When God Opens The Curtain For YouErwin W. Lutzer | June 29, 1997
Selected highlights from this sermon
We all have an appointment with death. And if you’re a believer in Christ, you can be assured that your death will come when, where, and how God has ordained it to happen. It is through death that we glorify God.
There is a fable, sometimes told in the Middle East, of a servant who was sent to the marketplace by a merchant. The servant was to run an errand, which he did, but when he was there in the marketplace, as he was coming home, he happened to greet Lady Death. When he saw the startled look on her face, the servant was overcome by fear. He hurried home and he said to his master, “I saw Lady Death at the marketplace, and she startled me.” He said, “Please give me your fastest horse so that I can ride all the way to Sumera tonight.” And so the master said, “Go ahead. Take my horse and do that.”
But a little while later the master actually went to the marketplace himself in the afternoon, and he met Lady Death and he said, “Why did you startle my servant this morning?” And Lady Death said, “Well, I didn’t intend to startle your servant. In fact, it is I who was startled. I couldn’t figure out what in the world he was doing in Baghdad this morning when I have an appointment with him in Sumera tonight.” One way or another, death will get to us. Death awaits us as the cement floor awaits the falling light bulb.
A man by the name of Tom Howard wrote these words about death. He said, “When we are going to die, when we are face-to-face, we are like a hen before a cobra, incapable of doing anything in the very presence of the thing that seems to call for the most drastic, decisive action. There is, in fact, nothing we can do, say what we will, dance how we will, and soon enough we will be a ruined heap of feathers and bones, indistinguishable from the rest of the ruins that lie about. It will not appear to matter in the slightest whether we met the enemy with calmness, shrieks or trumped up gaiety. There we will be.”
We all have an appointment with death. Whether it’s in Chicago or Taipei, or some city in Canada, or in Europe, we all must die. The fact that we are going to die is as certain as the rising sun.
Today’s message has to do with the topic of death, but before I get into it I want to talk a little bit about suicide. We have a great deal of emphasis today on assisted suicide, doctors helping other people die. Here at The Moody Church we receive phone calls from time to time from people in the city who want us to give them the assurance that if they committed suicide they’d actually go to heaven. We always say to them, first of all, that suicide is never a good option. There is always something else that you can do. You should never think that suicide is actually the answer to your predicament. And number two, don’t be so overconfident that on the other side things are going to be better than they are here.
Remember Shakespeare in that sleep of death? “What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil?” For many people who are going through times of agony on earth and they think that the only answer is suicide, they will actually find themselves in a realm that is far worse than this life could ever be.
Of course, we’ve all known Christians who have committed suicide. I’ve known at least three or four, and I fully expect to see them in heaven. But it is presumptuous to think that somehow we can go to heaven before Jesus Christ calls our name and that that’s really the right answer to our predicament and to our problem. And so I say to you today, “Let us all make sure that it is Jesus Christ who calls our name rather than showing up in heaven before He calls our name.”
Today I want to speak on the providence of God in the death of a Christian. It is actually the seventh in a series of messages on the topic One Minute After You Die. And I’d like to emphasize the fact that we as believers must realize that our lives are actually in the hand of God, not the hands of men.
All of you remember the story of Scott and Janet Willis whose van hit that metal back in 1994, and as a result, six of their nine children were killed in the burning vehicle. Do you remember how, when the van erupted in flames, Scott said to his wife, “This is a moment for which we are prepared.” And we’ve had them here at The Moody Church and they have told their story.
Frequently I have thought about that, as you have, and you’ve probably heard me say that this is surely an example in which the doctrine of God’s providence is tested, but after it is tested it comes out giving us the assurance that those children died within the will of God. Let us say it boldly. Of course, as we think about all of the “if onlys” connected with the event, we could make a list of them very, very easily, couldn’t we?
