“The Four Last Things:  Death”                                         September 4, 2011

Luke 23:32-46      (Ecclesiastes 12:1-7)

 

SCRIPTURE INTRO:  Earlier this year I had a conversation with a young

   member of our church who had read a new book called Love Wins.

Was written by popular minister who calls himself an evangelical Christian.

   The thesis of the book is that there is no such thing as judgment and hell

   as the church has taught it for the past 2,000 years. 

The message of the Bible is that love wins.  What that means is that Jesus

   will save everybody, or almost everybody.  But in any case, there will be

   no judgment or hell because those are both failures of love. 

And, of course, love doesn’t fail, love wins. 

 

We expect the world to reject the doctrine of judgment and hell. 

   And we expect it of denominations that have long ago embraced theological

   liberalism and rejected the Bible’s authority.

   What’s troubling is that this is someone in the evangelical church.

But, let’s be honest, even in a Bible-believing church and denomination like ours,

   that affirms the historic teachings of the church, we don’t talk much about hell

   and judgment either, because it’s hard and goes against the grain. 

It feels ungracious and negative.  It’s so much easier to talk about positive things

 

So we’re going spend some time studying God’s word on these important subjects.

I’m calling this sermon series

   The Four Last Things—Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven.

That phrase—The Four Last Things—is not one that Protestants normally use.

   It comes from the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages.

The church at that time had a number of lists that were used as teaching tools.

   For example, The Seven Deadly Sins.  We’ve all heard about that list.

   The Seven Virtues.  The Four Marks of the Church.

Those lists were ways of teaching Christians categories of theology.

   Giving them a way to summarize the teaching of the Bible.

 

The Four Last Things—Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven—are a summary

   of what is more broadly called eschatology—the doctrine of last things.

What is going to happen at the end of my life as an individual?

What is going to happen at the end of the world?  Of human history?

   Those are not hypothetical questions.  Very practical.

   The way you answer them will determine your eternal destiny.

INTRO:  You know the saying that the only certain things are death and taxes. 

   Well, the Bible has important things to say about both.

But of the two, it says a great deal more about death.

 

Death is a subject that most that people don’t talk about.

   They will talk about in general.  Talk about the death of other people.

But to talk about your own death, the certainty of your death,

   the shadow it casts across all your days from the moment of birth,

   the implications of your death for the way you live your life—that’s off limits.

   Most people refuse to talk about anything but this present life.

But whether you talk about your death or not, it is coming.

   We are all hastening to death. 

   Even as you sit through this sermon, the sands of time are running out. 

 

The Bible is not shy about death.

It’s first mentioned in Genesis 2, before any person had ever died. 

God said to Adam:

   “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,

   for when you eat of it you will surely die.”

 

That verse tells us the most important, fundamental truth about death.

   You cannot understand the Bible or Jesus or salvation

   if you don’t understand and believe this.  Death is judgment.

It is inseparably connected to God’s judgment of sin.

 

That means death is not primarily a biological event.

   Of course, your body will die. 

   Dust you are and to dust you will return. 

   Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. 

But even atheists affirm that.  They affirm that our bodies will die.

 

And death is not primarily a spiritual event either.

   It’s not just a separation of the soul or spirit from the body.

   Many religions affirm that.

Hinduism affirms that death is a separation of spirit from body.

 

The Bible reveals that death is primarily a judicial event. 

Adam did the very thing God warned him not to do—

   He ate the forbidden fruit and death entered the human race. 

And one way of looking at the Bible, from beginning to end,

   is a story of the judgment of sin by death. 

And God providing salvation by sending his only begotten Son to do what?

   To die.  Why?  To pay the judicial penalty for our sins. 

 

Heaven is described in many wonderful ways.

   In Revelation it’s described as the place where there is no death.

   Why is there no death in heaven? 

Because there is no sin in heaven.  And all the people in heaven are glorified.

   And even though every person there was once a sinner and under death,

   that judgment was paid by the death of Jesus Christ. 

We’re going to study heaven in a few weeks.  I can’t wait.

 

Hell is described in many terrible ways.

   In Revelation it’s described as the Second Death.  Why?

   Because hell is the culmination of judgment for sin. 

The first death, death of body, is just a foreshadowing of the final judgment.

 

Is death a serious matter for you?  It should be. 

As Christians we alone have reason to hope in death. 

   Even greet it with confidence.

   Even to praise God in the face of death. 

