Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
One of the bestsellers in the Christian bookstore at the moment is a book called Heaven is For Real. In fact it was recently adapted into a movie. The book is about what a young American lad named Colton Burpo claims happened to Him at age 3. Colton was very ill and had emergency surgery, and soon after his surgery he told his parents that he had died and that Jesus and the angels had come and taken him to heaven. He claims to have seen God on the throne, relatives who had died, and he described what Jesus looked like in such detail that a forensic artist was able to draw a picture of Him, which is found in the book. But he was told by Jesus that he needed to go back to earth, so that’s what happened. According to his father, Colton revealed facts about heaven and dead relatives that his parents had never told him. And so, they recorded Colton’s story so that people everywhere may know that heaven is for real.
So what are we to make of a such a claim? Could it be true?
Well, setting aside the Bible for a moment, we need to know that this is NOT THE FIRST BOOK to claim an experience like this. In fact there is another best-seller book called The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, which was written in 2010. In that book, Alex Malarkey described a similar experience when he was 6 years old. However, earlier this year, Alex, now aged 17, said, “I did not die. I did not go to heaven. I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention.” So, just because someone claims to have experienced something does not mean it is true.
• But turning to GOD’S WORD, in Exodus 33:20, God said to Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
• And in John 3:13, Jesus said, “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven– the Son of Man.”
• Now, in 2 Cor. 12, the Apostle Paul describes a time that one man (which most Bible scholars believe to be Paul himself) was “caught up to paradise.” But listen to what he says, “He heard inexpressible things, things that a man is not permitted to tell.” So the Apostle Paul was not allowed to describe heaven but a three year old boy can give chapter and verse on what he claims to have experienced and the wider Christian world just laps it up!
Brothers and sisters, young people and boys and girls, DO NOT BELIEVE the modern-day claims of those who say they have gone to heaven and come back. Leave books like that on the shelf at the book-store! And yet, the reason why books like that are so popular is because believers want to know that heaven is for real. They want to know how and when we will go there. They want to know if we should long to be in heaven. And they want to know what this means for the life we live here on earth. Do you think about heaven, boys and girls? Well, it is right for us to want to know these things. But it is to the Bible – God’s Word! – that we should turn for answers to these questions.
Well, one of the places in the Bible that speaks to these sorts of questions is Phil. 1:21-24. It is part of the letter that the Apostle Paul writes to the Philippian believers while he is in prison. And he writes to the Philippians who are facing persecution and who are being troubled by teachers of false doctrine. So by way of encouraging them and urging them to persevere, Paul uses himself as an example; he explains how the Lord is advancing the gospel even though he is in prison. And you read this in v12 and the verses that follow. And in vv19-20, Paul states that whether he is released from prison or is put to death, his desire or goal is “that now and as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”
And in our text, vv21-24, Paul will SAY MORE about this desire or goal. And as we consider his words here, as well as other relevant passages of the Bible, we shall see THE REALITY OF HEAVEN AND WHAT THAT MEANS FOR LIFE ON EARTH.
And we shall see this as we consider the BIBLE’S TEACHING about the after-life and the BELIEVER’S CONVICTION about the after-life. And then we shall end by thinking about what these truths mean for this life, here on earth.
So first of all, THE BIBLE’S TEACHING about the after-life.
I. Paul begins with the exquisitely beautiful and deeply profound truth of v21: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” And people of God, this verse is a good verse to memorize and replay in your mind or out loud regularly. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Paul exists for Jesus Christ. He wants to serve Jesus Christ. He wants to glorify Jesus Christ. He has an all-consuming passion to experience Christ and His blessings with his life. And when he dies? Well, Paul knows that death ushers the believer into the perfect enjoyment of Christ and His blessings! “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
A. And these words introduce us to a concept that we can express this way: In order to die well, you must live well. None of us know how we shall die. But in terms of our attitude toward death and what is on the other side, to die well you must live well. And that is what the Apostle is saying here. Death will be gain for him because he lives for Christ.
