Teaching series from 2 Corinthians

Focusing on Eternal Things

2 Corinthians 4:17-5:11

Teaching t05788


One can’t help but be impressed with the hardships Paul endured as an apostle of Jesus Christ. He provides us with a portfolio of his sufferings in 11:23-27 (read). And remember--these were avoidable sufferings that he voluntarily endured!

What’s even more impressive is the way he looked at these sufferings. Read 4:17a--how can he call this “momentary, light affliction??” It sounds like maybe one of those stones knocked something loose in his head! Read 5:6,8--how can he always be “of good courage?” How does he get this kind of victory over negative circumstances?

The answer is in 4:18 (read). There is a relationship between what we focus on (skopeo) and how we view our afflictions. If we focus on them (“the things that are seen”), they grow in size and overwhelm us. But if we focus on “the things which are not seen,” they will shrink in size so that we are able to live above them. What are these “unseen things?” Not “possibility thinking” or “positive self-talk.” They are the great invisible realities revealed by God’s Word and apprehended by faith (5:7).

The promises of God for this life make up a big part of this. How about Rom. 8:28,31,35,37-39? When we focus on the fact that God is in control and that he loves us, and begin to look for the ways God is at work in our sufferings for his glory and for our good, it really does liberate us from bondage to negative circumstances.

But Paul is here primarily referring to God’s promises concerning the next life. That should be clear from his repetition of the word “eternal” in 4:17b,18. He is focusing on eternal things.

As incredible as it may seem, Paul did not really look to this life for his lasting happiness. He would have been amused and amazed at the modern American expectation that we should find happiness in this life. He would tell us that this expectation is perhaps the biggest reason for our misery! He believed that most of the happiness isn’t coming until the next life.

What “eternal things” is he talking about? It’s pretty difficult to focus on something that we know little about. Paul lets us in on them in the following verses . . . 

A New Body

Read 5:1-4. Those who have received Christ will receive new bodies when he returns. Here the Bible directly contradicts the Greek spirituality of Paul’s day and the eastern spirituality of our own day, which views our physical bodies as the prison-house of our souls and salvation as liberation from our bodies. For Paul, that would be like showing up at a party naked! God created humans to have bodies, and salvation includes having our bodies transformed to perfectly express his life.

Notice the contrast Paul draws between our present bodies and the bodies we can have in the next life.

“Earthly tent” emphasizes temporality and ease of removal.

“Building from God . . . eternal in the heavens” emphasizes strength and permanence.

In an earlier letter to the Corinthians, Paul elaborated on the superiority of the new body over our present bodies.

Perishable vs. imperishable: Some last longer than others, but they all poop out (GEORGE BURNS). But the new body will never wear out or malfunction in any way.

Weakness vs. power: Much of our technology is designed to mitigate this weakness, but we are still extremely limited. The new body (like Jesus’) is not subject to these limitations (JESUS ENTERED LOCKED ROOMS; DEFIED GRAVITY).

Dishonor vs. glory: Because of the fall, our bodies do not display God’s majesty as they were supposed to. But the new bodies will radiate God’s greatness (PRISM; ANGELS).

“We know . . . ” At a recent discussion about the afterlife, most people expressed dogmatic agnosticism about the afterlife: “How can we ever have more than guesses about this . . . One guess is as good as the next . . . No one has ever come back to tell us.” Paul disagrees. He says “We know.” How can we know?

We can know by the apostles’ witness of Jesus’ resurrection. Someone has come back and told us. He appeared to over 500 hundred people. He appeared to his disciples, who went to their deaths rather than retract their claims that Jesus had conquered death and appeared to them. He appeared to Paul and transformed him from Christianity’s foremost opponent to its foremost advocate. This testimony, which has never been impeached, is not absolute proof--but God says it is sufficient evidence for you to bow to Jesus Christ and ask him for the gift of eternal life.

We can know by the Holy Spirit’s witness in our lives (read vs 5). Biblical faith begins with the objective testimony of the apostles, but it doesn’t end there. When you receive Christ, his Spirit indwells you and grants you additional subjective evidence of eternal life--e begins to transform your life in various ways (EXPLAIN). Paul says this is God’s “down-payment”--his guarantee that he will deliver on the rest of his promises about eternal life.