I’ll never forget the funeral of a godly Lutheran minister and his wife I attended.

   Killed together in a wreck.  Platform full of Lutheran ministers in white robes.

   Sang together, a cappella, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. 

Not leading the congregation, but singing to us with strong Lutheran voices,

   an expression of their faith and hope in death.  

I’ve been at funerals of believers where there has been genuine laugher.

   That’s wonderful. 

 

But that confidence in the face of death doesn’t mean we take it lightly,

   or push consideration of it aside.  No, we must be very familiar with death.

   And prepare for it our whole life.

Hebrews says:  “It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgment.”

   You have an appointment with death.  Written in God’s book.

   The day and hour and minute fixed.  Are you getting ready for your appointment?

Let’s ponder death in the light of Scripture.  Just two points.

   1.   What to expect

   2.  How to prepare

MP#1  What to expect

The Bible describes death as a series of separations.

First, it’s a separation of your spirit from your body. 

   Human beings are unique creations. 

We are the only beings that are a perfect unity of the physical and the spiritual. 

   We have a physical aspect—bodies.  And a spiritual aspect—our soul or spirit.

Our spirits animate our bodies.  Our bodies carry out the wishes of our spirits.

   This is how God created Adam and Eve in the Garden.

   This is how believers will live in eternity after the resurrection.

As embodied spiritual beings.  We weren’t made to live without a body.

 

Death tears body and soul apart.  It’s unnatural. 

Ecclesiastes describes death poetically the silver cord being severed.

   As if a silver cord binds your body and spirit together.  It’s severed at death.

The golden bowl is broken.  As if body a golden bowl, holding a precious liquid.

   When the bowl is broken, your soul flows out.

 

Jesus Christ experienced this on the cross.

His last words were:  Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

   Knew his body would be committed to the grave for three days.

   His spirit went into God’s presence.

 

A significant aspect of death is the separation not just from your body,

   but from all the things you have worked for, accumulated, arranged, prepared

   for the care of your body.  All of it, every bit, big and small will be taken away.

When I had just gotten to my first church after seminary, hadn’t been there a week,

   a man in the church passed away.  His widow brought all his clothes to church.

She said, I thought, being just out of seminary, you might need some dress clothes.

   I found a very nice pair of shoes.  Barely worn.  I was very happy with them.

But Allison started calling them my dead man shoes. 

   Couldn’t help thinking.  He bought for his own feet.  Expected to wear them.

   But I’m wearing them.  Death did that.  Who’s going to get my stuff?

 

Psalm 39 says: 

   Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro:

   He bustles about, but only in vain;

   he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it.

Everything that you have bustled around to get and arrange and have for your body

   will be separated from you at death.  Your house, your money, your plans.

Paul said:  “For we brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out.”

   Job said:  “Naked I came into this world, and naked I will depart.”

At death, you will leave everything behind,

   and your soul will enter another realm—the spiritual world.

 

The Bible doesn’t give us specific details.  It paints with a broad brush.

   Many of the things it tells us are hints and rumors.

   But clearly, the spiritual world that you enter at death is a very active place.

You will be very conscious and very aware. 

   There will be other spiritual beings—

   both the spirits of departed people, and the angelic beings.

And most significantly, you will see Christ in all his glory, seated as judge.

   How will our spirits see without eyeballs?

   How will we speak without tongues or mouths?

   How much will we be aware of the physical world have left behind? 

We aren’t told those details.  But the broad outlines are clear.

 

Here’s where things get interesting. 

   Because at this point you will experience the second great separation of death.

The souls of all people will be separated at death into two classes

   the righteous and the wicked, the blessed and the cursed.

Depending on where you stand in that separation,

   you will receive either the welcome of God into a place of peace,

   or you will fall into the hands of justice, and be consigned to a prison.

 

What happens to the souls of the righteous? 

When the Bible says:  The righteous, it doesn’t mean the good people.

   It means sinners who are covered by the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

The merit of Christ’s perfect obedience and the forgiveness of his death

   is freely applied to every person who believes in Jesus Christ and repents.

 

If that is true of you, then you will get the very same reception at your death

   that Jesus received at his death.  “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Christ’s death was a substitutionary death.

   Every part of his suffering and death was done in union with his elect people.

   So all the benefits of the crucifixion are yours if you are trusting Christ.

And this is one of the great benefits.

   At your death, your spirit will be received by the Father, just as Jesus’ was.

   When Jesus committed his spirit to the Father, he committed your spirit as well.

