Though every man filing into the Grace Community Church worship center was dressed the same—in a long dark robe and square hat with a tassel hanging to the left of the face—Judy Mattson instantly recognized her husband. He stood a little taller than his fellow graduates. He moved a little slower, though that wasn’t unusual for DJ. He’d always walked with more patience—seemingly never flustered or in a hurry—particularly since his health struggles began about a year earlier. Then there was DJ’s face. Judy had always been able to pick it out of a crowd since she first laid eyes on DJ, at 1:45 p.m. EST on September 19, 1971. DJ was standing among a group of freshmen at Oneonta State College of New York when Judy first saw him. Moments after meeting the two were at the movies, chatting through West Side Story. The conversation seemingly never stopped. Days later, DJ and Judy became a couple. They dated through college, then married in the summer of 1974, weeks after graduation. After a half-century of knowing DJ, and 48 years of marriage, Judy still saw the same attractive, calm face walking down that aisle on May 8, 2022, while Pomp and Circumstance filled the air. To her, he hadn’t changed much through the years. In fact, in her opinion he had only grown more handsome.
As soon as Judy spotted DJ, she trained her camera on him, though she knew being filmed wasn’t something DJ loved. He never wanted the spotlight on him. He was always redirecting compliments and crediting others—especially Christ—for any good in his life. DJ had made a career of lifting others up. First, he mentored other physical therapists in the Utica area of upstate New York where the Mattsons lived and raised their three boys for thirty years. Then he taught college students for six years at Utica College. After that, he spent eight wonderful years teaching at the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston. Finally, he became a teacher and mentor in Liberty University’s online program and at The Master’s University. He loved teaching. He saw it as an act of service. Countless times, Judy remembers her husband asking a student, colleague, or employer “how can I serve you?” It was one of his trademark greetings. He was content in the background, willing to elevate and encourage others. Judy adored DJ for this. She saw so much strength, self-awareness, and humility in him. She knew her husband’s character—she had seen his love for the Lord and others prove itself again and again over a half-century of life together—and she was proud of him. He had just finished a three-year journey that men half his age rarely completed so quickly. In this moment, with the robes, and the pomp and circumstance, she was going to place as much attention as she could on him. She was going to capture this moment for herself, for her boys who couldn’t travel across the country to be there for the ceremony, and, most of all, for him. DJ was finished. He’d run the seminary race and finished well. It was time to celebrate.
As DJ approached where Judy was sitting, about ten rows from the front, she waved. He looked her way, and their eyes met. As Judy filmed, DJ smiled, raised his hand to his mouth, and blew her a kiss. It was their last interaction.
DJ was born Douglas John Mattson on October 17, 1953 in Brooklyn, New York, but he grew up in Rocklind County, a couple hours north of the city. His family attended a Methodist church from time-to-time, and occasionally read from the Bible, but they did not take the Christian faith too seriously. Neither did DJ. That all changed when he was 16-years-old. Upset by the end of a relationship with a girl, DJ went to church. After the service, he prayed by himself in the choir loft, asking the Lord Jesus to save him. Through the next 52 years, DJ never doubted that Christ redeemed him that night in 1969. He didn’t know everything about the gospel when he came to Christ. But he knew he needed a Savior. Though his faith would grow stronger through the years, it would never waver.
A year after salvation, DJ enrolled in Oneonta State College. He was 17-years-old, which made him one of the youngest members of the freshmen class (the night DJ and Judy met, she didn’t believe he was actually 17-years-old. He had to show her his driver’s license to prove he wasn’t lying). At that young age, DJ was already an eager student. Institutions of higher learning would shape his life.
Initially, DJ studied Geology. He loved science but was unsure what career to pursue. He considered medical school, but the Lord never opened that door. Halfway through his collegiate years, DJ switched to General Science. In what would become a pattern for DJ, he accelerated his education at Oneonta, finishing in three years. The summer after graduation, DJ and Judy married in August of 1974. They started their married life in Suffern, New York, an hour north of Manhattan. He worked as a chemist and she as a public health nurse. The career was stable. The money was good. But DJ wanted more interaction with people. He was eager to help others. The Lord opened such a door when Duke University accepted DJ into a master’s degree program to study physical therapy. This launched him into a fulfilling career that he loved, and that would give him the opportunity help people, mentor younger professionals, and teach.
