The Ascent Into GloryErwin W. Lutzer | May 25, 1997
Selected highlights from this sermon
Death. We do everything we can to avoid it, yet it’s the means by which God calls His children home. For those who have put their trust in Christ and are under the shelter of His protection, our souls simply depart from Earth and arrive in heaven.
Today my message is entitled The Ascent into Glory. We will not be speaking specifically about what it is going to be like to arrive in heaven. That we are reserving for the next message, but today we want to look at death from a biblical point of view to see how God sees it and why we should not fear that ascent into heaven.
First of all, before I begin the message, I do need to make a clarification. I hope it will be a clarification. After last week’s message many of you came up to me and you asked me questions because apparently I was unclear. Well, you know that I don’t like to be like that politician who left a political rally here in Chicago the other day, and whispered to one of his aides, “I hope that in the excitement I didn’t happen to make myself clear about anything.”
So let me try to be clear. In the Old Testament you had Sheol. The righteous and the wicked both descend into Sheol. There is a lower region in Sheol, which the rabbis interpreted to mean that this was the place of the wicked, but Sheol also had another region, which was the place of the righteous.
We come into the New Testament, Luke 16, which was the passage that we spent most of our time on last week, and it is in that passage that Jesus talks about two regions. One is Hades, and in the New Testament, wherever the word Sheol occurs, as it is quoting the Old Testament, it always uses the word Hades. Sheol is the Hebrew word. Hades is the Greek word. However, in the New Testament it is interesting that Hades is never a positive place. It is never looked at as the region of the righteous dead per se, but nevertheless, you do have those two compartments. As we discussed, the rich man and Lazarus had this conversation even though a gulf is between them, and they cannot cross over from one side to the other.
Now all that I can tell you is that in the New Testament after the ascension of Jesus Christ, there does not seem to be any talk about two compartments or two regions. After the ascension, everyone who dies goes directly to heaven, which I interpret to be the same as Paradise, and which we would look at from the standpoint of the Old Testament as Abraham’s bosom. It is my personal belief, though some people would disagree, that when Jesus ascended into heaven He took all those who were in what we call Abraham’s bosom, or Paradise, and He took them with Him so that they are now in heaven. In the Old Testament you always think of Sheol as the region beneath. In the New Testament it is the region above.
Stephen, as we shall see in a moment, sees the heavens open, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, the Father. And that’s where Stephen went, so you and I, when we die, will go directly into heaven, as we will seek to prove today through the text of Scripture.
What do we make of death? What do we make of it? It seems to be our greatest enemy. We do everything we possibly can to avoid it, to get away from it, to stave it off as long as we possibly can, to eke out one last week of existence. Yet the Bible presents a very different story. Remember in the Old Testament in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree? And you remember that God drove them out of the garden. Why did He drive them out, because He said, “The moment you eat and disobey you will die?” And they began to die physically. They began to die spiritually. And they would have died eternally had God not provided salvation for them. But when He sent them out of the garden the text says that He put some cherubim there, a flaming sword to protect the tree of life. They ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but God wanted to keep them from the tree of life. Why? It’s because if they would have eaten that they would have been immortalized in their sinful state. They would have lived as sinners forever. They would not have died, but what a miserable existence it would have been. But God protected them from that. Do you know why? It’s because He wanted to give us what we could call today the gift of death, because death is the doorway by which God invites us to something that is far better. Far better! And that is personal fellowship with Him in heaven.
What I’d like to do today is to look at five images in the New Testament on death. Normally, as you know, I take a passage of Scripture and expound it, but this time we are going to have to speak topically because these images exist in different parts of the Bible. And so in some cases I’ll have you turn to the text. At other times I will simply quote it, and if you are taking notes, you can write down the references and you can check them later.
We can begin with Luke 9, verse 31. Jesus is on the Mount of Transfiguration and the first image is that death is a departure. Luke 9:31! What an experience the disciples had (the three disciples) and of course, Moses and Elijah also came for a visit on top of the mountain. But it says in verse 31: “And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure.” That’s the word that I want because the Greek word there is exodos. You know, of course, we have the second book of the Bible, which is known as the Exodus, the leaving, the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt and right to the promised land.
