No Fear of Death
03/04/2005 at 9.30am / 11.15am
2 Corinthians 5
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by Ian Garrett
Let me sketch two situations and then ask you a question.
The first situation is this: a Christian you know is diagnosed with cancer. You and others pray. And against all medical expectation, the cancer responds to treatment and they end up clear of it. Even one of the non-Christian doctors involved calls it ‘miraculous’. The second situation is this: a Christian you know is diagnosed with cancer. You and others pray. But it’s beyond treatment and they have only a few more months to live. But throughout those months, they keep trusting in Christ and die joyful and confident of going to be with him.
I’ve seen both those situations in the last five years. And my question is: which situation would you say shows God at work most powerfully?
Well, this morning we re-start a sermon series on Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. And there’s no doubt how the Corinthians would have answered that question. They’d have said, ‘The first situation – the healing – shows God at work most powerfully. After all, where’s the power of God in someone dying?’
That’s the way the Corinthians’ minds worked. Which is why they had such a problem with the apostle Paul – because, as they saw it, there wasn’t much evidence of the power of God in his ministry. He got persecuted and death-threats wherever he went. He was weak, sick, beaten-up, ageing. And they looked at him and said to themselves, ‘Where’s the power of God in that?’
And so Paul wrote them the two letters we have in our Bibles – above all, to get into their heads an eternal perspective. Because they always expected to see God’s power here and now – eg, in healings. And they had the idea that what Christ offers us is pretty much all to be had in the here and now. But Paul says: No: we’ll actually see God’s power most clearly in our lives in the future – when he raises us from the dead. And if you imagine a pair of weighing scales, and one side’s the present and the other side’s the future beyond this life, Paul’s basically saying that what Christ offers lies mainly in the future, not the present. I won’t try to put a figure on it, like 5% / 95%, but the scales come crashing down on the side of the future. That’s the eternal perspective, and like the Corinthians, we badly need to hear it. So would you turn to 2 Corinthians 4.8. We did chapters 1-4 last year and the last thing we saw was Paul reminding the Corinthians how close he lived to death. Look down to 4.8:
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed [ie, not dead yet - but people were certainly trying.].And the Corinthians must have thought, ‘Where’s the power of God in that? Paul must be pretty disillusioned with God.’ But look on to 4.16. Paul says:
16Therefore we do not lose heart [ie, I’m not disillusioned with God. Why not? Read on:] Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly [if we’re in relationship with Christ] we are being renewed day by day. 17For our light and momentary troubles [that’s how he describes the present side of the scales – however bad] are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all [that’s the future side]. 18So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (4.16-18)Now he says, ‘We fix our eyes… on what is unseen,’ knowing full well that the Corinthians didn’t – that was the whole problem (and is often our problem, too). But throughout this morning’s passage he says, ‘We’ in order to catch us up into his eternal perspective. It’s as if he’s saying, ‘We fix our eyes on what is unseen… or at least, I do - and you should.’
One other thing to say is that by ‘We’ he means those of us who’ve been forgiven back into relationship with God through trusting in Christ. There are two possible destinies beyond death – heaven and hell – and I don’t want to give any false assurance that ‘We’ means everyone – it doesn’t.
I hope that gives some idea of where we are as we start into chapter 5. I’ve got two headings:
Firstly, LOOK TO YOUR ETERNAL FUTURE (vv1-5)
What will this ‘eternal glory’ be like? Well, 5.1:
1Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in [ie, the body we have today] is destroyed [ie, dies], we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands [ie, we have a resurrection body to come]. (5.1)So Paul describes our bodies as ‘tents’. In my experience, tents are vulnerable - to things like wind and rain and jokers pulling out your guy-ropes (not that my memories of our church weekends away in the Lakes are entirely bitter). And tents are temporary – ultimately, you take them down. And Paul says our present lives are like that – vulnerable and temporary.
Now most of us here who are in our teens and twenties don’t believe that for a moment. You think you’re immortal. Sickness and death are things that happen to other people. You’re not a tent; you’re a fortress – especially after all that time in the gym. But those of us – older andyounger – who’ve already faced serious health problems are far more in touch with reality. You know how fragile your tent really is.
By contrast, our culture is in denial of reality. You watch films or read magazines and they feed us with a constant stream of flawless, young stars – as if no-one ever ages beyond 25 in this life. Then the fitness and cosmetics industries aid and abet the denial of reality - or at least help us to disguise reality. And perhaps above all, medicine aids and abets the denial most. I’ve mentioned before the radio interview I heard with a cancer survivor. He talked about his treatment and recovery and then said, ‘Yep, I thought for a while there that my days were numbered.’ (Implication: but now I’m immortal again; total denial of reality.)
