Focusing on Eternal Things
2 Corinthians 5:1-10
Remind that 2 Corinthians is the most autobiographical of Paul's letters--including his sufferings. In order to refute certain pseudo-apostles, Paul opened the portfolio of his sufferings in 11:23-27 (read). And remember--these were avoidable sufferings that he voluntarily endured! Add to this the emotional and relational sufferings (11:28,29) and his physical "thorn" (12:7), and you realize that Paul's sufferings dwarf most of ours.
But what’s even more impressive is his assessment of these sufferings. Read 4:17a--how can he call this “momentary, light affliction??” This is what I call a light headache that lasts for an hour. It sounds like maybe one of those stones knocked something loose in his head! How does he get this kind of victory over negative circumstances?
He reveals his secret in 4:18 (read). The key is what we focus on (skopeo). If we focus on “the things that are seen” (i.e., our sufferings), they grow in weight and crush us. But if we focus on “the things which are not seen,” our sufferings will shrink in weight so that we are able to live victoriously in the midst of them. What are these “unseen things?” They are the great promises revealed by God’s Word.
Last week, we looked at some of God's promises that are for this life. But Paul is primarily referring to God's promises for the next life ("eternal"). You cannot avoid suffering in this life, but you can live victoriously in the midst of terrible suffering--if you develop a focus on eternal things.
This is a special challenge for us, because we live in the most temporally focused culture in history. Skepticism about the supernatural, technological/medical advances and material affluence have combined to create a pervasive assumption that all meaning and satisfaction are to be found in this life. Listen to Harry Blamire's description/contrast:
"On the one hand is the assumption that...eating, sleeping, growing, learning, breeding, and the rest, constitute the total sum of things; that in worldly prosperity and well-being lies the source of all meaning and value. On the other hand isthe awareness...that the thoughts and actions of every hour are molding a soul which is on its way to eternity..." In other words, the primary purpose of this life is to prepare us for the next life.
The tragic irony (that most people overlook) is that the more focused you get on this world and this life, the more misery you have in this life.
"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 solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short one. We are the first generations of (our culture) 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."
"Most of us (Christians) live as though this world is where we are rewarded--and happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment, and prosperity not only can be ours here and now but should be...Most of the regrets of our lives come from failing to embrace eternity as a consuming, motivational reality and failing to align our lives to the values of (God's eternal) kingdom."
This is a huge problem, one we're not going to fix in an hour. But we can start by realizing that if we're going to develop a focus on eternal things, we must first know what they are. That's why Paul immediately follows 4:18 by introducing us to three key "eternal things"...
A Transformed Body
Read 5:1-4. Those who have received Christ will receive transformed 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 be embodied spirits, and salvation therefore includes having our bodies transformed to perfectly express his spiritual life.
Notice the contrast Paul draws between our present bodies and the bodies we can have in the next life.
“Earthly tent...torn down” emphasizes temporality and fragility. “Building from God...eternal in the heavens” emphasizes strength and permanence.
In an earlier letter to the Corinthians (1Cor.15:42-44), Paul elaborated on the superiority of the transformed body over our present bodies: perishable vs. imperishable; dishonorable vs. glorious; weak vs. powerful; natural vs. spiritual.
In short, our bodies will be transformed in the same way that Jesus' body was transformed when God raised him from the dead (notice the tense of the verbs in 4:14a). Because Jesus was resurrected, you will be resurrected if you belong to him. When you read the apostles' eyewitness descriptions of Jesus' resurrected body, you are reading an advance description of your own bodily destiny--if you belong to Christ.
And by the way, this is why focusing on this "eternal thing" isn't a pathetic example of wishful thinking. Bodily resurrection doesn't belong only to the future--it has already happened in history. Did you know that Christianity is the only world religion that can point back to the past as evidence for its vision of the future? And the evidence that Jesus really was raised from the dead is very strong. If you want an excellent (and readable) analysis of this evidence, read Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ, which contains this quote by Sir Edward Clarke, famous British lawyer who approached the issue as a skeptic: "As a lawyer I have made a prolonged study of the evidence for the events of the first Easter Day. To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling."
How would this focus affect your feelings about your own mortality? How often do you reflect on this? How many seconds this past month? “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), because we are confronting the irrefutable evidence of our mortality (AGING BABY BOOMERS; ROGAINE: "Stronger than heredity"). This is the groan of despair. Paul groaned too, but his was a groan of anticipation. The pains of his mortal body only reminded him of the transformed body God had in store for him. What a difference this focus makes! Don't wait until your death-bed to develop this--lay this foundation now!!!
But there’s more. To be human is to be embodied, so eternal life involves receiving a transformed body. But even more central to being human is to be personal--capable of forming and enjoying love relationships. We are created in the image of a God who is a community of love relationships. And for this reason, the most important feature of eternal life is experiencing perfect love relationships with God and others. This is why Paul describes the next life as a homecoming (read 5:5-8). I can best explain this passage with an illustration from my own life.
When I was 21, I graduated from OSU and moved to Los Angeles for two long years of theological training. It was a great experience in many ways--but it was also agonizing because I was homesick. My family, almost all of my best friends, and my future wife were here in Columbus. In many ways, I survived those two years in L.A. on the hope/promise that I would return home. Part of what kept me going was phone calls from my loved ones back home. It was so sweet to have some personal connection with them in this way. But they were painful because it was not the same as their personal presence; in fact, they exacerbated my homesickness. If you understand this story, you understand what Paul is saying in these verses.
When you receive Christ, God promises you that in the next life you will enjoy a perfect love relationship with him. To provide you with tangible evidence that this will happen, he gives you his "pledge" or down payment, his phone call from home. He indwells you with his Spirit to enable you to personally experience his love (Rom.5:5).