The thief who as crucified next to him said:

   “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

He thought, maybe some day at the end of the world I might be blessed.

   Jesus said:  “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

   This is affirmed over and over in Scripture.

An immediate welcome by Christ into heaven, where the souls of the righteous

   will rest and await the last day and the resurrection. 

 

We’re going to study heaven in more detail later, but here is one thing we have

   to note here.  Heaven is also a separation.  It’s a separation from sin—

   and all the sorrow and ugliness that goes with sin.  .

That’s why believers still have to die.  The death of our bodies is the way God

   ends our sinning and separates us from this fallen world.

But our bodies are still united to Christ, and they rest until the resurrection. 

 

What happens to those people who are not covered by the righteousness of Christ?

First of all, death is always a horrible shock to the wicked.  Not what they expect.

   A minister from an earlier time described it this way:

“O dismal, O deplorable case.  A poor soul turned out of house and home, and knows not

   where to go.  It departs, and immediately falls into the hands of justice.”

There will be no fatherly welcome.  There will be justice. 

   The soul that is not in Christ will face God as the judge.

Instead of heaven, paradise, rest, separation from sin and sorrow—it will be hell.

   A gloomy prison where souls will await the day of judgment.

 

Death for the wicked is separation from all hope. 

All of their hopes for happiness in this world are ended. 

   All their plans and dreams for their future.

   I’m going to do this, or that.  Have this money saved up.  Retire to Florida.

Remember the farmer in Jesus’ parable.  He goes to bed thinking: 

   I know what I’ll do, I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones.

   Lord says:  You fool.  This very night your soul is required of you.

All their false theological hopes that death will work out.  No accounting.

 

And worst of all, the stunning realization that they have made their bed,

   and now they must sleep in it for all eternity.  Another wise man from past said:

   Tremble to think what fair hopes of happiness death sweeps away like cobwebs.”

Do you tremble when you think of the great separations of death?

   If you don’t, you’re a fool.  Brings to second point . . .

MP#2  How to prepare

   Ecclesiastes says:  It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting,

   for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.

Take it to heart.  Your appointment is rapidly approaching.

 

When we consider this subject of preparing for death, there are two issues.

The first issue, the main issue is your standing with God.

   Because as your soul is when you die, that will be your eternal condition.

   Death will open the door to either heaven or hell. 

Are you right with God?  Are you at peace with him through faith in Jesus Christ?

   Have you been born again?  Is their real evidence of saving faith in your life?

   What are your hopes for heaven?  Are they true or false, strong or weak?

 

One of my neighbors, was a talented, likeable young man. 

He was on and off drugs.  He was in and out of trouble with the law.

   I had shared the Gospel with him and always got the same response.

   I’ll tell you what it was in a moment.  A very common response in Cullman.

There was a member of our church who I found out went to high school with him

   and ran with the same crowd back then. 

 

He and I had lunch with my neighbor.  He thought that this old friend and I were

   going to try to get him to stop taking drugs.  But this Christ Covenant member

   told him getting off drugs not the issue.  You can get off drugs and still go to hell. 

The heart of the matter is believing in Jesus Christ, and receiving a new heart, and

   new mind, being saved from your own sin and rebellion, and a changed life.

 

Pleaded with this old high school friend:  Turn to the Lord before it’s too late.

   His response was the same response he had given me every time before.

I’ll probably quit drugs one day.  Don’t worry about me, I know I’m saved. 

   Because I prayed prayer of salvation at church camp when 12.

That was his hope.  Not Jesus Christ’s death for him. 

   Not the evidence of grace in his life.  Fighting the good fight.  Bearing fruit.

   But, I did something once.  I prayed a prayer.  Maybe I cried.

A few years after our lunch, this young man, in his early 30s died of drug overdose.

   God alone knows the condition of his soul.  But he died with false hopes.

 

What are your hopes?  A conversion experience?  A prayer you prayed once?

   I ask you these questions, not that you would doubt your salvation,

   but that you would be sure of what you hope for.

If your hope is not in Jesus Christ.  If you don’t know that he has saved you.

   If you don’t know you are forgiven, don’t leave this hour of worship

   without calling out to him for mercy.

And don’t quit until he answers you.  Don’t die without true hope.

   I would love to talk to you personally if you have questions about salvation.

   You could ask any member of this church to pray with you, talk to you, will. 

 

The second issue is more specific:

   How do you, as a Christian, prepare for your actual death?