“While we are in this body, we groan.” Some of us groan every time we look in the mirror, so we look in the mirror as little as possible! We groan more as we get older and this body begins to wear down and reminds us that we have little time left. Paul groaned too, but the pains of his mortal body only reminded him of the new body God had in store for him. We can do the same thing.

A Homecoming

But there’s more. Read 5:6-8. The best thing about eternity for those who know Christ is that it will be a homecoming.

“To be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord.”  Christians have the promise of Christ that our physical deaths will usher us into instantaneous, perfect, face-to-face, eternal communion with the God (Luke 23:43 - to a capital criminal).

Many people are afraid of death precisely because they know it will mean facing God, and they fear God’s judgment. This is why Paul says that “the sting of death is sin” (1 Cor. 15:56).

How could Paul look forward to facing God? How could he be so confident that God wasn’t going to greet him with wrath and judgment? It wasn’t because of how righteous he was--he killed Christians for a living before his conversion, and he continued to struggle with sin even afterwards.

For the same reason Jesus could make this promise to the thief on the cross--because God is a God of grace. Because Jesus Christ was willing to bear your guilt and God’s judgment for all your sins, you can be certain of God’s forgiveness and acceptance on that day--if you have asked Christ for it. Right standing with God no longer depends on what you do for God, but only on what Christ has done for you--so you can be forever delivered from God’s judgment (Rom. 8:1; Jn. 5:24). Have you received God’s grace?

“To be at home in this body is to be absent from the Lord.” The truth is that our communion with God in this life is very imperfect. As 5:5 says, the Holy Spirit is only God’s “down payment.” Our experiences of deep intimacy with God are relatively rare and short-lived, and these experiences only exacerbate our homesickness. Some Christians try to “keep” these moments or try to find ways to conjure them up (TRANSFIGURATION), but they are blessings granted by God at his discretion to keep us homesick for heaven and encouraged to keep serving him until then.

But in the next life, we will know God fully, just as we have been fully known (1 Cor. 13:12). An infinite God will forever reveal more and more of the limitless depths of his kindness (Eph. 2:7).

An Evaluation For Reward

But there’s more--read 5:9,10. “Wait a minute! You just said that Christians were delivered from God’s judgment. What’s this about appearing before the judgment seat and being recompensed for our deeds?” The answer is that Bible speaks of two different judgments.

One is called the Great White Throne judgment (Rev. 20). This is the judgment for all who have not received God’s forgiveness through Christ. All who appear at this judgment will be condemned. This is the judgment all Christians have been exempted from.

The other--mentioned here--is the judgment seat of Christ.

The word “judgment seat” is the Greek word bema, which was the word used to describe the platform on which Olympic judges sat during the games. The purpose of this judgment was to evaluate the contestants’ performance for the purpose of reward, not for condemnation. They don't give the top three finishers medals--and then shoot the other contestants in the head!!

In the same way, scripture says Christians will be evaluated by Christ for the service we rendered to him in this life (“the deeds done in the body”). That which advanced self and not his interests will be mercifully burned up--but that which advanced his kingdom will be richly rewarded by God’s praise, the satisfaction of seeing the full significance of our service, and roles of service in God’s eternal kingdom. On that day, every suffering we have endured in Christ’s service will be compensated beyond our wildest imagination (4:17b).

Anyone who has really put themselves on the line to accomplish a high goal (ATHLETICS; BUSINESS; EDUCATION) knows the importance of evaluation and reward. This is what makes all the sacrifice worthwhile. This is what keeps us serious when we are tempted to be frivolous. We were designed to accomplish significant goals, and to have our accomplishments evaluated and rewarded.

Quote 1 Cor. 9:25. The accomplishments of this life are just faint and quickly fading reflections of our lives’ true purpose. We were made to serve God, and to use all of our God-given faculties to influence others eternally for him (read 5:11).

We have been given the privilege to live by faith for this purpose for a short time. Soon the night will be over and the day will have come. What we have done for Jesus Christ will be revealed on that day, and it will stand as a monument for all eternity. Don't waste the opportunity! Give yourself to him, and to finding and fulfilling his purpose for your life!!

HENDRICKS: “If this book isn’t true, we’ve gone way too far. But if it is true, we haven’t gone near far enough!” I believe it is true . . .