• “If only that piece of metal had slithered into the ditch rather than onto the face of the coming van,” or
• “Let us suppose also that something else might have happened such as the van starting out a minute later, or a minute earlier,” or
• “The Willis family could have started out a minute earlier or a minute later, and they’d have been in a different place on the highway,” or
• What if Scott, when he saw that piece of metal, rather than running over it and allowing it to go in the middle of the van between the wheels, what if he had decided to run over it with the tires? Perhaps an accident would have happened, but as a result perhaps all of them would have lived.
We can take all of those if onlys and we need to understand that behind those if onlys is God.
You’ve heard me refer to Martha and Mary. Remember Jesus is coming to Jerusalem after Lazarus dies, and Martha runs out and she meets Jesus and says, “If you had been here my brother would not have died.” And a few moments later, Mary runs out of the house and says the very same words. “If only you had been here my brother would not have died.” If, if, if!
Let me ask if you have ever attended a funeral where there are not at least a few if onlys? If only we had seen the lump earlier. If only we had gone to the doctor earlier. If only there had been surgery. If only there had not been surgery. If only we had been in a position where there was no ice on the highway. If, if, if, if, if!
Well, I want you to know today that you need to take those if onlys and draw that large circle around them, and within the circle, we simply write the words, the providence of God.
I think of all of the guilt that some people have experienced that God did not want them to experience. I think of a woman whom we knew as a family, who for 14 years every single morning went to her husband’s grave, bemoaning the fact that she had convinced him to go to a concert that he didn’t want to go to, and when they went out that evening they were in a car crash and he was killed, taking upon herself the guilt of that experience, blaming herself, and thinking to herself, “If only I had not asked him to go that evening.” It’s foolishness.
All of us have asked our mates to go places where they didn’t want to go. We could have had an accident. That is false guilt. Let us simply recognize that a believer is in the will and the purposes and the plans of God, and not subject to the vicissitudes of fate.
Let’s take our Bibles and let us look at the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ’s life represents one of the best examples of someone who was able to endure all of the experiences of death, and to do so with an understanding that it had come from His Heavenly Father.
Take your Bibles and turn if you would please to Luke 22, and we shall pick it up in a moment at verse 37. In Luke 22:36 Jesus is thinking of Gethsemane, and He’s also thinking about the fact that soon He is going to die. Verse 36: “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.”
I like the words of the King James version where it says, “The things concerning me have an end.” Jesus didn’t say, “The things that concern Me are coming to an end,” but rather they have a purpose. As this translation says, “They have fulfillment.” There’s a purpose in all that is going to happen, and it is going to happen according to God’s time, and God’s way.
What I’d like to do in the next few moments is to give you five assurances with which Jesus was able to die—five assurances. And if you belong to Jesus, I believe that we can have the very same assurances today.
First of all, Jesus died with the right attitude. By that I mean He knew that he was on His way to the Father, Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into His hand and that He was come from God, and that He was going to God. He knew that at the end of the day, after He had died on the cross, He would be home with the Father, so He approached death with the right attitude of a mixture of apprehension, of sorrow but also of joy.
Look at the text here in the text of chapter 22 as we’ve asked you to turn to it. Jesus is speaking in Gethsemane in verse 44. It says: “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” Now you have to understand that Jesus went through that because remember He was bearing the sin of the world. He would become legally guilty of all the sins that you and I have committed, and because He was totally pure, the identification with sin overcame Him, and He was in great agony, knowing that He would even be separated from fellowship with the Father for a few moments. And it is this that caused the great agony even unto death.
But He reminds us that it’s okay to grieve when you know you’re going to die. It’s okay to sorrow. There’s that part of us that does not want to leave our friends behind. There is mystery on the other side of the grave. It’s okay to weep. As a matter of fact, the Scripture says that we should sorrow, but not as those who have no hope. But sorrow is a part of the predicament, and death is an enemy. Even though it is the last enemy that is going to be destroyed, it is still an enemy and we must keep that in mind.
But I want you to know that along with the agony and the grief, there was also something else, and that was joy. “Father, glorify thou me with thine own self (and Jesus knew that the way in which He would be glorified was through death), who through the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down on the right hand of the majesty on high.”