But God in his kindness gives us constant reminders of reality. Your eyes go and you need glasses. Less and less of your hair survives every shower. You get more sports injuries and take longer to recover. You begin to need long-term medication; you’re forced into early retirement or a disability pension. Then more serious things start going wrong and you’re in the world of operations and convalescing and mainly looking back on good health. And, ultimately, unless the Lord Jesus comes again first, we die. But, v1 again:
1we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. (v1)And he calls our resurrection bodies a ‘building’ in contrast to the tent. Because our resurrection bodies won’t be vulnerable to anything – not disease, not disability, not accident, not stress, not anything. And they won’t be temporary, either. They’ll never deteriorate. We’ll never need glasses or hearing aids or pain-killers or injections again. We’ll never lose fitness or mobility again. We’ll never look back on things we used to do but can’t do anymore. And we’ll never fear what the doctor has to say, because there won’t be any doctors (I should qualify that: no practising ones, I mean).
Paul says, v1, ‘We know that…’ How? Look back up to 4.14. We know that…
14because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence. (4.14)Ie, we know there is this life beyond death because of the resurrection of Jesus – something that really happened, for which there’s solid evidence. And without Jesus’ resurrection, I certainly couldn’t believe in life beyond death. But with it, I can and I do. And even if our own death is a long way off (which, of course none of us knows), we would be wise to make sure our convictions about Jesus’ resurrection are firm. Eg, have you ever read a Christian book or booklet on the resurrection? You could ask at the bookstall at the back this morning. One Christian friend of mine died a few years ago, just a bit older than me. And in my last conversation with him, he said how glad he was that he’d studied and stored away Bible passages like this one - even though he felt young and healthy. He said to me just weeks before he died, ‘These passages really light up when I read them, now. It’s as if the Lord is saying, ‘You’ve always known these bits, but you’re really going to need them now like never before.’
‘We know,’ says Paul in v1. But he also says, ‘We long’ – at least, we should. Look onto v2:
2Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling [he changes metaphor from tents and buildings to the picture of getting a new set of clothes instead of the uncomfortable, stiff, aching arthritic old ones], 3because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. (5.2-4)So Paul’s saying, ‘We don’t just know about this future; we long for it. Now he said that as someone who, by this time, was physically a bit of a wreck. And as and when we reach a similar point, there’s nothing wrong and everything right with saying, ‘I’d rather be out of here, and in my resurrection body.’
And Paul stresses that it won’t be a disembodied state: in v2 he says, ‘we will not be found naked.’ Now a lot of ink has been spilt about the detail of these verses, but whatever else they say, they say that our ultimate future is not to be floating around as disembodied spirits, but to be people with bodies. In fact, the New Testament (NT) always describes the new creation in terms of the present creation - only transformed and made perfect. So, eg, Revelation 21 describes it as a city – a human society like we’re familiar with now – only transformed and made perfect. So Paul wants to reassure us, it won’t be something weirdly different that’s impossible to imagine and look forward to. It’ll be something wonderfully different and yet familiar – this creation transformed and made perfect. So we’ll be people with bodies – similar but different – and I’ll be able to recognise you and you’ll be able to recognise me – assuming we’re both going there.
Now we should long for that even in good times and good health. But when, to use Paul’s words, we’re really ‘wasting away’ (4.16), it’s absolutely right for a believer to want to go and be with Christ – despite the sadness of human parting. And it’s absolutely right for other believers around them to want that for them – despite the sadness of human parting. And when, as far as human eyes can see, it’s not God’s will to bring recovery to a Christian brother or sister, it’s absolutely right to pray that above all, he’ll keep them trusting and confident about the future as he takes them home.
Another, older friend died this past year, and I remember asking him about 6 months before he died how he was. And he said, ‘Well, out here, falling apart,’ and then with his big, beaming smile and real light in his eyes, he said, ‘But in here, absolutely fine and ready to go.’
And brothers and sisters, we need to talk like that. We need to talk like Paul does in these verses. Our culture, which says here and now is all there is, tends to cow even us believers into not talking like this. But we must. If any of you is looking after me while I’m dying, please talk to me about heaven. Don’t be put off by worrying whether I might be struggling to believe in it – that’s all the more reason for you to help me believe in it by talking about it, and reading the Bible to me about it.
And because Paul knows it’s not easy to believe in the face of death, he gives another reason for confidence, v5:
5Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (5.5)If you’d asked Paul, ‘How can I know that there is life after death?’, he’d have said, ‘Well, look at the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection.’ And if you’d then asked, ‘But how can I know that’s going to happen to me?’, he’d have said, ‘Well, can you see evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in your life? Because if you can, rest assured that God will carry that work he’s begun right on to completion in getting you to heaven.’
