Selected highlights from this sermon.
Death is a subject every person must consider. While the world fears what may come, what should a Christian’s response be to death? The Apostle Paul answers that question.
The death of God’s people, though sometimes brought about at unusual times and by nefarious means, is still ultimately under the sovereignty of God.
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The impact of the Apostle Paul on Christianity is second only to the Lord Jesus Christ. And we are going to be talking about death. If you know someone who has a terminal disease, or you may have one, or perhaps someone who is facing death right now, this is the message for you. You’ve come to the right place today because we are going to be talking about death and Paul’s view of death.
But before we get there, as many of you know, about 60 of us had the opportunity to travel to Greece and to Turkey and to follow, to some extent, the footsteps of the Apostle Paul. So in order to lead up to the topic of death and martyrdom, we’re going to just give you a very brief look at some of the places that we have been.
We began our tour in Athens, climbing up to the top of Mars Hill where the Apostle Paul preached his famous sermon. Now when he was there on Mars Hill, you remember he spoke to the Epicureans and he spoke to the Stoics and he gave them the Gospel. But, you know, when we were there I learned something. I understood better now why it is that when Paul preached the Gospel and the resurrection, they mocked. And the reason that they did is, based on Plato, many of the Athenians believed that the soul is imprisoned in the body, and therefore death is actually a release, so when they thought of loved ones, they didn’t celebrate the birthday of their loved one. They celebrated the death of their loved one. So why would anyone want to be resurrected?
So when Paul preached there, some mocked, the Bible says, some believed, and some said, “We’ll hear you again of this matter.”
It is there in Athens that we learned about the preaching of the Gospel. Then we traveled about 60 miles to Corinth. It is here where the Apostle Paul was brought to the Judgment Seat. The story is in Acts 18, and there was a riot that began. He’s brought to the Judgment Seat – the Bema. You can actually see the Bema today, and there is even a post there before the Bema where we knew Paul stood.
But you know, before we left Corinth, we learned something else. We all know that in Corinth there is a great Acropolis, that is, a huge hill. Well, there were a thousand temple prostitutes that lived on that hill. Corinth was a very, very evil city obviously, and at night they would come down into the city and they would be looking for worship – not just sexuality but worship. And when you had that sexual relationship with them you were worshipping them. That’s why paganism is so powerful. It’s because paganism links spirituality and sexuality in such a way that it distorts the worship of God.
But these women would be shorn. They would be basically bald-headed and they would go into the city, looking for these worshippers. But after they were converted, they’d come into the church. And that’s why the Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11, goes through such a long discussion regarding women being veiled in church.
You know, sometimes Paul is spoken of as someone, you know, who was oppressive to women. Do you realize what he was saying there? He was saying that all women should be veiled so that when these women who have been converted come into the church, no one would look upon them as shameful. But they would be given the same dignity as other women. And that’s why the Apostle Paul talks about the need of veiling women.
By the way, it was also necessary for them to leave the life of prostitution to be purchased out of the temple worship community. Who is it that paid their price? Well, we don’t know for sure, but we have a guess. His name is Erastus. Erastus is mentioned three or four times in the book of Acts and the Epistles, and he was a wealthy man. And did you know that archeologists actually found an inscription to him there in Corinth? And it says, “This is Erastus and I paid for this pavement with my own money.” He was a wealthy businessman to whom Luke and Paul looked for financial help. So you see that the church there in Corinth represents the power of God.
Athens, we have preaching the Gospel. Corinth, we have the power of the Gospel. That’s why Paul says when he came to Corinth, “I knew nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified,” and people in the most debauched situation were converted, welcomed into the church as daughters and sons of God Almighty.
Then we leave Greece and we go to Turkey and Ephesus. Now the ruins of Ephesus go on for perhaps a half-mile or more, and only about ten percent have been recovered. It is incredible to think of what the ancients did. Paul was in Ephesus for two years, and the rioting ensued because of the fact that Demetrius, who was a silversmith, was losing business. Nobody was buying his idols so as a result of that the Apostle Paul was taken and actually dragged into the theater.