Today I am speaking to some of you who have confronted death. You have had to look at it. The doctor has come to you and told you some news that you thought to God would maybe true of somebody else, but not you. You are reminded of your mortality. You are reminded of the fact that not a one of us has a day guaranteed. And you say to yourself, “How could I possibly approach that moment, recognizing that I might die?” Well, the answer, of course, is this, that God give us dying grace when we need it. He really does. As long as we don’t need it, we don’t have it. I don’t have dying grace today, but I’d like to think that if I were to die today God would give me dying grace when I needed it.
You know, Corrie Ten Boom liked to tell the story of how she said to her father that she was afraid of death. And he said to her, “Corrie, when we go on the train to Amsterdam, when do I give you the ticket to get there?” And she said, “Well, just before I board the train.” And he said, “That’s right.” And that’s the way God is. He does not give us dying grace in advance, but when the time comes the grace is there.
A young woman who observed the death of her godly father said, “In his last months, Dad was spending more time in heaven that he was on earth,” and that makes sense. There are some people lying on their death bed who are prepared to go who already begin to see the glories of heaven. They begin to contemplate the wonder of what it’s going to be like to be with Christ, and they are ready to go. They are dying with the right attitude because they know that death leads them to the Father.
There’s a second assurance that Christ had, and that is that He died at the right time. He died at the right time! You can keep your Bible open to Luke 22, but if you turn to John 13 for just a moment, Jesus is in the upper room, and He’s just beginning that discourse that all of us know something about. And it says in John 13:1: “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
Did you catch the phrase, “Jesus knew that his hour had come”? Three times before this in the book of John, it says that they could not take Him because His hour was not yet come. I want you to know that Jesus Christ’s enemies were totally paralyzed, powerless until it was time for the crucifixion to take place. There was no chance that Jesus Christ could die early. As a matter of fact, from the book of John we learn that He died between the evenings. He died when the Passover Lamb was being slain, and because He typified the lamb, He died exactly when the lambs were dying according to the will and the purposes and the plan of God.
And I might say in passing that He died at the age of 33. Very young! Very young certainly by our standards, and young also by the standards of the Middle East. Why 33 and not 43 or 53 or 63? Think of all of the sermons He could have preached. Think of all of the miracles He could have still performed, all the more people He could have healed. And yet Jesus, at the age of 33, was able to say, “I have finished the work which Thou gave me to do. It is finished.” It is finished!
I want you to know today that you don’t have to live a long life in order to complete all of your assignments that God has given for you to do. Even a child who dies, dies within the will of God and has completed that which God has mapped out for that child. And we may wonder, and we might ask questions because it might not make sense to us, but those children are within the will and the plan of God, and they, too, have finished the work that God has given them to do, primarily the work that they are to do in the lives of their parents who have seen them suffer and die, because the work that God does when someone whom we love dies is deep and lasting. And those little ones have also finished the work which God has given them to do.
Now, I know that it is possible for us to hasten our death through carelessness, through bad eating habits. We can think of ways that people have compromised their health. But at the end of the day I want you to know that if you walk in the Spirit, there is no combination of demons or men who can possibly gang up on you. There is no one who can shoot you if God still believes that you have work that He wants you to accomplish and your work is not yet done. It is really true to say that man is immortal until his work is done.
Believers die within the context of God’s providence and God’s care. Look at Jesus. He was crucified by evil men, and yet it says He delivered by the predetermined council of God. And it says that the Lord was pleased to bruise Him. Are you comfortable living with the juxtaposition of those two theological facts, that on the one hand it is evil men who killed Jesus Christ, and on the other hand it is the Father who bruised Him, and it is the Father who killed Him? And it is Jesus who said, “I lay down my life, and I take it again. It is I who lay it down. No man takes it from me.” I want you to know that what is true of Him is true of us. We can die with the right attitude. And if we walk with God we will die at the right time. The right time!
