What I have in mind in this message is not primarily what our human nature is now, nor the process by which we become what we will be, nor the events of death or the intermediate state between death and resurrection, nor the event of resurrection or judgment — but the final condition or nature of redeemed humanity when history as we know it is completely past, and the resurrection is past, and the judgment is past, and the new heavens and the new earth have come, and the final condition of what we will be like for future ages has come.
Why Does This Future Reality Matter Now?
Why is this question — and this reality of our final condition, in which we will spend billions of ages — worthy of our attention? To answer that question, I quote with great approval J.I. Packer (who is citing Richard Baxter):
The importance of clarity about what lies at the end of the Christian pilgrimage seemed to [Richard] Baxter incalculable. . . . The more strongly one desires an end, the more carefully and diligently one will use the means to it. [Baxter:] “The Love of the end is the poise and spring, which setteth every Wheel a going.” But an unknown end will not be loved. “It is a known, and not merely an unknown God and happiness, that the soul doth joyfully desire.” Such desire will then give wings to the soul. “It is the heavenly Christian that is the lively Christian. It is strangeness to heaven that makes us so dull. It is the end that quickens to all the means; and the more frequently and clearly this end is beheld, the more vigorous will all our motion be. . . . We run so slowly, and strive so lazily, because we so little mind the prize.” (Honouring the People of God: Collected Shorter Writings of J.I. Packer on Christian Leaders and Theologians, 274, emphasis added)
Is that not the mindset of the apostle? “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13–14).
Baxter again: “The Love of the end is the . . . spring which setteth every Wheel a going. . . . It is the end that quickens to all the means. . . . We run so slowly, and strive so lazily, because we so little mind the prize.” That is a thoroughly biblical understanding of how Christians are to be energized during this vapor’s breath on earth. Consider a few texts.
1 John 3:2–3
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
The wheel of purity and radical Christian living now is set “a going” by the hope of what we will become when we see the Lord. That’s John’s inspired answer to why we should talk about “What Will Man Be Like for Countless Future Ages?”
1 Corinthians 15:42–43, 52, 58
[The dead body that] is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. . . . For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. . . . Therefore [that’s the key word here!], my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
“It is the end that quickens all the means; and the more frequently and clearly this end is beheld, the more vigorous will all our motion be. . . . We run so slowly, and strive so lazily [and abound so little in the work of the Lord], because we so little mind the prize” — because we so little mind what it will be like to be raised imperishable, glorious, powerful. If we love this end, we will abound in the work of the Lord.
2 Corinthians 6:16–7:1
“I will be their God, and they shall be my people. . . . And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.
“The Love of the end . . . setteth every Wheel a going.” The engine of holiness is the hope of what we will be for countless ages in the presence of the Lord Almighty, who calls himself our Father.
2 Corinthians 4:16–17
We do not lose heart. . . . [Why? Because] this light momentary affliction [a mere eighty or ninety years] is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
“The hope of glory is the great heart-sustaining force in our momentary lives.”
The hope of glory — what we will be and see for countless ages — is the great heart-sustaining force in our momentary lives. We will not lose heart. “The more frequently and clearly this end is beheld, the more vigorous [the more hearty] will all our motion be.”
How then shall we maintain our joy and love our enemies without this clear hope of what we will be?
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.
For countless ages, the reward of what we will be and what we will see will be great beyond reckoning. Over and over, the Bible makes it clear that it is the love of the end — what we will be like for countless future ages — that sets “every Wheel a going” in this life.
Will Our Future Life Be Our True Life?
To bring a particular focus to my question, let me recount a story that Marshall Shelley told 29 years ago about the loss of one of his children. Marshall Shelley was the former editor of Leadership Journal for 34 years, and he is now a professor at Denver Seminary. He raises a question that helps me limit my focus from the endless possibilities of how to talk about our final condition.
I was with my son his entire life — two minutes. He entered the world of light and air at 8:20pm on November 22, 1991. And he departed, the doctor said, at 8:22.
“Do you have a name for the baby?” asked one of the nurses. “Toby,” Susan said. “It’s short for a biblical name, Tobiah, which means ‘God is good.’”
John’s vision of eternity suggests what is in store for all the saints: “The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. . . . And they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:3–5). Serving God and reigning — those tasks sound like they have more significance than the careers most of us pursue in our lifetimes. Could it be that when I finally begin serving with God’s name on my forehead, I will find that this is what I was truly created for? I may find I was created not for what I would accomplish on earth, but for the role I will fulfill in heaven.
Why did God create a child to live two minutes? He didn’t. . . . God created Toby for eternity. He created each of us for eternity, where we may be surprised to find our true calling which always seemed just out of reach here on earth. (“Two Minutes to Eternity,” emphasis added)
That’s a provocative phrase — “our true calling” or “what I was truly created for.” As if we have a calling in this life, but in the life to come we have a true calling. What would that mean? I was created for purposes in this life, but in the life to come, he asks, will I find what I was truly created for? Or is that question even biblical?
