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God's Glory In Our Death

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | May 2, 2010

Selected highlights from this sermon

To die is gain. The Apostle Paul believed that, and all Christians should too. When we accept that death is part of life, when we affirm the worth of Christ and trust in His timing, the fear of death can be erased and replaced by the peace of God.

God knows when we will leave this earthly life—and how. And Christians have the assurance that when we die, even if it’s an accident, Jesus will be the chariot that takes us to heaven.

Christians have hope and assurance that other religions do not have. And for us, it’s all gain.

Suffering for the glory of God!

I hope that you are praying. A few of you have told me that you have prayed. Before you get out of bed in the morning you should pray, and say, “Lord, glorify yourself in my life today, and do it at my expense.”

Today’s topic is how to die to the glory of God. It was Samuel Johnson, that great poet and playwright, who said that nothing focuses the mind like the knowledge that one is to be hanged in a fortnight. You can imagine, of course, that if you were told that you would be hung, your mind would be very specifically focused on that moment. It’s interesting that Saddam Hussein, that great cruel dictator who killed so many people, before he was hung he trembled, and well he might. C.S. Lewis said that when we see God after death at the end, he says, “That face which is the delight or the terror of the universe must be turned upon each one of us with one expression or the other, either conferring glory inexpressible or conflicting shame that can never be cured or disguised.”

I think that Saddam Hussein knew where he was going, but Christians die differently. Cyprian in the third century said that if it were not for the plagues, Christianity would never have conquered Northern Africa and parts of Europe. He said the plagues were a great blessing because they gave the pagans an opportunity to see that Christians die differently. They have hope. The pagans said of the Christians, “They carry their dead as if in triumph.” There was something very triumphant about their deaths because the Christians knew that they would be reunited again.

It’s interesting that in John 21:18 Jesus is speaking to Peter and He says these words. He says, “When you were young you went wherever you wanted to. You put on clothes and you did what you wanted to do, but when you are old, others will clothe you and they will stretch out your hands and take you where you don’t want to go,” and then John adds, “and this he said by what death he was to glorify God.” That expression “to stretch out your hands” was used in New Testament times to refer to crucifixion, and it is said that Peter, when he died, did not believe that he was worthy to be crucified like Christ, so requested that he be crucified upside down, and his hands were stretched, and in dying he gave glory to God. But the question before us is how does that happen? Do we have some role models and more specific instructions of how to die for the glory of God?

My text today is Philippians 1, and what I’d like us to do is to see the three ways in which in facing death we can give glory to God. And the text there is open before you, and the first way that we can give glory to God when facing death is to affirm the true worth of Jesus Christ. Paul said in verse 21 very clearly, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” And what he says later is that to die is much better.

When facing death the Christian says, “I so value being with Christ. Even though He is with us now in spirit, I so value being in His presence that actually death to me is gain.” We always think of death as being a loss. He says, “No, it’s a gain.” Death is more important than my relationship with my wife, my grandchildren, all of my friends, and my relatives. God taking me to heaven is gain, and Christians should approach death that way. What a remarkable statement.

For a moment I want you to think about what it would be like if you were to take that word “Christ” and substitute something else in its place. How would it read? “For me to live is money, and to die…oh, I lose it all.” “For me to live is fame, and to die is to be soon forgotten.” “For me to live is pleasure, but to die means the end of the pleasure and simply reaping what I have sown.” What an amazing statement to the Christian life! “For me to live is Christ.” Death is gain. It takes me into His presence.

When you are at the funeral of a Christian and you cry (and well you might) and grieve, don’t ever think that you are grieving for them. You are grieving for yourself, which is perfectly fine. But they are with Christ, and if they have the opportunity of returning–if Jesus gave them that option–no matter how much they love you, they would never want to return because they have seen Christ, and they have gained. It’s not a loss. It’s a gain. So that’s one way in which when we face death that we really do honor the Lord, and we can die for His glory.

A second way is we not only trust the fact that Jesus Christ is valuable and death is gain, but also we trust the timing of Christ. Or I could change that to say that we trust the sovereignty of Christ. Notice Paul said, “I would love to die and be with Christ because that’s gain. It’s far better,” but then he says, “To abide in the flesh is more needful for you.” What he’s saying is that God has a purpose for me that isn’t finished and ultimately my times are in God’s hands, and they are.

