There is a great contrast to be made between the faithful of the Old Testament and the faithful of the New, and this contrast centers around the promise of Heaven.
As people of the new covenant, it is easy for us to assume that God's people have always taken heaven for granted the way that we do, that His children have always known there was an eternity to spend with Him and that He awaits that eternity as much as we do. But that's simply not the case. Remember, before the Cross, death appeared to have the upper hand. Death appeared to have the victory. O death, where is your sting? Right here.
To understand the difference that the promise of Heaven makes in the life of even the most faithful of God's people, we need look no further than the lives of Hezekiah in the Old Testament and Paul in the new. Paul is a bit of an easy reference for us. We know quite well how often he says things like, "Whether I live or die, it doesn't matter; it's all for Christ. I'd rather die because then, there is heaven, but I'm here right now, and that's cool, too."
Hezekiah is less of a familiar story for many.
Hezekiah was one of the kings of Judah, a king who "did what was right in the Lord's eyes." (You can find his stories in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles.) He's one of the kings who found some of the words of the Lord in the Temple and mourned over how God's people had forsaken them over the years. He's one of the kings who reinstituted the Passover festival, a yearly sacrifice and celebration that God's people had not celebrated for many, many generations. He's one of the kings who undertook the work of rebuilding the Temple, cleansing the people, purifying the priests, tearing down the idols, and turning toward the Lord.
At some point in his life, after committing a sin that the Lord seemed not willing to overlook, Hezekiah becomes ill. The prophet says he is going to die; he will not recover from this illness. For most of us, this would be perhaps a bittersweet moment. Like Paul, we understand that on the other side of death lie something indescribable. But for Hezekiah, it was a moment of panic. He changed his entire tune. He tore his clothes. He cried out to God. Please, Lord. Do not let me die. Death is so horrible. I'm not ready for this life to be over.
Because Hezekiah had no promise that at just such a time, life was not over; it was only about to begin.
God grants mercy to His faithful king, and Hezekiah lives another 15 years. For us, that'd probably be enough. That's probably good. After another 15 years, most of us would be ready. But not Hezekiah. He's still not sure about leaving this place. He still has some concerns. As his death approaches once again, he asks God to reveal to him what's going to happen. And God lays out a story of destruction and exile that is being written for His wicked people.
Hezekiah's response? That's good. That's all good. Just let there be peace while I am still alive.
Again, here we have this faithful man of God who does not have a promise of Heaven, and here he is begging for peace while he is living. That's all he can hope for. Not once when he faces death does he ask for God's grace for eternity. Not once does he speak of anything that might happen once he dies. His entire focus is on this life that he's now living, on the world that he will have to leave. Because this world is all he has.
Quite a contrast to Paul's whatever happens, happens. I have either now or I have eternity, and either way, I am blessed.
The promise of Heaven is a game-changer, even for the most faithful of God's children. Or at least, it should be.
More on this, tomorrow....