READ : 2 Timothy 4:6-8
We all have regrets as we look back on our lives but at the end the difference between having peace or feeling despair is faith.
One of the bleakest assessments of human life ever written comes from the pen of Mark Twain. In his autobiography Twain summarizes his view of the meaning of life and death this way:
A myriad of men are born; they labor and sweat and struggle for bread; they squabble and scold and fight; they scramble for little mean advantages over each other. Age creeps upon them and infirmities follow; shames and humiliations bring down their prides and their vanities. Those they love are taken from them, and the joy of life is turned to aching grief. The burden of pain, care, misery, grows heavier year by year. At length ambition is dead, pride is dead, vanity is dead; longing for release is in their place. It comes at last – the only unpoisoned gift earth ever had for them – and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence; where they achieved nothing, where they were a mistake and a failure and a foolishness; where they left no sign that they have existed – a world that will lament them a day and forget them forever.
Autobiography, Vol. II, p. 37
ON THE POINT OF DEPARTURE
Now listen to another voice, an alternative view of the end of life:
I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing
(2 Timothy 4:6-8)
Those words were written by the apostle Paul at the end of his life. It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast than that between these two views of life and death. To Mark Twain human life – each and every life – was “a mistake and a failure and a foolishness” and death was simply a release into oblivion that rendered all previous existence meaningless. For St. Paul life was a good fight, a race to the finish, and death would bring glory. What made such a difference in outlook between these two men?
Well, it wasn’t their relative happiness or unhappiness, or the amount of suffering each had to experience in their life. Mark Twain led a life most people would envy. Though he did endure loss and bereavement as an old man (as almost everyone does, sooner or later), Twain nevertheless enjoyed all the benefits of a happy life: wealth, success, popularity, fame, honor.
The Apostle Paul, by contrast, lived a life full of hardship, anxiety and physical suffering. And he composed his final summary on the quality of his life while sitting in a Roman prison cell awaiting execution. The difference between Mark Twain and St. Paul, the difference between a dark and bitter pessimism and a glowing confidence, can be defined by one word: faith.
In this current series of programs we are looking at the subject of peace, peace of various kinds: peace with God, peace in the world among nations, peace with our neighbors, peace within ourselves. Perhaps the ultimate test of peace is how we face our own death. The peace that will matter most to each of us is peace at the end.
Paul shows how a Christian can face death with peace. You know, in some ways I agree with Mark Twain’s eloquently dismal assessment of human life in the face of death. If you can’t believe in God (and Twain couldn’t), if you do not know Jesus Christ, this really is how life looks. Ambition and pride and vanity and achievement – they all die in the end. They amount to nothing.
I think the reason more people don’t express the same viewpoint as Twain is because they aren’t as perceptive as he was, or perhaps not as honest. Christian peace and Christian hope are not to be won by ignoring the vanity of all earthly existence or by soft-pedaling the despair of life in a world without God. Nor do we sugar-coat the truth about death. Death is not attractive or appealing. Let’s be clear on this. It is not a good thing to which we should naturally look forward.
Sometimes non-believers attain a sort of peace at the end of their lives by viewing death as a positive thing – nature’s way out, you know, life’s final stage, a lasting rest. It may be possible to come to terms with one’s own mortality in this way, and even to see death as welcome when it brings release from an existence that has become burdensome. But that is not the same as having the sustaining peace of Christ at your end.
Christian peace is something other than dull resignation, or a giving in to the inevitable. For Christians, death always retains something of its horror – even when it is a release. We never view it positively. “The grave,” said a great preacher of the 19th century, “is a chilling, heart-sickening place, and it is vain to pretend it has no terrors,” (J.C. Ryle). But Paul could face death with incredible calm and confidence. How? Because he was able to look back on a life of persevering faith, and forward to a crown of righteousness and glory.