That’s what v5 is about. Paul says God has, ‘given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.’ Last summer I paid a deposit to Barratt Homes – it was just a small, first installment of the total amount they’d finally get, and also a guarantee of more to come. And Paul says the work of the Holy Spirit in us is a bit like that. It’s like a small, first installment of what will ultimately be completed when we die and God raises us from the dead into a sin-free body in a sin-free new creation. And the fundamental work of the Holy Spirit now is to get the love of sin out of our hearts and love for God into them. And if you can look at your life and say, ‘I have been changed. I do aim to please Christ in a way I didn’t used to, and I do actually live differently – even though I still sin…’ If you can say that, that’s the work of the Spirit in you. That’s God’s deposit on your life. At the moment, just a small, first installment (which is why you still sin so much). But it’s also God’s guarantee that he’ll finish the job and get you to heaven.
That’s the first (and longer) thing: Look to your eternal future.
Second, LIVE ON YOUR ETERNAL FUTURE (vv6-10)
Look at how v6 begins: ‘Therefore...’ And then look at how v9 begins: ‘So...’ (which is just another way of saying ‘Therefore’). Ie, in vv6-10, Paul is saying, ‘Let me give you two ‘Therefore’s for living in the present, which come from this eternal perspective.
‘Therefore’ no.1 is: BE CONFIDENT. Look at v6:
6Therefore we are always confident [and a better translation would be, even though we] know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord - 7 we live by faith [ie, trusting in that eternal future], not by sight [ie, we’re not experiencing that future yet, we just have the deposit of the Spirit’s work in our lives - plus a lot of pain and suffering in a fallen world]. [But, v8] 8 we are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (5.6-8)Paul was concerned that if we don’t catch this eternal perspective, we won’t feel confident in God when we’re facing illness and injury and disability and dying; we’ll be disillusioned with God and joyless and self-pitying and bitter.
Whereas the eternal perspective is that the best is yet to come. We had a retirement party for Mark Ruston, my old vicar in Cambridge, and he died just a few years later. But I vividly remember him saying this in his speech at that party. He said, ‘I look back over a lifetime of great ministry and great memories. And people – Christian people - have asked me, ‘Aren’t you disappointed that it’s all over?’’ And he said, ‘My only disappointment is that they could ask such a question, because for the Christian, the best is yet to come.’
Life may be so good right now that you can’t imagine anything better. But you need to be told: the best is yet to come. On the other hand, if and when life is difficult or unhappy or painful – relationally, emotionally, physically, psychologically – we need to tell ourselves the best is yet to come. And because that’s the future, let’s be confident. Let’s be confident that God is being good to us – and has an unimaginably good future in store for us beyond this life - whatever we’re going through in this life.
‘Therefore’ no.2 is: BE COMMITTED. Look at v9:
9So [ie, therefore] we make it our goal to please him [ie, the Lord Jesus], whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (5.9-10)Above all, Paul wants to remind us that what lies beyond death is actually being with the Lord Jesus. And in v10, he says we’ll finally see him face to face. Now, where he talks about ‘the judgement seat of Christ’, he does not mean that someone trusting in Christ could arrive on that day, be judged and shut out of heaven. What’s at stake on that day if you’re a believer is not your salvation (which Christ secured by dying on the cross) but your service. The issue is not whether you’ll receive a welcome into heaven (that was secured on the cross), but whether you’ll also receive a ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ from the Lord Jesus. The issue is whether I’ll be able to meet my Saviour knowing that, albeit imperfectly, I’ve really tried to please him and serve him. Or whether I’ll meet him ashamed that I’ve really been half-hearted.
And Paul’s saying, ‘Don’t you want to be welcomed in with a ‘Well done’? Look down to v10 one last time:
10For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (5.9-10)And because that’s the future, let’s be committed. Let’s be committed to pleasing and serving Christ – not to earn his love and his welcome into heaven: that’s secure, paid for on the cross. But to respond to that love and not for a moment to take it lightly.
So that’s the message of these verses: the eternal perspective:
• Look to your eternal future: don’t let the culture tell you that here and now is all there is, when the resurrection of Jesus says there is eternity to come; and,
• Live on your eternal future: let’s draw confidence from it when the here and now is hard; and let’s draw commitment from it when the here and now is telling us it has something better to offer than Christ does.
And if you’re unsure of your eternal future – unsure whether you do trust in Christ, unsure whether God has begun this work in your life – then please keep coming to hear more, please do ask other Christians around you for help as to how to become sure. Because Jesus died and rose again so that you could be sure.
For more sermon transcripts visit http://www.church.org.uk