Monday, July 4, 2016

What Death Means for the Believer in Christ

One of the most difficult issues that a person will face in their lives is the death of a family member, or that of a close friend. There is no greater burden to carry, and no deeper heartache to work through. 

When considering what death means for the believer in Christ from a biblical perspective, we must solidify our faith in the finished work of Christ upon Calvary, and anchor our hope by grounding it in God's word. This is especially so to be prepared prior to dealing with such a difficult and emotionally painful experience such as the death of some one very close to us.  It is best to begin where Christ began once we became a Christian, and that is with our calling as Christians.

The Call to Discipleship or the Way of the Cross

Early in His earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus sought out and called disciples to come and follow Him:

"Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it." Mark 8:34-35

The Apostle Paul later emphasized that Christians were to see themselves as ambassadors for Christ. 

Our Calling to Embrace:
The Purpose of our lives therefore as Christians is to be an ambassador for Christ to the world.

"We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God." II Cor. 5:20 

An ambassador is a diplomatic official of the highest rank sent by a government to represent it on a temporary mission. Our government is his kingdom, and we are to represent him and all that he represents, to the world, on a temporary basis until he returns. 

Our Purpose to fulfill:

The primary focus is to be on evangelizing those who are lost who need to be reconciled to God through the saving work of Christ upon the cross. 

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation." II Cor. 5:17-19

Our Message to Proclaim:
"God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." II Cor. 5:21

From the very beginning of our Christian life we are to have an eternal perspective upon our life here. That will therefore lift our eyes toward heaven with an eternal perspective upon where we are going when we die. It also brings great hope and comfort to us to know that our loved ones who die as Christians pass right into the presence of Christ in heaven.

What we treasure the most becomes that which tends to occupy much of our thoughts, time and efforts. Jesus made it very clear to the disciples that what they focused their lives upon would essentially become their life:

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Matthew 6:19-21

What should be the primary focus and emphasis of our life?

In more recent years there has been a gradual move away from an emphasis in scripture regarding the call to discipleship after conversion to Christ. The present day emphasis seems to not be directed toward a committed responsibility to Him as Lord after becoming a new believer, and the corresponding taking up “one’s cross” to follow Christ as Lord. It seems that today, for the most part, the emphasis of the Gospel has moved toward presenting to non-Christians how to have a more purpose filled life as a new believer. To find new purpose that impacts one’s life after becoming a Christian is an exciting and wonderful result of finding a new life in Christ.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come; The old has gone, the new is here!” II Cor. 5:17

There is nothing wrong with an emphasis that we have a new life in Christ, for it is absolutely true. Jesus Christ gives a Christian a new beginning, a new focus, and a new sense of values which thereby brings purposeful fulfillment. However, that should not be the only emphasis. There seems to be an assumption that the call to discipleship, submission to Christ's Lordship, and self-denial as a daily discipline, will naturally be understood as part of a new believer’s walk. 

That assumption is not necessarily true. Often times a new believer, who has embraced as a Christian that they now have the essential key to living a purpose filled life, concludes that a call to self-denial, taking up his cross, and following Christ as a committed disciple, to be a negative freedom constricting "new-life" perspective. There needs to be a clarification of God's Part in saving me, and My Part in submitting myself to Him as Lord of my life. 
The crucial emphasis of the responsibility of discipleship, should be a clear understanding of a new believer, upon responding to the Gospel.  The question of what is my responsibility as a new Christian, should cause one to pause and reflect seriously, "What is it that I am getting myself into? It should the topic that goes right along with the issues of repentance, submission to Christ as Lord, and the saving grace of Calvary's sacrifice. 

Key: That a person is thereby exchanging his right to be master of his own life, by yielding that autonomy to Christ as Lord.

“He said to them all, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” Luke 9:23

    1. His call to follow Him was all inclusive, and not only to a select group of disciples:

“… If any man will come after me…”

     2.  His call to follow Him required a denial of self:

“… let him deny himself …”

     3. His call to follow Him stated an individual responsibility:

“…and take up his cross….” 

     4.  His call to follow Him was not a once for all decision but a daily commitment:

 “... and take up his cross daily…”

    5. His call to follow Him emphasized a personal commitment to Him as Lord, and not to a religious movement:

“…follow me.”

Why is it crucial to view our life as one of self- denial?

The teaching upon committed discipleship, was important enough that it was emphasized by the very first disciples over and over in the Gospels that they wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (II Peter 1:23):

“Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” Matthew 16:24

“And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” Mark 8:34

“And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” Luke 9:23

Such a repeated emphasis in the Gospels indicates that it is a truth that is very important, and that we understand, and embody this teaching in our own individual walk with Christ. When the emphasis of the Christian life is one of servanthood (denial of self), rather than primarily being given a life purpose, it affects the way that we later live our lives after becoming a Christian. 

We have become followers with a mission focus who have a new Master

Life here then is to be understood as not focusing on one's pursuit of a life of happiness, prosperity and ease as Christians, but rather focusing upon fulfilling our mission to reach the world with the Gospel, so that they too can become Christians. The latter produces a consequent joy, peace and a life of deep fulfillment, for one is seeking to glorify God with what he is pursuing, rather than focusing on having his own agenda in life take precedent (Romans 12:1-2). 

