This sermon is for everyone here because everyone here is preparing to die. There is a 100% mortality rate (Heb. 9:27). But not everyone dies the same because not everyone knows Christ, and knowing Christ changes everything. The adventure of Christian life is rooted in eternity.
A Summary of the Text
Paul is writing from prison (Phil. 1:7), and after reporting on the spread of the gospel in prison (1:13), expresses his conviction that whatever happens next it will be for his salvation (1:19). Christ will be magnified in his body whether in life or by death (1:20). For Paul, to live is Christ and to die is to win (1:21). Paul knows that living on in the flesh allows him to continue his labor and be a blessing to the saints (1:22, 24). And even though he would rather depart to be with Christ (1:23), he seems fairly sure that his time is not yet, for the blessing of the Philippians and the furtherance of the gospel (1:25-26). But Paul writes all of this to the Philippians that they might stand fast in the faith, not being terrified of their enemies, but taking courage from Paul’s example of suffering (1:27-30).
One of the basic questions all people have is what happens when someone dies? Paul answers that question here saying that to depart from the flesh is “to be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23). Elsewhere, Paul says, “Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: for we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:6-8). But in the same place, Paul describes dying as being “unclothed” (2 Cor. 5:1-4). So we understand this to mean that at death the spirit/soul of a person leaves the body and in that “unclothed” condition is immediately ushered into the presence of Christ, where the spirits of just men made perfect are (Heb. 12:23).
Heaven & the Resurrection
So, when saints die they go to heaven, but this is an intermediate stage, in which they wait to be clothed again, that our mortal bodies may be replaced by immortal life (2 Cor. 5:4). And Paul says that the Holy Spirit is the guarantee, the down-payment of this resurrection promise (2 Cor. 5:5), and this is why we ought to be confident in the face of death (2 Cor. 5:6). Our mortal bodies go into the ground like seed (1 Cor. 15:35-38), and what is sown in corruption is raised in incorruption; what is sown in dishonor is raised in glory; what is sown in weakness is raised in power (1 Cor. 15:42-44). This is why, all things being equal, we should prefer burial to cremation, since it more clearly honors the body that will rise and pictures the image of seed going into the ground. The resurrection of Jesus is the first fruits of the resurrection, but if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead then we have no such hope (1 Cor. 15:17-21). This resurrection of the body will happen at Christ’s second coming when He has put all of his enemies beneath his feet (1 Cor. 15:25). The last enemy that will be destroyed is death itself in the resurrection of the body (1 Cor. 15:26). “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible…” (1 Cor. 15:52-58)
What Do We Believe About Infants & Children?
The Westminster Confession wisely says, “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how He pleaseth: so also, are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word” (10.3). This answer insists that even children need to be regenerated and saved by Christ. If they are saved, it is not because they are cute, but by the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ alone. But I think we can say a little more while honoring the wisdom of this statement. In the gospels, Jesus clearly extends a particular blessing to children, making their faith the standard for the kingdom, and warns against those who would cause them to stumble, even saying that they have angels before the face of the Father (Matt. 18). Given the promises of the covenant, Christian parents have good reason to believe God for the salvation of their children dying in utero, infancy, and childhood (Gen. 17:7, Acts 2:39). Finally, the book of Jonah ends with God’s question to Jonah about sparing those who cannot discern between their right and left hand (Jon. 4:11).
End of Life Considerations
Of course, sometimes death comes unexpectedly, but sometimes a long illness or sickness gives saints time to make various end of life decisions. While there is a great deal of freedom left to individuals regarding treatments, the primary biblical principle we want to uphold is honoring the gift of life, including honoring the Giver of life. Any sort of assisted suicide is murder (2 Sam. 1:5-16), but it is not murder to let someone die whose body is clearly dying. At the same time, we live in a culture of medication idolatry. This can be an idolatrous demand for medications and treatments to fix our problems, but it can also be an idolatrous demand that we/they feel no pain. We want to walk by faith in God, weighing to the best of our ability the information we have, pursuing lawful treatment options, trusting God that he is not tricking us, seeking to preserve life as long as we reasonably can, and then trusting God in death when we have done all we can. The Bible says that it is fine to give (medicinal) strong drink to those who are perishing, presumably to help with pain (Prov. 31:6), but this should be balanced with a desire to be as sober and lucid as we can for as long as we can (Eph. 5:18-19), remembering that we and our dying loved ones need spiritual sustenance as they finish their race.
Conclusion: Not Terrified by Any Adversaries
Death is a curse and an enemy, but Christ has commandeered this enemy by His death and resurrection, such that now it serves Him – He holds the keys of death (Rev. 1:18). But Christ became man in order that “through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15). The power of the devil was the power of accusation. This is why the sting of death is sin, but if Christ has suffered for our sins, then our sins are taken away, and we sing, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is they victory?” (1 Cor. 15:56). This is also why death is frequently described as mere sleep in the New Testament (e.g. Jn. 11:11, 1 Cor. 15:6, 51, 1 Thess. 4:14). Who’s afraid of falling asleep? And if we are not afraid of death, what is there in all the world to fear (Rom. 8:31-39)? So we may serve the Lord without fear of shame, with all boldness, sure that Christ will be magnified in us. This is the way of Christian adventure.