THE PRIZE OF DEATH
"For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." Philippians 1: 21.
No human being ever extolled the Person of Christ as did the Apostle Paul. He is a master of spiritual conception, heavenly imagination, and clarifying language as he envisages the glory of the Lord. From the time that he saw the Christ of the Damascus road to the moment he laid his head on the block under the sentence of Caesar his theme was Jesus.
Analyse and define as you will what we mean by inspiration, it is dynamically set forth in this revelation of the Christ of the glory. It is a tragedy that so many preachers have other themes with which to engage their congregations, and when they do draw the attention of their hearers to Christ they usually make sure that He is firmly tethered to the earth as the Christ of the past rather than the Christ of the present.
For ourselves, however, we may declare that with our hearts bowed before the Christ, the God-man on the throne of omnipotence, we acknowledge a priceless debt to the apostle used of God to make known this transcendent revelation. It is Paul who teaches that above the corrupting dust of man with all his Christless plans for creating a perfect world there is the peerless Man on the throne. He is destined without dubiety to resolve all the intricacies of the ages, Whose majestic hand shall never fail to bring the universe to its Divine conclusion.
Any true believer who thus imbibes the revelation of Paul must live on the frontier of the unseen. It is the Divine will that every born-again Christian (and there are no other persons entitled to the name) shall become more and more acquainted with the realm to which he belongs. In the process he will perceive the prerequisites of disclosure and learn that the probable reason why we are not told more is that heavenly reality cannot be contained within the mind of mortality. Paul is in prison. He is reaping at the hands of Caesar the penalty of his loyalty to God, but at the same time there flows towards him the magnificent gratitude of the churches to whom he has ministered. This is particularly true of the folk at Philippi. They are now beginning to realise the priceless value of the truths he has uttered and the revelation he has disclosed whereby they have stepped out of pagan confusion into the clarity of the thing that is Divine, heavenly, eternal and real.
He assures them that while it is true he is in bonds, yet the Word of God is not bound. Indeed, some who otherwise might have been silent have been emboldened by his chains to preach, and others also preach the Gospel while most definitely denouncing the apostle. What God will do with such people they have not stopped to think, but they hope their loyalty (as they think it to be) to Christ and their denunciation of Paul will add to the afflictions of his imprisonment. As for Paul, in all this he rejoices. He is not concerned about his personal reputation. The only consideration is that Christ shall be magnified in his mortal body. What an ambition for every Christian!
It is quite incidental whether that magnifying of Christ shall be in life or in what we call death. That is a matter of the Divine disposal; for to Paul to live is Christ and to die is gain. There is a prize in death! This aspect of the Apostle's teaching has been largely lost. We do not send wreaths to prizewinners. How sad to think of the poor Romanist who is taught to believe that when he is about to die he must be fortified with the rites of what is called "holy church." A man may need to be fortified as he works hard for an examination; but he will need no fortification to receive the prize! There are others as well as Romanists who believe in prayers for the dead. Anglicans publish booklets commanding this practice.
The gratuitous supposition is that the Christian has passed from the security of this present evil world into the insecurity of the realm, which is described as being with Christ. They assume that the man who falls overboard ought to give himself in prayer for the people still enjoying the security of the ship! When will these bishops, deans, canons and priests wake up to apostolic teaching and learn the truth of God's word that to be with Christ is "far better?" These people who so deliberately and perpetually hide from their congregations the truth of the Word of God must be left, but even born-again believers are apt to read a verse like our text and leave it. But Paul is declaring a truth that has satisfied him, it satisfies him even as he writes with the sword of Caesar over him. What Paul teaches has come to him by way of a revelation from heaven most surely believed, obeyed and proved in experience.
When the Divine curriculum is recognised and he determines to press on there is no limit to the unfolding of truth. The text is not a bow at a venture; it is a conclusion reached by all the logical processes of a mind opened by and enlightened and taught of God. How then did Paul reach this conclusion? Soon after his conversion he had a remarkable experience which he relates in his second letter to the Church at Corinth. Whether he was in the body or out of the body he could not tell, but he was caught up to the third heaven, which he also calls Paradise. When our Lord entered Paradise from the Cross, it was part of the realm of death. But part of His victory over death was to make the third heaven the paradise for all who, in dying, should believe in Him.
