Philippians 1:20&21 “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
The Christian life is all about courage. We often refer to the Lord Jesus as our ‘brave young Saviour’ who has left us an example that we should walk in his steps. The cowardly cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven: “Their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death” (Rev. 21:8). Courage is absolutely necessary to be a true Christian. To overcome temptation, to nail up one’s colours, to say no to the gang, to bear with the weak, to resist the devil, to turn one’s back on the mad values of the world – all that takes courage. To forgive yet again, to go the second mile, to keep living by faith, to trust the promises of the Bible – that takes courage. To be the only member of your family, or street, or school, or factory, or office to whom the Lord Jesus matters – that takes courage. To give a reason for your hope in Christ to the scorner and the cynic – that takes courage. You cannot be a cowardly Christian. Either the cowardice is going to kill the Christianity or the Christianity is going to kill the cowardice. To be different from your peers, or from what you once were, takes courage.
I have noticed a work of God that took place in various places in the United Kingdom after the first world war. To those soldiers who returned home the only message that could touch them were the historic themes of man’s ruin by sin, redemption offered to sinners through Jesus Christ, and divine regeneration effecting the great change by the Holy Spirit. Wherever that gospel was faithfully preached then many men and women were converted. In Ulster under W.P.Nicholson, in Neath under Seth Joshua, in Lowestoft on the North Sea, and in Sandfields under Dr Lloyd-Jones. Also at the Bethesda Mission in Sunderland a remarkable work of God were observed during the 1920s. In all such places, and many more than those, many working men were changed. For example, in Sunderland a boy had been nicknamed ‘Pincher” because he was a consummate thief, and the nickname stuck even after the great change took place many years later. Pincher had sold newspapers on the street corners, but then he quickly moved through a series of different jobs stealing whatever he could in all of them. This ‘Artful Dodger’ spent this money in brothels and bars. He was a wretched husband and a poor friend. But one night in October 1920 Pincher was taken to the Prospect Row Mission Hall where Bill Griffiths a Welsh evangelist was preaching. In the congregation was a man called Con who had been a Christian for 18 months, who had come from the same sort of background as Pincher. He attached himself to Pincher that night and spoke often and earnestly to him and Pincher too was saved. His evil appetites left him, his thieving ways were put away, his vile behaviour to his wife was abandoned, and all such wicked conduct was never to return. The first Saturday after he professed faith he was confronted with three waves of temptation to enter his pub and drink. That is when God-given courage is essential, and three times he found the strength to resist the step back to the old life: Pincher’s life was changed. He never missed a Bible Class and he became a first class ‘button-holer’, that is, someone who could talk to his workmates about the mess they too were making of their lives and of the One who could save them. This story is told in an old book entitled “Mended Crockery” which describes the conversions of these men in the Bethesda Mission. I discovered a copy in the north of England recently. At the end of the chapter about the life and conversion of Pincher the author Ernest Bell writes, “This then, is the story of the Pincher, and every word of it is true. What shall we say of it – a fairy tale? Yes? Well then, God bless the fairies” (Ernest Bell, “Mended Crockery”, 1930, p.86). We worship the God who saved Pincher, and Saul of Tarsus, and ourselves. What is the explanation of the transformation of these men, a number of whom had seen the horrors of the First World War? You have the answer in Acts 23:11, “The Lord stood near Paul and said, Take courage.” The explanation is in a mighty living Saviour who is ever at hand to redeem and to keep his people.
However, it is especially as death comes nearer, to be gripped increasingly by the hope of heaven and the thought of being with this Saviour for evermore – that takes the courage of faith. Even for a preacher to take a funeral service and not tell lies – that is the test of whether a preacher believes Jesus Christ or not. Few ministers pass that test.
“From cowardice defend us,
From lethargy awake!
