4:16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. 5:1 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in 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 be clothed with our heavenly dwelling— 3 if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to 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 guarantee2 Corinthians 4:16-5:5
Today we’re going to talk about life, death, and life after life after death. To be fair, I ripped that last line about life after life after death from NT scholar NT Wright who coined it in his book, Surprised By Hope, which I recommend wholeheartedly.
So, here’s the question: where is all of this headed? Our struggles, our pain, and our clinging to faith in the Lord Jesus? Paul’s answer here in this passage is surprising. In the end, all that we have endured — both good and bad, fruitful and seemingly futile — awaits consummation by grace. When God is ready, all that we are, all we have done, and all we have loved will be brought into the full light of reality, and reflect the brilliance of God’s redemption in Jesus Christ.
To see this, let me share a personal story:
I remember the day my firstborn son Sammy was born as if it were yesterday. I remember my wife’s labor pains, as well as her bravery. Beyond her pain, most of her relatives were half a world away. I can’t claim to understand the emotional complexity of a woman as she gives birth, but I feel certain that having emotional and familial support is very important. While I was there, there were those she loved who were not, so I can imagine there was a loneliness in that moment that I could never fill. She’s a strong woman.
I also remember the first time I held my son. That day marked a new way of measuring my life. There was the time before and then there was the time after I saw my son. From that time forward, I stopped being a boy, and I became a man, a father, and a more engaged husband than I had been previously. Seeing my son for the first time changed everything.
It also brought home a radical reality. While I was overjoyed, I also knew instantly something we spend our lives denying. Seeing that little one come into the world, I knew my time on this earth (or this earth, as it is presently) was going to come to an end. Birth is new life, and new life necessarily means the ending of what came before.
To underscore the point, I still have a photo of that moment that haunts me and brings me to tears. In it I was holding my son up to my father for him to see. My dad, Sam, had a huge smile on his face as he saw his grandson for the first time. Behind us both, a light shone. Because the digital cameras back then weren’t so good, the light spilled readily into the photo such that when you see it, all you can see is a beam of light, our faces, and my son, bundled up – it’s ethereal, really.
Every time I see that picture, it makes me weep. We would lose my Dad to cancer about two and a half years later. When I see my smile, my little son, and my Dad beaming with pride, I am haunted by the memory, and my tears mix both loss and joy.
The tears of loss are obvious. But the joy; oh man, there is so much to say there. The picture captures the joy of new life. It captures the celebration of life across three generations. Because the light is overwhelming, it also points forward to a time to come when life will be realized in ways we can’t quite see yet.
In short, the joy in that photo is the joy to be found in all our trials and struggles as we walk by faith, not by sight because we are convinced that what has been known and revealed here awaits further revelation, further definition, further glory. Because we belong to Christ who was raised from death into new, resurrection life as he was swallowed up in fellowship with the Father and the Spirit, we await a day when all that we have been, all that we are, and all that we will become will also be swallowed up by that same life.
This is Paul’s point in this passage, and it runs contrary to how we often read it. In all the talk of tents, tabernacles, buildings, and temples in this section, the point is not, nor has it ever been, that what we are waiting for is a day to come when we will shuffle off our mortal coil like a snake shedding its skin so that we can bounce around on clouds among a bunch of fat babies playing harps.
Look closely at chapter 5, verses 2-4. Yes, we groan in this tent, this tabernacle, this temple, this temporary dwelling place for the Most High, and we long to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling. But here’s the rub. When we die, or when we take this tabernacle off, as Paul tells us in verse 3, we aren’t naked. We aren’t destined at this point to walk around tentless, or bodiless. No. Verse 4 goes on to make it clear that our wish, our desire isn’t to be without a body, without a dwelling place for God, but to be further clothed — to be further “tented,” if you will. We await our life — life as we have known it, body and all — and all that we are and all that we have been being swallowed up by life.
The heart of what Paul is getting at there is that in the glory to come (or life after life after death when we have been raised bodily just as Jesus had a resurrection body), what we thought was awesome, beautiful, and brought meaning will be bathed in the glorious light of the life of God, and it will shine with even greater brilliance and glory.
Verse 5 brings it home. This hope of life after life after death, this hope in the resurrection of our bodies (and so, by extension, the resurrection of who we once were) into glorified, transformed people has been prepared for us by God in the person of Jesus Christ. The guarantee we have of this hope is the presence of God’s Spirit inhabiting us even as we are clothed in this earthly temple made of clay.
Now maybe all of that is confusing, but look back on chapter 4, verse 16: don’t lose heart! The point of all this, including my own personal story is this: what we have done, what we have loved, and who we are in Jesus Christ, all of it has a future. It can never be lost. And because it cannot be lost, I can remember beautifully painful memories like the birth of my son and the death of my father in the same frame. That frame is the good hope given us by the generous and gracious presence of Jesus Christ. What I have found to be so achingly true and beautiful will be swallowed up in the life of God, thus it is eternal, and shall never die. Thanks be to God.