The Next Life: What If It's True?

The Next Life: What If It's True?

Philippians 1:20-26

Teaching t21086

Introduction

This morning we begin a series entitled: “The Next Life: What If It’s Really True?”  We will explore a key biblical assertion—that what you believe about the next life will profoundly shape how you live this life

More specifically, the Bible teaches that if you have an informed and tenacious trust in God’s promises about eternal life, your heart and lifestyle will be transformed.  Your heart will be increasingly characterized by stability, hope, and joy—and your lifestyle will be increasingly characterized by perseverance, material generosity, moral integrity, commitment to social justice, love for all kinds of people, and boldness in sharing your faith. And this will happen no matter how difficult your circumstances may be.  

Conversely, if these qualities are largely absent from your life, then it is probably because you either don’t understand what God has promised or you aren’t intentionally entrusting yourself.  One of the reasons why I feel compelled to do this series is that I have recently been convicted that my own faith is deficient in this area.  And as I have discussed this with others, many of them have recognized a similar deficiency in their faith.

In the coming weeks, we will expand our understanding of what God promises about the next life, why we can trust his promises, and how trusting these promises should transform our lives.  Today, we will look at two passages that show the connection between this informed, tenacious trust in the next life and transformed hearts and lifestyles.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18 – A transformed heart

The first passage is in 2Cor.4.  The author of this letter, Paul, was a leader in the early Christian movement who was experiencing many painful blows.  In this letter, he speaks of being hunted down and almost killed, and of suffering a very painful chronic physical illness.  As a result, he speaks of being besieged by bouts of confusion, depression, and fear.  Yet look at what he says in 4:16 (read).  Even though these sufferings have taken a toll on him, his heart experiences a daily spiritual renewal that fills him with confidence and determination to keep going.  I call this spiritual buoyancy.  Yes, a big wave of opposition can plunge him painfully “underwater”—but it cannot drown him.  God’s Spirit lifts him back to the “surface” and pushes him onward with deep personal optimism.

What is Paul’s secret?  Read 4:17,18.  His secret is what he knows about the next life.  Because Paul is thoroughly informed about what eternal life will be like, this puts his sufferings in perspective (4:17).  He takes his sufferings seriously—but when he compares them to how great his future is and how long it will last, they so outweigh his present sufferings that they “shrink” in size.  The key, he says, is focusing on these promises (4:18 – skopeo)—intentionally fixing his mental gaze on them (rather than on his sufferings), musing on them recurrently throughout the day so that they become his default mental setting.  This focused trust unleashes God’s Spirit to make him buoyant.

Philippians 1:20-25 – A transformed lifestyle

The second passage is in Phil.1.  This is a later letter from Paul to a Christian community in northern Greece.  Paul’s situation has changed since 2Corinthians—it has gotten worse.  Now he is imprisoned and awaiting possible execution, even though he has done nothing wrong.  And the recipients of his letter are also experiencing persecution. 

So Paul explains how he views his situation in order to encourage them in their situation.  Read 1:20-25.  What an amazing perspective!  Paul says: “I prefer to die because that’s when I’ll really begin to live.  But I’m glad to delay it to serve others.”

This is exactly the opposite of the mindset of most Americans (including most American Christians).  Most Americans (including many of us) live with this mindset: “I am afraid to die, because this life is all that I have.  So I will squeeze as much out of this life as I possibly can.”  An old beer commercial said it well: “You only go around once in life, so grab for all the gusto you can.”  Get as much comfort, sensual pleasure, affluence, recognition, etc. as you can, as long as you can—that’s what life is about, isn’t it?  This is the “American Dream,” but it always, always, always leads to the “American Nightmare” for two reasons:

First, even if you achieve the American Dream, it can’t make you happy.  This is not only because this life is broken—it’s also because your heart was made to desire more than this life can give you.  Unless you view this life not as an end in itself, but primarily as a place to get prepared for the next life, you are bound to be disappointed.  Peggy Noonan realized this in a fit of sanity a few years ago: “I think we have lost the old knowledge that...(this) life is overrated... Our ancestors believed in two worlds, and understood this to be the...  nasty, brutish and short one.  We are the first generations of (Americans) that actually expected to find happiness here on earth, and our search for it has caused—such unhappiness.  The reason: If you do not believe in another, higher world, if you believe only in the flat material world around you, if you believe that this is your only chance at happiness—if that is what you believe, then you are not (just) disappointed when the world does not give you a good measure of its riches, you are despairing.”
Second, everyone must die, and death is the “end of the line” for this way of life.  That’s why it’s so tragic to interact with “American Dreamers” who are at the end of their lives.  Go to the terminus of the American Dream—the nursing homes.  You can be a light for Christ there—and you will see what people are like when they have lived only for this.  I saw this for the first time in my late teens when, as a proud atheist, I saw my grandfather coming to the end of his life.  He had been so full of life when he moved in ten years earlier (just after retiring).  But as his health began to fail, I saw him retreating increasingly into the dark cloud of his mortality.  He had only memories, no more opportunity to make new memories, and nothing to look forward to.  I was haunted by the lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Old Friends”—which was a beautiful but devastating critique of this perspective on life.
This is why Paul wept when he saw people living with this mindset (read 3:18,19).  Do you weep when you see others trapped in this—or are you enmeshed in it yourself?