Now if you ask me why it is that some people live longer, or why it is that my mother who is 101 and her mind is very clear wants to die and be with Jesus and has so for many years, and yet here’s a young mother who dies of cancer at the age of 35 with three or four children. If you ask those kinds of questions we cannot answer them. We cannot pry into the counsels of the Almighty. We can’t say to ourselves that we read God’s diary to understand His plan and why some people live longer than others. As a matter of fact, you may ask if we can prolong our life. I know that there is a magazine entitled Life Extension, and there is a point at which we as humans and the divine purposes coincide in ways that I could discuss in more detail, but not today. But there are ways in which we can understand that, but at the end of the day our times are in God’s hands.

You remember that old joke (I forget exactly how it went) about a man who arrived in heaven and God’s beauty and said to his wife who was already there, “Just to think I could have been here five years earlier if you would not have forced me to eat all of that oat bran.” The fact is that there is a convergence of what we do and God’s purposes, but our times are in God’s hands. It’s not only how long we live but how we die. That’s in God’s hands too, and there are many ways to die.

Death is so creative. There is martyrdom, and we have plenty of examples of that. There is cancer. There are accidents. There is murder. I remember a woman telling me that her husband was murdered, and she was a believer and he was too, and all that she could see in her grief (and of course the fact that she grieved was good because there is such a thing as good grief, but there is also bad grief) was evil and the devil. I said to her, “Your husband, I believe, died at a time appointed by God.” She said, “How could God have anything to do with this?” And then I pointed out that Jesus Christ died at God’s appointed time, and He was brutally murdered and He died at the right time. She said, “You know, I never saw that before. Maybe I can accept this as part of the will and the purpose of God.”

How do we glorify God in our death? First of all, we show the value of Christ. Secondly, we recognize the sovereignty of Christ, that all the demons of hell, and wicked men cannot end our lives if God thinks that there is still work for us to do, and so we trust Christ when it comes to this interesting issue of death.

There’s a third way, and that is not only His value and the timing or the sovereignty, but we witness to Christ, and I’d like to spend a bit of time on this and give you three different ways in which believers can witness to Christ in the whole business of what we call death. How can we do it?

First of all, we do it by the way in which we accept death. Charles Colson says that he believes that whenever a person of the world gets cancer, God allows a Christian to get cancer so that the world can see the difference. Now I need to put in a parenthesis and tell you that sometimes Christians haven’t done very well here at this point.

Rebecca and I know an oncologist who directly or indirectly has presided over the deaths of thousands of people. I said to him, “Tell me how Christians die over and against those who aren’t.” He said that sometimes Christians don’t do well. They don’t discuss the future with their spouse, even though they are told they have terminal cancer. They don’t talk about insurance. They don’t talk about the funeral. They don’t talk about it, and so the wife is left making all of these decisions on her own because the Christian thinks that in the end God is going to heal him, and so they use prayer as the denial of the reality of death when clearly the statistics are in their favor. But there are many, many statistics in the favor of death, especially when you are told that you have a terminal disease. I mean, there are some rare exceptions, but for the most part, Christians should be realistic. The soul that sins dies. I am a sinner. In Adam all die, and I will die too, and realism should characterize us.

There are some wonderful examples about that. James Montgomery Boice, a pastor in Philadelphia, at about the age of 62 had terminal cancer, and he was wheeled into the sanctuary of his church to give his last message. It was about seventeen minutes long. I’m going to give you just a short paragraph from that message.

He said, “Should you pray for a miracle? Well, you are free to do that, of course, but my general impression is that God, who is able to do miracles, certainly can, but He’s also able to keep you from having cancer if He doesn’t want you to have it. (Well, that’s interesting, come to think of it. You have a good point.) So although miracles do happen, they are rare. Perhaps you could pray for wisdom for the doctors,” and then says, “and pray for the glory of God.”

I like that. He’s not saying, “Let’s try to get as many people to pray as we can, and maybe God is something like a Congressman who bows to the pressure of his constituency, and if we can get thousands of people to pray, surely God is going to say, ‘Oh my, I can’t put up with all of these petitions anymore. I’d better give in.”

If I had a terminal disease I would want many people to pray for me. I do grant that, but I don’t think that the numbers are what’s going to do it. I believe that there’s value even in unanswered prayer in those situations. At the end of the day the will of God is going to be done. The reason that we should pray together in groups is because in the process of doing that, God oftentimes reveals His will more clearly, but we can’t simply twist God’s arm because we have thousands of people to pray for us. To the credit of Dr. Boice, he didn’t do that. Like Jesus, he bowed simply to the reality of the fact that he would die, and he saw in it, if I could continue the sermon for just a moment, he said, “We always believe that God is in control.” He preached that all of his life but he said, “The other thing that is more difficult to believe is that God cares.” All Christians believe that God has it under control, but the question is, "Does He care?" And Boice said, “Yes, He is also good. Everything that He does is good. Romans 12:1 and 2 says that we are given the opportunity of renewing our minds to prove what God’s will is, and it says that His will is good and pleasing and perfect. Who would want to change the will of God if it is the perfect will of God?” The Christian accepts death.

