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Death is a Departure

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Category Articles
Date August 13, 2002

DEATH IS A DEPARTURE

The greatest reason the apostle believed in life after death was his never to be forgotten encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ as he was on his way to arrest and imprison followers of Jesus Christ

by Geoff Thomas

Paul saw death as a ‘departure’ (Philippians 1:23). He does not see death as annihilation. He cannot envisage himself crying on his deathbed, "Out brief candle!" and in the twinkling of an eye ceasing to exist. Death is not someone being snuffed out. "I desire to depart," says Paul. The word is used of soldiers striking camp, packing up their ‘earthly tents’ and moving on to their final destination. They once were staying at that spot, but now they have gone – somewhere else. It is not that they have ceased to exist. The word ‘depart’ conveys the idea of leaving something permanently behind. "We can see this most clearly in the military operations of the Roman army. Whenever a party of Roman soldiers reached the end of a long day’s march they made a camp. This was no ordinary camp constructed out of a few tents and several fires. A Roman camp, even when the legion was under pressed marches, was always an elaborate affair. First, a rectangle was paced off, large enough to hold the contingent of soldiers. The troops occupied assigned places within the encampment. After the rectangle was paced out the entire encampment was secured by moat and rampart, often to a combined height of ten or twelve feet. The top was reinforced and the corners were strengthened. After this the soldiers settled down for rest and for their evening meal. In a day or two the camp was struck, and the soldiers moved on. Behind lay the camp with all its fortifications like a discarded chrysalis, mute testimony to the fact that they had been there. Paul suggests that in a similar way Christians break camp to be with Jesus, while all that is not useful lies behind – all of the sin, all of the pain, all of the care and anguish of this world" (James Montgomery Boice, "Philippians," Baker Books, 1971, p.82). So Paul’s longing was to ‘depart’ from this uncertain earthly pilgrimage to his home: "Man goeth to his everlasting home" (Eccles. 12:5).

From whence did Paul get these ideas of immortality? From the Word of God. For example, in the very first book of Moses, Genesis, we are introduced to Enoch, and we are told, "and Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him" (Gen. 5:24). It is not recorded that God annihilated Enoch so that he ceased to exist, but that he was not on the earth one day longer. An old time Welsh preacher would put it like this: "Here was this man, Enoch, walking with God. Every day he would go and look for God, and they would have a walk together. And then God would say, ‘Well, I must leave you now; you go home and sleep. Get up in the morning and do your work and I will look out for you again tomorrow.

"This was the life that Enoch lived [said the preacher]. This was his greatest delight. Enoch had his work to do, of course, but he always looked for the times when he could give himself utterly and absolutely to taking a walk with God and enjoying his companionship. He had been enjoying this every day, as we are told in the record, for several hundred years. Then one day he finished his work and went as usual to the meeting-place where God was waiting for him, and they walked together, and it was wonderful. God had never been so loving, he had never been so kind, and Enoch had never been so happy.

"The time came, the usual time, for God to say, ‘Very well, I must leave it at that for today, and we will meet again tomorrow.’ But on this occasion God didn’t say that. He said, ‘Enoch, we have been doing this together now for so long. You enjoy it; I enjoy it. Tonight, I’m not going to say to you, "Go home and rest and sleep and get up and do your work and look for me tomorrow. Enoch," he said, "don’t go home. Come with me." So God took him and he was not. God took him to his everlasting habitation. The perpetual fellowship was to be absolute. There was never to be another break or another intermission" (quoted Dr D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, "Heirs of Salvation," Bryntirion Press, 2000, pp.44 & 45). Enoch departed to be with the Lord.

When King David’s baby son died the heart-broken king cried, "I will go to him, but he will not return to me" (2 Sam. 12:23). David departed to be with his son. The Lord Jesus tells us that the living God identifies himself as ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ (Matt. 23:32). The bodies of those patriarchs were buried and had turned to dust, but those men as to their spirits, were in the presence of the God of the living. "I will always be their God," says the Lord. The heroes of faith of Hebrews 11 considered themselves ‘strangers and pilgrims on the earth.’ One day they were going to depart for the heavenly country that God had prepared for them (Hebs. 11:13-16). The body dies, but the spirit survives and departs to be with Christ. It departs this world and joins the vast company of "the spirits of just men made perfect" (Hebs. 12:23). So Paul believed in immortality from the plain teaching of the Scriptures. Death for him consisted of departing. This old tentmaker from Tarsus would one day pack up his own earthly tent for the final time and move on to his permanent home, the mansions that the Lord was preparing for him.

When the former president of the USA, John Quincy Adams, was in his eightieth year and walking slowly along a Boston street he met a friend. "How is John Quincy Adams today?" he friend asked. He replied, "Thank you, John Quincy Adams is well, sir, quite well, I thank you. But the house in which he lives at present is becoming dilapidated. It is tottering upon the foundations. Time and the seasons have nearly destroyed it. Its roof is pretty well worn out, its walls are shattered, and it trembles with every wind. The old tenement is becoming uninhabitable, and I think John Quincy Adams will have to move out of it soon; but he himself is quite well, sir, quite well." And with that the old man continued walking slowly down the street.

The greatest reason the apostle believed in life after death was his never to be forgotten encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ as he was on his way to arrest and imprison followers of Jesus Christ. This is how he recounts the incident to King Agrippa: "On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord said. ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you" (Acts 26:12-16).

Now it is the easiest response for men of the world to slip into unconsidered and automatic amateur psychiatry in dismissing this incident and talk of "the pressures of guilt in Paul", and a "vivid imagination", and "the heat and light of the sun causing the apostle to see things". But there is one factor in particular that you must consider if you are tempted to judge like that. Paul recounts this story three times in the Acts of the Apostles, and on all three occasions he tells us that everybody in his group on the road going to Damascus saw the glorious heavenly light, "blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground" (Acts 26:13&14); "The men travelling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone" (Acts 9:7); "My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me" (Acts 22:9). They all saw the light, they all fell to the ground, when they got to their feet they were all speechless, they all had heard the sound of the voice, but could not see Jesus nor understand what he was saying. That was given to Saul alone. The Holy Spirit did not give that particular revelation to the others. Like the initial sight of Jesus by the two men on the road to Emmaus, "they were kept from recognizing him" (Lk. 24:16).

So Paul’s conversion cannot be dismissed as some intense private experience of a guilt-ridden man. This experience was sudden, public, corporate and observed by many others who were utterly overwhelmed by what they saw, though certain aspects of it were hidden from them. The consequence for Paul was a revolution of thought and value. He experienced a moral transformation, and for the rest of his life he lived a modest holy life telling people exactly the same message Peter and John and the other apostles told them, that Christ was the Lamb of God who had died for our sins to be forgiven, and on the third day he had risen from the dead, and hundreds of people had seen Jesus alive talking, eating and drinking with him. That was another unanswerable reason Paul opposed any idea that at death we pass into non-existence. His Saviour Christ had risen from the grave. Jesus is more powerful than death! That is the gospel. So death is a setting out, a departure for another destination.

GEOFF THOMAS

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