Absent From the Body

 •  14 min. read  •  grade level: 8
We are often, it may be, disposed to wonder at how little is said in the New Testament in reference to the state of the spirit, from the moment in which it leaves the body until the morning of the resurrection. And yet, when we look more closely at it, we are struck with how much is said of it. True, there are but four passages which can properly be said to apply to that interesting interval; but oh! how much does any one of these four passages involve! If my reader will just turn with me for a few moments to the Word, he will find this subject presented in its application to four distinct phases of the Christian life. He will see the ransomed spirit passing into the presence of Christ from four distinct conditions. He will see one departing simply as a sinner saved by grace. He will see another making his exit as a martyr. He will hearken to the groanings of a burdened spirit desiring to be "absent from the body," and to be "present with the Lord." Finally, he will mark the earnest breathings of a laborer longing to be at rest forever in the Master's presence.
1) Our first reference shall be to Luke 23. "And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on Him, saying, If Thou be Christ, save Thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To-day shalt thou be with Me in paradise." vv. 39-43.
It is not my purpose at present to dwell upon this lovely passage, or to unfold in detail its rich evangelic teaching. I merely quote it in order that my reader may have the testimony of Holy Scripture fully and clearly before him. We here see the case of one who entered paradise in the simple character of a sinner saved by grace. He was a condemned malefactor in the morning—a railing blasphemer in the course of the day—a ransomed spirit in heaven ere the day closed. "Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise." He had been led to cast himself on Christ, as a justly condemned sinner, and he went to heaven with Christ as a blood-bought saint. He was not called to wear a martyr's crown. He was not permitted to bear any golden sheaves into the Master's garner. His was not a long and checkered Christian course, but he was a sinner saved by grace. And, what is more, he was enabled by grace to bear testimony to the sinless humanity of our blessed Lord at a moment when the great religious leaders of the people had given Him up to the secular power as a malefactor. And further, he was led to own Him as Lord and speak of His coming kingdom at a moment when, to mortal vision, not a trace of lordship or royalty was discernible. These were good works. To confess Christ, and flatly contradict a Christ rejecting world, are works of the very first order—works that shed forth the sweetest perfume and shine with the brightest luster. One of our own poets has beautifully and strikingly said,
"Talk they of morals? O
Thou bleeding Lamb,
The great morality is love to Thee."
The dying thief exhibited this "great morality." He owned Christ when a hostile world had cast Him out and when terror-stricken disciples had forsaken Him. "Lord, remember me," said he, "when Thou comest into Thy kingdom." Sweet were these words as they fell upon the heart of the dying Savior; and sweeter still the response which fell upon the heart of the dying thief, "To-day shalt thou be with Me in paradise." This went far beyond the thief's expectations. The gracious Savior was about to do "exceeding abundantly above all that" the thief could "ask or think." The thief asked to be remembered in the time of the kingdom. The Savior said, 1 shall have you with Me today.
And hence, when the Roman soldiers in the discharge of their brutal functions came to break the legs of this dying saint, he could smile and say, Ah, these men are just coming to send me straight to heaven.
It is happy to think of this. Heaven is much nearer, much more familiar than we at times suppose. Moreover, it is the very home of that love which sheds its bright and blessed beams upon this dreary scene through which we are passing. To be with Jesus secures everything. To be in the company of the One "who loved me, and gave Himself for me" will make me feel quite at home in heaven. We need not ask, Where is heaven? What kind of place is it? What are its occupations? "With Jesus" answers all these and many more such like questions. Where the tender affections of a Father's heart flow forth in divine purity and never varying strength—where the love of a Bridegroom glows with unabating intensity—where the sympathy of a friend is tasted in all its divine freshness and power—there is heaven; thither went the thief from his cross. "To-day shalt thou be with Me in paradise." Well may we say, "What must it be to be there?"
True, the thief left his poor body behind him until the bright morning of the resurrection, when it will be raised in incorruptibility, immortality, glory, and power. True it is that he, in company with all those who have fallen asleep in Jesus, waits for that happy moment. Yet it is equally true that Christ said unto him, "To-day shalt thou be with Me in paradise." What a thought! To pass from the cross—the ignominious cross of a malefactor—into the paradise of God, from a scene of blasphemy, mockery, and cruelty, into the presence of Jesus. Such was the happy lot of the dying thief, not for any merit of his own but simply through the precious sacrifice of Christ, who "entered in once into the holy place" by His own blood, and took the thief along with Him.
2) I shall now quote for my reader the second passage in the New Testament which bears upon our subject. It occurs in the Acts of the Apostles. "And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep." Chap. 7:59, 60.
Here we have the case of a martyr-the very first of that noble army who have yielded up their lives for the name of Jesus. Stephen was not merely a sinner saved by grace, but also a sufferer for the cause of Christ—a sufferer even unto death. He passed from amid the stones of his murderers into the presence of his Lord, who had so recently gone before, and now stood ready to receive the spirit of His martyred servant. What an exchange! What a contrast! And be it observed that Stephen was favored with a very vivid view of the scene into which he was about to enter. "He, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God." Wondrous sight! Heaven would be no strange place to Stephen. "The Son of man" was there, so that he should feel quite at home there. He did not, like the thief, see Jesus hanging beside him; but he saw Him up in heaven before him. He did not, like the thief, see Him dying; but he saw Him risen and glorified- crowned with glory and honor, at the right hand of the Majesty in the heavens.
