What Happens When a Christian Dies?
Introduction: A Celebration of Life
A few weeks ago, I performed the funeral service for a young woman. She was 20 years old. Like all young people, starting out in life she had hopes and dreams for the future which she was probably anxious to fulfill. With all the plans she had, the last thing that was on her mind was death. Yet, like it will take place for all of us, it did happen, and all the earthly desires that she had are now a memory. I know what you are thinking when hearing this because it is what I tend to think myself. It is that 20 is way too young to die. It is so tragic to hear this about someone whose life seems to have only just begun.
From our perspective and from the world in general, it is a tragedy and a waste of potential. But what we don't see today, is that this young woman, being a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, may be dead physically. However, her life is not over. In many ways, it has only just begun. She has passed from this life, into one that will never end but will be spent eternally with the one who made that life possible- the Lord Jesus Christ.
We put so much effort and time into preparing for a short life on this earth, which for most of us is less than 100 years. And for those fortunate enough to live past 100, it is still nothing compared to the span of eternity all of us will spend somewhere. Either we will be with Christ in the New Heaven and Earth that He is preparing. Or, possibly, if we don't accept His sacrifice on the cross, we could be separated from Him for all eternity in Hell. Because of what Jesus did on the cross, we all have the choice and can choose eternal bliss and the rewards that our Lord has prepared for us. If we do that, then no matter what we experience on this earth, the best is always going to be yet to come!
The young woman chose Jesus and an eternity without any mourning or crying or pain. She has now begun her reward that will never end. And I believe that if she could speak to us today she would ask all of you, who don't know Jesus, to do what she has done by accepting His salvation so that you can share in the beauty that she is experiencing this very day. And for those who have been saved by God's grace, she would tell us not to worry about her or about your own future. She would remind us that we aren't saying good-bye to her. We are saying: "So long until we meet again in Heaven.
Let me just take a few minutes to tell you what happens to a believer in Jesus Christ the very second that they close their eyes in death, and what will happen when Jesus returns for all of us who have placed our faith in our Lord and Savior.
I. Believers are Absent from the Body and Present with the Lord
The first thing that happens is that you temporarily leave your body behind and are immediately present with the Lord. The Apostle Paul, in the book of Philippians, saw death as far superior to this life in that he would be with His Savior. In Philippians 1:21-26 he says:
"For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you. And being confident of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy of faith, that your rejoicing for me may be more abundant in Jesus Christ by my coming to you again.
Paul left his mortal body over 2000 years ago now. However, his soul and spirit live on in the presence of Jesus. Every believer who dies now will enter that group which many have already joined. And their future is bright because they have placed their trust in Him who created the universe and has the power to give life to the dead.
Paul says something similar in the book of II Corinthians when talking about death and the resurrection. He tells the Corinthians:
"Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it." (II Corinthians 5:6-9).
II. Believers Await the Rapture of the Church
However, an even greater thing is that, once death occurs and they are with Christ, believers still have much for which to look forward. In the book of I Thessalonians, the believers there were being persecuted for their faith and some were dying. Paul had told the Christians in Thessalonica that Christ would one day return to take His people to be with Him. But the Thessalonians were wondering what would happen to their dead relatives and friends. Would they participate in the coming day of Christ's return?
Paul, in I Thessalonians 4:13-18 tells the believers that, not only would they participate, the dead in Christ will be the first to be caught up to meet the Lord in the air, in an event known as the Rapture of the Church. Christ will bring the souls of the dead believers back with Him and their bodies will be taken out of the graves, or wherever they happen to be. Their bodies then are transformed into a glorious body like that of the Lord Jesus Christ. And then, if we are alive and remain when Jesus returns, we, the living believers, will suddenly be caught up as well. Our mortal bodies will be changed to immortal like the body of Jesus and the other believers in Him. Then we will forever be with the Lord. Paul tells us in verse 18:
"Therefore, comfort one another with these words."
I want to say to you Christian believers today who are grieving, that it is all right to grieve. It doesn't mean that you lack faith. You have only known your loved ones in this life. And now this existence, as they and we have known it, for them is over. And you will miss their presence with you. However, the wonderful thing is that you don't have to grieve as those who have no hope. You will see them again. You will hold them again. You'll talk with them again. Further, they are more alive now then they have ever been. In Christ, there are no hopeless situations. Not even death can separate us from the love of God in Christ. And it will not separate us from our loved ones who have trusted in Him either.
