It’s natural for humans to fear the unknown. But thanks to the clear testimony of God’s Word, believers do not have to approach the end of this temporal life in fearful ignorance. On the contrary, we should echo the triumphant words of Paul: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).
The preacher of Ecclesiastes said that the day of our death is better than the day of our birth (Ecclesiastes 7:1). He was merely being cynical about the meaninglessness and futility of this earthly life, but there is a valid sense for the Christian in which it is true that our death ushers us into an infinitely greater glory than our birth ever did. This earthly life “is short-lived and full of turmoil” (Job 14:1). The confidence that heaven awaits us should fill us with a glorious hope. Paul said, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). The prospect of heaven made him joyful even in the face of death.
For all, death comes like an utterly unsympathetic landlord waving an eviction notice. But that eviction merely releases believers from a wretched earthly neighborhood to an infinitely grand and glorious dwelling in a heavenly neighborhood. For the believer, then, the sorrows, disappointments, and suffering of this life are worse than death. Death releases believers from the relatively dilapidated slum in which they now live and ushers them into a room in the house of the eternal Father in the heavenly city.
Knowing that, Christians should not fear death. They should long “to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better” (Philippians 1:23). That does not mean, of course, that they are to be foolishly reckless or careless with their lives; their bodies belong to God (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). But an obsessive concern for one’s physical well-being or a morbid fear of death is inconsistent with a Christian perspective. Believers should long for heaven like a prisoner longs for freedom, like a sick man longs for health, like a hungry man longs for food, like a thirsty man longs for a drink, like a poor man longs for a payday, and like a soldier longs for peace. Hope and courage in facing death is the last opportunity for Christians to exhibit their faith in God, to prove their hope of heaven is genuine, and to adorn their confidence in the promises of God.
Paul welcomed the end of his temporal existence, “prefer[ring] rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). This was not a morbid death wish on Paul’s part. He was not saying he was burnt out, fed up with living, and eager to die. Rather, he was expressing his confidence that earthly existence is not the end of life at all for the Christian. Death immediately ushers the believer into a fuller, higher realm of more abundant life—in the very presence of the Lord.
If you are a Christian, someone trusting Christ alone for your salvation, Scripture promises that the moment you leave this life you go to heaven. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. The righteous man who dies “is taken away from evil, he enters into peace” (Isaiah 57:1-2). “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. . . . They may rest from their labors” (Revelation 14:13). Indeed, “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Paul was “always of good courage” (2 Corinthians 5:6) in the face of death. His courage was not a temporary feeling or a passing emotion; it was a constant state of mind. He faced death cheerfully, with complete confidence. It was not that he did not love the people in his life, but he loved the Lord more. Life for Paul was a race to finish, a battle to win, a stewardship to discharge. Once the race was over, the battle won, and the stewardship discharged, Paul saw no reason to cling to this life. The only reason for him to remain on earth was to serve God, and he stated his readiness to leave when that service was complete:
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. (2 Timothy 4:6–8)
The reality of life in this world for believers, however, is that “while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6). Believers communicate with God through prayer and study of the Word and have communion with Him through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Yet there is still a sense in which they are separated from God and long for that separation to end. Psalm 42:1–2 expresses that desire: “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God?” “Whom have I in heaven but You?” the psalmist asked rhetorically, “And besides You, I desire nothing on earth” (Psalm 73:25). Paul longed for the day when he would “always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). That sense of separation caused Abraham to look for “the city . . . whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10) and the Old Testament saints to acknowledge “that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). It is only in heaven that believers will have intimate, unbroken fellowship with God.
We need to have a heart like Paul’s—yearning to be clothed with our heavenly form and to exchange this transient world for eternal joy. He wrote, “This perishable must put on imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53). Our mortality will be swallowed up by a more abundant life (2 Corinthians 5:4).
In the days ahead we’ll consider how that same confident joy ought to color our lives, as we separate the truth from fiction about the glories that await in God’s heavenly kingdom.
(Adapted from The Glory of Heaven and The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 2 Corinthians.)
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