Present with Christ

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Philippians 1:23

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is called Real Answers about Heaven, and we are looking at what the Bible tells us about various aspects of heaven. So far in our series we’ve been talking about what heaven is like and looking at various foretastes of heaven here on earth, but today’s message is the first where we actually get to go to heaven ourselves. Not literally go there, but today we begin to explore what it will be like for us to be in heaven. And we can sum it all up with the three words from the title of the message: “Present with Christ.” It turns out the first part of heaven is also the best part. We will be with Jesus. (Read Philippians 1:23 and pray.)

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There’s an old song with the chorus: “Everyone wants to go to heaven, Lord; nobody wants to die!” It’s a paradox, isn’t it? We all want to go to heaven, but we just wish there was some way of avoiding that death part.

So what happens when you die as a believer? Where do you go? The Bible says you don’t need to be afraid of dying, because when you die in Christ, you will go to be with Christ. You don’t go to purgatory when you die. You don’t do into a deep sleep with no consciousness when you die. The Bible teaches us that when you die in Christ, you go to be with Christ. You are present with Christ. Being with Jesus is the best part of heaven. So let’s see what the Bible says about being present with Christ after death.

I. Jesus is in heaven right now

First the Bible tells us that Jesus is in heaven right now. That’s important, because if we are going to be present with Christ after we die, it would be good to know where Christ is. And fortunately the Bible tells us exactly where he is. He is in heaven.

   A. Jesus ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of God
      – Luke 24:51; Colossians 3:1; 1 Peter 3:22

The Bible tells us that after his resurrection Jesus ascended to heaven where he sits at the right hand of God. For example we read about Jesus’ ascension in Luke 24: “While he [Jesus] was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.” (Luke 24:51) Colossians 3:1 tells us: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” (Colossians 3:1) And 1 Peter 3:22 puts it plainly: “Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.” (1 Peter 3:22)

People sometimes wonder, if Jesus rose from the dead, then why isn’t he here now? The Bible tells us why. He was here, but he didn’t stay here. Jesus ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of God.

   B. Jesus goes before you to prepare a place for you
      – John 14:1-2

Now there are a number of purposes in Scripture associated with Christ’s ascension: Jesus returned to the Father, Jesus took his place on the throne, Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit, Jesus prays for us, and Jesus will come again. These are all associated with Christ’s ascension in the Bible.

But the purpose I want us to focus on today is this. Jesus goes before you to prepare a place for you. That’s what Jesus told his disciples in the Upper Room the night before he went to the cross. John 14:1-2: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:1-2)

Before Jesus died he told his disciples where he was going. He was going to his Father’s house. God’s house is where God lives. And we’ve seen that where God lives is what we call heaven. Heaven is the dwelling place of God. And so Jesus is telling his disciples he is going to heaven.

And why does he go to heaven? He goes before you to prepare a place for you. Part of that preparation was his dying on the cross for your sins and his resurrection. Because Jesus not only needs to prepare a place in heaven for you. He needs to prepare you for a place in heaven. And only his death on the cross could do that.

So where is Jesus right now? He is in heaven. Jesus ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of God. He goes before you to prepare a place for you.

   C. Jesus will take you to be with him so that you may be where he is
      – John 14:3

Which leads us to our third point in this section. Jesus will take you to be with him so that you may be where he is. John 14:3: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:3)

This is the logical conclusion to Jesus going to heaven to prepare a place for you. Jesus is not going to go to all the trouble of preparing a place for you if he is not also going to bring you there.

Jesus ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of God. He goes before you to prepare a place for you. He will take you to be with him so that you also may be where he is.

II. When we die we will go to be with Jesus

So that’s our first point this morning. Jesus is in heaven right now. The second point is this. When we die we will go to be with Jesus. Because Jesus is in heaven, that means we will go to be with him in heaven. There are three things in particular the Bible tells us about going to be with Jesus when we die.

   A. To be absent from the body is to be present with Christ
      – Luke 23:43; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8

First of all, to be absent from the body is to be present with Christ. We read in 2 Corinthians 5: “As long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We … would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8)

While you are on earth you are at home in your body. Wherever you go, your body goes. You might switch houses, you might move cross country, but wherever you go, your body goes with you. While you are here on earth, you are present with your body. Your body is your home.

When you go to heaven you will have a new home. You will be at home with the Lord. And just as you are never away from your body in this life, so you will never be away from the Lord in the next life. To be absent from the body is to be present with Christ.

When Jesus was dying on the cross, two thieves were crucified with him – one on his right, and the other on his left. One of the criminal hurled insults at Christ, but the other one heard Jesus’ words and believed. He said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

Notice that word “today” and then those two words following it – “with me.” For the believer, to die is immediately to be with Christ, immediately to be present with Christ. It’s the first part of heaven, and it is the best part of heaven. In fact that is what makes it paradise.

