2 Corinthians 4:16–5:10
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven; inasmuch as we, having put it on, shall not be found naked. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge. Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight—we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. Therefore also we have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
Today I want to begin a four-week series entitled, "What Happens When You Die?" By "you" I mean believers in Jesus Christ. If you are not a believer, the aim of these messages is to wake you up from the slumber of indifference to the question of death and eternity and to motivate you to consider Jesus Christ as the only way to eternal life and the only escape from hell and eternal death. "I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6). There is no other way to God.
In this sermon I will try to answer from Scripture the question, "What happens immediately at the moment of death?" In the following four weeks the questions will be:
- What happens to you at the coming of Christ?
- What happens to believers at the Judgment?
- What is our final place: a distant heaven, or the new earth where lions and lambs lie down in peace?
- What is the most essential bridge that links this life and the next?
Why This Theme Is Crucial to Consider
There is a long list of reasons why this theme seems crucial to me for our consideration. Let me mention a few of them:
1. The Possibilities of Eternal Joy or Eternal Misery
The possibilities for joy and misery after you die are trillions of times greater than in the few years on this earth before you die. The Bible compares this life to a vapor that appears as you breathe on a cold winter morning and then vanishes (James 4:14). The Bible describes the time after death as "ages of ages." Not just one or two ages of thousands of years, but ages of ages; thousands and thousands of ages (Revelation 14:11). It matters infinitely what happens to you after you die.
2. The Question of Authentic Faith
This theme forces the question as to whether our faith is real, substantial, biblical faith in objective, external reality outside ourselves. Namely, is our faith in God or is it a mere subjective experience of feelings and thoughts inside ourselves that function as an emotional cushion to soften the bumps of life and give us a network of friends. Facing eternity has an amazing effect of sobering us out of religious delusions.
3. The Centrality of God
Thinking about death and eternity helps keep God as the center of our lives by testing whether we are more in love with this world than we are in love with God himself. Does the thought of dying give us more pain at losing what we love on earth than it gives us joy at gaining Christ?
4. The Call to Christian Courage
When the biblical truth of this theme grips you, it frees you from fear and gives courage to live the most radical, self-sacrificing life of love. The person who can truly say, "To die is gain," will be able to say like no one else, "To live is Christ" (Philippians 1:21). But if you can't say, "To die is gain," then you will you will probably say, in one degree or another, "Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die" (1 Corinthians 15:32). Being sure of what happens when you die is indispensable as a believer in Christ for your daily courage and for not losing heart through the pain and the diminishing health of this life.
That brings us to our text.
Providing the Basis of Not Losing Heart
What Paul is doing in 2 Corinthians 4:16–5:10 is showing the Corinthians why he does not lose heart in spite of all the troubles and afflictions (4:8–12). Especially in view of the fact that he knows he is dying; his body is wearing away. Look at 4:16—"Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day."
It is utterly crucial that we not lose heart. Some of you have taken such a pounding physically and financially and relationally that you have often been tempted to "lose heart"; to give up. To say, "It isn't worth it." "Que sera, sera." "Who cares?" Paul faced the same temptation (vv. 8–12) and this text holds one of the keys to why he did not lose heart.
To show that this really is crucial to his point here, look at verses 6 and 8 of chapter 5 which is part of the same train of thought. Verse 6: "Therefore, being always of good courage . . . " Verse 8: "We are of good courage, I say." We'll come back to these verses in moment, but the point now is simply to show you that what Paul is doing here is giving the basis of being of good courage and not losing heart. That is the effect I would like it to have on you.
The Threat: His Body Is Decaying
Now let's go back to 4:16 and follow his line of thought to see what is threatening to make Paul lose heart and lose courage, and what is keeping him from losing heart.
Verse 16: "Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying . . . " Here is the threat he is dealing with: His body—"the outer man"—is decaying; it is wearing out. He can't see the way he used to (and there were probably no glasses). He can't hear the way he used to. He does not recover from beatings the way he used to. His strength walking from town to town does not hold up the way it used to. He sees the wrinkles in his face and neck. His memory is not as good. His joints get stiff when he sits still. In other words, he knows that he, like everybody else, is dying. His outer man is decaying. That's the threat to his courage and joy.
Now Why Doesn't He Lose Heart?
The first part of the answer is again in verse 16: "Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day." He doesn't lose heart because day by day his heart, his inner man, is being renewed. If his decaying body tends to make him lose heart, something else tends to make him gain heart. What is it?
Fixing His Eyes on What Can't Be Seen
His renewed heart comes from something very strange: it comes from looking at what he can't see. Verse 18: "We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal." This is Paul's way of not losing heart: looking at what you can't see.
Recall how Jesus criticized the religious leaders in his day: "Seeing they do not see and hearing they do not hear" (Matthew 13:13). In other words there was something to "see" in Jesus' life and teaching which they didn't see but should have seen. That has got to be reversed if we are to get our hope and our courage from Jesus and not lose heart. It has to be said of us, "Not seeing, they see; and not hearing, they hear." That's what Paul was doing in verse 18; he was looking at things that are not seen.