Forth on Thine errands send us
To labour for Thy sake.” (Frank Houghton 1894-1972)
In our text Paul the apostle of Jesus Christ is looking at his future, and of course the one inescapable event is death. He is not ignorant enough to turn a blind eye to something so crucial. He talks about it very openly in his final letters, with a certain eagerness. Before us all there stretches the rest of our lives, for some of us not much sand is left in the hour-glass. Our little day will soon be over, and then we shall fall into the grave, but, unlike many of you, Paul is very positive. He tells us that he has an eager expectation and hope whatever life or death would bring him. There was the famous Western drama called “High Noon”; the outlaws were coming to a small town on the very wedding day of the Marshal to kill him. All his deputies melted away, and he had to face these ruthless desperadoes alone. His fiancee looks at him in fear, and he pleads with her, “Do not forsake me.” He wants her understanding and support. But there are only two stark alternatives facing him, to be of good courage and do what a man has to do, or “die a coward, a lonely coward, or lie a coward in his grave.’ The Marshal was upholding a just cause, and so was resolutely minded. You all will leave this church today cowards or gripped by the courage of Christ. There is no third option. In our text Paul informs us that he has sufficient courage as he faces death and whatever else lies before that. What is the basis of his confidence?
1. THIS COURAGE IS GROUNDED IN THE BEST AMBITION OF ALL.
“I will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or death” (v.20). All men exalt in something. They have something in which they boast. They are supremely committed to something or other. Paul lived for Jesus Christ, but in our civilisation that is increasingly rare. In the days of the prophet Jeremiah he noticed what men were proud of (Jer. 9:23). He spotted their idols, those outstanding claimants to men’s total allegiance – the gods of Jeremiah’s day, but of Paul’s too, and ours.
The first was wisdom, not simply learning and academic success, but the whole concept of human culture, art, technology, music, science, genetics, cloning, the whole realm of the intellect, so sacred and unquestionable to many. They were exultant in wisdom, Jeremiah noticed The second was strength, military and political power; what a god that is to millions! Think of it in the hands of Hitler, and Stalin, and Mao, and the African tyrants, and the Islamic terrorist groups, how they think, “Strength and power will be exalted in our bodies.” But not mere military muscle alone, but power at our disposal at a personal level. I was reading a comment of one of the relatives of one of the many persons murdered by Dr Harold Shipman of Hyde. The 2,000-page Government Inquiry Report has published in these past days the fact that this respected General Practitioner, a school governor, an energetic supporter of the local rugby club, and adviser of the St. John Ambulance Brigade – that such a family man who still has the support of his wife – over a period of 23 years actually murdered 215 people, and maybe forty more. A granddaughter of one of the women he had killed said, “I wonder why he did it? My grandmother thought the world of him. We thought he was helping us.” Then she added, “But now I have come to see that it was a power thing.” Shipman discovered that he was able to do this. He had the power of life and death over people, and so he used that power. Men like him have littered human history; they have exalted in the power that was theirs. Thirdly, in Jeremiah’s day they were boasting in riches, in all their financial security, and virtually the whole of our nation today gripped with gambling fever seems to lie prostrate before Mammon. Gods like these are what men exalt in. They give their allegiance to them, speaking of them, enthusing about them. They did so as long ago as the prophet Jeremiah, and they do so still, but not Paul; it was not in any of those idols that he was exultant.
The Word of God asks us to pause before such great options as these which are enticing us to make our commitment to them. We are being challenged, before culture, or power, or money do become exalted in our bodies, to ask some questions. If we are going to spend our lives exulting in such things then we’re being halted for a moment, “Please think first!” Let us make a reasoned and informed evaluation of them. In other words, let us put them to the test before we make our own commitment to these tremendously influential forces.
i] Will They Last?
