Our lives are not just a journey to death. They are a journey to one of two eternal places: heaven or hell. In heaven all evil is walled out and all good is walled in. Heaven is an eternal day that knows no sunset. Hell is an eternal night that knows no sunrise. Which destination are you heading for? Are you a true Christian—a follower of Jesus Christ? Do you trust only in the doing and dying of Jesus—in His active and passive obedience—as your ground of acceptance with God? If you were arrested today for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Are you born again, justified by gracious faith alone, and on the narrow path to the Celestial City?
If so, you may have every hope that your death will be victorious; that, despite the discomfort and pain of the misery associated with dying, you may die joyfully and delightfully by looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith, resting in justification by faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. As Paul put it, “We…rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2).
Dear believer, when we die, then “there shall be no more death” (Rev. 21:4). You will ascend triumphantly, gloriously, majestically, peacefully, and joyfully into the heaven of heavens, where you will be a blessed part of one undivided body of Christ and His church (see John 17). There Christ will present you as His bride to His Father without spot or wrinkle in soul or body to be permanently instated into heaven to dwell forever with your precious Lamb: “For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes” (Rev. 7:17).
You will be in tearless glory living with Christ forever, crying out, “Worthy is the Lamb!” You will drink of the fountains of the full enjoyment of God, praising Him for all eternity in the most holy, glorious, and perfect activities: worshipping God, resting in Him, praising Him in song, serving Him forever in His temple, exercising authority with Him, and above all, gazing upon the face of Jesus while communing with Him, and enjoying loving the triune God more fully than ever. You will be communing with the holy angels and redeemed saints made perfect (cf. Luke 18:7; Rev. 6:9–11). Delightful, victorious, holy, happy, eternal day when we shall ever be with the Lord—sin-free in Immanuel’s land, ever growing in our capacity and fullness of knowing and relishing Him!
Examples of Victorious Death
God gives dying grace to His people for death’s hour. Some of His people die with little fanfare. They depart this life quietly, serenely, with barely a sigh. For others, the king of terrors is more violent, but Jesus brings them through in the end and gives them the victory. Still others receive special measures of dying grace, so that their deathbeds become their best pulpits. Such was the case with the well-known Scottish theologian, Thomas Halyburton (1674–1712), who died at the age of thirty-seven. To read in his Memoirs the nearly seventy pages of his last sayings, which were recorded by those around his deathbed, is to dwell in the vestibule of heaven. Here is only one example: “Come, sweet Lord Jesus, receive this spirit, fluttering within my breast like a bird to be out of a snare. I wait for thy salvation as the watchman watcheth for the morning. I am weary with delays. I faint for thy salvation. Why are His chariot wheels so long a coming?”1Memoirs of Thomas Halyburton, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1996), 266–67.
History is full of tens of thousands of saints who have died victoriously in Jesus with great joy, despite the affliction death brought. Biblical examples, such as those of Paul (2 Tim. 4:6–8) and Stephen (Acts 7:54–60), are well known. So are the cases of many martyrs, such as John Huss (1369–1415), Hugh Latimer (c. 1486–1555) and Nicholas Ridley (c. 1500–1555), and repentant Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556). Cranmer recanted under pressure from Roman Catholic Queen Mary (1516–1558), but he recanted his recantation, went to the stake, and as the flames crept up his body, he stretched his right hand into the midst of the flames, and cried out: “This hand hath offended”—and died horrifically but victoriously!
One of my (Joel Beeke) favorite simple accounts of a victorious death is that of a Scotsman, David Dickson (c. 1583–1662), well-known for writing the first commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith and for his commentaries on the Psalms, Matthew, and Hebrews. When his friends were gathered around his deathbed, one of them asked him when in the throes of a painful death what he was thinking. Dickson replied, “I have taken all my bad deeds and put them on a heap, and I have taken my good deeds as well, and I have put them on the same heap. And I have run away from that heap into the arms of Jesus. I die in peace.”2Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 668–72.
Still others have written helpfully about dying and death. Affliction was a life-long companion to Puritan pastor, Richard Baxter (1615–1691). He wrote a 700-page classic, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, while suffering from tuberculosis (a severe respiratory disease with long-term debilitating effects), chronic pain, and the frequent prospect of dying. In this condition, Baxter looked death in the face and experienced the sufficient grace of God to sustain him until he fell asleep in Jesus in 1691.