Over the next thirty years, DJ would discover a knack for building things. He built his physical therapy practice from the ground up. When younger physical therapists joined the small community of professionals in the Utica area, DJ mentored and encouraged them as they started their own practices. When he entered the academic world, he was adept at building curriculum, strengthening departments, encouraging students and colleagues. During his eight years at the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, the administration noticed DJ’s leadership skills and sought to give him responsibilities beyond the classroom. But DJ wanted to stay under the radar. He loved teaching. He loved learning. One day, he came home from a meeting at the institution and told Judy he was ready to retire. He’d found so much fulfillment and satisfaction in teaching at MGH, but he was ready for a new adventure. He also wanted to spend more time with his mom, who was sick and had moved in with them.
This new adventure started at their church in upstate New York. Through the career changes, different homes, and the raising of three boys, DJ and Judy were always faithful to plug into a local church that taught the Bible. Around the time DJ began to consider retirement, the pastor of their church, two Sunday school teachers, and another ministry friend all mentioned this Bible teacher named John MacArthur. They would use The MacArthur Study Bible and reference MacArthur’s commentaries and books. Neither DJ nor Judy knew about Pastor John’s ministry, but they appreciated their leaders, so they started listening to Grace to You. They were astonished by what they heard. The expository preaching was so simple and clear. Pastor John just opened the Scriptures and told the audience what it meant. For people like DJ and Judy who loved the Bible, this kind of teaching was life-giving. Discovering the ministry of John MacArthur through several trusted sources was the first step in this new adventure. The second was coming to California to visit their son, Peter, who lived in Malibu and worked in the film industry. While in Southern California, the Mattsons visited Grace Community Church and loved what they observed. The third step in this providential journey was retirement from full-time teaching on the east coast. DJ and Judy were trying to figure out what was next. They sought the Lord’s will. They wanted to spend more time with their children and grandchildren and serve the church.
During a visit to California, DJ learned about The Master’s University while attending a service at Grace Church. Neither he nor Judy were familiar with the school. The next day, DJ called The Master’s University and asked them his trademark question: “How could I serve your science department?”
Three days later, the university called and offered DJ a position as a part-time instructor in the science department. As the Lord opened that door, it became clear that He was moving them to Southern California. Initially, the Mattsons committed to one year in the Los Angeles area—a trial run—to see how the west coast fit. That first year turned into eight and began the rest of their lives together.
As soon as the Mattson moved to Southern California, they plugged into the community at Grace Church. While DJ taught at TMU and online with Liberty University, Judy studied for her ACBC certification and volunteered at Grace to You. They spent time in both the Grace Life and Anchored fellowship groups. DJ served in the outreach department. They also helped in special needs ministry. Through it all, DJ’s love for the Bible grew. The Lord and His Word became the increasing focus of DJ’s thoughts, his conversations with Judy, and his interactions with others. DJ was a man gripped by the truth and by a love for the Savior. That zeal exploded when he returned from a missions trip to Myanmar in the summer of 2019. While there, DJ preached for the first time. Two Masters alumni on site helped DJ prepare and deliver an expository sermon. He came back to the states on fire, eager to learn more about expository preaching. He and Judy started to pray about seminary. The Lord answered that prayer when Saturday classes at The Master’s Seminary started in 2019. DJ enrolled, continuing to teach at TMU while attending TMS full-time.