God has given us immortal souls. Every human birth is the beginning of endless existence. Christ asks us as we choose what we are going to exult in to bear our immortality in mind. The Lord spoke of certain men whose wealth could be destroyed by little moths and corrupted by mere rust. How wonderfully attractive were their treasures, but they failed to pass the test of durability. You are exulting in physique and fashion and motor cars and youth? But what will the march of the years, and the onset of time, and remorseless passing of the seasons, and social change do to all of them? In twenty years’ time will it matter who won the cup this year, or who sold the most CDs? And if your stocks and pensions funds prove impregnable, what about the last great change? When the three-score years and ten are gone and the last fleeting decade remains then will you be able to bring into immortality beyond the grave the trinkets in which you’ve been exultant? Was Job right when he said that he came from the womb naked and to God he returns utterly naked? Can I apply that to health, and wealth, and fitness, and beauty, and culture, and fame, and pleasure? Have they the durability that immortal men merit? Will neither principalities and powers, nor things present and things to come, nor height and depth, nor any creature ever separate me from my treasures? I am being challenged as an intelligent person to use the information I have at my disposal. Before I make my commitment let me say to myself, “You have a durable and lasting soul, and so you must exult in something equally durable and lasting.”
ii] Will They Answer Me?
You will remember how the priests of Baal cried to their god on Carmel for hours and all they heard was the echo of their own voices. Will I exult in things that are dumb? Multitudes worship their wealth. Does their pile of pennies answer when they cry to it? Do books and CDs, or bottles of aged wine, or the purest heroin, or fame, or stocks and shares respond when men cry to them? I am not asking whether such things exist nor whether they have power over people, but can they help me? Can they return my love? I am asking can they pity me? Will they care for me? Can they tell me how much I matter to them? Can they plead with me? Are they touched by my feeling of weakness? Do they sympathise with me when my heart breaks? Do they plead with me when I go astray? Do I long to spend eternity in their embrace? Am I fed by them? Do they lead me to the living fountains of waters?
Am I going to exult in inanimate abstractions? Here am I, a living soul that loves and longs and knows fear and happiness. Am I going to rest in things? In fluctuating columns of figures? In the stock markets’ indices, rising, falling, rising, falling . . . and my resultant emotional spasms? But is there not something utterly transcendent? I can stand today before the glory of the living Lord Jesus Christ who says, “Come to me!” I never heard a money box say “Come to me!” I never heard an opera say, “Come to me!” I never heard a mink coat or a bottle of champagne say, “Come to me!” But I hear God saying “Come to me!” I want a God I can speak to, into whose face I can look, a God I can know as Father, lover, friend, husband, shepherd . . . There is nothing more glorious than this, when we cry out there is a mind who answers and a heart that beats in compassion. There is a God who longs over us and says that it gives him joy when a sinner returns. Then there is another test:
iii] Will They Save My Soul?
Christ insists that we raise that issue. He asked, what will a man give in exchange for his soul? It might be possible to gain the whole world, and yet to lose one’s own soul. I might have all the gold in Fort Knox, and have the Crown Jewels in my cupboard. All the oil in the Middle East and under the North Sea might belong to me – but I have lost my soul. Then I have made a wretched choice. “That’s a bad bargain,” God says. So whenever I am faced with an option in life I have to remember that I am soul as well as body, and we need a God who will meet the demands of my soul, yes, a God who has taken on this responsibility of meetings a soul’s needs.
But I am not only a soul, I am a lost soul, and when I choose that in which I am going to exult during my brief life I must remember my soul is a lost soul. A car salesman will say to a customer, “Well, what sort of model do you have in mind? What is the price range you are thinking of, sir?” Imagine that I am on the threshold of a life of commitments, and I am thinking of all the options that are being offered to me, and they are all being presented in their best colours – wealth, health, fitness, beauty, fame, pleasure, wisdom, culture, learning? And they say to me, “Now what exactly do you have in mind?” I say, “Something to meet the needs of a soul. Something to meet the needs of a lost soul. That is what I have in mind. That is what I must have.” What is my lostness? It is my guilt, that I have lived in this world without God and against God. I have incurred his condemnation, and my most urgent need is that this should be dealt with. He is a sin-hating God, and I want things to be all right between myself and him. Can wisdom do it? No. It may show me some of the follies of my own life, but nothing more. Can strength do it? No. It may strengthen me to resist petty temptations, but it can’t deal with my guilt and shame. Can riches do it? No, not corruptible things like silver and gold, they cannot redeem my soul. I can’t find enough money to purchase from God forgiveness. I can’t find enough wisdom to know how to obviate the wrath of God. I can’t find enough beauty to atone for my sin. I can’t find enough pleasure to give my conscience peace. I can’t get enough fame to compensate for my appalling ignominy before the courts of heaven.
