This is a summary of a sermon preached at LRBC on March 26 2023
The anticipation that children experience is striking.
As a child, I used to eagerly await birthdays and Christmases and holidays. Exciting events could not drag themselves across the calendar fast enough.
As an adult, these kind of things don’t foster the same anticipation. In fact, I must confess that nothing has really replaced that experience of excited anticipation. It could be that I live a dull existence, but I suspect many adults are in the same boat with me.
Anticipation like what children experience is something we should foster in the future-oriented facet of Christian faith. When I talk about Christian discipleship I like to suggest we consider God’s work in the past, the present, and the future. The Apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:1–10 are future-oriented. They remind us of God’s promise of our future bodily resurrection, and prompt us to live differently in light of that fact, confident in the face of the difficulties and declines of life in the body in the present. It is things like this that enable Christians to be disciples as Jesus expected us to be—“the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13)—distinctive from the people of the world who have no commitment to him and are not shaped by God’s work in the past and present and future.
2 Corinthians 5:1-10 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on[a] we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
This message draws on these words and is organised around three headings:
1. The Pain
There is a demure saying from Job 5:7 – “People are born for trouble as readily as sparks fly up from a fire.”
Human existence is very often defined by experiences of decline and difficulty. This is our experience of life in the body in the present age.
The descriptive language Paul uses in and around this passage implies as such:
- Three times (5:1-2, 4) he describes our bodies as a “tent”—our body is only temporary.
- In 4:7 he describes our bodies as “clay jars”—pointing out their fragility.
- He also refers to it as an “earthly-house” in comparison to a future “heavenly dwelling” (5:1)—no doubt as inferior to what will receive from him at the return of Christ.
- He also refers to our “outer nature” “wasting away” (4:16)—an easily observable fact that our bodies are expiring. None of us last forever.
Ultimately, decline is inevitable.
This is an experience that is common to all people.
It doesn’t matter what you believe, or what you do or don’t do, or how much you exercise or what you eat or don’t eat, human life ends.
No matter how you go out, go out you will.
The Response we see to this is Groaning
Groaning (5:2, 4) is an expression of discomfort.
It acknowledges that things are not right.
It acknowledges an awareness of “something better”.
This too is an experience common to all people.
From nonreligious people that “something better” might simply be the absence of pain.
From Christians that “something better” is much more than simply an absence of pain.
It is the promise of the resurrection life and all the restoration of full human experience that goes with it. That is what we look forward to when we groan in our current bodily existence.
Most non-religious people today would expect that having things wrong with the body is a “normal” experience. In a sense they are right—but only in the life that we know. As Christians we should understand that what is “natural” is the experience of life as God originally made it. This is not an experience of life that any of us have experienced. I would suggest that the dismay that nonreligious folk can feel here can be seen as a yearning for an experience of life as God made it to be—without the bodily difficulties and discomforts and distresses and declinings.
They don’t know where they can find that better experience, but the contention of Christians should be that it will be found in the promises of God in the gospel.
The gospel message we bear speaks to this universal human experience of pain and of groaning. I’m thinking of those who find their present experience of life and their body a bad experience. Many people live a life of relatively good health and little struggle. However, others have bodies that don’t work properly, or is already breaking down, or has which has mismatched attractions. I’m reminded also of transgendered people, who experience a mismatch in between their brain and their body over what gender they are. The groanings that all these people express can be met and resolved in God’s promise of resurrection.
2. The Promise
An important theme of the opening chapters of the Bible (Genesis 1–3) is that what God created was Good, but that we do not experience the creation as he originally made it. However, he is committed to restoring his world, and repairing the damage that humanity has done to it—both physically and spiritually. This will involve making again everything to be “good” and pleasing to him, winding back the damage made by sin, restoring God’s rule and order, and notably with respect to 2 Corinthains 5:1–10, his undoing of death via the resurrection of bodies.
Two passages I think are worth knowing about from before Jesus are from Isaiah: 25:6-9, and 26:19.
In Jerusalem the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
will spread a wonderful feast
for all the people of the world.
It will be a delicious banquet
with clear, well-aged wine and choice meat.
7 There he will remove the cloud of gloom,
the shadow of death that hangs over the earth.
8 He will swallow up death forever!
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears.
He will remove forever all insults and mockery
against his land and people.
The Lord has spoken!
9 In that day the people will proclaim,
“This is our God!
We trusted in him, and he saved us!
This is the Lord, in whom we trusted.
Let us rejoice in the salvation he brings!”
Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the earth will give birth to the dead.
In these words (centuries before Jesus and the New Testament), we see the promise of death abolished, and of new life that is in the body.
The New Testament (after Jesus) links this promise of the resurrection of God’s people to the resurrection of Jesus. One place that is quite clear is right next to our passage – 2 Corinthians 4:14…
We know that God, who raised the Lord Jesus, will also raise us with Jesus and present us to himself together with you.
We can see this commitment to restoration and resurrection in this passage. There is…
- What we have now: The Holy Spirit given to us is described as a “deposit” (v. 5). One way we experience the Holy Spirit is as God at work in us in our present lives. God is committed to finishing his work in us (cf. Phil 1:6)—that is why the Spirit in us is a guarantee. God has started the work of restoration in us individually, and he will see it through to its completion at the future resurrection.
- What is still to come: The text indicates several facets of what God has guaranteed by his promise.
- “A building from God, eternal in the heavens… we put on our heavenly dwelling” (vv.1-2).