Three years later, when Judy’s camera zeroed in on DJ, he was smiling. He looked happy. He’d loved everything about seminary. In his senior testimony two weeks earlier, he’d said his favorite class was always the one he was currently taking. He’d loved his professors, particularly Dr. Scott Bashoor and Dr. Bryan Murphy, both pastors who showed DJ that the study of the Word is for the glory of God and the good of His people. Seminary changed him from the inside out. It prepared him for ministry. It enriched his relationship with Christ. It also taught him how to suffer. That was a peculiar education for DJ, one he hadn’t anticipated when he took that first seminary class three years earlier. During his first year of seminary, jogging—a lifelong practice—had become more taxing. His energy levels declined. The health issues persisted, then worsened midway through his final semester. Yet through the physical suffering, DJ’s love for studying God’s Word wasn’t diminished. For a man who’d spent a lifetime at institutions of higher learning, this was his favorite education. And on that beautiful Sunday night in May of 2022, he had finally reached the finish line. In just a few moments, he would receive his diploma and then he could focus on his health, which he knew needed more attention. After blowing his wife a kiss as he walked past her, DJ sat down with his fellow graduates. The ceremony began. His pastor, John MacArthur, welcomed the graduating class. Dr. Mark Zhakevich prayed. Dr. Paul Twiss read Philippians 3:7– 21, a passage where Paul begins with the words “but whatever gain I had I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Dr. Twiss finished the last public reading of Scripture DJ would ever hear with these words “but our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
Since the Lord saved him through the preaching of His Word, DJ had heard thousands of sermons throughout his life. The last message he would hear was preached by H.B. Charles Jr, pastor of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida. The text was Colossians 1:28– 29. H.B. talked about a Christ-centered ministry. He called on graduates like DJ to spend the rest of their days proclaiming Christ and Him crucified. The goal of that proclamation? To present men and women complete in Christ so they are ready to meet Him when eternity comes calling. For DJ, that work was nearly complete. Eternity was moments away.
When H.B. finished his exposition, Dr. Abner Chou, TMUS president, called the graduates to stand and prepare to receive their diplomas. DJ rose with his peers. When it was his turn, he walked onto the stage, shook Dr. MacArthur’s hand for the last time. He proceeded to Dr. Nathan Busenitz, who bestowed the traditional red hood on DJ’s shoulders. His final stop was Dr. Chou. Abner shook his hand and moved his tassel from the right to the left side of his cap. “Well done,” Abner said. DJ turned, faced the audience, put his hand on the railing and began the descent off the stage. He had to grab the railing a second time, then a third. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, he collapsed. He would never regain consciousness. In the past hour, he had blown his wife a final kiss, heard the glories of Christ proclaimed, walked across the platform to receive his master of divinity degree, , and then entered instantly into glory where he met his Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, face-to-face.
You can almost imagine the angels meeting DJ at the bottom of those steps, ready to usher him into the presence of Christ. Heaven had known this day was coming. As a 16-year-old DJ Mattson repented of his sins and all of heaven rejoiced. Fifty-two years later that celebration continued, as that same sinner finished his race and met the One who saved him.
DJ had anticipated going home to heaven for 52 years. But the Lord had chosen DJ Mattson before time began. In love, God predestined him to adoption. Then in Brooklyn, New York until his last in Los Angeles, California. In between, the Lord fitted this vessel for heaven. At the precise moment that God’s sanctifying work was finished, He welcomed DJ into glory.
The value of a person’s life is not measured in earthly accomplishments or accolades, but in the object and outworking of one’s affections. What does he love? Whom does he strive to please? Where does he long to be? For DJ, his highest love was the Lord; his greatest ambition was to be pleasing to Christ; and the place he longed to be was heaven, in the presence of his Savior. All of DJ’s life was meaningful, from the life he built with Judy, to the career he enjoyed for nearly forty years, to the last three years of his life, spent studying the Word of God. Each step was used by God, in His perfect way, to bring glory to Himself and prepare DJ for eternity. The night of May 8, 2022, Christ was the center of DJ’s affections and the focus of his life. “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” For DJ, this was the ultimate graduation. He had lived for Christ, now his death was staggering gain.
Look to Jesus. That is the lesson of DJ’s life. Set your eyes and affections on him. Trust him. Be diligent to serve to him. A life of faithful devotion to Jesus Christ is a life full of meaning and eternal gain. From a human perspective, DJ’s story might sound somewhat ordinary.
He was a kind, hard-working husband and father who enjoyed a career as a physical therapist and professor: a life-long learner. But when viewed from an eternal perspective, his testimony is extraordinary and compelling. DJ lived to know Christ and serve others.. Though we miss him greatly, we rejoice in knowing he is now in the presence of the Lord whom he served and the Savior he loved. What a joy for him to graduate to heaven, and to hear his heavenly Master say to him, “Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter the joy of your master” (Matt 25:23).