B. And what that means in relation to Paul is explained from v22. Being released from prison will mean he can continue to serve Christ as an apostle of the gospel. Freedom will mean that he can visit the churches again to preach and teach and encourage and exhort. And in living well, like this, the Apostle could die well.
II. But we need also to take note of Paul’s very real, internal struggle:
A. He had this STRONG DESIRE TO DEPART and be with Christ; Paul would be very glad if the Lord were to call him home to be with Him in heaven.
1. In fact, Paul uses some interesting language here. He speaks almost like a child. Perhaps you boys and girls remember having been sick some time and your mother asks you how you are feeling and to demonstrate just how well you feel compared to this morning, you say, “I am much more betterer.” And being good parents who are concerned for your grammar, they tell you that that is bad English. To say “I am much better” is correct. Well, you have an ally in the Apostle Paul. He uses a triple comparative in v23. Sadly, it is somewhat smoothed out in most English versions. But literally, he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is much more better.”
B. And yet, on the other hand, Paul knows how needed he is by the young believers in Philippi and the other new churches that he has planted. So at the end of v22 and the beginning of v23, he talks about how he is torn between this desire on the one hand and this necessity on the other – both are exerting a very strong pull on his mind and emotions – to remain or to depart.
C. Well, we learn from v25 that Paul, perhaps by direct revelation, knew that he would survive prison and be released to continue to serve.
III. But as we think further about Paul’s strong desire to depart and be with the Lord, we need to pause and consider WHAT THESE VERSES AND OTHERS IN THE BIBLE REVEAL ABOUT THE AFTER-LIFE. What did Paul believe was much more better? What did he mean by saying that his desire was “to depart and be with Christ”? Did he really believe that He would physically go to be with Christ in heaven?
A. Just this past week I attended another funeral. And many of us will have been to a funeral. We know that the body of our loved one is in the coffin being lowered into the ground. We know the reality of death. We have seen that. But after death? Well, here is what the Bible tells us:
1. We aren’t up to this chapter in our ECCLESIASTES studies yet but some of you might know 12:7 – “The dust (meaning the dust of which the body is made) returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
2. Earlier we read from PSALM 73. And praying to the Lord, the Psalmist says, “I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.”
3. In LUKE 16, Jesus tells the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus. Perhaps you remember that story boys and girls? Lazarus was a very sick and very poor beggar. Well, listen to v22, “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.” After death, the soul of one went immediately to heaven and the other to hell.
4. So having carefully reflected on these verses and others, the WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH says this of what happens when we die: “After death, the bodies of men decay and return to dust, but their souls … return immediately to God, who gave them. The souls of the righteous are … received into the highest heavens … The souls of the wicked are cast into hell.” At death, our souls do not die or sleep; they go, immediately, either to heaven or to hell. And this we call THE INTERMEDIATE STATE. The time between death and the return of Jesus.
a. So let me try and make this very concrete for you. Do you know how many people die around the world each day? Around about 150,000. That’s about 60,000,000 every year. So given that we have just started the second half of the year, that means that regardless of whether or not they believed in the after-life, 30,000,000 souls that were alive on Dec 31, 2014, are right now either in heaven or hell.
B. But what about at the end of history when JESUS COMES AGAIN. WHAT HAPPENS THEN?
1. Well, DANIEL 12:2 says, “Those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
2. JOHN 5:28-29, “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear [the voice of Jesus] and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”
3. And this is a resurrection of our bodies. Isaiah 26:19 says, “But your dead will live; their bodies will rise.” PHILIPPIANS 3:20-21, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body.
C. Congregation, this is what the Bible teaches about the after-life: When you die, your body will be buried but your soul will go immediately either to heaven or to hell. And when the Lord Jesus returns, if you are alive then your body will change and rise to meet Him in the air. But if you have died your body will rise and be changed and reunited with your soul. And then comes Judgment Day where some go to heaven and some go to hell. Heaven is for real, and so is hell.
So now, in the second place, we want to consider the BELIEVER’S CONVICTION about the after-life.