Pastor Colin Smith has written a wonderful book called Heaven, How I Got Here. The whole book is written from the perspective of the thief on the cross who put his trust in Jesus. It is a quick read full of rich theological insight, and I highly recommend it. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book. All these lines are spoken by the thief right after he arrives in heaven.

[Jesus] had said, ‘You will be with me.’ And so it was. I was Jesus’ last companion on earth and His first companion in heaven…. Think about what happened to me: I trusted Christ and went to heaven on the same day. I missed out on the entire Christian life!… Here’s what I discovered: heaven does not depend on what you do for Christ but on what He has done for you. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone…. When the moment came I knew I was not alone. I was accompanied. I was carried. I was taken up, and I was welcomed by Jesus Himself. Death is a dark place, but Jesus had already been through it, and He had made it a safe place for me. (Colin Smith, Heaven, How I Got Here, Kindle locations 326, 342, 351, 736)

So that’s the first thing you need to know about going to be with Jesus when you die. To be absent from the body is to be present with Christ

   B. Our bodies sleep, but our spirits are alive with Christ
      – Matthew 27:52; John 11:11-13; Acts 7:59; Hebrews 12:23

The second thing is this: our bodies sleep, but our spirits are alive with Christ. The Bible often uses the word “sleeping” to refer to those who have died. For example when Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, Jesus told his disciples in John 11: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” (John 11:11-12) Then we read this word of explanation in verse 13: “Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.” (John 11:11-13) The Greek word that is translated “to fall asleep” here and elsewhere in the New Testament is a word that can mean either “to sleep,” “to rest,” or simply “to lie down.”

But the important thing to understand is that when the Bible talks about a person “sleeping” in death, it refers to their body, not their soul or spirit. For example we read in Matthew 27:52: “The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” (Matthew 27:52) The word translated “died” in this verse is the exact same word that is translated “fallen asleep” back in John 11:11. And in fact a number of translations actually translate the word as sleeping here instead of dying. For example the ESV: “The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” (Matthew 27:52 ESV)

But notice it is the body that is raised, not the person’s soul or spirit. The Bible makes it clear that for the believer when you die, your spirit is alive with Christ. For example we read the following about Stephen, the church’s first martyr, in Acts 7: “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God….. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’” (Acts 7:55,59) Stephen knew that his body was about to die, but he understood that Jesus stood ready to receive his spirit.

Or we read in Hebrews 12: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come … to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven … to the spirits of righteous men made perfect.” Hebrews 12:22-23) Once again, the bodies of believers who have died lie sleeping in the ground, but their spirits are with God in heaven. There is no such thing as soul sleep. Our bodies sleep, but our spirits are alive with Christ.

The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes the Bible’s teaching about this as follows: “The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep . . . immediately return to God who gave them … where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies.” (WCF, Chapter 32)

And so when the Bible talks about believers sleeping when they die, it is not talking about your soul sleeping, but rather your body. When you fall asleep or take a nap, you get back up again. And that’s exactly what will happen with our bodies at the resurrection. They will get back up again. Our bodies sleep until Christ’s return, but our spirits are alive with Christ.

   C. Being present with Christ is better by far!
      – Philippians 1:21-24; Revelation 14:13

What does the Bible say about going to be with Jesus when you die? 1) To be absent from the body is to be present with Christ. 2) Our bodies sleep, but our spirits are alive with Christ. And 3) Being present with Christ is better by far! That’s what Paul says in Philippians 1: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Philippians 1:21-24)

The fact that it is “far better” to be with Christ means that we will be consciously present with Christ after death. We have some sense of Christ’s presence even now. To go from some sense of Christ’s presence to no sense of his presence would not be better, but to go from some sense of Christ’s presence to being actively and consciously present with Christ is better by far.

There are other reasons why it is better to be with Christ too. We will be completely free from the power and the presence of sin. And we will be free from the labor and toil of living on a planet that is under the curse of God. For example we read in Revelation 14:13: “‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.’” (Revelation 14:13)

And so to be present with Christ in heaven is to be blessed and to rest – blessed in his presence and resting from labor and toil. Now that doesn’t mean that there won’t be work to do in heaven. We’ll get to that later in the series when we talk about what will we do in heaven. But it means that your work will no longer be painful toil as it is under God’s curse here on earth.

The Bible is clear. To be present with Christ is better by far. Richard Baxter, a pastor in England back in the 1600’s, wrote a beautiful hymn based on these words of Paul from Philippians 1:23:

Lord, it belongs not to my care,
Whether I die or live;
To love and serve Thee is my share,
And this Thy grace must give.