This is the greatest thing about being a Christian--you have a love relationship with God. Sometimes in very dramatic ways, usually in more subtle ways, you experience God's encouragement, hope and peace and joy, guidance, insight, etc.
But even your best experiences of God's love in this life are only a "phone call" compared to what is in store for you in the next life. As long as you are "at home in this body" (even with God's Spirit), you are still "absent from the Lord." This is why none of our experiences of God's love ever fully satisfy us, but instead leave us wanting more. Some Christians make the mistake of trying to get it all in this life--and they wander into weirdness and nuthood. But the truth is that healthy Christian experience with God in this life is like my phone calls...
But when you are "absent from this body," you will be "at home with the Lord." Then you will experience a homecoming that is perfect and never-ending.
Here, you get occasional glimpses of God's love that blow you away. But then you will experience his love and kindness in ways you can't think could get any deeper--and then you'll realize that you're only getting started (Eph.2:7).
Here, you get occasional glimpses of what God is doing in your life, like the underside of a tapestry. But then you will see the top side of the tapestry--you understand with perfect clarity what God was doing (1Cor.13:12).
Here, you get gradual and partial deliverance from sin and Satan and the sadness (and relational pain) associated with these foes. But then you will experience complete freedom from our sin-natures, Satan's sickening attacks, and all sadness (Rev.21:3,4).
Here, you can build love relationships with other Christians that are a taste of heaven itself. But even the best of these relationships is marred by selfishness and conflict and death. But then you will be reunited forever with redeemed loved ones in God's presence that creates perfect community (2Cor.4:14).
How would this focus affect your reaction to relational pain and spiritual disappointments? Paul says it enabled him to be "always of good courage." How much "good courage" do you have? How many minutes this past month have you focused on your homecoming? As much as you focused on your favorite TV show and/or sports team? Is there a connection between your answer and how much "good courage" you have?
But there’s more--there's an evaluation (read 5:9,10). "This sounds pretty ominous--'judgment,' 'recompense for bad deeds.' I don't think I want to focus on this--I want to forget all about it!" Yet Paul focused on this "eternal thing"--and this focus resulted in "ambition...to be pleasing to him." This is because the judgment to which he refers is very different than the judgment you're thinking of.
You're thinking of the judgment of God that will determine whether you will be admitted into heaven or sentenced to hell. This is what the Bible calls the Great White Throne Judgment.
The bad news is that it is really going to happen, and that no one involved in that judgment will go to heaven. This is because this judgment will demonstrate your unworthiness to earn admittance into God's kingdom. All who appear there will be judged by their deeds, and their deeds will fall short of God's perfect standard.
The good news is that you don't ever have to appear at this judgment. Jesus declares that he is offering permanent exemption from this judgment (read Jn.5:24). Because he was willing to die for your bad deeds and pay the penalty of God's judgment for them, you permanently pass out of that judgment the moment you put your trust in him. Have you done this? If you have, you become eligible to appear at the other judgment Paul refers to in 5:10.
This judgment is what Paul calls the bema--the Judgment Seat of Christ. The bema refers to the rostrum where the judges of the Olympic Games sat. You know what this is like--it is not a judgment for retribution, but for reward. After the men's giant downhill, the contestants will appear before the judgment seat to have their performance evaluated. The judges won't give medals to some--and then shoot the rest in the head. This is an evaluation for the purpose of reward.
In a similar way, Jesus will one day evaluate your service for him--not how you did compared to other Christians, but what you did with what he gave you. And he will do this not to shame condemn you (he died on the cross so this would never happen), but to reward you for every act of faithful service. We only get glimpses of what this reward will be (praise; satisfaction of seeing full implications; role in God's eternal kingdom)--but you can bet that it will be very cool (far cooler than any Olympic award), and that it will more than make up for any suffering in his service (4:17)!
How much do you think about this evaluation and reward? More than the prospect of a raise/promotion at your job? How would this focus affect your motivation and endurance to serve Christ? Many Olympic athletes report that they endure the rigors of training by envisioning themselves standing on that rostrum, medal around their necks, hearing the national anthem, waving to their friends and family members. If they do that, shouldn't we envision/focus on this reward? And won't this focus make a big difference in enduring the rigors of this life?
Let's listen to Martha McCallum explain how a focus on these eternal things has affected her...then she'll join me up here during Q & A.
"The miracles that have already happened are, of course, as the scripture so often says, the first fruits of that cosmic summer which is presently coming on. Christ has risen, and so we shall rise. St. Peter for a few seconds walked on the water; and the day will come when there will be a remade universe, infinitely obedient to the will of glorified and obedient men, when we can do all things, when we shall be those gods that we are described as being in scripture. To be sure, it feels wintry enough still: but often in the very early spring it feels like that. Two thousand years are only a day or two by this scale. A man really ought to say. 'The Resurrection happened two thousand years ago' in the same spirit in which he says, 'I saw a crocus yesterday.' Because we know what is coming behind the crocus. The spring comes slowly down this way; but the great thing is that the corner has been turned. There is, of course, this difference, that in the natural spring the crocus cannot choose whether it will respond or not. We can. We have the power either of withstanding the spring, and sinking back into the cosmic winter, or of going on into those 'high mid-summer pomps' in which our Leader, the Son of Man, already dwells, and to which he is calling us. It remains with us to follow or not, to die in this winter, or to go into that spring and that summer." C. S. Lewis, "The Grand Miracle," cited in The Inspirational Writings of C. S. Lewis (New York: Inspiration Press, 1994), pp.359,360.