, “God’s people have the best of both worlds. They’ve got a joy in this life that the unbeliever knows nothing about that far supersedes every joy the unbeliever can ever hop to acclaim. But in the life to come, oh the best, by far the best, is yet to be.”
What am I going to receive? I’m going to receive Christ in fullness, in His beauty. I’m going to see Him face to face without fear. I don’t have to look away. Samuel Rutherford said, “In this life, once in a while we get blinks and glances.” Paul put it this way, “We see Him through a glass darkly.” We want to see Him better. We want to lay hold of Him more. But there, there it will be no problem. There we will be able to embrace Him. There we will see Him face to face. We won’t even feel compelled to look away. We’ll be able to enjoy Him. May I say it reverently, I believe even more than the angels in heaven because of what we’ve been delivered from. Even the angels in heaven have to cover their faces with their wings as they approach. Revelation 19 says, verse 8, “They shall see His face and never have to look away.” What a glorious thing! See Emmanuel and gaze upon Him with love and adoration and worship and not have to look away because of my own sinfulness and my shyness and because He’s so holy I can’t bear the light of the Son. But on that day I will see Him face to face without hesitation, without reserve, with absolute freedom.
You know a few weeks ago at our seminary we got a new student from Nigeria and one of his Nigerian colleagues who’s been with us now for three years came to introduce him to me. And in Nigeria if you have a teacher that you meet you don’t look him in the eyes because that’s, you know, it’s more of a hierarchical society in that way. That’s just not polite. So this poor guy; he gets introduced to me and he’s just kind of glancing at me and he looks away and looks away. And the other guy sees it and he goes, “No, no, no. You’re in America now, not Nigeria. Nigeria we can’t look him in the fact but here, it’s rude if you don’t look him in the face! You’ve got to look at him!” And so the poor guy then tries and he manages to fix his gaze on me for half a second and then he looks away. Half a second and looks away! He just couldn’t bring himself to do it with freedom; it was too much for him. But you see in heaven, forever; my eyes never taken away from the Lamb who sits exalted on the throne. And I’ll be able to love him with the degree that I’ve always wanted to!
I will co-reign with Christ over what I don’t know but it will be wonderful and glorious and there will be perfect fellowship in heaven. What a beautiful thing that will be. Spurgeon said, “In heaven, our hearts which have been made right by grace will be matched with our heads and everything will be straightened out.” So we’ll know who’s right, the Baptists or the Paedo-baptists! Luther and Calvin will come to agree with each other on everything. It will just be this incredible fellowship and communion, perfect communion, no infirmities of God’s people at all, no strange characters. So often here we marvel at the variety of people God loves. Not all of God’s people are terribly loveable you know, but God loves them. But in heaven their characters will also be perfectly redeemed and beautiful in a glorious way without flaw. Yes, the best is yet to be.
So are you ready to die? You see, if you’re not in Christ, I need to tell you this too before we close, if you’re not in Christ your death will not be gain, it will be loss. It will be the reverse of everything I’ve just said. Your death will mean hell. Your death will mean forever being apart from the favor of God. Your death will mean being shut out from all that is good. You’ll be in that place where all evil is walled in and all good is walled out and you won’t even have the common grace that you experience in this life. You won’t even have a drop of water to cool your tongue. You know my dad had a couple of heart attacks and one time I visited him in the hospital after a heart attack and he was crying. I said, “Dad, why are you crying?” And he said, “Well a nurse just came in. She had an ice cube and she moistened my lips.” And he said, “I just couldn’t help but think of the rich man in hell who didn’t have a drop of water to cool his tongue, not a drop of water. Who am I to get an ice cube?” Have you ever cried because you’re so grateful for an ice cube? You see, when you realize what you deserve it changes everything. You’re thankful for everything. But if you don’t love Christ, if you’re not in Christ, if Christ is not your life and your love and your longing, it’s not going to go well with you. You’ve got to repent; you’ve got to believe the Gospel.
Spurgeon gave some wise advice on how to die. He said, “The way to die is to be dying every day to your own self-righteousness so that when you actually have to come to die you just have to die one more time because you’ve learned the art of dying.” Dying to self every day, living to Christ ever day, and you’ll be prepared, you’ll be sanctified, not only justified but sanctified to enter in. Samuel Rutherford put it this way, “Build your nest in no tree here on earth because God has sold the entire forest to death. Put your treasures in heaven, in heavenly places.” That’s the only way to live and that’s the only way to die.
Well I’m going to close with two quick illustrations. The first is this. There was an Italian man named Galatius converted at the time of the Reformation. He had to give up his estates in Italy and flee to Geneva. His loss was so considerable to the church of Rome that he was offered a free passage back and restoration of all his estates if only he’d break ties with John Calvin and the Reformed faith in Geneva. And this is the message he sent back to Rome. “Let your money perish with you who esteem all the gold in this world worthy to be compared with one hour’s worth of communion with Jesus Christ.” One hour worth more than everything of this world. Do you know moments like that of sweet communion, Lord with thee? Is that your life? Is for you to live, Christ, and to die, gain?
And when David Livingstone, the great African missionary, died he was so loved - it seems gross - but he was so loved by the people in Africa that before they shipped his body back they actually literally cut out his heart and kept it in Africa and then they sent his body back, the rest of his body. And he had a Westminster Abbey funeral. There were thousands of people lined on the road where the coffin was going to be going down the road in a carriage to the Abbey. And there were two men in the crowd, one rather shabbily dressed and one minister standing behind him. And as the body of David Livingstone passed by, the shabbily dressed man kept saying, “You were right, Davey. You were right, Davey. You were right, Davey.” And the minister, after the procession went by, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “What did you mean, ‘You were right, Davey. You were right, Davey’? What are you talking about?” Well the man said, “David Livingstone and I grew up together. We were in the same church; went to the same Sunday School. And when I got to be eighteen years old I went to David Livingstone and I said, ‘David, I’m leaving the church. I’m going to go out and make some money. Someday I’ll come back. Someday I’ll be a real Christian but first I want to make my mark in the world. And David Livingstone said, ‘There’s no way to truly live outside of Jesus Christ. You’re making a terrible mistake.’ And I said to him, ‘Well, we’ll find out.’ And I went my own way all my life and now I understand. David Livingstone is right.”
There’s no life, there’s no life, no real life, in living for the world. That too was the experience of Roland Hill, a friend of Spurgeon, as he grieved one day, just grieving because people weren’t responding to his preaching. And he looked out his window and he saw a pig farmer going to market, or going to the slaughterhouse rather, and the pigs followed him right into the slaughterhouse. And when he came out, Roland Hill was there and he said, “You tell me, brother farmer, how do you get pigs to follow you to their death when I can’t get people to follow me to life eternal?” And the pig farmer said, “Don’t you notice that as I walk along past your house I just had a few crumbs in my pocket, a little bit of pig’s food. I just dropped it every few steps, a few crumbs, and these pigs are so stupid that for a few crumbs they’ll go right to their death.” Dear friend, don’t be like the prodigal son and for a little pig’s food of this world end up in a pigsty. Follow Jesus Christ. Surrender to Him. He’s the only way to live and the only way to die is to die in Him. Let’s pray.
Great God of heaven, please forgive our sins. Please forgive all our efforts to live outside of Jesus Christ, that futile living that is not living but only dying. And teach us to die to ourselves and to our own righteousness and to live unto Christ and to live in Him and by Him and for Him and through Him and to Him and unto Him forever. O God, let this big text become our experience and may we be made ready for that great eternity through living Christ and dying gain. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
©2015 First Presbyterian Church.
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