Neither wisdom, strength, nor riches can provide my soul with nobility and purity and elevatedness. Can money sanctify? Can it make a sinner Christlike? Can culture do it, or naked power? Half the world thinks it can, yet the great lesson from the last century is that vice plus culture, and depravity plus learning can go hand in hand. This week a prison doctor was writing of a man he was called upon to attend to who had attempted to commit suicide. When he was put in jail he had been placed in a cell with a man physically much stronger than himself who was determined to watch television 18 hours a day. The banality of the constant soaps and chat shows and cartoons and sporting events he was forced to listen to finally drove him to the noose. This man enjoyed such things as Shostakovich’s string quartets. He was a cultivated man, interested and knowledgable about literature. When the prison doctor met him he felt he was a kindred spirit, and he sympathised with his need to escape the silver screen. “What are you in prison for?” he asked in passing. “Making child porn videos,” he muttered. Depravity and culture can go hand in hand. The Bloomsbury set were all aesthetes but lacking any morals. How they lived has become how the masses live. Consider Dr. Harold Shipman. Isn’t he a cultured man and a scientist? But he was a mass murderer, and behind bars until he is dead to prevent him killing again. There is no redemption in Shostakovich’s music. Consider Greece who carried the concept of beauty to unparalleled levels that we look back to and marvel at, but its end was viciousness. Almighty God shows all this when he brought Jewish religion, and Roman law, and Greek language and culture together for the crucifixion of the Preacher of the Sermon on the Mount. And in the last century God took the most talented nation in the world, the land of Luther, and Mozart, and Beethoven, and Goethe, and Wagner and he taught mankind how wisdom, strength and riches can lead to the concentration camp and the gas chamber.
I apply those three criteria to what men exult in, and I say none of those things that men and women pursue with such abandon is durable. None of them can answer when I cry. None of them can save my soul. Not one of them. So why should I spend my brief life exulting in such things as wisdom, or strength or riches? The richest man in the world who also has the most power and wisdom can be a person chained to the most appalling moral degradation.
2. THIS COURAGE WILL ENSURE THAT CHRIST WILL BE EXALTED ALWAYS.
What will the apostle exult in? Here is his vow, that “now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (v.20). He will glory in Christ. He will boast in the Lord Jesus. Let us be exultant men and women. Let’s all be boasters. Please, let us glory in the Lord! We live in an age of dark pessimism and despair. I was reading some words of a famous contemporary physicist named Steven Weinberg. He says, “Our effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.” What an age of hopelessness this is for millions of people. So let us glory in the living God and enjoy him. Let us be proud of Jesus Christ. Let us boast in him now and always. Let us tell forth that we know God. What a claim! Forget for a moment whether we have any inner spiritual life or whether we are very religious. Let us think about this: we know that Jehovah has spoken in his Word. We know that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. We know what is man’s chief end. We know the great propositions of the Christian faith. We know the three offices of Christ. We know his two natures and that he is one living God. Then let us be sure that now as always Christ will be exalted in our bodies.