The whole story is there in Acts 19, and we were in that theater. Now it’s been rebuilt. It holds about 10,000 people, but it is there that we contemplated all that Paul did for the cause of the Gospel. But here’s an insight I had not really thought of before. When you are there in Ephesus, the Bible says that through the church in Ephesus, all of Asia heard the Word of God. And I used to think to myself, “How is that possible?” Well, because Ephesus was a seaport and a trade city, there were about 60 different languages represented there, and the Gospel went to all of these throughout Asia – Asia Minor, which is Turkey today. I was just struck by how many miles people had to travel in those days, without buses and cars. For example, the distance from Ephesus all the way to Bithynia, where we also were, was (I don’t know) three or four hundred miles. And yet when Peter wrote his Gospel, you remember he said, “To the saints, which are in the Bithynia and Galatia and Cappadocia.” And it is there in Cappadocia that the Gospel also went, which is in Central Turkey.
What an experience it was for us to be there, and to be able to see the caves in which the Christians lived and worshipped. There are many churches that are in caves, but more than that, we went to an underground facility dug out by these ancient believers. Now, you can’t get your mind around it because it goes down 12 stories. We went only to story number three or story number four. Of course, there were baptismal fonts along the way in all of these tunnels.
The underground city that we were in is estimated to have held a thousand people, and when the Romans came (You know the Christians had scouts to see when the Romans were coming – we’re talking about the 4th and 5th centuries.), one Roman leader said, “I came to the city and there was nobody there, and it looked as if they had just left.” They had all hidden. They showed us the ventilation system. They had enough food down there to survive an attack.
And then when we were in a room (and there are dozens of rooms) where they worshipped, I read these words to the group. “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned. They were sawn in two. They were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated, of whom the world was not worthy, wandering about in deserts, in mountains, and dens and caves of the earth.” Our minds just tried to get around the kind of suffering that Christians endured in previous centuries. Cappadocia!
And then from there we went to the Church of Holy Wisdom in Istanbul, Ancient Constantinople. I’ve been there before. You know that you have no idea how big this church is, but notice that it does have minarets, and until you actually go inside and you stand in the balcony, you really can’t fathom the size of this church. And then if you walk around on the other side, you will come to some crosses that are defaced because the Church of Holy Wisdom is not a church today. It belongs to Islam. It became a mosque in 1453 – a mosque for 500 years. Now it’s more like a museum so that we can go into it. And the reason that the crosses are defaced, though you see where the crosses are – the images, is because the devout Muslim guide said, “No Muslim can ever pray in the presence of a cross.” I want you to just think about it. By the way, that’s the church that inspired our own architecture. We are basically a Byzantine church. We could see at least some similarities.
Well, let me tell you the story. Okay? It’s a Christian church dedicated in 535 by Justinian the Emperor. It’s fifteen hundred years old. He said, “Oh Solomon, I have outdone thee.” It’s bigger than Solomon’s Temple. So it is the largest church in Christendom until 1453 – for 900 years. Muslims overtake it - the Muslim Turks. The people crowded into the church, thinking that God would protect them. He didn’t. There was a huge massacre in the church, and a massacre throughout the city of Constantinople. Five thousand people were impaled – one of the most painful ways to die – and then, of course, all of the sayings of Jesus were taken down, and today there are various comments and so forth from the Koran, the name of Muhammad, and so forth. Imagine that with four minarets. The church dedicated to Christ is Islamic today for 500 years.
And then we went to Nicaea where the First Council of Nicaea was held. That building is no longer standing, but we were able to see also a Church of Holy Wisdom, also built by Justinian, also being a mosque and you can tell by the minaret, and in 787, this is the church where the Seventh Ecumenical Council was held, and you can actually see where the bishop sat.