Baxter impresses upon his readers that suffering, sickness, and death are to be expected in this life; they are the norm at present. According to Baxter, these miseries remind Christians they are not to seek physical comfort, rest, and healing here and now so much as we are to seek to know Christ better. He says that when we are “fastened to [our] beds with pining sickness, the world is nothing, and heaven is something.” Further, he writes:
O healthful sickness! O comfortable sorrows! O gainful losses! O enriching poverty! O blessed day that ever I was afflicted! Not only the green pastures and still waters, but the rod and staff, they comfort us. Though the word and Spirit do the main work, yet suffering so unbolts the door of the heart, that his word has an easier entrance.
Baxter describes disease, dying, and facing death as providential means God uses to permit “easier entrance” of the Spirit-blessed Word into the human heart, so that it may transform us and enable us to rejoice in the midst of sorrow. Contrary to the twenty-first-century mindset that sees suffering as worthless and meaningless, dying, death, and all of the misery they contain are full of significance. All of them point to the reality of the ultimate problem the entire human race faces, namely, sin, and to its only solution, faith and hope in the life and death of Jesus Christ, His resurrection from the dead, and His return from heaven with “healing in his wings” (Mal. 4:2).
Victory over the Pale Horse
God often uses the “pale horse” of the apocalypse, whose rider’s “name…was Death” (Rev. 6:8), as a providential instrument to strip His people of self-reliance and to drive them to dependence on the person and work of Jesus Christ via the means of grace. The Christian has victory over spiritual and everlasting death and someday physical healing, rest, and comfort will come, but at present dying is inevitable; everyone will pass from dying into a state of physical death, unless the Lord returns in our lifetime to bring history to an end.
Double graces, natural and supernatural, flow from the hand of God to Christians in this experience of dying and death. The Christian has the common grace benefit of medical science at his or her disposal. As with all such benefits, however, there are limits to their usefulness. Nevertheless, there are no limits to the benefits of the special grace of God in Christ, dispensed in the means of grace, namely, the ministry of the Word, the sacraments, the communion of the saints, praise and prayer. Through diligent use of these means, Christians obtain help, comfort, strength, and hope in order to tread the path of dying, confront Death riding his pale horse, and to die delightfully in Jesus:
The LORD is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: thou maintainest my lot. The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage. I will bless the LORD, who hath given me counsel: my reins also instruct me in the night seasons. I have set the LORD always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore. (Ps. 16:5–11)
“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Ps. 116:15).
At Home with the Shepherd
David concludes his magnificent twenty-third Psalm with his eyes on the future: “I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.” “The house of the LORD” is a biblical expression intimating the place where God dwells with His people, whether in the tabernacle, the temple, the church, or ultimately in heaven.3Among the almost three hundred texts using the expression “house of the Lord” or “house of God,” see Gen. 28:17; Exod. 23:19; 2 Chron. 3:1; Pss. 42:4; 122:1; Mic. 4:1; 1 Tim. 3:15; Heb. 10:21; 1 Pet. 4:17.
Oh, how blessed is a believer’s translation from the church on earth to the church in heaven! Goodness and mercy have followed him throughout life, and now goodness and mercy surround him on every side. Who shall describe the unspeakable joy of his soul as he enters into glory? How satisfied he will be with all he sees and hears! With grateful adoration he will worship his faithful God who has fulfilled all His promises and surpassed even the believer’s highest expectations. Who can conceive of the joy and gratitude with which he will join in the song of his redeemed brethren: “Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (Rev. 1:5–6).
The soul in heaven dwells in a perfected state. It can do no wrong, see no iniquity, hear no evil, and receive no spiritual harm. The Redeemer, now seen in His glorified human form, fills the believer’s thoughts, is the theme of the soul’s conversations, and is the object of the soul’s adoration. The soul burns within itself while Christ reveals what He has suffered and the glory that is now His. It experiences inexpressible delight in Christ’s presence and praises Him in high, holy, and celestial strains.
How imperfect are our highest conceptions of the beauty, blessedness, holiness, and glory of God’s eternal house. To know it as it is, we would have to be caught up, as Paul was, into the “third heaven” but even then its realities cannot be described in earthly language (2 Cor. 12:2, 4). As great as is the delight and glory that the departed saint enjoys in his best spiritual condition, there is more to come. His mortal body will be raised out of the dust and no longer be natural and corruptible, but will be transformed into a Spirit-dominated and immortal body, made fit for heaven (1 Cor. 15:44). Gathered from the dust of the grave by the hand of the Creator, it will become a pure and crystal vessel prepared to receive the believer’s glorified soul. Joy, delight, and a sense of ultimate victory will abound in the house of the Lord on resurrection morning, when the souls of the saints are joined with their resurrected, glorified bodies. They will be delivered from the bondage of corruption and be introduced into the glorious liberty of the children of God (Rom. 8:21). “So shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17).
