I heard a story once about a Scotsman who traveled down into England to visit some of the great English churches and listen to the great English preachers of the day. He was gone for a number of weeks, and came back shaking his head. When his friends asked him what was wrong, he declared that those English weren’t flying with both wings. That puzzled them, as you may imagine, and so they asked him what he meant; he responded, “I heard plenty of talk about Christ’s first coming, but nothing at all about his second.”
That Scotsman was on to something, I think. People tend either to focus very intensely on Christ’s second coming, or to pretty much ignore it. Again, it seems to me that reaction plays a part in this; we in the church have an unfortunate tendency to be embarrassed by our brothers and sisters who don’t do things the way we do, and to react against them, which usually results in our throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Here, you may remember a little book by a man named Edgar Whisenant entitled 88 Reasons Why Christ will Return in 1988; he even doubled down the next year with a sequel, 89 Reasons Why Christ will Return in 1989. Of course, Whisenant was wrong both times, and made a lot of people look and feel foolish—and it’s a very natural human response to go to the opposite extreme and just say, “Well, I’m not going to think about that anymore.” This is unfortunate, because it reinforces a tendency that’s there anyway to think of our lives and the church and the political situation in this-worldly terms, and thus to overstate the importance of worldly success, worldly victories, and worldly methods.
When we affirm our faith by saying the creed together, we end by declaring our belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, and that’s no afterthought. That’s nothing tacked-on. It is, in fact, every bit as essential to our faith as everything else we affirm. We miss that because we tend to think of it, again, in earthly terms as just the reward for being good and living a good life—as if God’s telling us, “You be nice and eat your broccoli in this life, and you’ll get dessert when I’m ready to give it to you.” Certainly, bribery can be very effective, as I’ve found with my own kids, but that’s really not what this is about at all. Rather, this is about the logical conclusion and completion of the life we live on this earth—our resurrected life in the kingdom of God, in the new heavens and the new earth, will be the same life we now live in Christ, only more so. It will be the new life he has given us with all the sin we still struggle with and all the pain we still bear finally removed, completely, from the picture. What we’re on about in this world is preparation for what’s coming.
This is, incidentally, the answer to those who insist that a good God wouldn’t keep anyone out of heaven. If you view heaven as nothing more than a giant party that anyone and everyone would enjoy, then the question, “Why would God keep anyone out? Isn’t he merciful?” appears to have some force. The truth is, though, that life in the kingdom of God will be the distillation of everything that those who reject God are unwilling to accept. Some years ago, I was talking with an atheist acquaintance of mine and he decided to go after me a little bit on this point; I looked at him and said, “I thought you don’t believe in God.” He said, “I don’t.” I asked him, “Would you want to spend eternity with God?” He said, “If God actually existed, no, I wouldn’t.” I said, “Well, that’s what heaven is; if you don’t want to go to heaven, why should God make you?” He looked at me for a moment and changed the subject.
The key here is that those of us who are in Christ and now live by the Holy Spirit are already living eternal life, however imperfectly we may realize it at times; the life of the world to come is not a separate thing, but an integral part of our life now. We don’t simply live in the present—we live in the future, too. Our life comes from the future, from the coming kingdom of God which is breaking into the kingdoms of this world—in us, the people of God. In us, the future kingdom of God is present, the rule of God is exercised, the authority of God in and over this world is proclaimed. We are ambassadors from the future to the present, and the life God calls us to live only makes sense if we see it in that perspective.
Put another way, what we need to understand is that biblically, we are in the last days. We don’t tend to think of it that way; when we talk about the last days, we tend to think of a very short period of time right before Jesus comes again. The Bible doesn’t do that, though. Take a look at Joel 2, at the passage Bryan read a few minutes ago. This is describing the last days, the final blessing of God on his people, the great and dreadful day of the LORD, attended by all sorts of apocalyptic events, and ultimately by judgment. He’s clearly looking forward to things we have not experienced. But then look at Acts 2, as Peter stands up to tell the crowd in the temple what they’re seeing: he starts with this passage from Joel. You’ll note that Acts even uses the phrase “in the last days” in its translation of the prophet’s message. What the crowd needs to understand, Peter tells them, is that what they’re seeing isn’t anything they can explain on the basis of their own experience, because the world has changed: the last days that Joel predicted have arrived, and the new thing God promised has begun to happen.
