We…would prefer to be absent from the body and present with the Lord, (II Cor. 5:8).
I just returned home from my second funeral in three days. Both were of good friends. Many of you know of Jim Dixon’s unexpected death that I wrote about in my last post. His funeral was Saturday. Ken and Jeanne Atkinson have been long-time friends. Jeanne was a college friend and in a strange twist of fate, I actually met Jim at Ken and Jeanne’s wedding. Most of you know Ken was shot and killed by his neighbor when Ken came to the aid of his neighbor’s wife who the neighbor had just shot. The wife lived, Ken didn’t.
In between the two funerals I gave a message on Sunday morning. After Jim’s death and before Ken’s I decided to answer the question, “What happens when we die?” At some point in all of our lives, it will be THE question. I pulled together a number of the classic passages that partially answer the question. I divided the experiences we will have when we die (We all will, you know. Except for the lucky generation of believers who are alive when Jesus returns) into three phases. Let me share them with you:
PHASE ONE: When a true Christian dies, they immediately enter into the presence of the Lord. Our bodies die, but the immaterial and immortal YOU continues to live. The classic passage that describes this experience is II Corinthians, chapter 5. It is here that Paul writes that to be physically alive (he refers to this as “at home in the body”) is to be absent from the Lord. But to be absent from the body (one way of referring to physical death) is to be present with the Lord. At both services, references were made to Jim and Ken being with Christ. You expect this at a funeral. But I felt like shouting “This is really true!” The Corinthian passage expands on what Jesus said to Martha at the death of Lazarus…”The one who believes in me will live even though they die…and whoever lives and believes in me will never really die,” (John 11:24-25). Your body dies, but you live! And immediately upon physical death, you will find yourself with Jesus.
I should point out that there is one requirement for this to happen. You have to have experienced spiritual rebirth through faith in Jesus Christ. Think of it this way. You have to be “equipped” to be with Christ, and the essential equipment is the presence of the Holy Spirit. This is why Jesus could say to one of the most religious men in Israel, “unless a man is born again (or “from above”) he cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven,” (John 3:8). This obviously has significant implications for those who die and do not belong to Jesus. They aren’t equipped to be “present with the Lord.” I don’t think this is punitive on God’s part. I think it is a statement of fact. But, even for the believer, this is only phase one. It is not the end of the story.
PHASE TWO: There is a day coming when YOU, the immaterial and immortal YOU, is going to experience what Jesus experienced: resurrection. This is one of the big messages of Easter: because Jesus had a resurrection, you get one too! When Jesus returns, your immaterial soul/spirit will receive a new body. The one you have is not designed to last. For most of us it is only good for seventy or eighty years. Moses points this out in Psalm 90. Some will live longer, but none will exceed the hundred and twenty year mark that God set after the Flood, (see Genesis 6:3).
One of the classic texts on this phase of life after earthly death is found in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. They were expecting an imminent return of Christ. Some had quit working and were waiting for it to happen. Then some of the Thessalonians died and Jesus had not yet returned. They were worried that maybe those who had died had missed the boat. Paul responded by writing what has come to be known as the “Rapture” passage. It is loaded. He writes that those who have “fallen asleep” (the expression Christians began to use to refer to physical death) would not get left behind. As a matter of fact, the “dead in Christ” will rise first. Then the generation of believers who are still alive will be caught up to be with them and Jesus. Both the resurrected, and the raptured will get a resurrection body that is designed to last forever, (I Thess. 4:13-18).
Another classic text dealing with this phase is found in I Corinthians, chapter fifteen. Paul is facing an audience, some of whom do not believe there will be a resurrection. Paul describes the body that will be ours using five words. He says it will be “heavenly”, (I Cor. 15:40). The word literally means “fit for the heavens”. He goes on to reiterate what Jesus said to Nicodemus, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” (I Cor. 15:50). In other words, the body you have now is not designed to live forever, but your new one will be! He goes on to say this new body will be incorruptible. Your body is subject to decay. The older you get, the more you realize this. I’m currently falling apart myself!
Paul says your resurrection body will be both powerful and glorious. Your current one he says is weak and without glory, (I Cor. 15:42-44). And finally it will be “spiritual” not “natural”. Your current body is driven by physical desires. As a Christian, we learn to be “filled with the Spirit”, which means the Holy Spirit is allowed to be the dominant influence in our lives in order to overcome the influence of the old nature. Your new body will be dominated by the influence of the Holy Spirit, and without the pull of what Paul calls the “flesh”. When all this happens, you will be “equipped” for the Age to Come. That brings us to phase three.
PHASE THREE: If you are of the opinion that the thousand-year reign of Christ in Revelation, chapter 4, is symbolic, then phase three would begin immediately upon your resurrection. But if this refers to a literal thousand-year period, then you will reign with Christ during this period. It would appear that there will be both mortals and immortals living during this time. But at the end of the thousand-years the really good stuff begins.
A new universe is on its way. In an instant, the present heavens and earth are going to figuratively go up in smoke, (II Pet. 3:10). Then in a nano-second, there will be a new heavens and a new earth. The old order will pass and there will be no more death, pain, suffering, and illness, (Rev. 21:1-4). The new heavens and earth will be characterized by a city. The Bible calls it the New Jerusalem. It is a place where God will live forever with his people, (Rev. 21:3). I have a hunch that what will happen in Phase Three is so far beyond our ability to comprehend that not even the Bible gives us the whole picture.
What happens when we die? For the man or woman who is “equipped” by giving their lives to Christ and receiving him via his Spirit, it is really good news. Immediately we get to be with Jesus. When Christ returns, we come with him and when the trumpet sounds, we experience resurrection and the merging of our soul/spirit with a new body designed to last forever. And when the present heavens and earth are eliminated, and a new heavens and a new earth are created, we get to live forever with the Lord. This was such a reality to Paul (after seeing the other side – see II Corinthians 12) that he could write that he preferred to be “absent from the body” and “present with the Lord”. To depart and be with Christ, he says, will be “better by far”, (Philippians 1:23). Death will be vanquished and God’s ultimate plans and purposes will be achieved.
If you want to hear more teaching on this subject, go to: http://highlinecc.org/?page_id=196.