III. Believers will Face the Judgment Seat of Christ
The next thing that will happen to the dead believer in Christ, beyond the catching-up of the Church, is a judgment by the Lord Jesus Himself. The good thing is, that this judgment is not for salvation. It is rather for rewards. Jesus took our punishment for sin and the wrath of God upon Himself so that we never have to face that horrible time where we have to be judged to enter Heaven and hear the words: "Depart from me, for I never knew you!" None of us would make it into Heaven on our own merits because we are all sinners and God cannot look upon sin. He is Holy and hates the sinful acts that we do. But, praise God, Jesus died for that sin. And He rose again, proving that death has no more control over Him!
What every believer does face is what is known as the Bema Seat. All of us will one day have to stand and have the things we've done after salvation judged, and all that is done for Christ is likened to gold, silver, and precious stones. After these works go through the fires of judgment they are refined and purified. And the believer receives a reward for them.
Those things done for ourselves and not for the glory of Christ will be like wood, hay, and stubble that burns immediately before our eyes. Paul tells us that for those things we will suffer loss. However, even if all of our works as a Christian are burned up, the Apostle says that we will still be saved, so as by fire (I Corinthians 3:10-15)
It should be the ambition of every believer to have the Lord examine our works done for Him and say to us: "Well done, good and faithful servant!" But an even greater thought is that we can stand before the Lord with the righteousness of Christ and make it into Heaven at all. It is not by our good works, but by God's good grace that we receive eternal life. And any rewards that we may receive are by His grace or unmerited favor as well. Further, rewards are nothing compared to the entire life we have in Christ. Our dead loved ones know that better than any of us who are reading this message today. And they are now praising the Lord for His mercy!
IV. Believers have an Ultimate Home: The New Heaven and the New Earth
There are many other things that happen in between the judgment seat of Christ for the believer and the end when Christ will defeat Satan and all of his hosts. However, all of life is headed toward the time when Jesus will take His rightful place upon the throne of the universe and demonstrate that He is the ruler over all of creation. We see in Revelation 21 that there will one day be a New Heaven and a New Earth. Jesus will wipe out sin and rebellion from all of creation. Then everything and everyone will answer to Him. I love the place where it says:
"And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away." (Revelation 21:3-4).
Paul tells us that, ultimately, Jesus will turn over His Kingdom to God the Father so that He, (the Father), may be all in all (I Corinthians 15:24).
So the bottom line is, those who have died in Christ and all of us that are still living who know Jesus, have nothing to worry about. We are safe in the bosom of the Creator, Sustainer and Renewer of the entire universe. And for us, death is not a horrible mess. It is, rather the continuation of a wonderful journey that will never end.
In the Sunday School times there was a story told by a mother who said this:
"All my life I entertained a great fear of death, till one of my own children went to be with the Lord. During the funeral service the minister told the following story: "A shepherd led his flock to the banks of a swiftly flowing stream. Sheep are naturally afraid of rapidly running water. The shepherd could not induce them to cross until he picked up a little lamb and stepped with it into the river, bearing it carefully and tenderly to the opposite shore. When the mother saw where her lamb had gone, she forgot her fear and stepped into the rushing current and was soon safely on the other side. All the rest of the flock followed her leadership."
Like this mother, or any Christian who has experienced the death of a believing loved one, there is someone who is waiting on the other side for us who is held in the arms of our Great Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ. So there is no need to fear or feel hopeless for the future.
We can now continue to celebrate the life of our loved ones today, who loved the Lord Jesus. Not just the life that was. But also, the one they are experiencing right this moment in the presence of Jesus Christ. They are in good hands today. Of that, we can be certain!
For those of you who aren't sure about your relationship with Jesus, don't hesitate to come to Him and ask Him to forgive your sins and to become the Lord of your life. He will never turn you away if you come to Him sincerely.
And then, you too can join in the celebration. And we all can spend eternity together praising God and living with our believing loved ones who have gone on ahead of us.
May the Lord give all of them rest and peace until we are united with them once again!
© 2020 Jeff Shirley