Since the death of my paternal grandmother on 26 June 2018, my family has had to mourn the loss of three family members. Preaching at two of the three funerals, I have been forced to reflect on death personally more than I ever have before. In hindsight, one of the reasons that I think I avoided considering the personal implications of death, is that I still have dear family members and friends who do not have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. And that is scary, for if they continue not trusting Jesus, it means that heaven with Jesus – which I am looking forward to – won’t include those people who do not truly know him.
Of course, whether my family and friends trust Jesus is out of my control, as I can’t change hearts as the Holy Spirit can. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to trust God in this. I am impatient that my loved ones do not know Jesus. I am impatient that they can’t see the importance of a relationship with Jesus and they seem to respond with apathy to the message of the gospel. I am impatient and finding it hard to trust God in this, because the Scriptures tell me that the time is short.
Recently as I grappled with these thoughts, I thought I’d turn to the Bible, read it and with the help of the Spirit, look to inwardly digest it and find God’s comfort. I turned to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, only to discover that the antidote to my fears is… the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
You see, in Philippians 1, the apostle Paul’s situation looks hopeless. Yet his thinking is dominated by Christ, and this means that despite his difficult circumstance of being imprisoned, the climax of his writing is verse 21 and the win-win scenario that the gospel presents for Christians: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” If he is to stay alive, win! He gets to serve the Lord Jesus. If he dies, win! He gets to be in heaven with Jesus where there is no pain, suffering, sadness or tears.
The apostle Paul here is sharing something profound. This is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. It is an understanding of the bigger picture of life’s purpose. As he goes on to explain, this reality of the win-win nature of the Christian life makes it hard for Paul to know which would be better: living or dying? Both are with Christ. And whether we feel it or not, this is also the reality for us. We do not have anything to fear. Our unity with and in Christ means that we look forward to liberation from sin, and transformation to be like Jesus. This means anticipatory rejoicing now, that
will be realised fully soon. And this means we can focus on the preaching of the saving message of the gospel – the Lord’s work.
From the account in Acts 28, we see that Paul’s plans were seemingly frustrated, and yet for two years under house arrest, he preached the gospel to all who would listen. This preaching of Christ brought him joy, which is what he describes in Philippians 1. It didn’t matter to Paul who preached the gospel, or even their motives in preaching. It only mattered that Christ was preached. And just as Paul understood this and acted accordingly, he calls all of us to imitate him (3:17).
Of course, along with preaching the gospel we are to pray, and be reminded of the goodness of God. You can see in Philippians 4, among his list of instructions, Paul asks us to pray. We are reminded of God’s goodness as Paul tells us to not be anxious, echoing the words of Jesus to seek first the Kingdom of God (Matt 6:33). We are to make our requests known to God. We are to give thanks to him for all he has done and leave all our worries at the feet of our Lord.
And again, Paul isn’t just rattling off instructions. No, in the context of Philippians we can see that Paul encourages us to pray because of the gospel. We are united to Christ and can stand firm in the Lord (4:1). We know that the Lord is near (4:5), which is at least referring to his imminent second coming (3:22ff). We know we have the peace of God (4:7), which refers to the Hebraic idea of shalom – the salvation of God. It is because of this saving gospel message that Paul encourages us to stand firm, whatever our situation. The Lord is near. The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Praise be to God for his Word. While my fear of death because of my unbelieving family and friends is a reality, the actions of speaking the gospel, praying, and not worrying are all driven by the reality of the gospel. This ‘big picture’ of life as a Christian means I can continue to stand firm, knowing that Jesus has saved me, that he will return and that he is in control over the future of everyone and everything, including my family and friends.