Let me give you a third assurance that Jesus had, and that is that He died in the right way. He died in the right way! Could Jesus have been stoned to death? No, no, because it says in the Old Testament: “Cursed is he who hangs upon a tree,” and Jesus had to die on a tree. He had to die on a cross to bear our sin. Therefore, even the means of death was actually ordained. He couldn’t have died of a disease obviously because He was not sick as the Son of God. But He could not have been stoned. He could not have been shoved off the brow of a hill. He could not have died that way. God ordained the way He was going to die.
You say, “Is that true of believers too?” Well, remember John 21. Jesus is speaking to Peter and He said, “You know, Peter, the day is going to come when you are going to be taken where you don’t want to go, and another is going to carry you, and your arms are going to be outstretched.” And then the text says, “This He said, signifying by which death he would glorify God.” And tradition tells us you know, that Peter was crucified upside down because he did not believe that he was worthy to be crucified as Jesus Christ was crucified. But here’s Peter dying not only at the time that was specified by Jesus Christ, but even the very manner by which he was to die was foreordained and planned. So God knows what chariot He is going to send for us when it is our time to go. He knows it. He plans it. It is within His will and providence.
You know, those of us who believe in the sovereignty of God, and we’ve emphasized that, and we sang a chorus today emphasizing God’s sovereign plan, we believe that our lives are actually in God’s hands. And it has sometimes been said somewhat perhaps tongue in cheek, but nonetheless it is true, that if, from God’s standpoint you are to be hung, you’ll never drown. You’ll never drown because you are going to go as it is appointed for you.
Jesus said, “The things that concern Me have a divine end,” and you look at the way in which He died, and everything was a part of the divine will. It all fit in perfectly, fulfilling the Scriptures and the prophecies that had been made. So He died in the right way.
He also died with the right commitment. The last words of Jesus… If you still have your Bibles open to Luke 22 you may turn now to chapter 23. And notice what the text says in verse 46: “And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit.’ And having said this, He breathed his last.” What a way to go!
By the way, do you believe that Jesus Christ descended into hell? You know the Apostles’ Creed says that he descended into hell. That’s what the creed says. It did not originally contain those words, and no one knows the exact origin of the Apostles’ Creed, though it was in about the sixth century that that was added: “He descended into hell.” That teaching came about because it says in Psalm 16:10: “Thou will not leave my soul in Sheol.” And in an earlier message, when I talked about the descent into gloom, we talked about Sheol. But it says, “Thou will not leave my soul in Sheol, neither shall thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption.” And that is quoted in Acts 2 where Peter is giving a sermon, and he is proving the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and he is saying that it is a fulfillment of prophecy, and he quotes that text. And so many people have said, “Jesus descended into Sheol. He descended into hell.” And then they’ve gone on from there and they have added a little bit of heresy to it. It’s not heresy to believe that Jesus descended into Hades, but I think that does need some interpretation. But the heresy comes in where people have said, “He descended into hell and He suffered there for us, and He took our hell when He died, and then He came back on the third day.” That’s not found anywhere in the Scriptures.
Jesus Christ took our hell, but He did it on the cross. He did not do it when He died and His spirit went to the Father. I believe personally that Jesus Christ went directly to the Father, even if you think that it necessitates that He descended into Hades into the bad region of Hades. Remember also there is a good region of Hades, and we learn this from Luke 16 where there was one man who was looking over and Lazarus was talking to the man who was suffering, the rich man who was in Hades. And it seems to me that Jesus possibly went directly to the Father. If He did make a stop in the evil part of Hades it was very brief because He said, “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit.” And we do have to remember that the word Sheol oftentimes just does mean the grave. But there’s room there for theological differences as long as we understand that Jesus Christ paid our penalty on the cross.