One of the contemporary examples of this is a man by the name of Nate Nyman. Nate and his wife, Margaret, used to attend The Moody Church many years ago, and then because of geographical reasons they attended elsewhere, but the thing that I liked so much about Nate was what you saw is what you got. There was no pretense. When he discovered that he had terminal cancer Rebecca and I drove out to Michigan to spend some time with him, and Nate said to me, “I’m glad it’s coming this way. I’m glad I didn’t die of a heart attack, because this gives me an opportunity to be able to help my wife, to work through the transition, insurance matters, the will, etc., and to make sure that everything is fine between me and my children.” And I thought that it’s been a long time since I’ve heard someone (even a Christian) accept death the way Nate did.

I’m going to give you a website that I want you to go to and you can write it down. I’ll give it to you right now because his wife, Margaret, is an excellent writer, and the website (the blog) is Nate said, “It’s not really how many years a person gets. It’s rather how we use the ones we have.” Now he’s speaking as someone who is going to be dying in a few weeks: “It’s not about the number of candles on the cake, but rather how good the cake tastes that matters.” Isn’t that beautiful? “If I could sign on the dotted line to get out of this, my pen would already be out of my pocket, but that isn’t reality. In the end it all boils down to two things, just as the old hymn says, ‘Trust and obey.’” And then he says this: “Life is interesting. It’s like you come up against a wall that is ten feet tall but you can’t see over it. On the other side is your future. You want to see it, but no matter how hard you try, you can’t.” One of his favorite Proverbs is “A man’s heart devises his way but the Lord directs his steps.” Check out the blog. Thousands of people have.

Here’s a man who accepted death, who believed in Christ, and he glorified God in the way in which he accepted it and lived through it. So we must keep in mind that believers, I believe, glorify God by the way in which they accept death. They look at Christ. “My Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me, but nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” Let the will of God be done, and for the believer it is gain.

Now if you are an unbeliever the whole story changes dramatically. A friend of mine, with whom I actually was eating with about two or three weeks ago, told me that in his church there was a woman with terminal cancer. She accepted it with a sense of sweetness and realism. And then he knew a wealthy friend. There’s nothing like cancer revealing the heart of a wealthy person if that person doesn’t know the Lord, because you know you’ve always thought that money can solve this. So he was frantically on the telephone, cursing the hospital, cursing the doctor, wondering whether or not there is some cure in Europe that he might be able to take advantage of, thinking, “I’ve got all this money. Surely you can keep me alive.” What a way to go.

Voltaire said before he died, “I am abandoned by God and I shall go to hell.” Wow!

Sir Francis Newport, who actually lived in England several centuries ago and was a playwright as well as a politician, said as he was dying, “Oh, that I was to lie for a thousand years on the fire that is never quenched to purchase the favor of God, but it is a fruitless wish. Millions and millions of years would bring me no nearer to the end of my torments. Oh eternity, eternity! Oh the insufferable pangs of hell!”

Wow! There are only two ways to die: either in Christ or outside of Him. There is no middle path. I believe that Christians can glorify God by the way in which they accept death. I think that secondly they can also glorify God especially by the way in which they sorrow, and sorrow they should, and sorrow they must. The Apostle Paul said, “But we sorrow not as those who have no hope.” Wow!

And that was the thing that Cyprian referred to. The Christians had hope. This is 1 Thessalonians 4 where Paul says we don’t sorrow that way, and then he says as he talks about the coming of Christ, “So shall we ever be with the Lord.” You are going to be reunited again. The Nyman family is going to be together. The Lutzer family is going to be together. And so we sorrow. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, but it’s not hopeless because we know what lies on the other side, and Jesus has the keys of death and of Hades.

There’s a third way and that is, I believe, that we in our closing moments (and not everybody has the opportunity to do this) actually have the opportunity to witness to the power of God. Luther thought that we should taunt death because the Scripture says in Hebrews 2 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. Death is fearful, but Jesus came to deliver us from it. Satan has the power of death within the limits and the providence prescribed by God, but at the end the fear of death is taken away in Jesus. And Christians can witness to that. They can witness to the divine providence of God. Sometimes it’s done on the part of the survivors.