Lay Hold of Real Life
I think the Bible does encourage us to think of our eternal life beyond this present world as our true life, our calling there as our true calling. There is a connection between Marshall Shelley’s question and Scripture that focuses my attention for the rest of this message. It’s found in 1 Timothy 6:19, where Paul instructs Timothy to say to the rich, “[Store] up treasure for [yourselves] as a good foundation for the future, so that [you] may take hold of that which is truly life.”
The phrase “truly life” is ontōs zōēs. Zōēs, of course, is life. And ontōs is an adverb built on the participle ōn meaning “being,” which might come over into English as “beingly,” except there is no such English word. So, it comes over into English as “really” — “really life” or “true life.” So “beingly life” is life that is full of being. Full of reality. As full of realness as a created life can be.
Paul is trying to find words that express our final condition in terms of life. It is true life. Real life. Life full of being. And his point is that you don’t have it yet fully. Take hold of that which is truly life. Live for that. That is your future: real life. Not just what you have now.
We Have Tasted True Life
Oh, yes, one of the glories of Christianity is that this future life — this real life — has come into the world. And by Christ and his Spirit, it has begun to dwell in us, has begun to be our life. First John 5:11–12 says, “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Then he adds, “He is the true God and [is!] eternal life” (1 John 5:20). This idea of Jesus as life is all over Scripture:
- “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
- “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
- “The Son gives life to all whom he will” (John 5:21).
- “Everyone who believes . . . has been born of God” (1 John 5:1).
- “He has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).
- He has died with Christ and been raised to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
- “The life of Jesus [is] manifested in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10).
- He has the Spirit, and “to set the mind on the Spirit is life” (Romans 8:6).
So, yes. This is at the heart of Christianity: real life, Christ’s life, true life, final life, has come into our lives. This life is our real life. But oh how imperfectly we now experience it, and how hidden this life is. Colossians 3:3–4: “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” So, I say it again. Paul’s point in 1 Timothy 6:19 is this: You don’t have it yet fully. So, take hold of it! Take hold of that which is truly life. Handle your possessions so as to gain that. Live for that. True life. Real life.
Entering and Being Swallowed by Life
Jesus thought in these same ways about present life and future life. For example, he said in Matthew 18:9, “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.” We have a kind of life now. But there is life that we don’t have — a life yet to be entered. Live so as to enter it.
The apostle Paul raises the issue of how this future life relates to our bodily life. In 2 Corinthians 5, he speaks of our bodies as tents or garments. He says that as much as he wants to be away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8), it’s not his first preference. He does not want to be unclothed — that is, stripped of his body in death — even though that would mean being at home with the Lord.
What is his first preference? His first preference is the second coming of Christ, when this mortal body puts on immortality. Here’s the way he puts it: “While we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened — not that we would be unclothed [bodiless], but that we would be further clothed [or clothed over], so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4).
Why do we need to be swallowed up by life if we are alive? Because there is a greater life, a real life, a true life. Life that is life indeed. And we have tasted it. We are defined by it. But we are far from experiencing it to the full — body and soul. Our final destiny, our final condition, is true life, real life.
And that life is in God and in his Son. Paul describes unbelievers in Ephesians 4:18 as “alienated from the life of God.” God the Father is absolute life. Jesus said, “As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:26). And the Spirit gives life, carrying the life of the Father and the Son.
God — Father, Son, and Spirit — is absolute life. He is not stone or gold or silver. Not a primal gas. Not a cosmic computer. He gives life. He defines life. He is life. Thought. Feeling. Energy. Action. But more. Oh, so much more. This is our destiny for countless ages: to be alive with such life, God’s life, real life. This more is where we are headed. Live for this. Preach this. Help your people lay hold of life that is really life.
What Will True Life Be Like — for the Body?
What will true life be like? For the body, Paul says it will mean being swallowed up by life (2 Corinthians 5:4). The life of the age to come — real life, true life, full divine life, as much as it can be shared with a creature — will swallow up our bodies. Which I think means they will be transformed and perfectly suited to that new life, the real life. We’ll see this more clearly in a moment.
So, how much like our present bodies will they be? The New Testament wants us to expect significant similarity and great dissimilarity. On the one hand, there wouldn’t be a resurrection of the body if there were no continuity with our present body. You don’t raise specific bodies in order to do away with those bodies.
As Paul says, “The dead in Christ will rise” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). And “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). Christ will “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). The body raised is our body. His resurrection body was recognizable, touchable. J.I. Packer wrote, “Risen Christians will be recognizable to each other, and joyful reunions beyond this world with believers whom we loved and then lost through death are to be expected” (Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs, 264).
But on the other hand, Paul says,
What you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. . . . Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. . . . But we shall all be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:37–38, 50–51)
In what way? No death. No pain. No crying (Revelation 21:4). And every saint “shining like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). “[The body] is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:43–44).
A spiritual body! That’s what happens when the body is swallowed up by life — real, true, full, final, divine life. It transforms the body. It fits the body for this new life. The body is so enlivened by God’s Spirit, and purified by the Spirit, and endowed by the Spirit, and empowered by the Spirit, and in perfect harmony with the Spirit, that it may be called a spiritual body. Swallowed up by life — the life of God, the life of the Spirit.