If you knew for certain you were going to die tomorrow,

   what would you do today and tonight?  Seriously, what would you do?

How would you spend your time if you knew that tomorrow at noon, will die?

   Would you say to family tonight:  Hey, let’s watch a movie.

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to honestly say:  I’ll spend this day as I spend

   every day, because I’ve been preparing for my death for years.

 

Christians in other times and places spend a lot of time on this question.

   They didn’t want to wing it when death came.  Wanted to be ready.

As American Christians we don’t ask this question anymore.

I’m sure that if you looked at a list of Christian bestsellers there would be books

   on marriage, raising children, finances, prayer, grief, finding God’s will—

   but probably none on preparing for your death.  Dying well.

 

I was so clueless that I had to look back 300 years to a book written by a man

   named Thomas Boston, a Scottish Presbyterian minister.

The book was titled:  Human Nature In Its Fourfold State.

   It was the most popular Christian book in Scotland 300 years ago.

In one section of the book, he says that there is a readiness, a disposition of mind

   and spirit that every Christian should cultivate in preparation for his own death.

Boston gives five, very practical ways for you to prepare.

 

1.  “Let it be your constant care to keep a clean conscience.”

Repent every day.  Keep short accounts with God. 

   When an honest man leaves town, he pays his bills.

   Or he makes arrangements for paying them. 

Then, when he leaves, does so without shame.  Doesn’t slink out of town.

   If you, as a Christian, have unconfessed sins on your conscience,

   your death will be difficult.  Understand me, not saying won’t get to heaven.

But won’t die well.  See, we don’t think in these terms any more.

2.  “Be always watchful, waiting for your change.”

Here’s what he means, be often thinking about your death. 

   When you are doing your work, this may be my last day at work.

   When you are worshipping on Sunday, this may be last day of worship.

When you lie down at night, consider that you may die in sleep.

   When you wake up, consider that this new day may be your last.

This is not morbid, it’s realistic and prepares you to die well.

 

Richard John Neuhaus, the great Catholic thinker, died in 2009,

   Practiced the same bedtime ritual for years:  He would cross himself.

   Then he would repeat in Latin these words of Jesus:  “Father, into your hands . . .”

And then he would pray: 

   “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep,

   If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

If you take yourself often to your grave, you will die well. 

 

3.  “Employ yourself much in weaning your heart from the world.”

Once again, image of journey to another country.  You take leave of your friends. 

   Moderate your affections toward lawful comforts of life. 

   Easier said than done.  Even doing it takes some thought. 

Don’t buy everything you want, even if you can afford it.

   Intentionally live below your means.  Say no to yourself often, even if lawful.

   A heart that does this is more ready for death and heaven.

 

4.  “Be diligent in gathering and laying up evidences of your title to heaven.”

The Apostle Peter, a man who walked and talked with Jesus said: 

   “Be diligent to make your calling and election sure.”

Then he says, the way you do that is to make every effort to add to your faith.

   goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, kindness, love.

Not that those qualities save you, but evidence calling and election sure. 

 

The Apostle Paul had one of the most dramatic conversion experiences

   in history—struck down by a light from heaven and the voice of Christ.

Paul did not put his hope of heaven in his experience, genuine though it was.

   His hope was in the work of God in his heart, evidence of a changed life.

He said:  “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after

   I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

 

 

5.  “Despatch the work of your day and generation with speed and diligence.”

God has given you work to do, he’s given you various callings in your life.

He’s called you to be a husband or wife to your spouse,

   and a parent to your children, and to a particular calling in the workplace.

He’s called you to a particular church body, and given you gifts to serve body.

   This is your day, this is your generation.  You don’t get another life.

   It’s this place, these people, this work—and you don’t know how much time.

 

Thomas Boston uses another travel illustration. 

If a passenger on a ship suddenly remembers unfinished business after it has sailed,

   then he is uneasy—“even so, reflection in a dying hour upon neglected seasons,

   and lost opportunities, cannot fail to disquiet a Christian.  Wherefore, whatever is incumbent upon you to do for God’s honor, and the good of others, either as the duty of your station, or by special opportunity put into your hand, perform it seasonably, if you would die comfortably.”

 

What kind of Christians are we going to be?

Follow the shallowness of our age. 

   Or are we going to look with keenness into the last things—

   Death, I know about that.  I’m ready to die.  I’m ready to face the last enemy.

Know that my Lord Jesus has gone that way, and he stands ready to receive me.