Set Your Minds on Heaven part 5: Death and the Intermediate State

Colossians 3:1–2 (ESV)

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 


A.  A consideration of death and the question of how Christians should view their own death and the death of others. We also must ask what happens to us between the time that we die and the time that Christ returns to give us new resurrection bodies.

   1. Death Is Not a Punishment for Christians. Paul tells us clearly that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). All the penalty for our sins has been paid. Therefore, even though we know that Christians die, we should not view the death of Christians as a punishment from God or in any way a result of a penalty due to us for our sins. It is true that the penalty for sin is death, but that penalty no longer applies to us—not in terms of physical death, and not in terms of spiritual death or separation from God. All of that has been paid for by Christ. Therefore there must be another reason than punishment for our sins if we are to understand why Christians die.

Heidelberg Catechism

42.Q.Since Christ has died for us,why do we still have to die?
A.Our death is not a payment for our sins,but it puts an end to sinand is an entrance into eternal life. 1
1.Jn 5:24; Phil 1:21-23; 1 Thess 5:9, 10.

Why, then, do believers die?

There are many answers to this question. First, while the penalty for the sin of Christians has been paid, the Lord has not yet removed the presence and effects of sin from creation. Creation is groaning, waiting for the adoption of God’s children, which will be plain to all when our bodies are raised from the grave (Rom. 8:18–23). The full benefits of Christ’s work will not be consummated until He returns to bring the new heaven and earth (Rev. 21). We will suffer the results of sin until then, but we should be glad God did not wrap up His plan two thousand years ago. If He had done so, you and I would never have existed or seen His glorious grace.

Our deaths, as the Heidelberg Catechism states, do not pay the debt for our sins. Instead, they mark the point at which we enter directly into the presence of Christ (Phil. 1:21–23). The death of Christians is holy and precious to God. When we die, He receives us into heaven, where we rest before Him until the final resurrection.

   2. Death Is the Final Outcome of Living in a Fallen World. In his great wisdom, God decreed that he would not apply to us the benefits of Christ’s redemptive work all at once. Rather, he has determined to apply the benefits of salvation to us gradually over time. Similarly, he has not removed all evil from the world immediately, but waits until the final judgment and the establishment of the new heaven and new earth. In short, we still live in a fallen world and our experience of salvation is still incomplete.

The last aspect of the fallen world to be removed will be death. Paul says:

Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Cor. 15:26)

When Christ returns,

then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“O death, where is your victory?

O death, where is your sting?”  (1 Cor. 15:54–55)

But until that time death remains a reality even in the lives of Christians. Although death does not come to us as a penalty for our individual sins (for that has been paid by Christ), it does come to us as a result of living in a fallen world, where the effects of sin have not all been removed.

   3. God Uses the Experience of Death to Complete Our Sanctification. Throughout our Christian lives we know that we never have to pay any penalty for sin, for that has all been taken by Christ.

Romans 8:1–2 (ESV) 

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 

Therefore, when we do experience pain and suffering in this life, we should never think it is because God is punishing us (for our harm) or getting even or back at us. Sometimes suffering is simply a result of living in a sinful, fallen world, and sometimes it is because God is disciplining us (for our good), but in all cases we are assured by Romans 8:28 that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (nasb).

Hebrews 12:6 (ESV) 

   For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, 

and chastises every son whom he receives.” 

Hebrews 12:10–11 (ESV) 

10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. 

Not all discipline is in order to correct us from sins that we have committed; it can also be caused by God to strengthen us in order that we may gain greater ability to trust God and resist sin in the challenging path of obedience. We see this clearly in the life of Jesus, who, though he was without sin, yet “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8)

We should view the aging and weakness and sometimes sickness leading up to death as another kind of discipline that God has us to go through in order that through this process our sanctification might be furthered and ultimately completed when we go to be in the Lord’s presence. The challenge that Jesus gives to the church in Smyrna could really be given to every believer: “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).

B. Our Own Death.

The New Testament encourages us to view our own death not with fear but with joy at the prospect of going to be with Christ. Paul says, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). When he is in prison, not knowing whether he will be executed or released, he can say:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life 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. (Phil. 1:21–23)

We also read John’s words in Revelation, “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’ ” (Rev. 14:13).

Believers should have no fear of death, therefore, for Scripture reassures us that not even “death” will “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38–39; cf. Ps. 23:4). In fact, Jesus died in order that he might “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Heb. 2:15). This verse reminds us that a clear testimony to our lack of fear of death will provide a strong witness for Christians in an age that tries to avoid talking about death and has no answer for it.

