Death and Beyond
I wonder whether you would have been tempted to stay away this evening had you known the subject was going to be death, your own death. It is a subject that many of us prefer not to dwell on and that really is foolish as it's a statistical certainty – 1 in 1 people die. That means that unless the Lord returns first we will all die.
And yet the subject of death forces itself upon us. The older we get the more of our friends are taken from us. The photos of a young Syrian boy drowned on beach in Turkey recently had a great emotional impact upon so many that they arguably led to a major change in the way the government views the current refugee problem.
As I was preparing on this sermon on Friday the House of Commons was engaged in what the BBC described as a "passionate debate" on the "right to die". The matter at stake was the Assisted Dying Bill brought before Parliament by a Labour MP from Wolverhampton. It's an emotive issue and many see no reason why a life of painful suffering can't be brought to a premature end. The look is primarily backwards focusing upon bringing to an end what is considered to be needless suffering. Assisted Dying does not consider what lies ahead.
The apostle Paul here in 2Cor.5 wrote about death. As soon as he had finished writing about the fact of suffering in a believer's life and the role it played in preparing the believer for glory Paul went on to speak about the end of the earthly life of the believer. While he considers death as bringing to an end the suffering that the believer has experienced Paul's vision is by no means limited to this essentially negative resolution of the past. The Christian view he presents includes a robust and extremely positive orientation towards the future, and an eternal future at that.
The Christian's View of His Own Death
So much of people's thinking about death (if it can be called thinking at all) is wishful thinking.
"Somehow everything will turn our right in the end" is the comfortable make-
Have you ever thought about your own death? I wonder. I'm not now talking about the pain of suffering that may precede death – none of us I'm sure relishes the thought of that – no, I mean have you thought about the fact of death itself.
What should our attitude be as we face up to the reality of our own exit from this world and prepare to transit into the next? That is our subject this evening. It's a practical subject too as we're each of us getting closer to the time when it will be our time to die.
In the opening verses of ch.5 Paul tells us just what the attitude of a Christian should be as he thinks about his own coming death.
Looking towards the future the Christian is to be characterised by:
As we look at these criteria we should perhaps use them to test ourselves to see how well we match up.
As Paul develops his subject here he is convinced of a wonderful future, indeed a glorious future, for the believer. The picture that Paul paints beyond death for the believer is one of eternal happiness. Paul has already maintained that the eternal weight of glory that awaits the Christian is beyond comparison with anything the Christian might suffer during his earthly lifetime. Now he makes further declarations confirming the better state of the Christian after death than before.
In this life our earthly home is likened to living in a tent. Now a tent is not something solid and durable rather a tent is temporary and moveable, subject to wearing out and needing replacing. (Paul was well-
Think back to the time the Israelites wandered in the Wilderness. The Levites were responsible for setting up the Tent of Meeting each time the company settled for a while.
Then when it was time to move on again down would come the tent and off they would go again. That went on for forty long years! It might have seemed romantic for a while but the shine would have quickly worn off. Then the day eventually came. The people had entered the Promised Land and the Temple was consecrated – there was no longer any need for that temporary tent. The Temple was solid and impressive and beautiful. Much more impressive than a tent!
I wonder whether you've ever visited a castle. You've been impressed by the thickness of the walls still standing after centuries. None of the tents that were used in the castle grounds have stood the test of time at all.
Have you ever watched one of those programmes on TV which follow the progress of a couple as they attempt to build the home of their dreams? Sometimes the couple is forced to live in very restricted circumstances, a ropey old two-
That's it! Do you see the type of picture Paul is painting for us? It is one that is designed to make us get our value system sorted out? What is to come is far, far greater than what we've known hitherto. We do indeed groan as long as we're living in the tent of our earthly home but the whole drift of what Paul affirms here is that that groaning will not be replicated when we are clothed with our new heavenly dwelling. And of course this ties in with what the Apostle John would later write in the book of Revelation:
Rev.21:4 "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."
If that were not enough Paul adds that this new house not only being eternal is actually made without hands ie. it is made by and is dependent upon God. (There are echoes here too of something that Jesus had earlier taught. He had spoken about the destruction of his own body and its resurrection though his hearers had imagined him to be speaking about the physical temple in Jerusalem. At one of his trials his accusers brought it up:
Mk.14:58 "We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’"
Is this an indication that the Christian after his death will receive a resurrection body similar to that of his Lord? I think it is.
Paul merrily switches his language (or mixes his metaphors if you prefer): one moment he is speaking of homes to live in – a tent or a house – but the next he speaks as if these dwellings were clothing.