And you’ve heard me say that when He said to the thief, “Today you shall be with Me in Paradise,” keep in mind that so far as the thief was concerned… He lived a little longer than Jesus. The soldiers were so surprised that Jesus Christ died sooner than they expected, and that means that Christ was already in Paradise. And when the thief died Jesus was there to meet him. And what faith the thief had! What faith he had because he was looking upon someone who was in the same predicament as he was, someone who was in the same agony, the same state of helplessness. And yet he believed and said, “Remember me when You come into your kingdom.” He believed in Christ.
And you know William Cowper captured the faith of the thief when he said:
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day
And there may I, though vile as he
Wash all my sins away.
As we think about death, let me give you some concluding lessons. I’ve already stressed it, but let me emphasize, first of all, that your life as a believer is ultimately in the hands of God, not the hands of fate and happenstance and accidents. We call them accidents. From God’s standpoint they indeed might be a divine occurrence. Always remember that.
Some of you live in areas of the city where there is shooting, where there is a lot of gang warfare, and you may fear for your life, and we understand that. And yet I need to comfort you with the words of Jesus who said, “Do not fear those who are able to kill the body, and then after that there’s nothing they can do, but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (or in Hades). Fear Him but don’t fear the person who can only kill you.”
But I want you to know that those of you who may live in areas where there is all kind of gang warfare, your life is not any less in God’s hands than those of us who may live somewhere else, because the believer ultimately is in the hands of God. Remember that.
You say, “Well, what if I get shot?” Well, any one of us could have that happen no matter where we are. And if it is true that evil men, crucifying Jesus Christ, doing this despicable deed, nonetheless had Jesus Christ die at the time that the Father appointed, might it not be that even if we did lose our lives that that would happen within the will and the providential care of God?
Remember Jim Elliot, one of the martyred missionaries who died young? You know he said, “God is peopling heaven. Why should he limit himself to old people?” And so sometimes God does take young people, but surely we must agree that Jim Elliot, and those other four men who were with him, died within God’s providential care and guidance, even though they were killed by those Auca Indians who since, incidentally, have come to know Christ as Savior.
You know, there is a woman by the name of Lina Sandell Byrd. I know that the hymnals sometimes call her Carolina, but I think that her name is Lina Sandell Byrd. One day this young lady was in Switzerland crossing Lake Vättern.
Those of you who are Swedish will know… I did say Switzerland but I meant to say Sweden. If you are Swedish you may know where that lake is. And she and her father were on this boat, and as they were going along the boat suddenly lurched because of a huge wave that came. And her dad fell overboard, a man whom she dearly loved, and she watched him drown. And there was nothing that they could do. He could not be rescued. There was no way they could get in the water. And there she was, a distraught young woman, with the realization that she would never see her father again. She would never even recover his body again.
As of a result of that searingly difficult incident she wrote a song that many of like to sing. And we’ll be singing it in just a few moments. It’s entitled Day by Day.
Day by day and with each passing moment,
strength I find to meet my trials here.
But I want you to notice some line that’s actually in the second stanza that we oftentimes overlook. It talks about the protection of His child and treasure, was a charge which on Himself He laid.
The protection of His child and treasure? Where was God when the boat lurched and her father fell? Lina understood something. Her father was not the victim of a random wave or a gust of wind. He died as a believer within the providential care of God.
The protection of His child and treasure
Is a charge that on Himself He laid;
As thy days, thy strength shall be in measure.
It is a charge which to me He has made. This young woman had some good theology. So let me remind you that we die within God’s providential government and His care. Our lives are in God’s hands.
Secondly, it is through our death that we glorify God. Remember the words that I quoted from John 21 where Jesus said to Peter, “‘This is the way in which you are going to die, and this will be the way in which then you will glorify God.’ This spake He signifying by what death he would bring glory to God.”
The death of a believer brings glory to God. It may come through martyrdom. Probably for most of us it won’t, but maybe for some. It may come through an accident. It may come through heart failure, through disease. It may come as a result of a hundred different ways. Death is so creative it comes in so many different packages. But when it comes would you be reminded of the fact that the intention is to get you to God if you are a believer? And as a result of getting you to God it is the means by which God has chosen to glorify Himself, and once again to prove His promises and His mighty work that He has done in our lives? It is indeed the way to heaven—the way to heaven. Our death is intended to glorify God.
