Monday, September 13, 2010

State of the Dead Bible Study: Part IV

In part three we studied Paul’s teaching on death in II Cor. 5:1-9.  We saw that to be absent from the body is to be present from the Lord.  We also saw that we can continue to be actively pleasing to the Lord when absent from the body.  In part four, I would like to look at Philippians 1:21-26.  Although this is still a strong didactic (teaching) passage, it is a much more personal one for Paul.  Paul is in prison and possibly facing death.

Philippians 1:21 (NASB)
21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Paul sees death, not as a non-existent state, but as a state that can actually be described as “gain”.

Philippians 1:22 (NASB)
22 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.
In fact, Paul is so eager to be with the Lord that he can barely choose which possibility he prefers, living or dying.  Also note that there is no indication at all that the options are living on in the flesh or being non-existent.  Rather the most natural way to understand Paul’s dilemma is to understand the choices as living on in the flesh or living on in the spirit.

Philippians 1:23 (NASB)
23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better;
Both possibilities, living on in the flesh or living on in the spirit, are desirable to Paul.  Paul knows that if he remains in the flesh he will be able to continue his work and serve the fledgling Church.  However, he also knows that being with Christ is a far better thing.  The only way that being with Christ can be considered better than continuing on in this life is if it is a conscious existence with Christ.  If the choice were between staying and continuing his work or becoming non-existent, then it would be a pretty easy choice.  Who would be torn between living and being non-existent?  That would make non-sense of the dilemma that is tearing Paul in two different directions.  It also doesn’t work to say Paul is only looking forward to the future resurrection at the second coming.  It’s obvious by the way he is struggling with the options that he is debating two immediate possibilities: live on in the flesh NOW or depart and be with Christ NOW.

Philippians 1:24 (NASB)
24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.
Again, ask yourself what contrast Paul is making here.  What is the direct contrast to “remain on in the flesh”?  The most direct contrast is to “depart in the spirit”. 

Philippians 1:25-26 (NASB)
25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith,
26 so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again.
 As Paul struggles with where his desire should be placed, he ultimately displays a selfless character.  As badly as he wants to depart and be with Christ, he instead accepts that he will remain and continue the work.  Of course this would be no struggle at all if the only other possibility was to be non-existent.  This entire passage, and the dilemma Paul faces, are both predicated upon the biblical teaching that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.  This is the only reason that Paul would have such a hard time choosing where to place his desire. 

As Christians, it is very comforting to know that to die is gain. To die is to be in the very presence of our Lord.  In fact, being with Christ at death is desirable and can even be considered very much better than our present condition.

In part five, I would like to deal with a passage that comes out of Old Testament wisdom literature.  If you grew up Adventist, you probably grew up believing that Ecclesiastes 9:5 was the definitive statement on the state of the dead.  We will examine this text in the context of its immediate passage, the context of the book, the context of the literature type, the context of its testament, and the context of the entire Bible.  I submit to you that this passage, as we were taught it, was ripped from its context at EVERY level of the hermeneutical spiral.

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