But Paul has no fear of death because his life is bound up with Christ (1:21).  He understands that the purpose of this life is to find Christ, and that death is not the end but rather the beginning of being fully with Christ—which is better by far than anything in this life (1:23).  And because Paul is informed and confident about this future, he is free—free to engage in “fruitful labor”—not padding his retirement portfolio, but free to serve others, free to help them make progress in their faith (which includes serving their neighbors). 

How different this is from Marx’s charge that Christianity is the “opiate of the masses”—making its adherents apathetic about being constructive social change agents!  Church history has a lot of terrible blemishes, but it also has many shining moments—people who laid their lives down to serve the poor, help the powerless, abolish slavery, secure civil rights, fight human trafficking, etc.  In every case, they were motivated by the Bible’s vision of God’s coming kingdom.

What is it about being with Christ that is better by far than anything in this life?  Sadly, many of us can’t answer this question, so we don’t have Paul’s freedom to serve.  If you secretly fear that heaven will be a boring church service that goes on forever (as Mark Twain was taught), it will have no transformative power!  Here are some reasons why heaven is “better by far.”

We assume it will be non-earthly and disembodied, but it will be a new earth (e.g., nature; animals; etc.) and we will have resurrected bodies to enjoy this new earth.

We assume it will feel totally foreign to us and that we will be leaving favorite things behind, but it will be “home” (all the comforts of home with all the innovations of an infinitely creative God) and retain all that is best in this life (e.g. culture; music; art; food & drink; etc.).

We assume it will be static—with no time and space and nothing fun to (e.g. floating on the clouds & strumming a harp), but it will be dynamic—with time and space and many great things to do (e.g., a universe to rule, purposeful work to accomplish, friends to make and enjoy, and an infinite God to get to know). 

We assume it will mean the loss of desire (as in Buddhism), but it will mean continuous fulfillment of desire (never-ending & ever-increasing joy; forever satisfying our desire—and then stretching it again).

We assume that it will be merely the absence of the bad (no more suffering, tears, pain or death), but it will also be the presence of all that is good and wonderful.

In the weeks to come, we’ll be looking more closely at these things in the right column.  But think about it.  How would you view your death if you knew that this was waiting for you?  How much stability and hope and joy would you have if you focused on this as your certain destiny?  How would you feel about sacrificially serving others in this life if you knew you would inherit this in the next life?  I bet you’d live more like Paul!

You may be thinking at this point: “Isn’t this just be wishful thinking!”  Isn’t this magical thinking, like a child who covers his eyes and says: “Now you can’t see me!”  Isn’t this just what Freud debunked when he said that these beliefs about God and afterlife are fantasies we invent to deal with our psychological fears of abandonment and death?  No, we have a solid basis for this perspective for two reasons:

The same Bible that predicts the next life has already accurately predicted hundreds of past events (e.g., Jesus First Coming).  Because of this proven track-record (unique among all “scriptures”), we can trust what it predicts about the future.

The basis for this future promise has already occurred—the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  The Bible says that all who belong to Jesus will live in a resurrected world with a resurrected Jesus.  And God has already broken off the key piece of the future (Jesus’ resurrection), and planted it in history as one of the best attested events in ancient history.  This is what we’ll study next week...

Conclusion

But you don’t need to wait until next week to begin to experience the transforming effect of the next life that God offers.  Read 1Jn.5:11-13.  Do you want to know that you have eternal life?  Eternal life is in God’s Son, Jesus Christ.  If you don’t have the Son, you don’t have this life.  Only Jesus can give you this life because only Jesus lived the perfect life we owe to God, and then laid his perfect life down to pay for our sins.  If you entrust yourself to Jesus, if you give yourself to him, he will give himself to you—and God’s Spirit will grant you personal assurance that you will live with him forever.  I can’t explain to you how God gives this assurance, but I (and many others here) can tell you that he does give it. 

What about those of us who already believe in Jesus and know we have eternal life?  We need a deeper understanding of the next life that transforms our hearts and lives.  And for this we need more than learning what the Bible says.  We need the eyes of our hearts opened to this great reality.  And this comes in answer to ongoing prayer (read Eph.1:17,18a).  I am praying for myself and for you that the eyes of our hearts will be opened to this hope of God’s calling.  Will you begin to pray daily for this as we study this glorious truth over the next ten weeks?

  Peggy Noonan, "You'd Cry Too If It Happened to You," Forbes Magazine, September 14, 1992, p.65.

Adapted from Randy Alcorn, Heaven (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004), p.161.