This is a new (and physical) body. This would startle the expectations of the original Christian readers, coming as they did from a culture infused with Greek thought. The way Greek culture typically understood the human person was as a soul trapped inside a physical body. The body was either irrelevant or a hindrance to the interests of the soul, and so death was regarded (theoretically, at least) as an escape.
Paul rebuts this thinking when he says “not that we would be unclothed” in verse 4. Paul derived his concept of the human person more from Genesis 1 in which God declares the created order, including human bodies as he made them, as “good”.
So, in the resurrection we expect that we will be “putting on” a new physical body and existence (cf. “put-on” language in 1 Corinthians 15:53-54 and “further clothed” in 2 Corinthians 5:4).
- “What is mortal will be swallowed up by life” (v.4)
Consider the experiences of life in the body in the present that we saw in part one. Life as we know and experience it is temporary, fragile, inferior, and expiring. Life as we know it will be overshadowed by life as we have never known it. It will be eternal, vigorous, magnificent, and enduring.
- We will be “at home with the Lord” (v.8).
Is this the best part? I think it should be, although it might be the hardest to describe.
If we are unsure about all this and have worries about whether life after the resurrection will work out for us, consider who it is we will be with—the Lord himself.
My wife recounted to me recently how she had been trying to explain to our daughters how heaven will be great even though we don’t know much about what it will be like. She suggested a scenario to them, in which she picked them up after school and told them they were going to go somewhere exciting but that where that was would be a surprise. In such a scenario, our girls agreed that they would think this would be great. They trust their mum to have good promises, and the expect that if they are with her they will be happy with that. The point of that story is that we can trust God that it will be good, and we know that it will be good because it is with him.
I think this is part of what Jesus said about becoming like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven!
3. The Path
The promise of resurrection promotes a different way of living for the Christian. With respect to the future work of God, this defines what a disciple looks like. It is more than analysing what is wrong with the world, and more than discovering the doings of God: it is about living in light of the expectation of the future life we are promised.
Looking just at this passage I can see two outward endeavours that believers in the promise of the resurrection will strive to do. And I can see three inward resolutions that have to be happening for those outward things to be successful. Let’s look at them.
Inward Resolutions: Interestingly, these are not given as commands but simply stated as affirmations. Paul does not tell us to do these things, but simply assumes that we are – perhaps because they should be a given among Christ’s people. If we don’t, what does that say about the nature of our faith and practise? Does it display them as Christian, or betray a more worldly character to our outlook on life?
- We are reminded to remember what it is we (ought to) believe. Paul writes that “We know” (vv.1, 6) of God’s promise of our resurrection. It is a basic point of Christian doctrine that should be held without difficulty. Do you know and accept that the life we have in the present will one day be superseded by the life of the resurrection??
- We are reminded that the promise of resurrection is a source of encouragement in the face of the discouragements of life as it declines and decays. “We are of good courage”, Paul tells us (vv. 6, 8). If we do not do so already, we are invited here to trust God at his word that his promise of resurrection will meet the longings of our groanings.
- We are reminded that we have a preference for being with the Lord over our present life. Paul says: “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (v.8). This feels like a tall order. Unless and until our life is unravelling and coming to its end, do we not normally prefer to keep living our life in the present? To have our present enjoyments and anticipate future possibilities? Our friendships and responsibilities and ambitions make us want to stick around in the present. The challenge for us here is to value God more than we value the good things of the life he has gifted us. Possibly this is harder for us who are still young.
We must learn to affirm with the psalmist that one day with God is better than a thousand without him (Psalm 84:10).
Outward Endeavours: These are the things we do. As I said earlier, it will be possible to do these things only if we hold to the inward resolutions concerning the future life of the resurrection.
- We will “walk” (i.e., “live”) according to what we believe about the future life and the trust we have that God will keep his promise. Paul phrases it as “walking by faith and not by sight” (v. 7). A purely secular outlook will walk only by sight, making decisions and living life as if only the life of the present was what we have. We who trust God will keep to his word about the resurrection will therefore live differently and distinctly – as I mentioned at the start, following Jesus means we will be “salty” (cf. Matthew 5:13).
- We will aim to please God in our living. When the Bible talks about the end of the world as we know it and the return of Christ, it almost always tells us how we live for God while awaiting these things. We live in light of Christ’s return and everything that will happen then. This kind of living might be risky and costly, but a life that is known to be secure in God’s resurrection promise is freed to be lived for him, regardless of risk or sacrifice.
The call to discipleship involves the call to be salty – Jesus expects that his followers will be distinctive and different; reflecting the values of the Kingdom of God. Our anticipation for new bodily life in the future age in the presence of God anchors our pattern for living outside of our experiences of the present.
Paul describes in this passage how Christian faith gives us a distinctive attitude to life and death.
- We see the roots of the problems and Pain of life in the body in the present in the disjunction between humanity and our Creator (cf. Gen 3).
- We can see the Promise of God to make things new; including our bodily existence. This is the promise of resurrection.
- We walk at distinctive Path and to live a distinctive life because of these things these things foster hope and anticipation.
On the basis of our faith in God and his promise of resurrection, we ought to live confidently in the face of life’s declining, and to live with a preference to being with the Lord over living itself. This last part is hard – but it is part of the challenge of discipleship and of being transformed by our commitment to Christ and the gospel. But the anticipation of faith as we wait for God’s promises can prepare us for this life of walking by faith rather than by sight.
 This sermon was originally given the day after the Posie Parker protest in Auckland on March 25, 2023.