One of the most searching challenges in the Bible is undoubtedly Solomon’s charge to young people in Ecclesiastes 12.
He first says: ‘Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the difficult days come, and the years draw near when you say, I have no pleasure in them (12:1).
He then describes in relentless detail the progressive loss of faculties in old age – no less powerfully for the poetic language – until ‘man goes to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets’ (vv. 3-5).
It is a simple and unanswerable argument. Our bodies are wearing out, our ‘spirit’ will soon return to God who gave it, and we urgently need to turn to God (vv. 7, 13-14).
How we respond to this challenge will determine where we spend eternity and how we spend the rest of our lives.
Responding to realities
Sometimes people react with anger. Sometimes they respond by denying the obvious, trying hard not to think of death and eternity.
What a liberation it is, however, to accept both God’s diagnosis and cure! To accept that our ‘outward man’ is perishing but that, through faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour, the ‘inward man’ is renewed day by day, even in the face of physical decline (2 Corinthians 4:16).
But Paul does not leave the matter there. He looks beyond death and into eternity: ‘For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’ (2 Corinthians 5:1ff).
He then unfolds a three-part exposition of God’s answer to the brevity of life.
A building from God
Firstly, there is a promise.’This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality’, so that ‘death is swallowed up in victory’ (1 Corinthians 15:53-55).
Paul employs a double contrast. Our ‘Earthly house … this tent’ (our present body) will be replaced by a ‘building from God’ (our resurrection body). The former will be ‘destroyed’ but the latter remains ‘eternal in the heavens’.
How does faith respond to these things?
By earnestly desiring our new body from heaven (vv. 2-3). We want to be ‘clothed’, not ‘naked’ – to be whole people in heaven, body and soul. Paul knows we will not be ‘clothed’ until resurrection day, when Christ returns, but that makes his anticipation all the more enthusiastic.
Notice also that this desire reflects not just his consolation but his aim, goal and hope! It is something better than the best we have in this present age. If you are not longing for heaven, you are still too attached to the earth.
The reason for earnestly desiring a new body is that in this life we ‘groan, being burdened’ (v. 4). Our present existence has inherent problems that trouble us profoundly.
Edward Donnelly observes: ‘At present, our bodies hinder us in our Christian living’. They ‘hunger, lust and grow tired. Their demands can distract and divert us from God’ (Heaven and Hell, p.108).
Things will be different in heaven, for ‘the Lord Jesus Christ … will transform our lowly body [to] be conformed to his glorious body’ (Philippians 3:21). We shall be changed and ‘further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life’ (v. 4).
In a passage of striking brilliance, A. A. Hodge likens this transformation to the instantaneous restoration of sight and hearing to one born blind and deaf.
‘Some such experience will be yours and mine when we are clothed upon with our glorified bodies on the morning of the resurrection. Coming up from rural and urban graveyards, rising before the awful whiteness of the throne and the intolerable glory of Him that sits thereon, and passing through the interminable ranks of flaming seraphs and diademed archangels, the perfect senses of our new bodies will bring us at once into the presence of the whole universe, of the music of all its spheres, and of the effulgence of all its suns – of the most secret working of all its forces, and of the recorded history of all its past’ (Evangelical Theology, p.380).
Paul does not follow Plato’s idea of the body as a tomb from which the soul awaits liberation. He does not want to be rid of his body because matter itself is evil.
Nor is Paul a materialist, clinging to life and hoping for the day when all that ails us will be cured and life-expectancy extended indefinitely.
No; the life of heaven is his goal and the focus of his deepest desire.
Certainty from God
Secondly, God makes a pledge (vv. 5-8). How can we be confident about this heavenly body to come? Paul offers three answers, which reflect the relationship of the Triune God to his believing people.
1. God the Father is himself our certainty. He has ‘prepared us for this very thing’ (v. 5). This is an appeal to the truth of the Word of God – his self-revelation as the sovereign God who created us at the beginning and recreates us by the gospel of Christ.
2. The Holy Spirit is given as a guarantee (v. 5). This is an appeal to the work of God in the experience of believers, as the heavenly Comforter ministers in their hearts and lives (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13).
3. The Lord Jesus Christ is the focus of our faith, hope and love. The exercise of faith confirms the hope of a new body from God in heaven (vv. 6-8). We are ‘always confident’, says Paul, and this for several reasons.
For one thing, being ‘at home in this body’ means we are ‘absent from the Lord’ (v. 6). The tatters appearing in our earthly tent, painful as they are, just indicate that we are drawing closer to our real home, where we shall be with our dear Saviour.
Furthermore, we understand this because ‘we walk by faith, not by sight’ (v. 7). The Christian is more impressed by what he believes than by what he sees.
He looks in the mirror and sees his days ebbing away. He looks to Christ by faith and sees everlasting glory. As he ‘walks’ by faith, his hope in God’s promise is enlarged and his experience of God’s grace deepened.
Does this touch your experience today and every day? I rather fear that many Christians are afraid to leave this body, this life and this world to be with the Lord. But if we truly love Christ we will desire to be with him.
Living for God
Thirdly, there is a practical programme. Earnest longing for heaven is the engine that powers effective living on earth. It negates the ‘too heavenly minded, no earthly use’ idea, and the claim of secular culture that ‘this world is all there is’.
Many Christians unwittingly ‘buy into’ these worldly attitudes. They neither hope actively for heaven, nor relate to heaven as they live in the world. Paul therefore delineates the heaven-focused discipleship that makes for practical Christian living.
First comes commitment to pleasing God (v. 9). The starting point of godly behaviour is the consideration that one day we shall be present with the Lord.
It follows that whether ‘present or absent’ we seek to be ‘well pleasing to him’.
Further motivation comes from the conviction that we are accountable to Christ. We must appear before his judgement seat to answer for our actions (v. 10).
The Lord’s people are already saved, and will be acquitted in that day. But that future judgement calls us to faithfulness in the details of living, informing our motives and actions as we submit even now to Christ’s Lordship.
To live is Christ
Such solemn anticipations demand conscientiousness in our service to the Lord in a world that will perish under Christ’s righteous judgement unless brought to salvation in him (v.11).
This constrains Paul to proclaim the gospel faithfully and urgently (see Romans 1:16). He knows ‘the terror of the Lord’ because he understands the significance of coming judgement for the lost.
Paul was not disobedient to ‘the heavenly vision’ of the Damascus Road. Throughout his ministry (Acts 26:19-20) he sought to ‘persuade men’.
And he can appeal to the witness of heaven (‘we are well known to God’) and the testimony of believers (‘I also trust are well known in your consciences’) that he has a good conscience before the Lord.
The watchword for the Christian’s life is beautifully stated in Philippians 1:21-24: ‘For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain’.
Paul is happy to live in his tattered tent, but will be even happier when clothed with the heavenly building from God: ‘What I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you’.
Let us embrace the promises of God, and live the heavenward life in Christ each day.