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For the first time in my life, people around me are tracking death rates daily. Global pandemics make us think about death and make eternity seem less distant. Former hallmarks of stability—a growing economy, predictable routines—have been undermined. New or previously deferred questions arise. Is there more than this present age? What is life about? And does the Bible’s teaching on eternity have any bearing on my life here and now?

Reality of Eternity

The common Western assumption that life ends with death faces at least two problems. First, skepticism about eternity can’t snuff out the stubborn sense in our souls that life outlasts death. “Belief in the immortality of the soul occurs among all peoples . . . wherever it has not as yet been undermined by philosophical doubts or thrust into the background by other causes. . . . It is death, not immortality, that requires explanation” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics). We all sense the unnaturalness of mortality. “We groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed”—we aren’t simply groaning to die—“but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:4; see Rom. 8:22–23). Solomon sums up the spark of permanence in us all: God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Eccl. 3:11).

Assuming that death cancels life also contradicts God’s promise of eternal life (1 John 2:25). The phrase eternal life occurs almost fifty times in the New Testament, inviting us to see this present, temporary life as a preparation for a future, unending life. To understand eternity, let us reflect on the benefits believers receive at death and at the resurrection.

Believers’ benefits at death. At death, the souls of believers immediately pass into glory (Luke 23:43). A believer’s death is “only a dying to sins and entering into eternal life” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 42). Truly, for the believer, it is far better to depart this life and be with Christ (Phil. 1:23). Believers’ bodies, being still united to Christ, rest in their graves until the resurrection, waiting (Dan. 12:2; Acts 24:15; 1 Thess. 4:14). But Jesus taught that one day “all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out” (John 5:28–29).

Believers’ benefits at the resurrection. When we sing, “Thank You, Lord, for saving my soul,” we might forget that a new soul doesn’t actually make us whole. God made humans to fellowship with Him in soul and body. Salvation must save both. After Christ returns, He will “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21). Let John’s reaction to the transformed Christ energize Paul’s simile: “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17). “The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power” (1 Cor. 15:42–43; NKJV).

Despite Western culture’s bias against eternity, at just the right time Jesus will return to start the age to come. He will forever dismiss His enemies and receive His redeemed friends. Death does not undo existence. Eternal life is contrasted not with annihilation at death but with a sort of never-ending perishing (John 3:16; see Mark 9:42–48; Luke 16:19–31). Eternity makes unbelief truly tragic. But eternity is “very pleasant and a great comfort to the righteous and elect, since their total redemption will then be accomplished” (Belgic Confession Art. 37). For the elect in the age to come, “time is charged with the eternity of God. Space is full of his presence. Eternal becoming is wedded to immutable being” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics). God’s intention is that we “encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18).

The Comfort of Eternity

Without eternity, Christianity is a miserable worldview offering little comfort (1 Cor. 15:19). From experience, Paul knew that faith can contribute to affliction, perplexity, and persecution (2 Cor. 4:8–9; 2 Tim. 3:12). “Many are the afflictions of the righteous” (Ps. 34:19). Don’t be surprised if you feel let down by the way of Christ in this present age. Our hardships are real; many will not be fixed in this age. But, as Thomas Moore put it, “Earth has no sorrows that heaven cannot heal.” “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).

Eternity promises acquittal of guilt. The gospel declares God’s promise of forgiveness. But we so easily forget. We are plagued by doubts. Am I too sinful to be forgiven?

Believers—along with unbelievers—will stand before the judgment seat of God. All our thoughts, words, and deeds will be publicized. None of us will have been nearly as holy as God is holy. Still, the whole world will hear God tell His beloved: “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:23). At the start of eternity, Christ will openly acknowledge and acquit His children, forever silencing every accusation against them (see Westminster Shorter Catechism 38).

Eternity promises deliverance from sin. We pray for rescue from evil (Matt. 6:13) and God answers. Still, we repeat our folly “like a dog that returns to his vomit” (Prov. 26:11). How often have you genuinely resolved to do better, truly trusting in Jesus’ righteousness, thankful for His deliverance, only to fall short? Sin is so frustrating.

In eternity, redeemed souls are made perfectly holy. Around God’s throne, right now, are “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb. 12:23; NKJV). In eternity our familiarity with sin will end. We will no longer wilt at the shame of past sin. We will no longer commit new sin. We will not even be tempted to sin. Heaven is a place of righteousness (2 Peter 3:13); its climate is totally inhospitable to sin.

Eternity promises restored bodies. As we age we better grasp Paul’s assertion: “Our outer self is wasting away” (2 Cor. 4:16). But even children go blind, break bones, get cancer, and cry. Children die. Our bodies are problematic. We put a lot of work into them—grooming, training, and covering—just to make them presentable. But our bodies fail to cooperate. They embarrass us. They wear out. They hurt. They turn on us.

To understand eternity, reflect on the benefits believers receive at death and at the resurrection.

Our heavenly bodies will be immune to pain and death (Rev. 21:4), not shameful but glorious. Then we will be like God (1 John 3:2), perfectly suited for an endless friendship with Him.

Eternity promises joyful fellowship with God. We were made to glorify and enjoy God. And believers do. But we don’t fully enjoy God now. We barely understand Him. We don’t always agree with Him. Our basest desires resist His immaculate will. We can’t even fully want intimacy with God. But we are starting to. Here’s how the Heidelberg Catechism sums up the comfort of eternity: “Even as I already now experience in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, so after this life I will have perfect blessedness such as no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart has imagined: a blessedness in which to praise God eternally” (Q&A 58).

“God gave us eternal life” (1 John 5:11). This promise is a tremendous comfort for God’s children. But eternity also invokes responsibilities.