I. You see, in the CATECHISM, the facts we have just stated about the after-life are expressed in a very personal way: “Not only my soul will be taken immediately after this life to Christ its head, but even my very flesh, raised by the power of Christ, will be reunited with my soul and made like Christ’s glorious body.” And we must contrast these words with the words of the Philosopher and scientist, FRANCIS BACON. He said, “Men fear death as children fear the dark.” And all of us either are children or were children and we know what it is like to fear the dark, right? We have probably all asked Mum or Dad to leave the light on at one time or another. But does the believer fear death as children fear the dark? That is not the language of the catechism and that is because that is not the language of Scripture, when it comes to the believer, as we see in our text.
A. What does Paul say? “To die is gain … My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is much more better.” That’s not the language of fear, is it. That is the language of longing and eagerness and anticipation! Paul yearns to be in heaven. Paul thinks a lot about being in heaven. Paul welcomes death as the doorway to heaven.
II. But why is this? Why does Paul not fear death but instead eagerly await it? Why does the resurrection of the body comfort you, as the catechism says? Well, first and foremost, as Paul says plainly in v23; there we are “with Christ.” Paul wants to be where Jesus is. At the heart of Christianity is not things or knowledge but a relationship with a person – Jesus Christ.
A. When someone mentions my wife’s name or I think about her, warm and affectionate and loving thoughts enter my mind.
B. Boys and girls, when Mum or Dad tell you that cousin Billy or Jane are coming over, you are glad because you enjoy being with them.
C. And this is how it should be with all those we are married to or friends with.
D. Well, how much more with Jesus, who loves us such that He died for our sins?!
III. But there is also heaven the place and what goes on there. Jesus once told a PARABLE about heaven. He described it as an event that a King invites people to. Do you remember what the event was boys and girls? Was it a math test, perhaps? No. Was it a trip to the dentist, maybe? No. Was it a paint-drying competition? No. It was a Wedding Feast. You can read about it in Matthew 22. And wedding feasts are one of the most joyous and happy occasions in life, despite the fact that everyone there is a sinner. Well, just imagine heaven then! The Triune God is there! There is no sin. There is all that is good in this life, but better!
A. Listen to the words of 1 CORINTHIANS 2:9, we read, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined … God has prepared for those who love Him.” Heaven is more incredible and more wonderful that you and I can possibly imagine!
IV. Can you see then why Paul says, “To die is gain” and why the believer is comforted by the resurrection of the body? Heaven is for real and it is a wonderful place and Jesus Christ is there!
V. But contrast Paul with the French philosopher, VOLTAIRE. He despised Christianity. In fact, he once said this of Jesus Christ, “Curse the wretch. In 20 years, Christianity will be no more. My single hand will destroy the edifice it took 12 apostles to rear.” Well, needless to say, Voltaire was wrong. And how he died was so horrible that a nurse who attended him was reported to have said, “For all the wealth in Europe, I would not see another atheist die.” The doctor, waiting up with Voltaire at his death, said that he cried out with utter desperation, “I am abandoned by God and man. I will give you half of what I am worth if you will give me six months of life. Then I shall go to hell and you will go with me, oh, Christ, oh, Jesus Christ!
VI. Well, what about you? Are you like Paul or are you like Voltaire? Are you eager to depart and be with Christ or do you fear death like children fear the dark? Or are you one who is so absorbed in all that life has to offer that you try not to think about death at all?
A. I mentioned earlier that I attended a funeral this past week of Mrs Sally Davey’s mother. 1 Thessalonians 4:13 says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who (have died), that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Well, at that funeral there was hope, there was thanksgiving, and there was joy because of the promises of the Gospel and because of Mrs Stephenson’s profession of faith in Christ.
B. But there have been other funerals I have attended where there was at best uncertainty about what he or she believed or outright unbelief – and they are times of great sorrow and grief.