Now this church had an experience that it did not have, I am sure, for 600 years ever since it became a mosque. My lovely wife, Rebecca, insisted that she read some Scripture in this mosque, so she read it to us as a tour group about the exaltation of Jesus from John 1 and Hebrews 1. The guide said that in all of his years of guiding, it was the first time he had ever heard Scripture read in a mosque. Well, we prayed that someday that mosque would become a church again, which leads me, of course, to the topic of persecution. It leads me to the topic of death and martyrdom.
In 2012 Newsweek Magazine had a cover story in which it said that there is a river of blood flowing throughout the Middle East. And as we traveled throughout the Middle East, and we traveled, of course, especially in Turkey, we saw many churches that are mosques today. And the river of blood is against Christians who are dying simply for the fact that they are Christians.
Now as I frequently say, if you are here today as a Muslim, not only are you welcome, but we are not blaming you for what is being done in the name of your religion. You know, here in America we have a more tolerant kind of Islam. It’s been westernized. But in those countries where there is a purer version of Islam, what you find is a tremendous amount of persecution. If we could just for a moment [let’s try to] get our minds around things like this. In Pakistan a Christian man is killed for marrying a Muslim woman. A girl is pulled out of her house because she said she follows Jesus and is killed. Did you hear on the news that migrants on a boat – 12 Christians – were thrown overboard for praying, and they were not praying to Allah? In Nigeria whole churches are wiped out and massacred.
I’m going to speak today about Paul’s view of death because he was martyred by Nero. The Bible doesn’t say that expressly but church history and tradition says it happened, and we have every reason to believe that that is correct. So I want you to take your Bibles and turn to Philippians 1 where the Apostle Paul is speaking about his view of death.
How do we as Christians look at death? You know, Jesus predicted that in the last days persecution would increase, and not only that, when we think of ISIS, for example, we are reminded very clearly of the Antichrist. What ISIS is doing is what the Antichrist is going to do, namely killing, marginalizing anyone who does not go along with them, that does not pray to their god, Allah. And that is what is going to be happening worldwide. The Bible says regarding Antichrist: “All who dwell upon the face of the earth shall worship him, except those whose names were written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, and they who do not worship will be killed with the sword.”
Well, that sets us up for Paul’s view of death as we conclude this brief series on The Legacy of A Converted Man. I’m in Philippians 1 where we see here that a Christian views death differently. We see that Christians value Christ when they die. Look at the text at verses 20 and 21: “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” When you and I die, we can have an opportunity of valuing Christ, and Christ can be more to us than our families – our wives, our children – because to die, for the Christian is a win; to die is gain.
Think for a moment now if we substituted a different word here. “For me to live is money, and to die is what?” I guess to lose it all. “For me to live is fame, and to die?” Well that’s to end it, and it won’t matter whether I was famous or not. “For me to live is pleasure, and to die is what?” What do you put in if for you to live is pleasure?
Paul says, “For me to live is Christ. To die is a gain.” He says in the next verse that to be with Christ is far better. Whenever I see people grieving over death, first of all let me say that it is perfectly permissible and natural to grieve, and there is such as a thing as good grief. Good grief is when we indeed grieve over a loved one that has died. Bad grief is when we continue in that vein of grieving even year after year, and we forget that death is the chariot that God sends to bring his own children home.
I frequently have said at funerals that if that person who had died in Christ could come back they’d say, “Uh-uh. I love my family, I love my children, but I’ve seen Jesus.” And The Bible says, “Eye has not seen, neither has ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man those things that God has prepared for them that love Him.” Jesus is more valuable to us than life itself.
Cyprian, who lived in the three hundreds, said that the reason that Christianity was so successful in North Africa in the early centuries is because the Christians died differently. He said that the Plagues were the best thing that happened because in the Plagues, the pagans grieved, but they grieved without hope whereas the Christians had hope. And the pagans would say, “Where’s that hope coming from?” Well, it’s coming from the fact that to live for Christ is one thing, and when you and I die, we gain. Wow!