All who believe in Jesus Christ can do the same. For Christians death remains an enemy – “the last enemy,” the New Testament calls it (1 Corinthians 15:26). But it is an enemy that has already been defeated in principle by the Lord who showed himself stronger than death’s cords, and who will destroy death itself when he returns at the end of time. Those who live by faith in Jesus Christ, who in Paul’s words “fight the good fight of faith” and run the race to the end, can expect a glorious future after death. No Christian, when thinking about death, can dwell for very long on the past. We can’t be filled with fear or regret. For despite our weakness, despite our failures and our sins, our thoughts must inevitably be drawn forward to the great day when the Lord Jesus Christ himself will appear to consummate all things. It will be a day of reckoning and of judgment, but for all who know and love the Lord Jesus it will be a day of triumph, reward and vindication.
Paul talks of receiving a crown of righteousness. He means by that expression the gift of salvation itself. This will not be given to him for anything he has done – even the great apostle to the gentiles can’t claim a reward because of merit – but rather the crown is because of what Christ did for Paul (and for us). We receive glory and blessing, righteousness and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and his work. The crown of righteousness of which Paul speaks and toward which he looks forward, is not awarded to him by virtue of his being an apostle or a hero of the faith. It’s not a reward for exceptional missionary service or outstanding sanctity of life. The crown of righteousness is not a good conduct medal, in other words. It is rather the gracious gift of God given to needy but trusting sinners. That’s why Paul adds here, “and not to me only, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” This same crown is the hope of every person who loves the Lord Jesus. That is how we too can face death with the same calm and assurance and peace as the Apostle Paul.
FOR ME TO LIVE IS CHRIST
Humans have always had great curiosity about what happens to us when we die. Is there any hope of a continued existence, or is death simply a black hole into which we fall, never to escape? Is it the ultimate dead end, where personality and identity are extinguished? Or is it a gateway through which we pass into another life? And if so, what sort of life? People have been asking these things longer than history has run, but we tend to have far more questions than answers.
Death, as Hamlet called it, is “the undiscovered country from whose shore no traveler returns.” Except for One, as Christians believe. So we can say what lies on the other side of the sea of death, because our Lord has been there and come back again. What lies beyond death for the Christian? The Bible says it is home. Scripture affirms this:
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 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.
2 Corinthians 5:6-8
Here’s why we have peace: because we know where we’re going. We may not know what heaven will be like exactly, but we know that there we will be with the Lord, and that will be home for us, far more home than we have ever felt or experienced before. How can we be so sure about that when there is no visible evidence for it? Why is it that we can confidently claim to know, when everyone else can only guess? As to evidence, we walk by faith, not by sight, as the Bible says; and as to assurance, God’s Spirit is the ground of our confidence. God “has given us his Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Corinthians 5:5).
Consider this: how we face death is inextricably linked to how we live life. In another famous verse written by Paul near the end of his life, he exclaimed, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Everyone would like for their death to be a gain. We’re all hoping to go to a better place someday – heaven, paradise, nirvana, call it what you will. Many testimonies have been offered about “near death” experiences, and they almost always seek to be reassuring. There’s nothing to worry about, people who have been there – or almost there – tell us. At the end, there’s only a bright white light, and the faces of those we love, and peace, and all of that. The implication is that death isn’t really so bad, and everybody winds up happy in the end. But the Bible tells us that this way of thinking is profoundly, dangerously wrong. When Paul says that for him, to live is Christ and to die is gain, he is talking about one continuous and consistent way of life. You can’t separate the two parts of his statement. For you and for me, “To die” cannot be gain unless “to live” has been Christ. Death will not lead to blessing unless our lives have been spent for, with and by faith in Jesus Christ. Apart from Christ we have nothing good to look forward to, no reason for feeling peace at the end.
Think about this. Someday the doctor leaning over you will straighten up, take the stethoscope out of her ears, and say, “He’s gone.” The question then will be, gone where? If you want to be sure that the answer will be “heaven,” you need to put your trust in Jesus Christ today.