C. Young people and you boys and girls, and you adults too, but especially you young people, if you were to die today, would your parents and siblings and wider family and friends be able to bury you with a confidence that you were one who loved the Lord Jesus Christ? Jesus said “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Can they look at your life, today, and see from how you live that you love the Lord? If your funeral was held tomorrow, would there be confident thanksgiving, praise, and joy?
D. Well, the Bible declares the truth about the after-life. And the believer may be certain that he or she will go to be with Christ in heaven. So the question is: Is this your conviction? Are you eager to depart and be with Christ?
Congregation, heaven is for real! And as we said at the beginning, to die well, you must live well. And it is interesting that you sometimes hear people say of someone that “SHE IS SO HEAVENLY MINDED THAT SHE IS NO EARTHLY USE.” Have you ever heard that phrase?
I. The idea is that those who think a lot about heaven are no practical use on earth. And indeed, there have been some over the years who misunderstood what we have considered such that they withdraw from the world to live in a cave, sing hymns, and wait for death or Jesus’ return.
II. But that is not the example we see in Jesus, who surely, more even than Paul, would have eagerly longed for heaven. And it is certainly not the example we see here in Paul. He was very eager to be busy in the service of His Lord.
III. The truth is, then, that being heavenly-minded in the biblical sense will make you of great earthly use in the service of Christ and others.
A. How so? Well, let me illustrate it in this way. Many of you boys and girls will have been taught the acronym J.O.Y – J – O – Y. Which stands for? Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last.
1. What does Paul say in v21? “For me to live is Christ.” Paul had an all-consuming passion to experience Christ and His blessings with his life through obeying and serving Christ.
2. And how did this manifest itself in Paul’s life? Was he eager to get out of prison so he could spend more time on his X-box? Was he keen to have people wait on him and build him up in the faith and take into account his needs and hurts and upsets? No. He was eager to serve others! You see, when it is all about me – my needs, my troubles, my wants, my issues, my complaints… we will not enjoy Christ and all His blessings. But when we look to Christ and pour ourselves out in the service of others, that is when we will experience Christ and all His blessings!
3. So that’s J for Jesus and O for others; what about Y for yourself? Well, it may surprise you to learn that there is actually a place for A FOCUS ON ME when it comes to thinking about heaven!
a. In 2 PETER 3:14, the Apostle is talking about the new heavens and the new earth in which righteousness dwells. He says, “Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.”
b. And there are similar words in 1 JOHN 3:3, “And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure.”
c. Those who know that heaven is for real and who long to depart and be with Christ will be very concerned about their personal holiness. You cannot read the words of Paul in our text and imagine him resigned to swearing or viewing pornography or gossiping or lying or cheating with his taxes. Now don’t get me wrong, Paul was not sinless. Romans 7 is clear about that. But Paul hated sin and he was eager to do that which pleased the Lord. Does that describe you? You know the traps and the hurdles that trip you up from time to time. What are you doing about them? Jesus said if your right arm or your right eye causes you to sin, cut it off or pluck it out because it is better to enter heaven with one arm or one eye than to go be thrown with your whole body into hell. Are you diligent to be found by Him without spot and blemish? Are you purifying yourself as Christ is pure? Believing that heaven is for real and longing to be there expresses itself in a commitment to personal holiness on earth.
d. Being heavenly minded, then, is of great earthly use. To die well, you must live well.
Congregation, Heaven is for Real was written to convince and assure believers that one day they will be with Jesus, bodily, in heaven. But it is a sad indictment on the church today that so many believers all around the world are caught up in the frenzy surrounding the book.
We may know and believe that “Not only my soul will be taken immediately after this life to Christ its head, but even my very flesh, raised by the power of Christ, will be reunited with my soul and made like Christ’s glorious body.” But we may know and believe this because we read it in passages like this one in Philippians.
So finally, by way of conclusion, you may have heard the phrase “Here today; gone tomorrow.” Well 2 Tim. 4:8 says that in heaven the Lord will award a crown of righteousness to every believer. So someone has suggested this as the believer’s motto: “Here today; crowned tomorrow.” Isn’t that beautiful? Is that your motto? Are you eager to depart and be with Christ? Let’s pray together.