The spiritual body will have the kind of brain that can really know as it is known (1 Corinthians 13:12). It will have the kind of eyes that can really see, truly see, what is really there. And all the senses will be tuned perfectly by the Spirit to detect in every created thing, every created person, the revelation of God.
What Will True Life Be Like — for the Soul?
What about the soul, the non-bodily aspect of our being, when we are swallowed up by life? What effect does it have on the mind and the heart? Jesus said in his prayer in John 17:3, “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” True life, real life, final life, divine life, is to know God and his Son. Why would you call that life? Why would you call knowing God life? Let me make an attempt to answer: because that is what God’s life is.
True Life Knows
For God, to live — to have life; no, to be life — is to know. And if we would share that life, we must know as he knows — know God, for that is what God chiefly knows — the infinite reality that he is. In his absolute existence, without beginning or ending, absolutely there before anything else existed, when there was only God, and nothing besides, God was a knowing God. To be God was to know — to know perfectly and infinitely because he was the perfect and infinite object of his own knowledge.
“When there was only God, and nothing besides, God was a knowing God.”
And he not only knew; he loved. I make the connection between knowing and loving because Jesus does in John 17, as we will see in a moment. Thus, to know God is to share in not only God’s knowing, but also his loving. First John 4:7–8: “Love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” And, as Paul says, “If anyone loves God, he is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:3). So, God knows and God loves. God’s life is the life of knowing and loving. And our eternal life, true life, is to come into that knowing and loving.
Before there was a creation, when there was only God, God knew and God loved. He knew God and loved God. The Father knew the Son and the Son knew the Father. As Jesus said in Matthew 11:27, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
And the Father loved the Son (Colossians 1:13), and the Son loved the Father (John 14:31). And the Holy Spirit carried that knowing love between the Father and the Son. And there was life. That was and is the life of God. The ground of the universe — the life from which all else springs — is the knowing and loving God.
Therefore, when we taste that life, and finally are swallowed up by that life, we know God. We know him experientially. We know as he knows. “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
True Knowledge Loves
And when Jesus said that at the beginning of his prayer in John 17, he knew how he would end the prayer. He didn’t mean, “Know God the way the devil knows God and Jesus.” That’s not life. To know like that is death. What then did he mean? He meant, “Know with affectionate intimacy. Know in such a way that the knowing awakens loving — knowing the way God knows God. Knowing so that knowing and loving are inseparable.” Where do we see Jesus make this plain? We see it in the way he ends the prayer.
Jesus closes his prayer by praying into existence divine knowing and divine loving — that is, divine life — in the souls of his people. John 17:26: “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” Here’s my paraphrase:
I gave them life, real life, true life, our divine life, Father. That is, I caused them to know you for the treasure and beauty that you really are in your knowing and loving. And their knowledge of you is so affirming, and approving, and satisfying, that your love for me has become their love for me. They know you as I know you. And they love me as you love me. Indeed, they love me with your very love for me as it is poured out into their hearts by the Spirit.
This is life — the true, real, final, divine life. This is the life we will possess in fullness for countless ages: to know God and to love God and his Son by his Spirit. Which means that we will enjoy God forever, because to love him is to enjoy him with the very knowledge and love of God himself.
True Life Cannot Be Boring
Lest we think this true life, this eternal life, will become boring after some millions of years, remember two things. First, remember that this life is a loving rooted in knowing, and our knowing will increase forever, so that loving increases forever. Let Jonathan Edwards say it:
Their knowledge will increase to eternity [with what? He answers: with “a whole million million ages of those great and most glorious things that come to pass in heaven”]; and if their knowledge [increases], doubtless their holiness. For as they increase in the knowledge of God and of the works of God, the more they will see of his excellency; and the more they see of his excellency . . . the more will they love him; and the more they love God, the more delight and happiness . . . will they have in him. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 13:275–76)
“There will be no boredom among the redeemed for the countless ages of eternity.”
There will be no boredom among the redeemed for the countless ages of eternity because his mercies will be new every morning (Lamentations 3:23), and our knowledge of them, and our love for them, and our joy in them will only increase.
Second, remember the passage that prompted Marshall Shelley to raise his question: “Could it be that when I finally begin serving with God’s name on my forehead, I will find that this is what I was truly created for?” That is, finally true life? Revelation 22:3–5: “The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face. . . . And they will reign forever and ever.” To which Shelley responds, “Serving God and reigning — those tasks sound like they have more significance than the careers most of us pursue in our lifetimes.” That’s an understatement.
Therefore, the true life that we will have for countless future ages will not be boring, not only because it will be a life of ever-increasing knowledge of God, ever-increasing love of God, and ever-increasing enjoyment of God, but also because that knowing and loving and enjoying will be the “spring, which setteth every Wheel a going.” We will not be idle. We will find our true calling. We will serve. We will reign. We will be up and doing, making, creating, singing.
Baxter’s wisdom is true not only for our present life, but forever: “The Love of the end is the poise and spring, which setteth every Wheel a going.” If that’s true now, in view of how little we taste of true life, how much more will it set the wheels a going when the fullness comes! So, brothers, for the sake of your own soul and the good of your people, “Take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19).