Men boast that they have been honoured by the Queen in Buckingham Palace for public service. But that is nothing compared to the fact that we know the King of Kings. Let us imagine a little lady in a wheelchair who lives in a council house. She can never leave her two rooms. She has lived through the staggering changes in the last sixty years. She hasn’t been to an opera, or an art gallery, or to Stratford on Avon to see Shakespeare. Of course that is nothing to boast in. There is no place also for inverted snobbery. But this woman left school at 15 and she often judges that she is inadequate, inferior and a failure. Why should she feel ignorant if she knows the living God and he loves her? The Bible itself is the most potent influence of wisdom and education. I knew a very cultured grandmother who was the wife of a shepherd in the Elan Valley. She had never read Hamlet. She had never seen the Mona Lisa (and I insist that she may not boast of that), yet her intellect had been ploughed by the Word of God. She knew things Yehudi Menuhin, and Bertrand Russell, and Richard Dawkins don’t know. She belonged to a people who know certain teachings of the Bible, great truths about man and God; then let us be proud of that.
Let’s go on. Let us say that we have an experiential personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We not only have memorised his teachings, but we know him for ourselves. We have a living relationship with him in our own experience. We have face to face communion with him. What do I mean? I have such knowledge of Christ that I have responded in wonder, love and praise. Since that time I sing about his greatness. I magnify him as the sinners’ friend. I speak to others and tell them of this wonderful Saviour. Whenever I can I will meet with others who also know him in order to worship him with them. We will sing the praises of Jesus Christ. I wish we were many more, and that is why we sing, “O for a thousand tongues to sing my dear Redeemer’s praise.” I wish we weren’t a hundred here. I wish a thousand voices were praising him. Have we known that longing? Have we entered into that peace and love? We will when we know that our sins have been forgiven through Jesus Christ the Lord.
Then may Christ be exalted in our bodies whether by life or death. Let us boast about him, and let us do that always. That is Paul’s determination here. There are days and times when it is surpassing easy to exult in Christ. When our prayers are answered, when our health is good, when we are surrounded by those we love, when our congregations are growing, when the gospel comes not in word only but with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven, when many men speak well of us – how easy then for Christ to be exalted in us. But what of other times? When there are long delays, and we are ignorant about the future, and Christians let us down – what then? When we are dumped in prison unjustly and the years go by and nothing seems to happen -“Have they thrown the key away?” – will Christ be exalted in our bodies at that time? “Always!” answers Paul. There is never a moment when he is not exalted. “In my own body,” says Paul. In other words, not just inwardly in his heart and soul. This is something outward and tangible. Paul’s tongue will speak warmly of his Saviour. He will exalt his name in testimony, in prayer, and in preaching. His knees will bend before the great, high and holy Lord. His hands will be zealous in serving the cause of such a Friend. Our feet will run messages for the Lord. Our eyes will see his glories everywhere and his likeness in all his people. Our ears will hear his word and in our hearts there will be a melody of praise to him. Always in our bodies we will exalt the Messiah. That is the vow we make.
A woman once came to the Bethesda Mission, Sunderland in the 1920s in deep distress. Her baby had meningitis and was dying. The doctor gave her no hope. It was her only child and she asked that some of them might come home and pray for the child. As they willingly went yet they had to tell her that healing was God’s sovereign prerogative and that they could only plead with him, but they did not know what the Lord’s answer would be. When they got to her house they saw how ill the baby was, but they prayed for him, and they spoke to the mother and explained the gospel to her. She said, “If God will give me my baby I will serve him all my life.” They prayed fervently for the child, and at midnight he was still alive, and also at 1 am, and at daybreak he was sleeping peacefully. A week or so later at the Mission she and the bairn were present, the little chap as bright and lively as though he’d never had a day’s illness in his life. He grew up strong and sturdily. Nothing now to worry about. She was in her place with the child every Sunday singing the praises of God.
