What are you praying and waiting for when the pandemic ends? Protection from the virus as business reopens, for professional sporting events to resume, attending a movie, or going out to eat with your friends? Are you praying to be able to worship with your church family in the sanctuary? Or maybe you just want an end of daily death counts. If you have not been thinking about death these days, you’re probably in the minority. Since January, as of this writing, we have had over 65,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. and over 238,000 worldwide. As more people die daily, we wonder if God hears our prayers for the pandemic to end. But don’t you think God’s intention, at the very least, is to have us number the days of our lives for wisdom, according to Psalm 90:12? We pray, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” because we want more heavenly peace, joy, love, goodness and holiness here. But, the peace that we seek cannot be found in this world, as everything here is a shadow of God’s heavenly perfection. We Christians know, though, that we won’t have real peace until God takes us out of this world through the portal we fear called “death.” We all like to say that we’re not afraid of death, just dying. However, the longer I live, witness friends dying, and consider death from a biblical perspective, the less frightening it becomes, even if it means pain, confusion, or loss of control. One way to view death is as God’s gift to the righteous, an entrance into God’s perfect peace, and the end of all that binds us to worldly trials. If you, however, have lost a believing loved one at any time, you know the pain of losing that person’s holy love and joy. Children who have lost their Christian parents, and are missing them right now grieve over their absence. This is another view of the death of believers; the world is less heavenly when a holy person dies. (1) Isaiah had an insight into both aspects of the passing of the “righteous man,” which we will consider today. “The righteous man perishes, and no one lays it to heart; devout men are taken away, while no one understands. For the righteous man is taken away from calamity; he enters into peace; they rest in their beds who walk in their uprightness.” (Isaiah 57:1-2) God transports us into his peacefulness through death, but the world misunderstands. So, we witness for Christ through the gospel, as long as we are here until we receive our reward of perfect rest in death, contributing to the righteousness of God on earth.
I’ve been studying one chapter of Ezekiel during the pandemic, and yesterday landed in chapter 36. In his prophecy against Israel’s mountains God first rebukes Israel for their unfaithful idolatry and harm to his holy name and reputation. But then God proclaims that his discipline of Israel through the exile further damages his reputation, so he brings his people back to the land. The ESV Study Bible notes have this helpful commentary: “The fundamental reason given for God’s acting on Israel’s behalf is not grace and mercy (though it is gracious and merciful) but to uphold the sanctity and greatness of God’s reputation: “for the sake of my holy name.” (2) Michael Horton’s covenantal theology teaching helps us to understand why God still requires Israel’s compliance with the Law. “Israel being saved from Egyptian captivity and brought into the Promised Land is a matter of grace, pure covenant grant. So also is the status of every Israelite as a justified person in God’s sight: all by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Abrahamic covenant. However, once in the land, it is up to Israel as a nation to determine whether it will remain in God’s land or be evicted from it. The unilateral and utterly promissory character of the Abrahamic covenant yields to the conditional arrangement at Sinai even while the former is never—can never be—revoked by the oath-taking God.” (3) We are saved by the grace of God, through Christ. From that time, the Spirit gives us the desire and power to uphold the Law of God, for the sake of God’s holy name and reputation.
The death of Christians means that there is a little less of Christ’s righteousness in the world. That’s why Paul prayed, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” (Philippians 1:21-24) The fact that the world here doesn’t acknowledge this truth doesn’t make it untrue. Our motivation to share the gospel may simply be to replace ourselves for more peace about leaving our unbelieving loved ones behind. Matthew Henry says about Isaiah 57, “The careless world slights these providences, and disregarding them: ‘No man lays it to heart, none considers it.’ There are very few that lament [the death of a good man] as a public loss, very few that take notice of it as a public warning. The death of good men is a thing to be laid to heart and considered more than common deaths. Serious inquiries ought to be made, wherefore God contends with us, what good lessons are to be learned by such providences, what we may do to help to make up the breach, and to fill up the room of those that are removed.” (4)
Henry continues, reflecting on Isaiah 57:2, “For the righteous man is taken away from calamity; he enters into peace; they rest in their beds who walk in their uprightness. They go to be easy out of the reach of that evil. The righteous man, who while he lived walked in his uprightness, when he dies enters into peace and rests in his bed…Death is gain, and rest, and bliss, to those only who walked in their uprightness, and who, when they die, can appeal to God concerning it…Their souls then enter into peace, into the world of peace, where peace is in perfection and where there is no trouble…Their bodies rest in their beds. Note, the grave is a bed of rest to all the Lord’s people there they rest from all their labors.” (5) Revelation 14:13 “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’”
I have been remembering believers I loved who have died and do not have to suffer emotionally or spiritually during the pandemic. Instead, that they are resting and not here anxiously worrying about the unbelievers who are perishing without redemption gives me a little peace while I pray for those unbelievers. I am anxious that they will indeed come to faith in Christ, by God’s grace. John Gill writes, “…there are evil times coming, great calamities, and sore judgments upon men; and therefore these righteous ones are gathered out of the world and are gathered home, and safely housed in heaven that they may escape the evil coming upon a wicked generation…this may be applied to the martyrs of Jesus in times of Popish persecution; or to the removal of good men by an ordinary death before those times came.” (6) God is transporting believers into his peace through their death, and the world is misunderstanding this. But we witness for Christ’s sake about God’s sovereignty and salvation by grace because of the peace we have waiting for our reward of peace and rest in death. Do you remember that you have this supernatural peace at a time when the world is shaking? Instead of waiting for public gatherings, will we wait on Christ and embrace his desire to purify us as his holy people? Let’s not waste our waiting time, our suffering. “What is Heaven, but the rest and quiet of a man’s spirit; that is the special thing that makes the life of heaven, there is rest and joy, and satisfaction in God. In heaven there is singing praises to God; a contented [peaceful] heart is always praising and blessing God.” (7)
“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.’” (Luke 2:25-32) I’ll let you make your own application. For me, I have asked the Lord not to let me die until I witness a revival in Christ.
(1) “God can view us as righteous in Christ because of imputation. Imputation means “to credit or count something toward an account,” and it is alluded to in today’s passage. As Romans 4:5 tells us, when we put our faith in Christ, we are counted as righteous. That is, the perfect righteousness earned by Jesus is imputed to us. In turn, our sins are imputed to Jesus who made satisfaction for them by bearing the wrath of God against His people on the cross.” https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/great-exchange/
(2) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Ezekiel 36, Crossway, 2008.
(3) Horton, Michael, “Introducing Covenant Theology,” Chapter 3, Baker Academic, eBook edition, 2020
(4) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” Isaiah 57, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/isaiah-57.html
(5) Henry, Ibid.
(6) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” 57:1-2, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/isaiah-57.html
(7) Burroughs, Jeremiah, “The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment,” Kindle Version, com Services LLC, 2010. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B003UV8OD6/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
April 30, 2020