When the Great Shepherd appears in the heavens, there will be joy unequalled in heaven and earth. The “times of restitution of all things” will gladden all the holy angels and every redeemed human being (Acts 3:21). The trumpet will sound to proclaim that “the year of my redeemed is come” (Isa. 63:4). Universal liberty will be granted to all God’s elect. There will be a continuous season of spiritual peace, delight, joy, and love. All the saints will be arrayed in white and shining garments; as victors; they will wave palm branches and wear crowns of life and righteousness received from the hand of Christ.
The dead in Christ will rise first, and the saints who are still alive will be changed into the likeness of their Lord. Their vile bodies will also be changed into the likeness of His glorious body—incorruptible, powerful, spiritual, and heavenly (Phil. 3:21; 1 Cor. 15:42–44, 49). Then in one blessed company they will all be caught up in the air to meet their glorious Redeemer (1 Thess. 4:13–18). In soul and body the redeemed saints will now be the perfect possession of their Lord. Their names will be confessed before the angels of God (Luke 12:8), and they will possess their everlasting inheritance. They will forever dwell in the house of the Lord and surround the throne of the Lamb!
The pilgrims will rest in their true home (Heb. 11:13). As good and faithful servants, they have completed their work, which the Lord declares to be well done. They are then invited to enter into their Master’s joy (Matt. 25:21). The runners of the race have finished their course and have won the prize of their high calling (Phil. 3:14; 2 Tim. 4:7). The soldiers of Christ have fought the good fight of faith, secured victory by grace, and received the crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:7–8).
The little flock of sheep need not fear anymore, for they see that their Father’s good pleasure was to give them the kingdom (Luke 12:32). They were poor but now find treasure in heaven, inheritance in light, fullness of joy, and an eternal weight of glory (Matt. 6:20; 2 Cor. 4:17). All doubts of their acceptance are gone. Faith has given way to sight; hope has given way to fruition. They see that the One who went before them has indeed prepared a place for them (John 14:2). They are safe within their fold. They are welcomed at the table that their gracious Host has prepared for them. They behold the King in His beauty (Isa. 33:17) and live in the enjoyment of His victorious love. The Lord God Almighty is their unfading portion, their ever-open temple, their everlasting light, and their eternal glory (Rev. 21: 22–23). They dwell in the house of the Lord and are forever blessed because they are surrounded by the triune God.
Jesus says, “Surely I come quickly.” And the bride says, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20). Given that the best is yet to be, God’s people often long to be with Christ who is their life. Like Paul, they thank God that not even death can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus their Lord (Rom. 8:38–39). In fact, death unites them all the more closely to Christ and His blessings by bringing them into their more full and permanent possession of the riches of heaven.
The Puritans used to say that the day of their death was better than their wedding day. Thomas Brooks (1608–1680) confessed, “A believer’s last day is his best day.”4Blanchard, Complete Gathered Gold, 132. “Death is the funeral of all our sorrows,” said Watson.5Blanchard, Complete Gathered Gold, 134. Sibbes put it this way: “Death is not now the death of me, but death will be the death of my misery, the death of my sins; it will be the death of my corruptions. But death will be my birthday in regard of happiness. Death is only a grim porter to let us into a stately palace…. Shall I be afraid to die, when in death I commend my soul to such a sweet Lord, and go to my Husband and to my King?”6Blanchard, Complete Gathered Gold, 133, 136. The great eighteenth-century itinerant evangelist George Whitefield (1714–1770) prayed, “Lord, keep me from a sinful and too eager desire after death. I desire not to be impatient. I wish quietly to wait till my blessed change comes.”7Blanchard, Complete Gathered Gold, 132.
For many of our Reformed and Puritan forebears, death spelled victory. For them, death did not extinguish the light, but it merely put out the lamp because the eternal dawn has come. We die to die no more, for in and through Christ, death brings life and perfect and complete victory in its wake—forever!
Dying and Death: Getting Rightly Prepared for the Inevitable
by Joel R. Beeke and Christopher W. Bogosh