If life be long I will be glad,
That I may long obey;
If short – yet why should I be sad
To soar to endless day?

Christ leads me through no darker rooms
Than He went through before;
He that unto God’s kingdom comes,
Must enter by this door.

Come, Lord, when grace has made me meet
Thy blessed face to see;
For if Thy work on earth be sweet,
What will Thy glory be!

Then shall I end my sad complaints,
And weary, sinful days;
And join with the triumphant saints,
To sing Jehovah’s praise.

My knowledge of that life is small,
The eye of faith is dim;
But ’tis enough that Christ knows all,
And I shall be with him.

To be absent from the body is to be present with Christ. Our bodies sleep but our spirits are alive with Christ. And being present with Christ is better by far! So that’s our second point this morning. When we die we will go to be with Jesus in heaven.

III. We still await the resurrection

1) Jesus is in heaven right now. 2) When we die we will go to be with Jesus. And finally 3) We still await the resurrection.

Do you remember those old television commercials where they would tell you all about the product, and then the announcer would say: “But wait – there’s more!” That’s sort of what this third point is like this morning. Yes, Jesus is in heaven right now. And yes when you die as a believer you go to be with Jesus in heaven. And yes being present with Christ is better by far. But wait – there’s more! Because we still await the resurrection.

   A. This first stage of heaven is temporary (intermediate state)
      – Revelation 6:9-11

In other words, this first stage of heaven is temporary. For example we read in Revelation 6 about believers who had died for their faith: “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord?… Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer.” (Revelation 6:9-11)

These believers had died and gone to be with Jesus in heaven which is better by far, and yet they were still not in their final state. They were told to wait a little longer. The first stage of heaven is temporary. We often call it the intermediate state, because there is still more to come. Now the intermediate state is still better by far than our present life, but it cannot compare to our final state when Christ returns. David Calhoun writes: “The bliss of the intermediate state is infinitely more to be desired than anything that can come to us on earth; it is less desirable only than the completed redemption yet to come. The salvation is complete, but it is as yet only an incomplete man that is saved.” (Christopher W. Morgan, Heaven, Kindle location 5458)

And so the first stage of heaven is temporary. It’s still heaven, because heaven is where God lives, and you are with God and with Christ. But it is heaven in heaven instead of heaven on earth.

   B. When Christ returns he will raise our bodies and bring us with him
      – 1 Thessalonians 4:14,16

So what is this “more” that the Bible speaks of? When Christ returns to earth he will raise our bodies and bring us with him. Look at 1 Thessalonians 4 where Paul writes: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him…. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14,16)

When you die as a believer, your body goes in the ground and your spirit goes to be with Christ in heaven. When Christ returns, he will raise our bodies and bring us back with him.

   C. We will live with Christ forever in the new heaven and earth
      – Psalm 23:6; John 14:2-3; 1 Thessalonians 4:17

And so we will live with Christ forever in the new heaven and the new earth. That’s what we read in 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17)

Remember what Jesus said in John 14? “In my Father’s house are many rooms…. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:2-3)

When you die, you go to God’s house in heaven. When Jesus returns, Jesus brings God’s house with him to earth. He also brings you with him. And so you will be with the Lord forever in his house. As David said in Psalm 23:6: “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Psalm 23:6)

Yes, dying and going to be with Christ in heaven is better by far, but God tells us that the better is going to become the best, because we still await the resurrection. And so this first stage of heaven is only temporary. When Christ returns he will raise our bodies and bring us with him. Then we will live with Christ forever in the new heaven and earth.

CONCLUSION: These are wonderful truths, and you will notice three points of application at the bottom of your outline.

This teaching from the Bible gives you great confidence. (2 Corinthians 5:6-8) You don’t have to be afraid of dying because to live is Christ and to die is gain.

This teaching from the Bible gives you great hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13) You’re going to see Jesus! You don’t have to wait until the resurrection.

This teaching from the Bible brings you great comfort. (1 Thessalonians 4:18) Your loved ones who have already died in Christ are present with Christ right now. And you will see them again.

Jesus is in heaven right now. When you die in Christ, you will go to be with him. The Bible tells us that being with Christ is better by far. You will be alive and alert and aware in God’s presence. There will be no more sin or sadness. There will be no more sickness, toil or pain.

But wait – there’s more! Because as good as it is being with Jesus in heaven, we still await the resurrection when we will all live with Christ forever in the new heaven and new earth.

What is the common element both in the intermediate state of heaven up in heaven and in the final state of heaven here on earth? It is Christ. Whether in heaven in heaven above or in heaven on earth below, you will be with Jesus.

Heaven is where God lives. It is God’s house. It is Jesus’ home. Going to heaven means being present with Christ. And being with Jesus is the best part of heaven.

© Ray Fowler

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