Look at almost every building. You can look around in it and you’ll see an exit sign. That’s the same word—the departure. When you exit you leave to go somewhere else. And notice it’s talking about the death of Jesus Christ, and it is called a departure. They were talking about the exodus of Christ.
Now think this through. Moses led the people out of slavery. He crossed the Red Sea, and after crossing the Red Sea, he led them in the desert. The intention, of course, was to bring them into the land and eventually they did enter into that land. Crossing the Red Sea should not have been a fearful experience if they were following a qualified leader, namely Moses. They could have had confidence that they would eventually get there, and even though their hearts trembled on occasion, there was no question about God’s ability to lead them over the sea.
Now, in the very same way, should we fear death? Death has a lot of mystery, but the Scripture says that Jesus died that He might take away the fear of death, and to deliver those who, through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage. Death is our departure. It is God taking us. It is leaving this world. And we need not fear what lies on the other side as long as we have trusted a qualified Savior, as long as we have trusted Christ and we know that we are en route to the Father who is in heaven. And that’s why, when someone dies as a believer in Christ, we say that he has departed. He has departed. It’s not that he is annihilated. It is not that he is extinct. He has just departed to go somewhere else.
You’ve heard me tell the story of that little girl who was seen walking through a cemetery, and someone said, “Are you not afraid of going through a cemetery?” And she said, “No, because my home is on the other side.” Death is the means by which God takes us home. It’s a departure.
Let me give you a second figure of speech, I should say, and that is that death is sleep. Now there are so many passages about this that I scarcely need to quote them all, but I want to remind you that in John 11:11 Jesus said, regarding Lazarus, “Our friend, Lazarus, sleeps, and I go that I may wake him out of sleep.” And the disciples think that he is taking a nap, and Jesus said, “No, Lazarus is dead.”
Do you remember 1 Corinthians 15:51? The Apostle Paul says, “Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” What Paul means is this, that there is a whole generation of believers that is going to be living at the return of Jesus Christ, when He comes at what we call the Rapture. So he says, “Not all of us are going to die, but Christ is going to come, and we will be immediately transformed, and the dead in Christ shall rise first, but we shall join them if we are living during that wonderful occasion.” And you and I might experience that in our lifetime, but notice he says, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed.”
This has led many people to embrace the idea of what is known as soul sleep. Soul sleep says that when a person dies today, he is unconscious until the day of resurrection. When his body is raised, it is at that time that his spirit also will be rejuvenated, and then he will become conscious in the presence of Christ.
I need to say that people who hold to that write me many letters. Many of them are very fine people, but I want to respectfully and strongly disagree with soul sleep. I believe that the Bible teaches the continual consciousness of the soul. The body goes into the grave. That’s right! And it is to be raised most assuredly, and well talk about that in future messages. We will discuss the resurrection body, but the reason that sleep is used as a figure of speech for death is not because the soul sleeps but because the body sleeps until the day of resurrection.
Notice this. Moses was not sleeping until the day of resurrection. He appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration. Now some people think that he already had his resurrected body. I don’t think so, and we’ll have to talk about that. But here’s Moses who is quite conscious long before the time when the dead are raised. But let me give you some other references, and I will invite you only to jot down the passage.
In Acts 7:59 Stephen is being stoned, and as those rocks are coming in his direction, long before he falls over in death, the Scripture says that he saw the heavens opened and he saw Jesus Christ standing on the right hand of God the Father. And you’ve heard me say many times that it’s the only instance in the New Testament where Jesus is seen standing at the right hand of God the Father. Almost always, in fact, in the other instances, Christ is seen as seated. It’s almost as if He’s saying, “Stephen, just be faithful because soon we are going to be together.”
But notice this. Did Stephen actually expect that his soul was going to be in extinction until the day of resurrection? No, because a few verses later he said, “Into Thy hands I commit my spirit. Receive my spirit.” Clearly Stephen expected to be with Jesus Christ immediately, and I believe that he was there immediately.