But hear the sequel. The woman began to leave her first love, and the sad time came when she ceased to darken the door of that Mission or of any place of worship. Then she had a second child, and that child too had meningitis. Again doctors could do nothing more. “What now, mother? You once exalted the Lord Jesus as the great Physician, and you cried to him for help, and promised you would serve him ‘always’ if he healed your son, and he healed him. What now? Will you send for the Mission folk, and plead the forgiveness and healing of the Lord? Please do so! Please do so! Though our sin abounds grace much more abounds. He is the God of the second chance. Cry mightily to him!” But . . . “I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed.” She felt she would be too much of a hypocrite if she cast herself on the Lord again. That is what the devil insinuated, that she had gone too far from God. Unfortunately the little fellow was buried a few days afterwards in the Mere Knolls Cemetery (Ernest Bell, “Mended Crockery,” p.48). Exult in Christ always! Don’t let your guilt feelings and the loss of assurance of your salvation keep you away from him. Weep bitterly, yes, but turn to him as the prayer-answering Saviour.
Let’s always be proud of Jesus Christ. Let us not keep his name and great achievements to ourselves. We owe it to the world. The Emperor did not send for Paul to come to Rome to evangelise his finest soldiers. He had no longing for the Lord Christ. To him King Jesus was a threat, but Paul did not counsel the Christian leaders at Rome with feeble words such as these: “Wisdom bids us contextualise the gospel with care. Let us not cause the followers of the Emperor needless offence. Let us exalt Christ as a great teacher and as the Lamb of God, but let’s not exalt him as the name above every name, as Caesar’s Lord and God.” No! Paul and the church’s leaders were not given that option, nor is anyone today. We exalt him as the only begotten Son of God, and the Lord of glory, and the judge of all the earth, and the only name under heaven given amongst men whereby we must be saved. We stand before the Muslim, and the Hindu, and the Buddhist, and the Atheist, and the Darwinist, and the Marxist, and we cry to them of Jesus Christ, “Behold your God!” And if that means our lives are forfeited for exalting him in our bodies then so be it. Paul says, “Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”
George Atley was a missionary in the Congo a century ago working with the Central African Mission. One day he was attacked by a group of hostile men. He was carrying a fully loaded, 10-chamber Winchester rifle and he had the choice of defending himself and shooting down some of his attackers. But he was aware that that might negate the work of the gospel in that area. However, if George didn’t use the rifle then he would probably be killed. When his body was later found in a stream, it was evident that he had chosen the latter course. Nearby lay his rifle – with all its 10 chambers still loaded and unfired. He had had sufficient courage so that then as always Christ would be exalted in his body, whether by life or by death
3. THIS COURAGE DETERMINES THAT LIFE IS CHRIST AND DEATH IS GAIN.
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (v.21). What striking words! The Muslim would not say, “to me to live is Mohammed”, and the Buddhist would not say, “To me to live is Buddha,” nor would the Hindu say, “To me to live is Krishna.” They would look to their rules of conduct, and manuals of meditation, and visits to their temples and mosques where they go through prescribed rites”: “I do such and such,” they would say. But the Christian looks away from himself and his attainments, and away from any ceremonies that he has experienced – baptism, confirmation, communion. He looks away from his feelings, and also from the group he belongs to. He refuses to affirm that living means feeding the hungry and helping the homeless. No matter how noble the cause might be the ministry of mercy is not ‘life’ for the Christian. “For to me to live is Christ.”
Paul is speaking of one particular Lord Jesus who was seen and heard by eye-witnesses who wrote down all that is essential for the world to know about Christ in gospels, histories, letters and an apocalypse. Those 27 books of the New Testament were not written by charlatans wanting to confuse ordinary people. Their consciences were far too sensitive to the truth to permit them become wretched deceivers. They were ordinary reliable people – like those who will stand in witness boxes in many courts of law this coming week and speak plainly as to what they have observed. The New Testament writers tell us of this Christ who became their life, and through the Holy Spirit they capture his personality perfectly. Their words work as the flesh and bones and heart and soul of the Saviour. The four gospels are presentations of Christ; they are not like Christ. They are spirit and life. We meet the Son of God there. They don’t take a look at the Lord Jesus. The New Testament is the Lord Jesus in the glory of his person, the power of his teaching, and the perfection of his finished work as he is confronting today’s world. The words bring to us the God-man Christ Jesus. The Bible works for men today just what the Lord did when he walked into Jericho or Sychar or Bethsaida and worked in word, deed and life there. Of course they tell us of his unique virgin birth, perfect life, atoning death and physical resurrection, but the point I am making now is that they do so with a three-dimensional immediacy. They are so lucid and alive that no other authority is needed to explain their meaning to us, and so no authority has been given.
