Our title this morning is “The Eternal Perspective of Gospel Ministry” but as our passage set is 2 Corinthians 5.1-10, that is the eternal perspective from the individual believers point of view. So our title could have been “the Christian view of death and dying.” And this is so important then and now. For the Christian view is, amid all the sadness and death, one of great hope and anticipation. That is in such contrast with so much of the non-Christian World’s view then and indeed now. For then Aristotle, the remarkable Greek philosopher taught:
“death is the most terrible of all things, for it is the end.”
And the Greek poet Theocritus wrote:
“hopes are for the living, the dead are without hope.”
What a contrast that is with the Apostle Paul’s teaching as we will see this morning. So let us now pray:
Heavenly Father, we pray that your Holy Spirit will guide us as we consider this difficult but very encouraging part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Christians written centuries ago, but so needed today. For Jesus sake. Amen.
With that introduction I now have two simple headings. First, The Future, and, secondly, The Present.
1. The Future (2 Corinthians 5.1-4).
Let me read them again:
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. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 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.
James Denny, the 19th century Scottish theologian from a previous generation wrote this about these verses:
The passage is one of the most difficult in his [Paul’s] writings, and has received the most various interpretations; yet the first impression it leaves on a simple reader is probably as near the truth as the subtlest ingenuity of exegesis.
I agree for these verses clearly underline three things at least, But we can learn from three things those verses teach or underline. First, the fact of the bodily resurrection of believers. Look at 2 Corinthians 5.1 again:
For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed [we die] we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
And Paul says, “we know” – as a matter of fact. But how can any one say that? Well, Paul’s readers realized Paul had credibility because of his Damascus Road experience where he met the risen Jesus. He had written about this in his first letter to the Corinthians. So he and they had come to believe that the Resurrection appearances of Jesus weren’t hallucinations but real. The appearances and empty tomb that first Easter had proved that Jesus was alive in a new way. And these Corinthians knew there was an afterlife as Paul explained in that first letter (1 Corinthians 15.3-8):
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me
Certainly a crowd of 500 people don’t all hallucinate together in the same way, and the 12 apostles wouldn’t have risked and surrendered their lives for the risen Jesus if they had not thought he really had left an empty tomb. So Paul could write to the Corinthians in his first letter (1 Corinthians 15.51-57):
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ
And Paul had learnt the details from the other Apostles who had learnt them from Jesus himself. So we are talking fact not fiction, truth and not error, when we talk of the bodily resurrection of individuals. But, secondly, the individual bodily resurrection not only true but amazing. It is something people should really get excited about. For your new body will compare, Paul is saying, to our current bodies as a great mansion compares to a flimsy tent. The choice of imagery is so significant with a tent compared to “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens”.
Philip Hughes puts it so well:
“Paul is teaching something which far exceeds any of the tentative aspirations of paganism, for his perspective is enriched by the assurance that the Christian’s body is to be redeemed and glorified as well as his soul. He rejoices in the certainty that the fraility, the limitations, and the gravitational pull of sin associated with his present bodily experience will hereafter become a thing of the past. The believer, accordingly entertains the certain hope of an incomparably better life beyond the grave, in contrast to the unbeliever whose values are all of this world, and for whom consequently death is the personification of uncertainty and the inexorable frustration of all for which they have lived.”
So bodily resurrection is an amazing truth. And, thirdly, Paul teaches that death is not inevitable – how we all need to be reminded of that truth. For there is a note of uncertainty in 2 Corinthians 5.1. Paul writes:
…if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed…
And what does that “if” mean? Answer: our bodies might not be destroyed – we might not die. Paul has no doubt about the desirability of life with Christ beyond death, but he knows that Christ may first return at the end of history as we heard earlier. Then he will not die but experience immediate bodily transformation.
This, of course, has been the situation facing Christ’s followers in every age. It is always possible that death may be preceded by Christ’s Second Coming. He can come at any time! So Christians should live accordingly – live each day as if your last. That brings us to our second heading and The present and how we should respond to all this now.
2. The Future (2 Corinthians 5.5-10):
He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
Again three things can be underlined from Paul’s teaching here. First, God is in control now of this transition process for you – the process of getting from life in this world to life in the next. So if you are a true believer, trust that God is in control at the end of your life, whatever is happening to you. And remember, you have the Holy Spirit as the first element of that New Age and he will be with you to strengthen you and make Jesus real to you. 2 Corinthians 5.5:
He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee
Yes, you may be going through pain (emotionally or physically), but the Holy Spirit is “alongside you” – that is what his name in the original really means.
Secondly, we must “always be of good courage” without or with the direct presence of Christ. (2 Corinthians 5.6-8):
So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
It is because God is in control that we should be “always of good courage”. The old King James version translates that as “confident” – I think you could translate it “always look on the bright side”. And we can courageous even though we are not with the Lord directly - “while we are at home in the body”. “At home with the Lord” obviously would be much better.
This past week there have been a number of problems which, of course, I would like to have been able to phone and have Jesus answer the telephone rather than one of the church staff (fantastic though they are). But we all now, while still alive and not dead, have to walk by faith and not by sight. So we can pray as Jesus taught us, and God does answer, without doubt – but, of course, not always when and how exactly how we would prefer. But always be of good courage – you have the Holy Spirit with you and God is in control.
Thirdly, Paul teaches, we must have, Godly ambition. Look at 2 Corinthians 5.9-10:
So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim [or ambition] to please him. For we must all appear before the judgement 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 is so important and a real issue for all of us and not least for thousands of new students. If you are one of these, may I ask, is your ambition to get a first class degree, or to get in the university team of your favoured sport, or none of those but just to end up with the highest salaried job possible? None of those are wrong in themselves (so long as you are not selfish with your weath). But your highest ambition needs is to please the Lord and, as he says, love and obey him and love your neighbour – and all that means. And our ambitions are, and acting to please the Lord, are very important for, 2 Corinthians 5.10 says:
we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
Paul knows that the believer in Christ won’t only experience this amazing bodily resurrection, but also divine judgment along with everyone else. Of course, what we’ve done in the body - good works done to please the Lord - will not save us – they can never be good enough. But what we do is evidence of saving faith and so important. And good works are what God saves us for. As Paul wrote to some other Christians (Ephesians 2.8-10):
By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Of course, true believers cannot lose their salvation. But as Paul had already taught the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 3 on judgment day our work for Christ will be assessed and judged. More needs to be said, but time forbids. So let me finish with another quote from James Denny:
It is not necessary for us to seek a formal reconciliation of this verse with Paul’s teaching that the faithful are accepted in Christ Jesus; we can feel that both must be true. And if the doctrine of justification freely by God’s grace is that which has to be preached to sinful men, the doctrine of exact retribution, taught in this passage, has its main interest and importance for Christians.