Now write down this reference—Luke 23:43. Jesus is dying on the cross, and He says to the one thief, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.” Now, how do our friends who believe in soul sleep interpret that? Well, here’s the answer. They say that what Jesus meant is this, or rather what the text meant is, “Behold I say to you today, you shall be with me in Paradise.” In other words, Jesus is giving the time in which He’s making the promise, and is saying nothing as to when and where they shall meet.
Now, I need to say that most people who study Greek grammar point out that it is really nonsensical to make the text say that. Obviously Jesus was saying it that day. Was He saying it the previous day? Was He saying it tomorrow? Impossible! What Jesus meant was this: “Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” And you know that Jesus died before the thief did. You remember the soldiers were surprised that Jesus died so soon, and that He was dead when they got to Him. What that means is that Jesus was already there in Paradise waiting for the thief, and He was probably the very first one to greet him. And they met that day in Paradise. You say, “Well, did Jesus descend into Hades?” I don’t think so, but we’re ahead of the story. We’ll pick that up in another message.
Notice that the Apostle Paul certainly was not expecting to sleep in the earth, so far as his consciousness was concerned, until the day of resurrection. He said in Philippians 1, “I have a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better.” He says, “I want to die. I am itching to get on with my glorification. My bags are packed. I am ready to go,” but he says, “To abide in the flesh is more needful for you, and therefore, God has not yet given me the privilege of death. That will come a little later. What an optimistic view about death!
Now, I want you to think this through logically. Do you mean to tell me that one of the reasons that Paul was so anxious to die is that he could hardly wait until he got into the grave so that he could sleep until the day of resurrection? If that were the case, why indeed, dying at that time rather than a few years later, he would not see Jesus more quickly because his soul would just be sleeping anyway, according to some of our friends. No! Listen! The reason that Paul was so excited to die is he was saying, “I can hardly wait until I see Jesus, and it is so exciting to me I wish I could go today. But God wants me to live for your benefit,” and he was expecting to see Christ at death.
What does the Scripture say also in 2 Corinthians 5? It says: “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”
Now, why is sleep used then as an image of death because, as I mentioned, the body sleeps? And just as you go to sleep at night and you are raised and rejuvenated, in the very same way the body goes to sleep. It will be raised. It will be created incorruptible. You will look like you do today only much better, and you’ll have a different molecular structure. Your body is going to be like that of Jesus Christ, for we shall see Him as He is, and we shall be like Him. And you know, I don’t know about you, but I’m not afraid to go to sleep. In fact, I look forward to it when I am tired. Now, when you are not tired you don’t want to go to sleep. And you know, when you are young and vigorous and you can still play tennis like some of us do, you don’t really look forward to death. Notice I said, “Some of us.” You don’t look forward to death.
Remember the man who was preaching on heaven and he said, “How many of you want to go to heaven?” and everyone raised his hand except someone in the front row. And he said, “Don’t you want to go to heaven?” and the guy said, “Yeah, I do, but I thought you were getting a crowd to go right now.” (laughter) In other words, “I want to go but I’m not tired yet.” But when you have lived your life and served Christ, and the time comes for you to go, you are ready to go because you’ll be able to say, like the Apostle Paul, “I have fought a good fight. I have finished my course. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness given to all those who love His appearing.” Not just Paul but all of us who love Christ, and you are ready to go!
The Scripture says in Revelation 14:11: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, for they rest from their labors.”
Did I tell you about the woman who was a hundred years old, and she could not hear very well, and someone said to her, “Why don’t you get a hearing aid?” And bless that woman, she said, “I am a hundred years old, and I’ve heard enough.” (laughter)
I’m not nearly that old and I’m beginning to think I’ve heard enough too. “Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord, for they rest from their labors.” They are tired and they have gone home, and their works follow them. What a blessed verse that is! That means just like a pebble that is thrown into the water that has all of the impact, and you can see those waves of water that created those semi-circles, in the very same way the good that we do is carried on to eternity. I know that Shakespeare said that the evil that men do lives after them, and the good is interred with their bones, but that’s not true. That’s not true! Shakespeare was wrong. And so the Scripture says that we rest. And even in the Old Testament, David said, “As for me I shall behold Thy face in righteousness, and I will be satisfied when I awake.” Sleep is rest.