I was reading this week in the European Missionary Fellowship’s “Vision of Europe” the testimony of an Italian Reformed pastor named Roberto S. Torre. He was born in Sicily in 1961. In his teenage years he argued with a Catholic priest about religion and that man gave him the four gospels to read. This is what Roberto says: “As soon as I read the four gospels I was converted and had an intense experience with the Lord. I had a deep hunger for his Word. Reading the four gospels my heart was conquered by Jesus Christ, so much so that while I was reading I cried to him. I started praying in my own words, as I had never done before then, and I prayed that I might have a Bible, because I wanted to know more of his Word.” That shows the livingness and simplicity of the Scriptures. The whole testimony may be read on the Banner of Truth website.
The gospels also tell us why Christ came and accomplished so much. He was the Creator’s great gift to a guilty dying world. All mankind have sinned and come short of the glory of God, but in his inestimable mercy the Father has sent the Son to come as the Lamb of God to become the great cosmic sacrifice whose death would obtain our forgiveness and everlasting redemption. So whosoever entrusts himself to Christ finds mercy and hope and a free justification. This good news of a Saviour born for us sinners, Christ the Lord, is the theme of the message we now take to the whole world.
Let us emphasize that it is a message that comes to the world in words and sentences. It speaks to men’s minds. Although supernatural in origin it is rational. Christ is not understood by visions and dreams. You don’t read his life by tracing the Braille patterns of your goose-pimples. You meet Christ in the Bible as it is read and preached. Yes, but that same Christ must come into your heart. Life is receiving him, that is accepting him as God’s great prophet and living by his teaching, feeding on his promises, obeying his will. It means also receiving him as the blameless substitutionary offering to God for our sins.
“For what you have done His blood must atone;
The Father has punished for you His dear Son.
The Lord in the day of His anger did lay
Your sins on the Lamb, and he bore them away.” (Charles Wesley)
It also means taking him as the anointed King as your Lord to reign over your life and to protect you, working all things together for your good. You do not merely take these facts about him into your consideration. More than that is needed. Christ, the Messiah, the anointed prophet, priest and king, must himself be taken into the centre of your life. A wedding service is not a man taking facts about a woman into his thinking but he is professing that he intends to take this specific woman into his life and henceforth the two are going to become one flesh. God has also compressed everything about his grace into Christ, and when you take him there is nothing crucial left outside of him. If your need is forgiveness then it is in him; there is none outside him. If your need is new life then it is in him: there is none outside him. If it is strength to be holy that you need then it is in him; there is none outside him. The whole of me receives the whole of him, that is, the one who is God’s anointed prophet, priest and king. The Christ, the Son of the living God! He is my life. I live for him. I live with him. I live to please him. I live in fellowship with him. I live in him and he in me. All my hopes of heaven’s bliss are to see him, and all the ground of my doing that is what he has done for me. He is my life, my salvation, my acceptance with God and my great reward. I am totally satisfied with Jesus Christ.
As Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “There are certain demands I make of life; there are certain things I am looking for. I am looking for peace and joy, I am looking for happiness, and Christ completely satisfies me in every respect. I have an intellect: Christ satisfies it, says Paul; I have feelings and desires which need satisfaction: Christ is my all in all. Every demand that I make of life is more than fully satisfied in Christ. That is what Paul means by saying that living to him is Christ. The reaction to things that happen and all the demands of Paul’s nature and his personality are fully satisfied and filled. My dear friends, can you say the same thing? I am sorely tempted just to stop at this point and go on asking that question. Are you fully satisfied with Christ? This, to me, is the very essence of the Christian position. The thing that makes a Christian is Christ. Christ is always central; he is everything to me. ‘Living’ to Paul meant Christ in all that full sense” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Life of Joy”, Hodder 1989, p.94).