It’s like sitting in a concert. You are enjoying the performance, and there is a tap on the shoulder and somebody says, “You’re wanted in the lobby.” And you say to yourself, “Well, I want to stay until the end of the concert.” But the tap on your shoulder is very pronounced, and soon you discover that you are in the lobby. You are taken out of the concert but you are taken home to heaven to be there forever.
I want to end today’s message by stressing the fact that if you want to get to heaven, you must know the Father just as Christ knew the Father. Jesus was able to die and say, “Father, into Thy hands I commit My Spirit.” And in the very same way we should be able to say the same words as we die, going directly from this life without a break in consciousness to the life to come with the assurance that we will be with God forever and ever. But you need to trust Christ.
We have a friend in our neighborhood who has not always been very open to the Gospel, a woman whose husband passed away a couple of years ago. This past week we discovered that she has two tumors (three actually) and two spots on her lung, and some problems with cancer that also may be in her kidney. When we learned it last week I said to Rebecca and to my daughter, Lynn, “You know you really ought to go over there and help this lady to understand how she can prepare to meet God.” That was really nice. “I’m the pastor of Moody Church but you know, “Rebecca and Lynn, you know the Gospel as well as I do, so why don’t you do it?”
Yesterday, for reasons I will not go into, I felt greatly convicted. I thought, “Well, you know, I am the pastor.” (chuckles) I visited her and I said to her, “If you were to die…” after some preliminaries you understand. That was not the first thing that I said. But after we had talked and we agreed about the fact that all of us were going to die sometime, whether it’s from cancer or anything else, I said, “If you were to die and God were to say to you, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’ what would you say?” And she said, “Well, I guess I’d just have to say that I’ve always assumed that that’s where I’m going.”
So I questioned a little further and discovered that she had really no basis upon which she could believe that God would accept her. And after explaining the Good News, how that we get into heaven on the basis of Christ’s merit, I invited her to pray to accept Christ as Savior. And she did that. I trust that the Holy Spirit of God will confirm that decision to her heart, and that the Spirit of God will bring the assurance that indeed she exercised the faith unto salvation. There is such a thing, you know, as praying a prayer and not understanding what you are praying and not making that transfer of trust. And that’s why I’m always afraid when people pray, not in a bad sense, but I worry a little bit, and say I trust that the Holy Spirit of God did the work, because Jesus said on one occasion, “Every plant that My Heavenly Father has not planted shall be rooted up.”
But my dear friend, today, I want you to know something. When we get to heaven it shall be basically and totally and completely on the basis of Christ’s merit. And that’s why those who believe in Christ can say even as He did, “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit.”
Remember Shakespeare? “To be or not to be, that is the question”? Hamlet is questioning whether or not he should commit suicide, but as I mentioned earlier, “In that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil?” You’re not sure whether death is going to be better than life. Contrast that with the Apostle Paul. Paul says, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” and you’ll recall he says, “To live in the flesh is more needful.” He said, “I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.” He says, “If it were up to me I would die, but I’m here as long as God wants me to be, even though I’m itching for glory because I will be with Christ.”
What a difference! Hamlet said, “Live or die, I lose.” Paul says, “Life or die, I win, because for me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” And it is Jesus Christ who makes all the difference. He makes all the difference.
If you will, let us pray.
Our Father, we do ask in the name of Christ that You shall help us to understand that when You take us on the other side of the parted curtain, You will be there. We pray today, Father, for those who grieve, grieving for those who have already gone on. We pray, Lord, that they shall be healed from their grief, as they contemplate the glories and the wonders of heaven.
We pray today, Father, for those who have never trusted Christ as Savior who think that they will go to heaven because that’s where they’ve always assumed they’re going to go. We pray that You will help them to understand that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Also that unless we are born again of the Spirit we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Now, Father, do Your work we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.