You may not be acquainted with the name Karolina Sandell-Berg, but it was her father who, while on a ship in Sweden, fell overboard and drowned when the ship lurched. Her father was a Christian minister and it was she who wrote the hymn later entitled Day by Day and With Each Passing Moment, and I’ve often pondered the words. Imagine a daughter writing this: “He whose heart is kind beyond all measure gives unto each day what he deems best.” And then I think she says, “The protection of his child and treasure is a charge which on himself he laid.” And I read that and I say, “Karolina, I don’t really get it. That wave that hit the ship was under God’s control. Your father is gone, and you are talking about the protection of his child and his treasure is the charge, which upon himself he laid. That’s the Christian’s hope, that when you die even in an accident that God is there, and God is protecting you all the way to the heavenly gates, and that is gain.

But then I think of the many people who before they died left us some wonderful role models. I wish I had the faith of a Bonhoeffer. You know, of course, he stood against Hitler and became part of the resistance, and then in Flossenburg he was hung, but I love to read that story. It was morning and he was asked to actually undress and he was allowed to pray before he went to the gallows and this is what he said. He said, “Oh God, this is the end, but for me the beginning of life.” A doctor who was present to verify his death said that he had never seen anyone accept death with such a sense of tranquility. “I am in God’s hands, but for me it is the beginning.”

We can’t see on the other side of the wall, just like Nate said. We’re up against a wall that is too high for us to peer over, but yet read the words of the promises of Jesus and we get a glimpse of the promised land and we know that there on the other side, waiting for us, even as Stephen was stoned, Jesus at the right hand of God the Father is there to welcome us. “Oh God, it is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.”

I love to refer to Anne Boleyn because I’ve been to the Tower of London where she was beheaded. She was the second wife of Henry the Eighth who was a very interesting personality. So much could be said about him. He had six wives and many of them died at the chopping block. Anne Boleyn became friends with Tyndale who translated the Bible into English. She never met him, but across the continent they connected and she actually got a copy of the New Testament. In fact, there are some reports that she took the New Testament to the chopping block with her. And then you should read the prayer that Anne Boleyn prayed before she died. There she was at the chopping block and she said, “I commit my soul to the Lord Jesus Christ who shed his blood on my behalf for the forgiveness of all of my sins.” What a way to go. Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said later, “She who was a queen on earth became a queen in heaven,” and I believe that he was right. What a way to go!

My own father died at the age of 106 and by the age of 105 he wasn’t able to finish sentences very well. He’d begin a sentence and then he’d forget the rest of the sentence, and I’m saying, “Hey, I’m not that old and that happens to me once in a while too,” but a few months before he died–he was 105–Rebecca and I were there in the room and we were just talking with Mother, and we didn’t even know that he was listening. He was there in the wheelchair and his eyes were closed, and suddenly he opened his eyes and said a full sentence without stopping in German, but translated exactly it is this: “We have been speaking about the present. Now it is time for us to speak about eternity and the glory of God.” That’s my dad’s closing full sentence before he died.

Let’s talk about D. L. Moody. Moody struggled tremendously with the issue of death and was very fearful of it but it is said that while he was dying he said, “Earth recedes; heaven opens. If this be death it is glorious.”

Paul on this side of the grave said, “To die is gain.” Don’t take people’s gain away from them. Jesus is worth more than your children, your family, your environment, your work, and your vocation. It is gain to die and not a loss.

Hamlet, you remember in Shakespeare’s play, was struggling with the whole issue of suicide. The question was whether or not he should live, to be or not be. Bottom line: If I go on living I can’t stand this misery. If I die, oh, to die, what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil. In other words, “If I commit suicide, what I encounter in the life beyond could be far worse than this, so what do I do?” Hamlet was saying, “Live or die, I lose either way.”

The Apostle Paul said, “For me to live is Christ. To die is gain. I don’t know which I prefer. I actually prefer to go to heaven, but I’ll stay here as long as you want. Live or die, I win.” And the difference is Christ. (applause) “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” We glorify God in our death, despite our doubts, when we go on believing and know that He is so precious we gain Him at death, and so we accept it. It’s the chariot that God sends to take us all the way to heaven, and when the chariot comes we accept its arrival.

Let us pray.

Father, we ask in Jesus’ name now that You will take these moments and bless them. For those who have never trusted Christ as Savior, may they do that right now. May they say,
“I want Christ as my Savior so that I can say, ‘To live is Christ. To die is gain.’” In Jesus name, Amen.

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