To Be With Christ
The apostle Paul gave us a glimpse into a worldview that transcends this world. It is a view that is built solidly upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul’s desire was to glorify and honor Christ in all that he did, whether through life or death:
“I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.” (Phil 1:19-24 -- really, read the chapter... and the book...)
What a statement! Paul contrasts departing to be with Christ with remaining in the flesh. There is much we do not understand about how the body and mind function together. Terms like “spirit” and “soul” are used in a variety of ways (though not here), and we who are now in the flesh will have only a limited view about how it all works. Yet here is Paul, in faith and with confidence, saying that if he departs the flesh he will be with Christ. In 2 Corinthians 5, he said it this way:
“Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight—we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (vv. 6-8).
The tricky part is how all of this works with the resurrection. We know that there will be a resurrection day (John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15), and this is not just a way of speaking to our physical death now. There will be “a day” in which God judges the world (Acts 17:30-31). In the same epistle of Philippians, Paul says resurrection is his ultimate goal:
“…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (3:10-11)
On the one hand, Paul was ready to depart the flesh to be with Christ. On the other, he was longing for the resurrection. Are these desires at odds with each other? Hardly.
Unless the Lord returns first (and thus the resurrection), we will all face our “departure” (cf. 2 Tim 4:6). If that departure occurs before the resurrection, Paul’s writings indicate that Christians will depart to be with Christ as they await the resurrection. I accept the words of Paul: to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Do I understand it all? Nope. But I accept it, and I believe Paul knew what he was talking about.
Also, recall what Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. When the Lord returns, He will “bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus,” and these will rise first (1 Thess 4:13-18). This makes sense if saints who have passed from this life have, in the meantime, gone to be with Christ. They will be with Him in His return for the resurrection.
This should not really surprise us. Jesus told the penitent thief, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). While the body of Jesus lay in the tomb, and before His own resurrection, Jesus was in paradise. So was the former thief. It was not a period of inactivity and lifelessness. Paradise is access to the tree of life, which is in the very presence of God (cf. Rev 2:7; 22:1-5).
What I see in all of this is that there is a continuity of the person from this life in the flesh, to life departed from the flesh, and to the final resurrection in which the flesh is changed in the twinkling of an eye from what is corruptible to that which is incorruptible (1 Cor 15).
May God help us have Paul’s attitude in this. As we face our departure from the flesh, may we desire to be with Christ. And as we eagerly await the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet 3:13), may we also seek to attain to the resurrection, thus sharing in the complete redemption for which Christ came to die and rise again. The imperishable inheritance is kept in heaven for us (1 Pet 1:3-5).