Theologians call it “the intermediate state”. It’s that temporary time between our dying and Jesus’ Second Coming.
That’s what I started writing about–about what that intermediate state is like. Then I read one of the few texts telling about that time. And it pulled me in a different direction.
Before looking at that text, let me explain my interest in the intermediate state: simply, if we’re Jesus-believers and we die before he comes again, that’s where we’re going. So I want to know what it’s like. Now if I were God, I’d provide photos in the back of our Bibles. Instead, all we have are slim texts from which to infer a picture. I started with the one below–and it pulled me away. Maybe blew me away is more accurate.
” I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far . . . ” (Philippians 1:20-23).
The writer is Paul. He’s in a Rome house, chained 24/7 to a Roman guard, awaiting trial before Caesar. Here’s what Paul reveals about the intermediate state.
1. Wen we enter the intermediate state through death’s door, we gain. It’s “better by far”. Unnormal thinking! I sit here musing on what I’ll lose– my wife, my children, my grandchildren, other significant relationships, and a thousand things I’ve enjoyed here. But Paul, on the other hand, looks ahead, forward to the gain that awaits.
2. When we pass through death’s door, we believers are immediately with Christ. Anthony A. Hoekema (20th century professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary) explained: “Analysai (to depart) is an aorist infinitive, depicting the momentary experience of death. Linked to analysai by a single article is the present infinite einai (to be). The single article ties the two infinitives together, so that the actions depicted by these two infinitives are to be considered two aspects of the same thing, like two sides of the same coin” (The Bible and the Future, p. 104). Depart and be with Christ.
3. “[W]ith Christ” is what makes dying gain. “Christ” makes the intermediate state “better by far”. Christ is such gain that Paul admits, “I desire to depart and be with Christ . . .” Paul longs to die to be with Christ.
This is where I’m pulled away. Think. What fuels Paul’s longing? What makes him count dying gain? “For to me, to live is Christ.” Dr. Gordon Fee writes, ” . .. since Damascus [Road), Christ became the singular pursuit of his life. Christ–crucified, exalted Lord, present by the Spirit, coming King; Christ, the name that sums up for Paul the whole range of his new relationship to God: personal devotion, commitment, service, the gospel, ministry, communion, inspiration, everything.”
Paul himself expounds on this . . .
“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ– the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians3:7-14).
Again, Fee comments: “Thus if Paul is released as he expects, he will continue (now as always) in full pursuit of knowing Christ and making him known. Likewise, if he is executed, the goal of living has thus been reached: he will finally have gained Christ.”
Can you see why I was pulled? I started to search for a picture of what the immediate state is like. I ended up with a picture of what my life should be now.
I admit I’ve been pursuing healing more than Christ. Somehow, by God’s grace, by the empowering of his Spirit, I have to change my aim. I can still pray for healing. (At this point, I can’t not.) But pursuit? That must be singular. That must be Christ.
And for that I need no photos of the intermediate state.