That is to say, in this experience Paul was permitted to have a foretaste of the realm into which the believer, at death, passes. Paradise is where Paul is now and where every truly born-again believer who has died is. It is the "far better" circumstance into which the believer enters. If there is any praying across the frontier I would think it is much more likely and certainly much more profitable that they pray for us rather than that we in our ignorance and insecurity should pray for them. From that experience and what Paul has to say about it we may be able to get some idea, however limited, about the nature of the prize of death. In the first place, all the sensitivity of the born-again spirit comes alive in a new way at death. The mortal body is a handicap in the grasp, inspiration and development of the spiritual man.
Paul felt it: "Who shall deliver me from this body of death ?" he cried. The mortal body blurs the vision, arrests the alertness of the spirit and holds the mind tethered to the things of the earth. When we "die," we shed a body, wonderful and marvellous indeed, but something totally inadequate for all the purpose of God through the ages. It is evident that to be with Christ, which is far better, demands and requires the separating from the body. Even in this present mortal life they that worship God must worship Him in the born-again spirit or not at all. Much of our worship is spectacular, ritualistic, attractive in singing and preaching.
Few know what it means to be intimately one with God as the Holy Spirit is one with the human spirit in fellowship. No friend we have ever met, no lover who has reached into our hearts can possibly represent the ecstasy and joy of the union of Spirit with spirit. What it means in purity of thought, sincerity of desire, and an abundant satisfaction which ever promises more and more is indescribable. That illumination of mind gives us increasing clarity, so that we perceive the grandeur of the glory of God.into which we are being integrated, giving us a comprehension of all truth and love and beauty never permitted us here, what all this means in experience must be and is part of the prize of death.
It will also mean instant release from the strange dualism that is in greater or less degree the lot of every born-again believer. Paul has taught us something about the "old man" and "the new man." We endeavour to follow the teaching of being dead with Christ and how we thank God for such blessings as we enjoy. Nevertheless Romans 7 is a weighty chapter on a down-to-earth experience that many of us understand. "When I would do good, evil is present with me." It may be we have much to learn about the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus and we envy noble souls who seem to have reached spiritual heights that are capped with mist for us. The inward struggle, the supernatural complexity is real. We have known times of ecstatic exhilaration in Christ, but we have also known a casting down to the depths. None, our Lord apart, has ever known the joy and exhilaration of the new man in Christ except in the conflict with the world, the flesh and the devil.
One day, by grace, we shall cross the frontier in Paradise. To do it we must bid farewell to the mortal body, the arena in which so much of the conflict has been expressed. What it will mean to be delivered from this conflict of duality and to find ourselves in unchallenged joy in the will of God we shall not know until the experience is ours. When we do we shall realise in ecstatic gratitude how rich is the prize of death. In some degree in line with what has been said we shall grasp with certainty the differentiation between the real and the unreal. Probably none of the most mature of saints has ever been able to live day by day with a complete sense of discernment so that they have never been affected by the unreal, supposing it to be the real or grasped at what they thought the real when it was not.
Hence there have been times when by reason of this failure all have been so oppressed with adversity that the promises of God have seemed a mockery. Bereavement, sorrow, loneliness, pain, injustice, care, anxiety and trial have been so real that we just could not see them from God's point of view. Of course we are to blame. In our failure we can, however, declare the wonderful lovingkindness of the Lord Who in our plight has been so gracious and kind, but to rise up in faith has not been easy. Then we have been prone to entertain thoughts of God, heaven and eternity that were childish. Heaven for so many is a home of rest for incalculable eras to come after the exhausting business of 70 years on earth! In consequence eternal life is an emaciated experience lacking the sense of the robust, the daring, the challenge and the achievable!
God's people seem to be ignorant of the fact that they are privileged to share with the Captain of their salvation the triumph over the formidable foes of the universe who must be brought to the feet of Jesus. Indeed, our religious leaders today never mention this great triumph. We are so absorbed in Mr.Kruschev, in processions to Aldermaston, in Assembly resolutions that everybody ignores that the outlook of the modern Christian is as spineless as his convictions. But we are destined to cross the frontier! Then we shall see all our pain, our sorrow, our handicaps, our afflictions in a new light. We shall find ourselves in Paradise with all born-again believers who have preceded us. We shall know as we are known. We shall realise that so much of the burden of the years was part of our earthly tabernacle. We felt the storms of life so severely because we were in a tent! Whatever concerns we have, will be borne in the light of the certain ultimate victory of our Lord in every sphere. Nothing therefore will weigh us down with a sense of possible failure. We may have burdens for loved ones in the flesh, but it will be from the standpoint of the victory of the throne and we shall rejoice. And this too is part of the prize of death! Whether young or old, the born-again believer may address himself or herself to life with confidence and assurance, with courage and determination right up to the moment of departing breath! Then the frontier will be crossed and the prize will be ours!
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