Christians live between life here on earth and the life to come. Sometimes life here seems rather mundane – we are washing dishes, picking up the washing, taking out the garbage, even ‘killing fleas’ as Calvin mentioned, presumably referring to lice in the children’s hair. Then we are found singing Psalm 100 as presented by Isaac Watts, with some modifications from John Wesley:
Before Jehovah’s aweful throne,
Ye nations bow with sacred joy.
Know that the Lord is God alone;
He can create and He destroy.
Then it is back to the carpark to drive home.
While imprisoned in Rome – or possibly Caesarea or Ephesus – Paul contemplated his present life and the life to come. He could be executed or he might be set free. To be executed would be to depart and be with Christ, which is far better; to be freed would be to carry on with his missionary tasks on earth which might be more necessary (see Phil.1:22-24). Within his own soul, he clearly felt something of the tension which comes from living between this world and the next.
Paul was not suicidal, as some have thought, nor was he tired of life. I have met suffering people in hospital who seemed to be unbelievers who nevertheless looked forward, all too wearily and complacently, to death. They had simply had enough of life. This is hardly what Paul means. Life is a gift from God, and not to be treated lightly. It is those who hate God who love death (Prov.8:32). It is true that believers can become so downcast that death seems preferable to life – Elijah and Jonah both knew something of this (1 Kings 19; Jonah 4). These are recorded for our comfort, not our imitation.
Whenever martyrs face death, the right motive is not getting rid of this life’s aches and pains. Rather, it is that they can do no other when faced with the demand to disobey God (see Dan.3:16-18; Acts 4:18-21). In the early part of the second century Ignatius of Antioch was taken to Rome to be put to death as a Christian. He seemed rather keen on the idea!
Why, moreover, did I surrender myself to death, to fire, to the sword, to wild beasts? Well, to be near the sword is to be near God; to be in the claws of wild beasts is to be in the hands of God. Only let it be done in the name of Jesus Christ!
As courageous and as faithful as Ignatius was, there is something a little unhealthy and fanatical about his desire to leave this life.
It is significant that Paul is tugged both ways. He says that to depart and to go to be with Christ is, literally, ‘much rather better’ – it is a triple comparative. How ‘much rather better’ is it to enjoy Christ than to preach Him! ‘What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?’ asks Shorter Catechism Question 37. The answer is: ‘The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.’ The hymn For all the saints has a line that is packed with meaning: ‘We feebly struggle, they in glory shine’.
Had his co-worker Epaphroditus died of his near fatal illness, Paul would have experienced sorrow upon sorrow (Phil.2:25-27). Yet had Epaphroditus died, he himself would have experienced a more blessed state, although with a sense of being unclothed as the body was not yet resurrected (2 Cor.5:1-8; Rev.6:9-11). Paul does not minimise death, but he does know that Christ has overcome death.
The words of Martin Luther might provide a suitable comment on the biblical view of life and death:
It is a great thing that death, which is to others the greatest of evils, is made to us the greatest gain…
It is indeed a divine work that He wrought, and none need wonder, therefore, that He made the evil of death to be something that is very good.
Death, then, to believers is already dead, and has nothing terrible behind its grinning mask. Like unto a slain serpent, it has indeed its former terrifying appearance, but it is only the appearance; in truth it is a dead evil, and harmless enough.
For the Christian, death remains the last enemy (1 Cor.15:26), but through the risen Christ has been reduced to being like a sleep (Matt.9:24; 1 Thess.4:13-14). This life is good, the heavenly life is better, and the new heaven and new earth represent the consummation of God’s plan of salvation for His people.