“So many sermons we hear today are all about your own happiness and peace and satisfaction and having all your desires met. How can I be successful and happy and satisfied and prosperous? That is what we hear so often: it is all about self, self-satisfaction, self-fulfilment and personal happiness.”  Bill Muehlenberg

Doesn’t God want us to be happy? Happiness is focused on happenings; happy circumstances and events that make one feel happy. What do we do when our happening’s don’t happen to happen like we hope they happen, how can we be happy?  We are continually challenged to submit our will to a higher value of self-sacrificing love for another, rather than our own pleasure and happiness. 

God wants to fill our hearts with joy that flows out of our life in Him and not primarily from happy circumstances. Our joy and fulfillment will flow out of our knowing we are being obedient in fulfilling the Great Commission with a focus to pleasing God.

We have a mission:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matt. 28:18-20

Our mission is not to be fulfilled in our own strength but is to be the outflow of being empowered by the Holy Spirit.

“… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8

How should I then see every event in my life?

When Paul was in prison during the latter part of his ministry. His perspective on how he viewed every event in his life was shaped by one purpose: 

“But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and  the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Phil. 3:7-11

    1.  Paul was singular in his focus

    Everything in his life and how he saw the events that had happened in his life were centered upon knowing Christ more and making Him known.

This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you.” Phil. 3:13-15 

    2.  His self was yielded to Christ’s Lordship

    He had taken up his cross, and he followed Jesus Christ decidedly and passionately. Such an emphasis was primary to the Apostle Paul. He would accept no other. The cost was his life, as he was martyred for his faith not long after writing these words to Timothy:

“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.” II Timothy 4:6-8

What should death mean to a believer in Christ?

It should be seen as the next stage in a supernatural progression of a committed life as a disciple of Jesus Christ. 

“The fact that our heart yearns for something, earth can’t supply, is proof that Heaven is our home.”   C.S. Lewis

1. Our life with Christ in heaven will bear fruit from the life we have lived here on earth as a servant and disciple of Christ.

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Phil. 1:21

“ … in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.” II Timothy 4:8

    2. God will take our soul to be with Him immediately upon our death:

“And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” Romans 8:11

    3. The example of the inner conflict Paul faced regarding his life and his death:

“Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord.” II Cor. 5:6

He clearly understood that at death, his life would continue on (transition) by moving from our physical body to be immediately in the presence of Christ in heaven:

“We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.” II Cor. 5:8

It may seem to some to be laborious to focus on such a theme in a book that focuses primarily on grief, but this is not just a book regarding grieving. It is a book regarding the life and consequent death of a Christian. A life of incredible purpose, singular in its goal, and headed toward a transition in life from here to presence of Christ in heaven. 

A Christian moves from being absent from the Lord, to being present with the Lord. Such a view of life as a Christian is understood as being His servant, living as a committed disciple of Jesus Christ. He does not primarily see that life has now ended at death and bringing to a close one’s own self-fulfilled purpose, personal happiness and prosperity. 

  • The first moves us from a ministry as an Ambassador for Christ to heaven, while the latter sees but the loss of what made life meaningful here. 
  • The first has a resounding declaration of victory and a celebratory home going, while and the other sees it as leaving a home and ending a life. 
  • The first brings a sense of peace in the midst of the grieving, because it links our loved one’s life and ours exclusively to His life, while the other brings forth a sense of deep sadness and one primarily focused upon loss and a separation from a loved one. 

Both are Christians, but how we understand and view what life means as a believer, then affects how we view death as a believer. It has a profound impact upon how we will journey down the pathway of our own personal grief, as a result of the death of a loved one.

 "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants." Psalm 116:15

Death for the Christian first sees its meaning in his life here, as servant of Christ, whose love for other believers is expressed in acts of self-sacrificial love, because Jesus Christ gave His life sacrificially.

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” I John 3:16

How should we then deal with our own deeply felt loss and grief at the death of our loved one? We are not to suppress our grief, and pretend as a Christian that our singular focus is upon heaven’s blessing for our departed loved one. Our days after the loss of a loved one will have times of sadness, grief and the missing of the one who has passed on. We can and must also celebrate that a wondrous miracle has been made available to each person who is in Christ when he passes away, and that our loved one has embraced such a gift and is rejoicing in the presence of Jesus Christ in heaven. We can only imagine.

 "Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord...We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord." II Cor. 5:6; 8

For a more comprehensive presentation of Death and grieving for the Christian you can purchase a copy of my new book: 

Grieving the Death of a Loved One

A healing perspective on Death and Grief

The pathway of grief is one of the most painful pilgrimages
that any person will ever take. When a loved one or close friend
passes away, we soon discover that it is the most difficult life
experience that we will have to go through in our lifetime.

This resource is designed to act as a personal journal so that you
can write in it as you read through the various topics related to
grieving the loss of a loved one. This resource will be an
encouragement to those who have lost a loved one, and it will
provide insight, and practical suggestions, while journeying
down the painful pathway of grieving the loss of a loved one.

Written with a Christian faith perspective, you will find
comfort, encouragement, and hope, as you reflect upon the
scriptures, and journal through your thoughts and feelings.
The real grieving process begins when you are alone. It is during
those quite moments, that you have the opportunity, welcomed
or not, to actually settle into the reality of your own grief, and
discover anew that God is there with you to comfort you,
and to give you strength.

“He will show compassion, so great is His unfailing love.
For He does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.”
                                                             Lamentations 3:32-33

Released June 30, 2016

Now available at most independent bookstores or on Amazon

Take a moment to watch this presentation of the song, "I can only imagine" by  Mercy Me.

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