There’s a third image and that is a collapsing tent. And you may now take your Bibles and turn to 2 Corinthians 5, and although we shall look at other passages, I suggest that you keep your Bibles open there because we shall end there in a few moments. Second Corinthians 5:1 says: “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” In another message we’ll discuss what that building is that we have in the heavens, but notice that if our earthly tent, which is our house, is torn town, what a good image that is.
You know, there are enthusiasts who like to live in tents. They like to go camping, and I admire these folks. They like to rough it. But you know, eventually their tent becomes tattered. The wind blows and you have all of the problems of rain and everything else, and eventually, you know, it’s time to hang up the old tent. It’s time to put it aside. That’s the way it is in our lives. You know, the older you get, the more things begin to creak, the more your body begins to hurt. And you know how that experience is. When you bend over to tie your shoes, while you are down there you think, “Is there anything else I can do now that I am down there?” (laughter) Some of you are at that point. Our old tent begins to weaken. It begins to deteriorate. It looks very dilapidated. What a beautiful image! It’s a reminder of the fact this this world is not our home, you know. “We’re just passing through.”
The whole idea of tents has to do with how temporal life is, that it’s not our permanent place. And when you die you set aside that tent and you get on with your eternal home. You really do. So don’t be discouraged today if the tent that you have brought with you needs some repair. It needs some work. You did the best you could this morning clearly. As I look out I can see that you worked on it, but don’t be discouraged because you are getting something better, and you’re getting a permanent home.
And you do remember that story about the guys who were out camping and someone said to the other, “Don’t drive the stake in so deeply because we’re leaving in the morning.” We are strangers and pilgrims in this world. And so one illustration of death—one figure of speech is that it is a collapsing tent. You can keep it up for a long time, but eventually it is going to come down.
Number four, the sailing of a ship! I want you to keep your Bibles open to 2 Corinthians, but also turn to Philippians 1 now where the Apostle Paul uses the word depart. And this is a different word. This is not the word exodos as we learned last time. Notice what Paul says in Philippians 1:23: “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart (analyō–to set loose) and to be with Christ, for that is far better.” This is a Greek word that was often used for a ship that was cut loose so that it might be able to sail. One of the great scholars says that it has to do with the loosing of an anchor, or to weigh anchor and to put out to sea.
What a beautiful image! Jesus Christ has gone across the sea. He has made it to the other side, and so He invites us now to come where He is. Death has all that mystery, but one of the things about it is that as long as you know that Jesus is going to be there, somehow all the other things aren’t so fearful. The Apostle Paul used the same word before he died when he said, “The time of my departure has now come.” It’s time for the ship to come into harbor.
There’s a passage of Scripture in the book of Hebrews, which I will read to you only, but what a beautiful use of this image. “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope though sure and steadfast, and one which enters within the vail, where Jesus has entered as the forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”
The imagery of the forerunner is this, that when you had a ship that was coming to harbor, the forerunner would hop out before the ship got to shore, take the rope, and tie it around a rock, and then with a winch, would bring that ship in so it would come safely into harbor. And the Scripture says that Jesus is the anchor of the soul and has gone (Catch this.) within the vail, in the very heart of God, the very Holy of Holies, the very place where you and I dare to tread. That’s where Jesus is, and He brings us right there, and He’s the forerunner. He made it there and He says, “You’re coming, too, even if I have to drag you all the way.”
And so we have this boat, and the winds come and the sails are tattered. You look at the boat, and even with a little bit of paint, it ain’t what it used to be. You look at the boat and you notice that the floors creak. You notice that there are waves all around and we’re constantly battered. But our forerunner has run within the vail and is now bringing us home. He’s bringing us home!
