“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” Psalm 116:15
The death of the unbeliever gives no pleasure to God: “My soul finds no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Eze 33:11), but the death of His saints is an altogether different thing. The home-call of a believer is a precious thing to God. When a believer is called home it is an entrance into eternal glory where Christ is sitting on the right hand of God (Col 3:1).
There have only been two men in human history who lived and never died. The first was Enoch who lived before the flood. He “walked with God and was not for God took him” (Gen 5:24); and before his translation he had this testimony that “he pleased God” (Heb 11:5). The only other man who never died was Elijah, the reformer in Israel who, standing before Ahab and his wicked wife Jezebel, pronounced God’s judgment upon the nation because of its apostasy. To prepare His servant for Mount Carmel, God sent him to the brook Cherith. There He revealed Himself as the “God of Creation” by commanding the ravens to feed Elijah. At Zarephath, God was the “God of Providence” in that the barrel of meal did not waste and the cruise of oil failed not. Later when the widow’s son died it was given to Elijah to know that God was also the “God of Resurrection” (1Kings 17). After the momentous events that took place on Mount Carmel, when the people cried “The Lord He is the God” (1Kings 18), Elijah is found in the wilderness alone, sitting under a juniper tree, requesting that he might die. Feeling he had let God down in fleeing from Jezebel, Elijah said, “O Lord, take away my life.” Peter, centuries later, describes Elijah’s condition: he could not “see afar off” (2Peter 1:9). Elijah could not see that he would be taken up into heaven in a whirlwind without dying (2Kings 2:11).
The experience of all believers who are alive when the Lord comes for His own will be to go to heaven without dying (1Thes 4:16-17). Apart from that event, life for all will terminate in death.
The Inevitability of Death
The wise woman of Tekoa said in her speech to King David, “We must needs die, and are as water spilt on the ground which cannot be gathered up again; neither doth God respect any person” (2Sam 14:14). The wise man, Solomon, David’s son, said “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men and the living will lay it to his heart” (Eccl 7:2). Furthermore, the writer of the Hebrew epistle said, “it is appointed unto men once to die” (9:27). In view of these solemn statements, everyone, including believers, ought to “lay it to his heart” as to the possibility of dying or of their loved one being taken, and so prepare for such a happening.
The Anticipation of Death
There are two men in New Testament scripture who anticipated death, two men who had served the interests of Christ and were both aware that their service was coming to an end. The first was the apostle Paul. When writing to Timothy he said, “The time of my departure is at hand.” He took time to look around and then made this appraisal of his present circumstances. In the face of his approaching death, he said, “I am now ready to be offered” (v6); literally it reads, “I am already being poured out.” The process had already begun. It began with his first trial before the court of Nero, and he knew the final outcome was in no doubt. He did not speak of it by the dismal term of death, but pictured it as an offering, a pouring out, as the drink offering which accompanied the Old Testament sacrifices. It was the last act in the sacrificial ceremony. Paul had already used a similar figure in Philippians 2:17. What was a grave possibility was now being faced as an impending certainty.
Turning from his consideration of present circumstances Paul reviews his life in retrospect. In so doing he makes use of a very interesting and versatile word when he says, “the time of my departure is at hand” (2Tim 4: 7) The word “departure” was commonly used in ancient times by farmers and by sailors. It was used in respect of prisoners upon their release; also when the tent pegs were loosed when breaking camp. Paul prefers to think of death as a departure, a release, hence his statement to Timothy, “the time of my departure is at hand.” The farmer, after a hot tiring day in the field with a yoke of oxen, would remove the yoke from the necks of the oxen, releasing them from their work. It was finished for that day. Paul, thinking of his life’s work nearing its end, writes that the time of my departure, my release, is come. The word was also used by sailors when loosing the ship from its moorings when about to sail to another destination. Paul, thinking of death as standing by awaiting its time said, the time of my loosing is at hand. He was going to another sphere, to heaven. He was about to depart and be with Christ which is far better. His language is proof of how little he feared the approach of death.