But the Christian not only believes in the value of Christ. The Christian believes also in the sovereignty of Christ. Notice that the Apostle Paul says this in verse 22: “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”
Paul says, “Look, I prefer to die and be with Jesus, but I’m going to be alive as long as God wants me to be with you, and to minister to you.” So we see the sovereignty of the Lord Jesus Christ in the timing of our death. Of course, there’s also a confluence. We play a part in the length of our life. Some people cut their life short. But the Christian, walking in obedience, walking with God, dies under the good hand and the timing of God. And there is no group of demons or men who can put us to death if God thinks there’s still work for us to do because our times are in God’s hands.
But it’s not just that we trust the timing of the Lord Jesus. We also trust in the means of death. As you know, there are many, many different ways to die. There is heart disease, there is cancer, and there are accidents. One time I was in a funeral home and just walked through and saw all of these people and their ages – sometimes young and sometimes old. And if you ask the question, “Why do some people live so long and others not?” we cannot answer those questions. But we believe that God is good, and the Christian dies within God’s good hand and providence.
I don’t think anyone exemplified this better than James Montgomery Boice, a pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for many years, a man that I met occasionally in conferences and so forth. At the age of 62 he has terminal cancer. Now if you think that 62 is old, you’ve not lived very long actually. But he’s wheeled onto the platform of his church, and he speaks to them. And I don’t have his speech right here but I remember its general content.
He says, “People ask me whether or not they should pray for my healing.” And he said, “That’s fine. Go ahead and do it, but I haven’t seen too many miracles in my ministry of God delivering people from terminal cancer.” He said, “I’ve always taught that my fate was in God’s hands, and if God didn’t want me to have cancer, I wouldn’t have it, but my time is coming.” So he said, “Pray that God will give me grace. Pray for the doctors.” But he said, “For years I taught the sovereignty of God, and now I accept it.”
Wow! James Montgomery Boyce also wrote music. He wrote hymns. Let me read one for you.
What can separate my soul
From the God who made me whole,
Wrote my name on heaven’s scroll?
Victors we’re ordained to be
By the God who set us free.
What can therefore conquer me?
We face death for God each day,
What can pluck us from His way?
Let God’s people ever say,
We die not only by the means of death, but God’s timing. One day a woman said to me, “My husband was murdered.” And it had happened years ago but she was still distraught. “This was an act of the devil,” she said. And I responded and I said, “Of course, that may be an act of the devil, but remember Jesus was murdered too, and that was an act of the devil, and He died according to God’s timetable.”
What about all the martyrs through the centuries? What about that ten-year old boy that I read about who was dragged and killed because he was a believer in Jesus? Who kills him? Well, demonically controlled people to be sure, but he dies within God’s providence and within God’s will.
I want to say now a word about God’s comfort in death. Corrie Ten Boom, who has gone on to glory, is a woman that some of us know because of the books that she wrote about the concentration camps in Germany that she survived. She said on one occasion she asked her father, “Father, I am afraid of death.” She was about six or seven years old. He said, “Corrie, when you and I go to Amsterdam on the train, when do I give you the ticket?” And she said, “Well, Daddy, you give me the ticket just before we board.” He said, “You don’t need the ticket before you board. You need the ticket when you board.” And he said, “There is such a thing as dying grace, but God doesn’t give it to us until it’s time to die. But at the moment we need it, it is there.”