Disciplines of Eternity

Paul’s great resurrection chapter ends with a call to action: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). What disciplines does eternity call for?

Anticipation. To anticipate is to realize before. Faith is trusting anticipation. By faith, we strain hard to see, hear, and imagine the eternity God has prepared for us. And the Spirit helps us envision these deep things (1 Cor. 2:9–10). Through anticipation, faith and sight grow closer together.

And heavenly-mindedness is not contrary to earthly productiveness. Dreaming is not opposed to doing. Don’t most great productions begin with a dream? The best fuel for disciplined godliness is a clear vision of believers’ heavenly reward. As he contemplated death, David’s dreams about the fullness of joy he would experience in God’s presence (Pss. 16:11; 17:15) strengthened him to persevere in godliness (16:8; 17:5). John’s Revelation likewise confirms the practicality of anticipating eternity. God attaches this promise to His preview of eternity: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates” (Rev. 22:14). Spirit-energized, believing anticipation of eternity sharpens our vision of the hope of righteousness for which we eagerly wait (Gal. 5:5).

Preparation. After teaching His disciples to imagine the coming kingdom of God (Matt. 6:10), Jesus urged the importance of investing in heaven (vv. 19–20). Jesus wasn’t denouncing material wealth; rich people have an honored place in His kingdom (Isa. 53:9; John 19:38–42). But He warned against failing to leverage worldly wealth in the interest of eternal treasure (Luke 16:9). In one of His last public speeches before going to the cross, Jesus in three consecutive parables made this point: earthly stewardship and generosity gains eternal reward (Matt. 25). When we trust in Jesus, death becomes the portal through which we harvest what we have planted in this age (Gal. 6:7). If there were no more than this present life, we might live with little thought for the future (1 Cor. 15:32). But if our current struggle is preparing for us “an eternal weight of glory,” we have every reason to invest with diligence (2 Cor. 4:17).

Submission. Eternity teaches the hard but rewarding discipline of waiting. Waiting for the Lord is a way of submitting to Him. We wait for what we do not see with patience (Rom. 8:25)—by not losing heart while things seem to be against us. That’s hard. But eternity helps us wait with the right perspective. Jesus told His disciples, “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me” (John 16:16). The natural course of life might not seem a little while, especially when we face hardships. But Matthew Henry is right: “What are the days of time, to the days of eternity?”

Eternity also helps us submit to God’s judgment. Paul’s command is hard: “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God” (Rom. 12:19). But eternity is God’s way of achieving perfect justice. Because Jesus will put all His enemies under His feet, it is wrong—and petty—to seek personal vengeance; the God of glory doesn’t need our help.

A Preview of Eternity

Corporate worship brings us into special contact with the eternal God and recalibrates us to truly rest in God.

The purpose of corporate worship. Congregational worship is the centerpiece of a day designed to help us “begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.” Eternity is a Sabbath, a rest. Promoted believers “rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Rev. 14:13). Eternity will not be characterized by inactivity (Rev. 21:24–25). But in it we will no longer strive “by the sweat of [our] face” (Gen. 3:19) or wrestle against the flesh (Rom. 7:23). When we truly worship the Lord, we are resting from our sinful schemes. We find more satisfaction in worshiping God than in pursuing personal ambitions. We become more convinced than ever that our lives are beautifully tied up with God’s (Acts 17:28).

We can’t sustain such holistic rest in this age. To modify Paul’s marriage analogy, we are still bound to this life; we are “anxious about worldly things,” for our hearts are not yet laser-focused on glorifying and enjoying God (1 Cor. 7:33). But as Calvin says, the Lord’s Day, and worship in particular, helps us “meditate on an everlasting Sabbath from our works in order that the Lord may work in us through his Spirit.” The Christian Lord’s Day conditions believers for eternity. In eternity, the difference “between the Sabbath and the workdays, has been suspended” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics). Corporate worship, which becomes more important as the day of the Lord approaches (Heb. 10:25), begins to suspend the difference between this age and the age to come.

The practice of corporate worship. What can we do to maximize the potential of congregational worship to fit us for glory?

  1. Be present. God’s will for you in the fourth commandment—“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8)—is that “especially on the festive day of rest, [you] diligently attend the assembly of God’s people.” Rituals require diligence. Sporadic corporate worship attendance suggests poor anticipation of eternity.
  2. Offer acceptable worship (Heb. 12:28). The structure and content of biblical worship services help refocus the eyes of our hearts on Jesus. In worship, the Lamp of eternity (Rev. 21:23) enlightens our minds and brightens our hearts. But acceptable worship means more than warming a pew in a faithful church. Truly spiritual worship requires a full offering of ourselves as living sacrifices, devoting our hearts, minds, and bodies to the presence of God (Rom. 12:1).
  3. Be festive and reverent. The Heidelberg Catechism is right that the Lord’s Day is a “festive day of rest” (Q&A 103). The Westminster Confession is also right; we must worship with reverence and humility (21.3). Festive and reverent aren’t opposites. The women who first learned of Jesus’ resurrection knew both “fear and great joy” (Matt. 28:8). Worship sets the pace for eternity when we approach God as both “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29) and as the sun that warms our face and lights our path (Rev. 21:23–24).
  4. Truly rest. Worship revolves around two truths: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Meeting God in worship shatters illusions of self-righteousness. He is holy. We are sinful. But by faith, sinners find a home in the shelter of a holy God.
  5. Psalm 84 is a common funeral text for good reason. It beautifully sums up Scripture’s message that the same soul that “faints for the courts of the Lord” (v. 2) can also find strength in the Lord now (v. 5). The Sun that will light the new heavens and earth has already begun shining on us (v. 11).

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Sep 2020 Issue