Now, if biblically speaking, we’re in the last days, what does that mean? Obviously the prophecy of Joel has only been partly fulfilled; things that the prophet puts right together have so far been separated by almost two thousand years. You might say that we’re still waiting for the last last days. So this isn’t a statement about the end of the world being right around the corner; people keep thinking it might be, but so far, it hasn’t happened. The point is more this: in God’s time, it will happen, and we don’t know when that will be—and for that matter, many of us will die before then, which will be the end of the world for us, and we don’t know when that will be, either—but whenever it comes, that’s the end toward which we’re moving, when everything God has begun in us will be completed and fulfilled. That’s the destination of our journey, the purpose of our calling, the goal that will make sense of everything along the way.
To live in the last days, and to live in the understanding that we’re in the last days, is to live with that orientation and that focus: toward the future, toward dying and being reborn, toward the kingdom of God. It’s to live with the understanding that, if you will, what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas, because what happens in the present is primarily important for the effects it will have in the future; what we do in this world matters, and this world itself matters, not because it’s all there is but because it isn’t. What matters isn’t the things, and the worldly victories, and the worldly praise; rather, what matters is what will endure: the people we meet, the truth we speak, the lessons we learn, the love we give—and of course, the ones we don’t, as well. In the end, if we shut people out, if we refuse to speak or to hear truth, if we withhold love, for whatever reason, the only person we impoverish is ourselves. If we focus our attention, our concern, our efforts, on the things the world values, such as money and power, we may get the rewards the world has to offer (or we may not), but when this world goes, they’ll be gone. As Sara’s Grandpa Van used to say, “You can’t take it with you, but you can send it on ahead”—and it’s only what you send on ahead that will last.
Again, the key is that the life of the world to come isn’t just for the future, it’s the life we have now; this is why, as Paul says, we are not of the night or of the darkness, but are children of the light who belong to the day. And this is why we have hope, and why life makes sense, and why death is something that can be borne without despair; and this is why James can tell us to rejoice when we encounter various trials, and why Jesus can say, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” If this world and this life are all there is, then those things don’t make any sense; it’s all well and good for James to declare that “the testing of your faith produces steadfastness,” but is that really worth the price you pay for it? If this life were all there is, probably not; but Jesus says, “Rejoice and be glad”—why?—“because your reward is great in heaven.”
We don’t do what’s right for the sake of reward, or at least I hope we don’t; and there are far better reasons to follow Jesus than financial calculation. He wants us to do what’s right, he wants us to follow him, because we love him and we know how good he is and we recognize what an incredible thing he did for us and what an incredible gift he gave us. He wants us to walk with him because there’s no better thing to do and no better place to be. But there needs to be a reward—justice demands it. There needs to be a reward for those who serve others selflessly and without recognition, for those who do the thankless jobs without complaint or resentment, for those who spend years ministering to others and sharing the gospel and see no fruit for their work; and there needs to be a balancing of the scales for all the suffering of this life. Yes, God uses our suffering for good in our lives and in the lives of those around us, but—there just needs to be more than that. I’ve been thinking about this talking to Pam Chastain this week, thinking about the suffering of David’s foster mother, who has been dying a most unpleasant and prolonged death; it made me think of my grandfather, who spent eight years dying by inches, and various family members in the grip of Alzheimer’s. It’s easy to dismiss them with phrases like “no quality of life,” but much as we might see no reason for them to stay alive, God obviously does. Which means, it seems to me, that there has to be some good for them in it somehow. There needs to be something that makes it worthwhile, that makes everything all right.
And so we are promised our reward, not as a bribe, but as our assurance that the Judge of all the earth will do right. We are promised the resurrection from the dead—not some sort of ethereal existence as spirits floating around on clouds playing harps, but our whole selves, body and spirit, raised from the dead, perfected, the way they were supposed to be, with everything made right. We are promised the new heavens and the new earth, re-created, purified, made right. We’re promised a new life in a new-made world, all the best things about this life with all the darkness and sadness and pain and grief and loss and struggle and sin gone forever.
And we’re promised, most of all, that for which we were made most of all: life with God. There will be no separation between us and him; we will see him clearly, with nothing to obscure our view or confuse our understanding. We will live forever in the presence of the one who is the source of all goodness and beauty and joy and pleasure, including all that is good and right and true in us, and who loves us more than anyone else ever will or ever can. There will be no more doubt and no more fear; there will be no more need for faith, for we will see him face to face and know beyond any question that he is with us, and no more need for hope, because we will have every perfect blessing and all good things. Paul says that these three things remain, faith, hope, and love, and that the greatest of these is love; that’s because the time will come when even faith and hope will have fulfilled their purpose, and only love will remain. Only perfect love, the love of God. This is our promise; this is our reward; this is what everything else is for. This is what we live for, and it’s why we worship; it’s what God created us for, and it’s why we’re here.