The shift to speaking about clothing enables Paul to develop another line in his thinking. Not now the contrast between one item of clothing and another but between being clothed or being naked. What does he mean by this?
Paul's view of eternal life is life in a body albeit a renewed resurrection body. He has no interest in eternally living in some form of disembodied state as some sort of bodiless spirit. The material physical world is the creation of a Kind, Wise and Holy God and as such there is nothing inherently wrong in the material. Salvation is not to be construed as an endless separation of body and soul even though many men over the ages have sought to elevate the spiritual above the material. Indeed our salvation will not be fully complete until we are all granted our resurrection bodies. (Cf. Rev.6:9-
With such a wonderful glorious future in store the normal and natural reaction of any person with an ounce of intelligence would be to want to enjoy it.
Paul describes two types of groaning that characterise the Christian while in his earthly tent:
He groans because of his sufferings – in common with the whole of humanity I guess
He groans as he longs earnestly for the time when he will be able to enjoy what he is being prepared for.
Both types of groaning will come to and for the Christian – his sufferings will end and he will enter into the joy of his Lord in the heavenly realms.
I mentioned earlier the Bill in Parliament on Assisted Dying and suggested that this wanted to have done with the sufferings of this life. It amounts to taking off one set of clothing but offers absolutely nothing to cover the nakedness of a disembodied soul.
If as Christians we long only for an end of our temporal sufferings but don't go further to long for the clothing of our true spiritual identity then we are to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from the world. Brothers and sisters, this should not be so!
And yet for us in the west where we enjoy such levels of material prosperity and comfort how easily we cling to the pleasures of this world as those were the pleasures that really counted!
Jesus told his followers to lay up treasures in heaven but it is so much easier to get caught up with the thorns of cares, riches and pleasures that simply choke the spiritual life out of us and stop us producing lasting fruit.
We are urged to "set our (y)our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth." Col 3:2 and we are told that to "be with Christ... is far better" Phil.1:23 but struggle to so believe it that it make any real and lasting impact on our lives.
It's as though we have believed the Marxists when they make their suggestion that religion is the opium of the people. As though there are better joys to be had elsewhere.
Have we allowed silly little phrases like "Pie in the sky when you die" have a negative impact upon us? According to what Paul writes here it is the work of the Spirit to create in us a strong desire for such things! If it is the Spirit who produces such desires then we must not dismiss such desires as selfish and unworthy of a true Christian – such strong desires for heavenly reality is according to Paul one of the marks of a real Christian!
Paul groaned that he might put on his heavenly dwelling – it seems as though he didn't relish the thoughts of having to wait for his resurrection body either hoping that perhaps Christ would come before he died even. But he longed for the new to overtake the old, for the new to swallow up the old. He longed for that moment when the waiting would be over, the burdens would be gone and he might enjoy throughout all eternity the salvation Jesus had secured for him.
When we look at our own lives and our own attitudes is there any of this about us? Not just a longing for our trials and sufferings to be at an end – who after all doesn't want that? – but a real longing for the glory and the Prince of Glory in his glory.
As Paul wrote he was well aware that that he was not merely presenting his own opinions but of undeniable certainties:
"For we know..." he wrote in 5:1 as he began to talk about the end of a Christian's earthly life.
Paul had received his entire understanding of the Christian faith, including this knowledge, not from men whether reliable or unreliable but by direct revelation from the Lord:
The Corinthians and with them all other Christians "know" this same truth because it has been passed on by Paul and the other divinely inspired writers of the NT. We are not left in the dark trying somehow to feel our way forwards towards it.
What Paul wrote here matches up with his other writings (see in particular Rom.8:18-
Further the presence and witness of the Holy Spirit confirms the truthfulness of all that Paul has said. It is the Spirit himself who stirs spiritual interest and who gives spiritual life. It is the Spirit who quickens any spiritual thought and fosters spiritual growth. Any desire however small that desire might be for true spiritual reality comes from the Spirit and he is the One who makes heaven as the place where Jesus will be seen in all his glory seem so appealing to believers.
Whenever you have a spiritual stirring after greater reality with Jesus and a longing to be with him don't write it off or despise it – this is the Spirit at work. The more you pursue these stirrings the more you will grow as a spiritually minded Christian and the more the treasures of heaven will take precedence over the treasures of earth.
May God deepen our confidence in him and prepare us for eternal life in his presence. May the grave, our grave, cause us no more fear than does our bed at the end of a day!