Thus, then, if the thief could think of heaven as the home of that blessed One who was nailed to the cross, Stephen could look at it as the home of that One who had gone before him into glory. It was the same heaven and the same Jesus to both the one and the other. It was no vague or far-off region to either. It was the happy home of the crucified and glorified Jesus. The dying malefactor might look at it from one point of view, and the dying martyr might look at it from another; but it was the same attractive, happy home to both. True it is that the malefactor as well as the martyr had to leave his poor body behind him, to sleep in the dust until the morning of the resurrection. True it is that he too waits for that long-expected, blissful moment. Still, his spirit has been with Jesus ever since.
Yes; the malefactor and the martyr have both been up yonder with their Lord for many centuries. What happy years for them! Not a cloud, not a ripple, not a single interruption to their communion. Their condition is one of expectancy, but it is also one of perfect repose—no conflict, no sin, no sorrow, no change. All these things are over forever with them; so, although they are not more secure, they are far more happy than we. There is something peculiarly attractive in the thought of the unbroken repose which the spirit enjoys in the presence of the crucified and glorified Jesus. To be done with a world of sin, selfishness, and sorrow—done with the ceaseless tossings and heavings of a corrupt nature-done with the ten thousand snares and devices of a subtle foe, to be forever at rest in the bosom of Jesus! What deep, unutterable blessedness! Well may the spirit long to taste it.
3) This leads us naturally enough to our third reference, which occurs in the second epistle to the Corinthians: "For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life. Now He that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit. 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." Chap. 5:4-8.
Here then we have the case of any poor, groaning, burdened saint looking forth from a crumbling, dissolving tabernacle and sighing to get away. Not that the unclothed state is the proper object of hope. Let no one imagine this. The believer looks to the moment in which he shall be clothed upon with a glorified body like the body of Jesus. Still, it would be happy at any moment to lay aside a body of death, and be present with the Lord. It is far happier to wait for the day of glory in the bosom of our loving Lord than in this dark and dreary world. Hence, the Apostle says, "We are... willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord." That moment which, to an unconverted man, is death with all its terrors, is to the saint simply a laying aside of all that hinders his communion with Christ. It is just getting rid of all that is mortal. What very different work the Roman soldiers did for the two thieves! They sent one to be with Jesus, and the other to that place where hope never comes. How deeply important it is for each of us to possess the confidence that, in our case, to be "absent from the body" is to be "present with the Lord"! How truly appalling-how unspeakably dreadful—the condition of those who, when absent from the body, must be present with the devil and his angels!
4) Let us in conclusion look at our fourth and last quotation, which we shall find in that lovely epistle to the Philippians: "For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better." Chap. 1:23. Here, a laborious workman looks up from amid his golden fields of labor, and breathes forth his ardent desire to get away into his Master's presence. He is in a strait. His spirit longs to depart, but he casts his affectionate eye upon those who would so sorely feel his loss, and the thought of them checks his desire. "Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you," he says to his beloved Philippians. "And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith." What thorough devotedness! He longs to be in heaven, but he is needed on earth, and therefore he is ready to remain. So far as he is concerned, it was "far better" to depart; but so far as others were concerned, it was "more needful" to remain; and hence, he, being full of the spirit of Christ, was ready to sacrifice himself for their profit.
Now if my reader will just group these four scriptures together, he will not only have before his mind what is given in the New Testament in reference to the souls of those who have departed in the faith of Christ; but he will also see that the Holy Ghost has presented the subject in such a way as to meet every possible condition in which a Christian can be found-every aspect in which he can be contemplated.
In Luke 23 we see one just saved and forthwith taken to heaven. In Acts 7 we see one who was permitted to suffer martyrdom for the name of Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 5 we see a groaning, burdened Christian, longing to lay aside his poor crumbling tabernacle and be present with the Lord. In Philippians 1 we see a laborious workman, with many precious sheaves around him, looking up and sighing to find his place at his Master's feet.
This gives great fullness, completeness, and beauty to this most interesting theme. And let my reader note distinctly, that there is not a shadow of foundation for the idea entertained by some, that the soul is in a state of sleep while the body is in the grave. Indeed, one might reasonably suppose that, even though we had not such an overwhelming body of scripture evidence on the point, this strange idea would carry with it its own refutation. Who could admit anything so monstrous as the notion of a spirit asleep? Ah, no; the Lord Jesus did not say to the thief, "Today shalt thou be asleep." Stephen did not commit his spirit to sleep, but into the hands of his Lord. The Apostle does not say, "We are willing rather to be asleep"; or, "Having a desire to be asleep, which is far better." One can only wonder how such an idea could have found a place in any rational mind. Blessed be God! His Word teaches us most clearly that, should it be His holy will that we leave this world previous to the glorious advent of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, our place will be with Himself in that bright and blessed world above, where sin and sorrow are unknown, there to enjoy uninterrupted communion with the One who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and there to await that moment when "the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be change d" (1 Cor. 15:5252In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:52)).