Some of us remember Nate Nyman who was a member of this church. He and his wife, Margaret, used to attend here, and he died five or six years ago. And Rebecca and I visited him in Michigan. There were only about 45 days from the time he was diagnosed until the time he died, but he looked at this so maturely. I’ll never forget it. He said, “I’m glad it happened this way. I would rather have it this way than a heart attack because now I have the opportunity to help my wife, to make provisions for my family, to get things ready.” But then he said, “It’s not how many years we have, but how we use them that matters. It’s not the number of candles on the cake, but how it tastes.” I think that’s a lot of wisdom right there. Some of us have many candles on our cake, and I want to taste it.” He said, “If I could get out of this I would, but then it would have to happen again.” You know, you’d have to face death again. I’m sorry. There’s just no easy way out of this.
He said, “It is as if we are at a wall, and we can’t see over it.” I would not totally agree with that. We as Christians don’t see through the wall clearly, but we do see. We see through a glass darkly. And this is what the Bible says. It says that Jesus came to destroy him who has the power of death, that is the devil, and to deliver those who, through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage. Maybe your fear of death is subjecting you to bondage. Jesus came to deliver us from that fear.
You know, as Westerners, we don’t think that persecution is going to come to us, and if we’re relatively healthy, we just go on our way. Let’s remember, when we read about Christians being marginalized and killed and dismembered and shot and beheaded, that God is there, granting them grace. Of course, we should do all that we possibly can to help them, but at the end of the day, it is God who even there gives comfort to His people.
I want to conclude by just reminding us about how some people died. We think, for example, of Jesus who was killed unjustly, but what does He say? He says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do?” And then what are His final words on the cross? “Father, into Thy hands I commit My Spirit.” All is well with Me, despite the pain, despite the injustice. I’m in your hands. Wow!
And throughout history many martyrs have followed Jesus in this. Remember Stephen, one of the first Christian martyrs, being stoned outside of Jerusalem. He looks up and what does he see? He sees Jesus, standing on the right hand of God the Father, ready to welcome him home. And then he also prays for the forgiveness of his enemies, and basically says, “Into Thy hands I commit my spirit.”
I think, for example (I’m going to include here), of Anne Boleyn. Anne Boleyn, you know, was the second wife of Henry VIII. What an interesting guy he was. He had six wives. He beheaded three or so of them. He was not entirely a nice husband. He married Anne Boleyn, and she would not bear him a son, but she did have a daughter who turned out to be Elizabeth I, who had a great impact on England.
Henry accused her of adultery. I’m not sure if that’s right. Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. But the real reason was because she had become a believer. She had never met Tyndale who translated the Bible into English, but she had a copy of his New Testament. And when we were in the British Library in London, we were shown a New Testament of Tyndale’s. There’s only about one or two left. Some people would even argue that that at one time belonged to Anne Boleyn, and supposedly (I’m not sure if it can be proven) she took the New Testament to the chopping block with her.
But I am reciting here, and paraphrasing the prayer that she prayed before Henry had her beheaded. It went something like this: “Lord Jesus, I commit my soul to You. You shed Your precious blood on the cross on my behalf.” And she died, and I believe arrived in heaven right after the event.
Wow! What a way to go. You know, I don’t know how I’d act if I knew I was going to be hacked to bits. I do know that sometimes the chopping block didn’t work too well, and it took a while. It could be painful. But just know that on the other side of the curtain, Jesus is there. Actually that’s not accurate. Jesus is on this side of the curtain and then He walks us through to the other side, and we see Him in a new way.
Then I think of Bonheoffer. You remember he turned against Hitler and became part of the resistance movement, and he was hung in Flossenburg, but what impresses me is that the morning of his hanging (and that wouldn’t be a nice way to die, would it?) the biographer says that he was stripped, he was taken to the gallows, and he was allowed to pray. And he prayed these words. He said, “Oh God, this is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.” And with that he walked to the gallows and was hung. A doctor who saw him said that he had never seen anyone die with such tranquility, and with such a sense of confidence in Jesus Christ. “This is the end, but for me, the beginning of life.”
And then, of course, I want to end with the Apostle Paul. So he goes along, living a bit longer. He visits many churches. Of course, as you know, he wrote 12 or so books of the New Testament. And it’s time for him to die. And in 2 Timothy 4 he says this: “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 race, and I have kept the faith. Henceforth 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.”
