As Paul sits chained to a Roman soldier, waiting for his trial before Nero at which he would discover whether he would be released to minister freely or be executed at the hands of the Empire, he writes to the Philippians that he has an intense, yearning desire “to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better” (Phil 1:23).
Sadly, many professing Christians know little of such intense yearning. Many have become so distracted and enchanted by the allurements of this life that the idea of death and reunion with Christ is viewed as little more than an undesirable consolation prize for the failure to realize our worldly ambitions. Even in the pursuit of even good things, our hearts can grow cold to our Savior.
The antidote for this—to learn to look upon the prospect of death with joy and anticipation, even as Paul did—is to stir up our hearts unto such a delight in what God has revealed that death will be for the Christian. Today I want to consider three things.
The End of Limited Knowledge
First, death will mean the end of our limited knowledge and finite understanding. I don’t mean to say that we all become omniscient; I actually believe that the glory of the character and work of the Triune God is so inexhaustible that we will continue to learn of Him and increase in knowledge throughout all eternity. Nevertheless, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 verse 12: “…now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.”
That is an amazing statement. One day we will know just like God knows us. One day, we’ll finally be able to see the grand mosaic of history from the perspective of the Divine Designer. And on that day, all will make perfect sense! Every trial, every tear, every grunt in the battle against sin, and every groan in the endurance of suffering will arrive perfectly at home in our understanding. Experiences that we do our best to avoid at all costs now—experiences which God nevertheless ordains that we receive—will at that time seem to us to have been so necessary that we won’t be able to imagine that it could have been any other way.
We will know with perfect clarity how a sovereign, righteous, and wise God can ordain for His greatest glory the massacre of 20 elementary school children in Newtown, Connecticut. Don’t you long for the day when the cognitive and emotional dissonance that is produced by what seems to be such senselessness is banished by the gift of heavenly knowledge!
And as a result of all of the circumstances of this life that now perplex us, we will see in greater measure and fullness the glory of God.
The End of Sin
A second end that death will bring: Death will bring the end of sin. James Montgomery Boice wrote, “The Christian who has tasted the delight of God’s righteousness longs for a purity that he will never have on earth. He longs to be free of sin . . . and he knows that death brings [this].”
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul gives vent to this longing: “For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven.” He says in Romans 8:23 that along with creation, “we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.”
Oh dear reader, do you groan? Are you tired of the fight with sin? Are you wearied by the war that is waged in your members? I know I am. I want to be done. I want to serve and worship Christ in perfect purity and holiness.
And the promise that one day I will—that one day by God’s grace I will finish this race—gives me the strength and power to keep running, and keep fighting, and keep battling, with my eyes fixed on Jesus, and the rest to be had in Him at the finish line.
Fellowship with Christ
And that leads to the greatest benefit of all. Ultimately, death is gain for Paul because it brings more of Christ to Paul, and more of Paul to Christ. Death for the Christian is not merely the escape of the worst this life has to offer; it’s an improvement on the very best this life has to offer. Because it brings us to unhindered, unmediated, sin-free, face-to-face fellowship with our Lord Jesus. He is the great gain and the great glory of Heaven. He is the great end of the Christian life.
That is why death is “very much better,” as Paul says in verse 23. Literally: “much more better.” Paul just piles on the comparatives, one after another, to try to find some way to express how wonderful it will be to finally be with Christ. Just as much as marriage is “very much better” than the engagement, so is death “very much better” than life, if it means that it will bring us to Christ.
The Puritan pastor Richard Sibbes, in a sermon on this text, puts it like no one else can put it:
Why doth [Paul] not say, I desire to be in heaven? Answer: Because heaven is not heaven without Christ. It is better to be in any place with Christ than to be in heaven itself without him. All delicacies without Christ are but as a funeral banquet. Where the master of the feast is away, there is nothing but solemnness. What is all without Christ? I say the joys of heaven are not the joys of heaven without Christ; he is the very heaven of heaven. … To be with Christ is to be at the spring-head of all happiness.
And the Scriptures agree with him. Listen to these passages from the worship songs of the saints of old:
- Psalm 16:11 – You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.
- Psalm 17:15 – As for me, I shall behold Your face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with Your likeness when I awake.
- Psalm 27:4 – One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the LORD And to meditate in His temple.
- Psalm 65:4 – How blessed is the one whom You choose and bring near to You to dwell in Your courts. We will be satisfied with the goodness of Your house, Your holy temple.
- Psalm 73:23–28 – Whom have I in heaven but You? … My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
And as the Apostle John brings his glorious report of his heavenly vision to a close, he speaks in Revelation 22:1–5 of the great end of God’s people. He summarizes the consummation of their entire lives lived by faith when he says in verse 4: “They will see His face.”
Jesus is what makes Heaven Heaven. Jesus is what makes death “much more better” than the very best this life can offer.
Is He enough for you?
If He is, then there’s no need to slavishly cling to this life. Everything this life could offer you is dwarfed in the light of Christ’s glory. If He is enough, then there’s no need to fear death. By repentance and faith in Christ, the death which was once our greatest and final enemy has now become our friend—merely the passageway to our greatest delight.
May the Holy Spirit, by the power of His own Word, kindle in us a holy ambition to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better.