There was a captain who was visiting someone in the hospital who was dying. And when he got there, he discovered that this man had the flags of various countries around him. And as they talked they discovered that they had served on the very same ship, and both of them were believers. But one of them said, “What are all these flags?” and the other said, “Well, don’t you remember what it was like to be on the ship?” He said, “These flags show that the boat is ready for sail, and all that I am asking,” he said, “is for the captain to give me the final order.” And that’s what death is to the Christian. It’s the final order. As the Lord says, “Come hither, come home.”
There’s a final image. Death is a departure. It is an exodos. It is a restful sleep. It is a collapsing tent. It is the sailing of a ship. It is also a home. You say, “Well, that’s not really a figure of speech. That is what it is,” and that’s true. And for this I want you to simply think about the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John: “Let not your heart be troubled. Ye believe in God. Believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many mansions.”
I don’t know about you, but most of us who grew up in churches always think of that long, long ranch-style house, on about ten acres, with several limousines in the front yard, and the lawn beautifully manicured. And that’s where it is, and that’s why we used to sing, you know, “I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop.” I’ve not heard you sing that recently, Jerry. Sometime you might want to try that but, “I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop,” so we think of ourselves of being in this mansion.
Actually the Greek is many dwelling places, and later on we’re going to have a message just on heaven, and I’ll tell you how big heaven really is (At least the book of Revelation seems to tell us.) and how many possible mansions it has and how much space you’re going to have. But for now, I simply want you to be reminded of the fact that these are dwelling places. These are abodes. These are condominiums with your name on it. And if your name is on it nobody else is going to move in. Nobody else is going to move in. And the great thing is that “Where I am there ye may be also.” And that’s the heart and soul of it—to be with Christ.
Oh, we will see other people. We will recognize them. I think we will have instant recognition, but I tell you that the most blessed thing is that we will be with Christ, and He with us, and we will have our abode with Him. And so that’s the fifth figure of speech.
What I’d like to do is to simply conclude by giving you some lessons that we can learn so far from death. Number one, death is a gift of God. I’ve already said it but I need to say it again. Do you remember in 1 Corinthians 3:21 and 23 Paul said, “All things are yours whether height or depth, whether Paul or Cephas, whether life or death?” Death is a gift. It’s a gift. Now, I know that we do all that we possibly can to keep ourselves from opening it. We belong to HMO’s, and some of them that I’ve heard about will help you open that gift, by the way. (laughter) Some people say, “Not an HMO, a PPO.” There are other options out there but eventually death will get you. It’ll get you! But it’s a gift.
Do you know what the early Christians used to say when they were being thrown to the lions? They used to say, “You know, the pagans can take many things from us. They can take our houses, and they can take our lands, and they can even take our children. But one thing they cannot take from us is the gift of death. Nobody can take the gift of death from us. In fact, they might be the means that God will use to give us that gift,” they said, “but nobody can rid us of the possession of the Christian, namely death.” It is the entranceway into the heavenly kingdoms. You can’t get there from here any other way, so don’t fight it. Don’t fight it unless we live when the Lord returns and we are going to all go that way. Fight it for a while, but in the end simply accept it.
Do you know that when some of the believers in Europe during the time of the Reformation were persecuted, and when they were thrown into fires, drowning, sword…? We have thousands and tens of thousands of people who did that. Most people don’t know that that’s our history. Some people, when I tell them that whole villages of men, women and children were massacred simply because they believed that one should be baptized as an adult upon profession of faith in the 1500s in Europe, can’t believe it. They say, “Did that really happen?” Yes! The stain of blood is throughout all of church history.
But it is said that on one occasion the authorities actually brought a band to drown out the songs of those who were singing as they were on their way to death. That’s how joyful they were to die and to be with Christ. Death is a gift. It’s a gift!
You go to the Drake Hotel here in Chicago. They have 24-hour valet service. They’ll open the door for you. It might cost you something once you get inside, but they’ll open the door for you. You can get a limousine to take you there. Listen! Death is the chariot. It’s the limousine that God sends to take us to Himself, and when we get there we find out that there’s a doorman, and it’s the One whom we have come to trust in this life, and He is there to meet us on the other side. Death is a gift.