So, life meant Christ to Paul, Christ more and more fully known, loved and served as day follows day. That is what life is all about. That is what Christ has come to bring us. That is the abundant life the Lord Jesus promises. Derek Thomas was going through one of those little difficult weeks during his 18 year-ministry in Stranmillis Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Belfast, and he was pouring out his tale of woe to one of his members, Miss Anna Speers, whom he calls “the godliest woman he ever knew”. She smiled back at him and she said to Derek, “See no one in the picture but Jesus,” and that has been a word Derek has taken with him ever since. For to me to live is Jesus Christ.
And what is death – that awesome and yet certain event that lies before every Christian? Death must also mean Christ to us. Christ once for all and finally possessed and eternally enjoyed. To everyone whose life is Christ, death is gain! You lose death and gain eternal life. You lose this fallen world, but you gain the glories of heaven. You lose a prison and you gain a palace. You lose the life of never beholding Christ and you gain a permanent sight of him. You temporarily lose the companionship of some friends in Christ to regain the companionship of those who have died in Christ. You lose your sin to gain sinlessness. You lose your doubts to gain infallible assurance. You lose pain to gain total bliss. You lose sickness to gain eternal health. You lose every personal animosity to gain everlasting brotherhood. You lose daily confession to gain eternal reconciliation. You lose weariness, heartache and disappointment to gain the fulfillment of the love of all the saints and angels and Jesus himself. You lose your warped imaginations for eternal purity. You lose the flickering candle and walk into the dawn of an endless day.
When the Covenanter, Walter Smith, climbed the ladder to the scaffold and death he turned to say good-bye to his relations and friends. Then he said, “Farewell all created enjoyments, pleasures and delights; farewell, sinning and suffering; farewell praying and believing, and welcome heaven and singing. Welcome, joy in the Holy Ghost; welcome, Father, Son and Holy Ghost; into thy hands I commend my spirit.” That is the Christian’s hope that the day of his death is going to be his best day. “A better day than your wedding day,” said C.T.Studd. Satan will stop chasing you once you’ve passed death’s portals. Adorinam Judson saw this as clearly as any Christian has: “When Christ calls me I shall go running to him with the delight of a boy leaving school.” Then why should we be afraid of death?
“Afraid? Of what?
To feel the spirit’s glad release?
To pass from pain to perfect peace?
The strife and strain of life to cease?
Afraid? – of that?
“Afraid? Of what?
Afraid to see the Saviour’s face,
To hear His welcome, and to trace
The glory gleam from wounds of grace?
Afraid? – of that?” (E.H.Hamilton)
Robert Bruce, the great Scottish minister, on the day of his death in 1631 had had an egg for breakfast. He had enjoyed it so much that he asked his daughter Martha would she prepare him a second egg. But in a moment he said, “No. There’s no need. My master is calling me. Bring rather the Bible. Turn to the eighth chapter of Romans and put my finger on the words, ‘I am persuaded that neither death, nor life . . . shall be able to separate me from the love of God, which is in Jesus Christ my Lord.'” Martha did this. “Is my finger on it?” he asked. Being assured it was he turned to her and said, “Now, God be with you my dear daughter: I have breakfasted with you, but I shall have supper with my Lord Jesus Christ this night.” Soon Bruce was dead. Death is indeed gain for every Christian, though not for anyone else.
Death is gain, “and everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (I Jn. 3:3). The astronaut prepares for weightlessness. The Christian too must prepare for the place where the weight of daily failure will be no more. How many Christians live like that, dressed up and ready to go? “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour is the Lord is not in vain” (I Cor. 15:58).
21 July 2002 GEOFF THOMAS