I pray you are not fearful of death.  We may know someone who is very fearful about death.  What does that say?  Perhaps you are overly fearful of death what things can you do to help overcome that?

Have you thought very much about the possibility of your own death? Has there been an element of fear connected with those thoughts? What, if anything, do you fear about death? Do you think that these fears have come from the influence of the world around you or from Scripture? How would the teachings of Scripture encourage you to deal with these fears?

C.  The Death of Christian Friends and Relatives. While we can look forward to our own death with a joyful expectation of being in Christ’s presence, our attitude will be somewhat different when we experience the death of Christian friends and relatives. In these cases we will experience genuine sorrow—but mixed with joy that they have gone to be with the Lord.

It is not wrong to express real sorrow at the loss of fellowship with loved ones who have died, and sorrow also for the suffering and hardship that they may have gone through prior to death. Sometimes Christians think it shows lack of faith if they mourn deeply for a brother or sister Christian who has died. But Scripture does not support that view, because when Stephen was stoned, we read that “Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him” (Acts 8:2). If there ever was certainty that someone went to be with the Lord, it occurred in the case of Stephen. As he died, he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). Then when he was dying, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59–60). And this occurred in Jerusalem, with all the apostles still present, those apostles who had seen Jesus himself after he had been raised from the dead. There was no lack of faith on anyone’s part that Stephen was in heaven experiencing great joy in the presence of the Lord. Yet in spite of this, “Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him” (Acts 8:2). Their sorrow showed the genuine grief that they felt at the loss of fellowship with someone whom they loved, and it was not wrong to express this sorrow—it was right. Even Jesus, at the tomb of Lazarus, “wept” (John 11:35), experiencing sorrow at the fact that Lazarus had died, that his sisters and others were experiencing such grief, and also, no doubt, at the fact that there was death in the world at all, for ultimately it is unnatural and ought not to be in a world created by God.

Therefore, though we have genuine sorrow when Christian friends and relatives die, we also can say with Scripture, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?… Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55–57). Though we mourn, our mourning should be mixed with worship of God and thanksgiving for the life of the loved one who has died. Worship is especially important at this time, as we see in the examples of David and of Job. When David’s child died, he stopped praying for the child’s health, and worshiped God: “Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he went into the house of the Lord, and worshiped” (2 Sam. 12:20).

D. What Happens When People Die?

   1. The Souls of Believers Go Immediately Into God’s Presence. Death is a temporary cessation of bodily life and a separation of the soul from the body. Once a believer has died, though his or her physical body remains on the earth and is buried, at the moment of death the soul (or spirit) of that believer goes immediately into the presence of God with rejoicing. When Paul thinks about death he says, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). To be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord. He also says that his desire is “to depart and be with Christ for that is far better” (Phil. 1:23). And Jesus said to the thief who was dying on the cross next to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). The author of Hebrews says that when Christians come together to worship they come not only into the presence of God in heaven, but also into the presence of “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb. 12:23).

      a. The Bible Does Not Teach the Doctrine of Purgatory: The fact that the souls of believers go immediately into God’s presence means that there is no such thing as purgatory. In Roman Catholic teaching, purgatory is the place where the souls of believers go to be further purified from sin until they are ready to be admitted into heaven. According to this view, the sufferings of purgatory are given to God in substitute for the punishment for sins that believers should have received in time, but did not.

      b. The Bible Does Not Teach the Doctrine of “Soul Sleep”: The fact that souls of believers go immediately into God’s presence also means that the doctrine of soul sleep is incorrect. This doctrine teaches that when believers die they go into a state of unconscious existence, and the next thing that they are conscious of will be when Christ returns and raises them to eternal life.

Philippians 1:21–23 (ESV) 

21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 

Finally, we can find further comfort in knowing “that precious in the sight of the LORD, is the death of His saints.” (Psalm 116:15) There are no accidents with God, His timing is perfect, and He works all things together for good, for the one taken and those left (Rom. 8:28-29). When a believer is called home, it’s because God’s purposes for that believer are over. It’s because in God’s love and wisdom, He wants that believer with Him in glory.

The apostle also wrote: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(Romans 8:35ff)

If death itself is viewed as part of the process of sanctification, then how should we view the process of growing older and weaker in this world? Is that the way the world views aging? What about you?

Resources-
**Most of this lesson came from Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem Ch. 41
The Glory of Heaven by MacArthur

The Biblical Doctrine of Heaven by Wilbur Smith

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