Secondly, eternity must help us interpret time. Did you get a chance to write that down? Eternity must help us interpret time. I asked you to keep your Bible open to 2 Corinthians, chapter 5. Notice what the Apostle Paul says just before chapter 5 of 2 Corinthians, that great discussion about heaven and our resurrection body. He says in 2 Corinthians, verses 16 through 18: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
Did you notice that all of our affliction is light, and it is momentary? Take a string from here to the farthest star, and when you think about it, our life then would be just a hairline. But actually we aren’t going to live just to the farthest star as it were. We are going to actually live forever. Therefore, there is no suffering that God can ever put us through in this life that will not be made up to us in the life to come. Many, many times over! In fact, Paul says, “If you were to take a scale and on one side put all of your trials and all of your difficulties, it will be as light as a feather in comparison to the heavy weight of glory.” The glory of God on the other side causes the scale to go plunk because it is so much heavier and so much greater.
I don’t know what you are going through today, but I am glad to inform you that it will someday end. Isn’t that encouraging? It isn’t going to go on forever, but heaven will go on forever. And the glory that is to be revealed in us will go on forever, so eternity must help us interpret time.
And finally, third, our eternal destiny is determined in this life. Our eternal destiny is determined in this life. Now eventually we are going to speak about the Great White Throne Judgment and even the doctrine of hell, but let me simply say that there are many people who think that someday they are going to stand before God, and the purpose of that judgment, they think, is to determine whether they are going into heaven or hell. Did you know that the Bible does not give us any indication that there is a judgment like that? Rather, what the Bible teaches is that those who believe in Jesus Christ as Savior are taken immediately to heaven, and there they encounter Christ in what is known as the Judgment Seat of Jesus Christ to determine their degree of rewards in heaven.
Those who do not know Christ as Savior show up eventually. They are raised in another judgment called The Great White Throne Judgment, and there they are judged to determine the degree of punishment that they will have in hell. There two different judgments, two different destinies, two different crowds of people. And the decision as to whether or not you will be at one or the other is made in this life. There is no chance afterwards. “It is appointed unto men once to die and after that there is a judgment.” There is a judgment for all of us but there are two different judgments.
Do you realize that it is only those who put faith and trust in Jesus Christ who can accept death in the way in which I have outlined in this message? And the purpose and the reason for that is very clear, because if you have come under the shelter of Christ’s death and what He did on the cross for sinners, if you come under that protection, there is therefore now no eternal condemnation for you, because you are passed from death unto life. And this is what Jesus said: “He that believeth on me shall not see death.” He will not see death. Oh, he’ll die physically. It’ll either be cancer or Parkinson’s disease or some other way—an accident or heart failure. There’s a zillion different ways by which… God has all kinds of chariots that He sends our way. But “He that believeth in me shall not see death.” He will not see an eternal death. He will see only life. And when you hear that a believer dies, and some of you have had that experience even recently within your families and within your friends, would you, in your sorrow and in your tears, rejoice in the fact that God has called another child home? And He is saying to us today that death is the ascent into Glory. It is the means by which God and His child are reconciled.
I end today by asking you a question: Is your faith in Christ alone? Do you personally know Him because you have believed on Him, or is all of this kind of theoretical? Your eternal destiny is determined by what you do with Christ.
Let us pray.
Father, we want to thank You today that even though we do see through a glass darkly, thank You that You that we do see. We don’t see clearly what lies on the other side of the curtain, but the fact that You will be there waiting for us makes us anticipate that day. And we thank You that Your Word says that the sting has been taken out of death. And we pray today, Father, that You will encourage Your people to look at all of the events that take place in life—the hard times, the disappointments, the pain from a standpoint of an eternal existence, the eternal glory in your presence. And Lord, for those who do not know You as Savior today, grant them the gift of faith. May they look to You even now and be saved, and say, “Lord Jesus, I trust You at this moment.”
Before I close this prayer I want you to pray. And if you are here today and you have never believed in Christ, would you tell Him that in your heart, because He knows what you are thinking. Embrace Him as your Savior at this moment.
Father, for those who waffle, don’t let them sleep. Take away their appetite. Bring them to a point where they call to You that they might be saved. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.