Mr. D. L. Moody, the great evangelist of a past generation, when he lay dying said, “Earth is receding, heaven is approaching, God is calling, and I must go.” The parallel figures, that of a prisoner being released from prison and the loosing of the tent pegs, illustrate how the apostle thought of death. Soon he would be released from the body in which he had suffered so much for Christ and he knew his tent would soon be taken down and folded up as surplus to requirements. He was fully assured that, at the coming again of the Lord Jesus, he would be clothed upon with “a building of God, a house not made with hands eternal in the heavens” (2Cor 5: 1) and his resurrection body would be a body of glory like the glorious body of Christ (Phil 3: 21). He had fought a good fight and finished his course and kept the faith. For Paul there had been no restraints in discharging his commission. “I have kept nothing back … but have declared unto you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20: 20, 27). There had been no defeats, even when he fought with beasts at Ephesus (1Cor 15:32). The apostle had no regrets as he looked forward to the judgment seat of Christ. “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day” (2Tim 4:8).
Simon Peter, a servant of Jesus Christ, also anticipated death, but like Paul, he does not speak of his approaching martyrdom by the grim term of death but pictures it as the taking down of a tent, something that one would fold up because of its temporary nature. Peter, in his second letter, declared that his service for Christ was almost complete. Therefore speaking of his death he said: “Knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle (tent), even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath showed me” (2Peter 1:14, 15; see John 21:18,19).
The apostle, looking forward to his impending death, thought of it as simply a putting off, as one might put off a garment. The Lord had appeared on the shores of the sea of Tiberius and made His announcement to Peter, “When thou shalt be old … another shall … carry thee whither thou wouldest not. This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God” (John 21:18-19). Simon Peter carried the Lord’s words throughout the days of his life, knowing his death would not be through natural causes. When the time came for him to be led out to martyrdom, it would be for the glory of God.
The Compensation of Death
The apostle Paul, in his letters to the Christians at Philippi and at Corinth, wrote about death and its compensations. To the Christians at Philippi he wrote, “To die is gain.” Prior to making this statement Paul declared what Christ was to him. “For to me to live is Christ” (Phil 1:21). Christ was everything to Paul. If Christ was the compulsion of his life, he was confident that “to die” would be gain. What contrasting scenes are painted by the apostle for those standing at the graveside, often with a deep sense of loss and loneliness. Against that background, another contrasting picture can be seen for the one who has been taken. It is gain, and such gain that those who are grieving cannot appreciate the full measure of their joy. The apostle at one point was in a “strait betwixt two,” wanting to depart and be with Christ which is far better, yet knowing it was more needful for the Christians that he remain in the body. Paul knew his abiding would be for their “furtherance and joy of faith” (Phil 1:23-25). To the believers at Corinth he wrote, “we are confident, I say, and willing to be absent from the body and to be present (at home) with the Lord” (2Cor 5: 8). For the apostle death was but the entrance into glory; to be with Christ and at home with the Lord would be very far better.
The question may be asked, how is it that Paul was so confident in this matter? He might have answered: I have been there, where Christ is. When I was at Lystra the people stoned me and drew me out of the city supposing I was dead. The disciples also standing around me thought I was dead (Acts 14:19, 20). I did not know whether I was in the body or out of the body when I was caught up into paradise and heard unspeakable words, words too sacred for me to utter, and I was not permitted to make known what I heard (2Cor 12: 4) But I can say with every confidence, “to be absent from the body” and at home with the Lord is very far better (2Cor 5:8).
The Occupation after Death
On leaving the upper room with his disciples, and before reaching the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus stood and lifting His eyes into heaven prayed, “Father the hour is come, glorify Thy Son that Thy Son also may glorify Thee” (John 17:1). The disciples who were standing listening to Him heard Him say, “Father I have manifested Thy name unto the men which Thou gavest Me out of the world … neither pray I for these alone but for them also which shall believe on Me through their word” (vv6, 20).
The Savior’s request was not limited to those 11 men that were standing with Him. Believers of this present Church age were also upon His heart as He prayed, “Father I will that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory, which Thou hast given Me” (v24). The Lord, in this prayer, embraced all who believed and all who would believe in Him as being part of the love gift of His Father.
His hour having come and the sorrows of Calvary already casting their shadow across His path, Jesus prayed, being assured that His desire for them would be answered by His Father. Since those precious words uttered by the Savior in His hour of sorrow, many of the Lord’s people have found the dark clouds of their sorrow tinged with the silver lining of the Savior’s desire revealed in the prayer He prayed on His way to Gethsemane.
Being with Christ and occupied with Him will be the privilege of all who believe and will eternally behold His glory. No wonder Paul wrote, “to die is gain,” and to be with Christ is far better.