And with that, he is beheaded by Nero, reminding us that death does not end all. Not only that, but decisions and victories won in this world may be very different in the life to come. Eternity, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. Eternity reverses the decisions and the events of time.
Jesus told the story about a rich man who had all kinds of jewelry and fine clothes and fine food. And he would sit there every day and he would enjoy life. And there was a beggar by the name of Lazarus (not to be confused with the other Lazarus who was raised from the dead), and Lazarus would come and with the dogs he would lick some of the crumbs from the rich man’s table. Both died. Lazarus ends up in Abraham’s bosom, close to Abraham. The rich man ends up in Hades in torment.
Things are not what they appear to be, and at the end of the day what we need is Jesus so that we can say, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
I’m sure throughout the many years that I’ve been here at The Moody Church I’ve used this illustration, but I shall use it again. Think of how different the Apostle Paul was from Julius Caesar. When Hamlet, in his play, spoke about death in that grand soliloquy, remember he said, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” And then he goes on to talk about the possibility of suicide, but he said, “Oh, in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil.” Wow! “Life is miserable. I want to end it, but after I end it, it could be a lot worse than it is now.”
You see, what Hamlet was saying was, “Live or die, I’m a loser.” The Apostle Paul is saying, “Live or die, I’m a winner. For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” What a difference Jesus makes.
When we were on the cruise, one morning we were going through the Dardanelles. Now the Dardanelles is a very small, narrow neck of land, one of the most important waterways in all of Europe. All kinds of battles happened there and we were on our way to Istanbul. And going through them takes a couple of hours. As we were going through I noticed that there was a ship coming, and it was coming to our ship. It was much smaller. And then it was alongside of our ship, and somewhere on our ship there was a door, and somebody exited the door onto the ship and left. So I wondered what in the world this was about. So the captain of our ship told us this. He said the Dardanelles have so many danger points, because of the currents, that it is a requirement that before we go through them we have a different captain who knows the area very well come on and help guide us. And once we’re through that area he goes his way.
And I thought, “You know, that’s the way life is. Waters with currents, rocks along the way, winds that blow us from one end of the shore to the other! When we come to the important issue of going through the valley of the shadow of death we need a guide. And what we need is a guide who knows the way, who has been there, and says, “Follow me, and I can take you safely to the other side.”
Well, you know who that guide is. There’s only one. (applause) He’s not Muhammad, not Krishna. It’s not Baha’u’llah. There’s only one guide who’s been there, done that, and waits for us on the other side – Jesus. If you don’t know Him personally, you know of Him, you recite the creeds, you grew up baptized, whatever, but you don’t know Him personally, would you receive Him as your Savior? Thank Him for dying for you, and that you receive His death and you receive the gift of eternal life given to all who believe. That’s the good news of the Gospel. That’s the good news that Europe desperately needs, and the good news that America is forgetting and turning against. But here we are to witness to the power of Christ. “For me to live is Christ; to die is gain.” You believe on Him!
You may be listening by way of Internet, by way of radio, or right here in the sanctuary of The Moody Church. You trust Christ as your Savior; He’s the only one who can guide us safely to the other side.
Our Father, we want to thank You today that the Apostle Paul died well, and we think of the believers through the centuries. We think of those who are being persecuted today, not just throughout the Middle East, but also in North Korea and elsewhere – China. We pray today, Lord, invigorate Your church. Grant strength, and help them to die well for Your glory. And then for us, our pampered Americans, which is what we are, always expecting that we shall be delivered, that we shall be exempt from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Help us to love You, to know You and to trust You so that when our time comes, we may die well for Your glory. And for those who don’t know Christ as Savior, at this moment, cause them to believe. Give them what they don’t have – a sense of conviction and faith that they might belong to You. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.
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