Paul illustrates this in chapter 5, verse 7: "We walk by faith, not by sight." This doesn't mean that we leap into the dark without evidence of what's there. But it does mean that the most precious and important realities in the world are beyond our senses now, and we "look" at them (v. 18) through what we know of Christ from faithful witnesses who have seen him and heard his voice. We strengthen our hearts—we renew our courage—by fixing the gaze of our hearts on invisible, objective truth that we learn about through the testimony of those who knew Christ and were taught by him (cf. Ephesians 1:18–23).
Looking to the Unseen Weight of Glory Being Prepared
What truth? What do we fix our gaze on to experience day by day the renewal of the inner man in the face of death?
To answer this we look back to verse 17 for a powerful summary statement, and we look forward into chapter 5 for the unpacking of this summary statement.
Verse 17: We renew our inner man each day by looking at this truth: "Momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison."
The decaying of your body is not meaningless. The pain, pressure, frustration, and affliction are not happening in vain. They are not vanishing into a black hole of pointless suffering. Instead this "momentary, light affliction [he calls it that even though it lasted for years and was unremitting and often excruciating] is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison."
In other words, the unseen things that Paul looks at to renew his inner man is the immense weight of glory that is being prepared for him not just after, but through and by, the wasting away of his body. There is a correlation between the decay of Paul's body and the display of Paul's glory. When he is hurting, he fixes his eyes not on how heavy the hurt is, but on how heavy the glory will be because of the hurt.
What Does This Unseen Glory Consist Of?
Now what does he see when he looks to the unseen glory? As he goes on in chapter five he fills in some of what he sees as he looks at the unseen.
Now the next two messages concern these verses: the resurrection body and the judgment of believers. But neither of these is the focus of this message. So if I pass over something too quickly, read the next sermon.
Verses 1–5 are about the hope of receiving new, glorious bodies at the resurrection. Verses 9–10 are about the judgment and Paul's effort to please Christ the Judge. Our focus is on verses 6–8, the hope of being with Christ immediately when you die.
His Great, Final Hope
But let me read you the verses about the resurrection body because there is a crucial connection between this hope and the hope of being with Christ (without a new body) immediately when you die. Verses 1–5:
For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down [he's talking about his body which is decaying], we have a building from God [a building as opposed to a tent for a house—that is, something more durable and lasting, namely, a new resurrection body], a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house [this "tent-house," our present body] we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven [that is, our resurrection body; he mixes metaphors here shifting back and forth now between being clothed and being housed]; inasmuch as we, having put it on, shall not be found naked [in other words, he does not prefer to put off his present body like a garment and become a disembodied soul—that's what nakedness means]. For indeed while we are in this tent [this mortal body], we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed [we don't want to be a bodiless soul], but to be clothed [on top of our present clothes—he wants the second coming of Christ to happen so that he will not have to die and be without a body, but rather have his present body swallowed up in the glorious resurrection life of the new body], in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge.
We'll talk more about this in the next message. For now, here's the crucial point: If Paul had his preference, he would choose to receive his new resurrection body at the second coming of Christ without having to die. And the reason he gives is that the experience of "nakedness"—that is being stripped of his body—is not something as good as having his body swallowed up by life as he is changed in the twinkling of an eye at the second coming of Christ.
This means that the great final hope of the Christian is not to die and be freed from our bodies, but to be raised with new, glorious bodies, or, best of all, to be alive at the second coming so that we do not have to lose our body temporarily and be "naked" (souls without bodies, cf. Matthew 10:28; Revelation 6:9; Hebrews 12:23) until the resurrection.
Present with the Lord Immediately After Death
But does that mean that dying and going to be with Christ does not happen, or that it is not good? No. Paul puts things back in perspective again in verses 6–8.
Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord [the full intimacy we long for is not possible here]—for we walk by faith, not by sight—we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.
Now get this. In verse 4 Paul says, "He does not want to be unclothed." His first preference is not to be "absent from the body." He says that in comparison to being over-clothed with the new resurrection body if he is alive at the second coming of Christ. That would be his first preference. But if that is not possible—if the choice is between more life here by faith and going to be with Christ—he prefers that God would take him; EVEN IF it means nakedness, that is, even if it means that he must be stripped of his body.
And the reason for this willingness to leave his body behind is not because the body is bad—O, how he wants the experience of the new resurrection body—but because being at home with the Lord is so irresistibly attractive to Paul. Verse 8: "I prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord."
So Paul renews his inner man by looking to unseen things. He looks at three possibilities and prefers them in descending order. First, he prefers that Christ would come and clothe his mortal body with immortality so that he would not have to die and be an incomplete, disembodied soul. But if God does not will that, Paul prefers to be absent from the body to living on here, because he loves Christ more than he loves anything else. To be absent from the body will mean to be at home with the Lord; a deeper intimacy and greater at-homeness than anything we can know in this life. Finally, if God wills that it is not time for the second coming or time for death, then Paul will walk by faith and not by sight.
In that faith he will be of good courage and, even though his outer man is decaying, his inner man will be renewed day-by-day through this faith in the unseen weight of glory.
Examine yourself. Do you share these biblical priorities and values in life? Do you long mainly for the second coming? And secondly, do you long to be at home with Christ even if it costs you the surrender of your body? Third, are you committed to walk by faith until he comes or until he calls?