Resurrection and Restoration

Mark Johnston Articles
As we come to the last of our studies in the Apostles' Creed, we cannot help but be struck by the way it ends: I believe ' the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting'. Given the brevity of the preceding statement on the forgiveness of sins, there is something in us that wants to hear more about the 'here and now' of the life of faith; but instead we're taken directly to the 'there and then'.

Whatever frustration we might feel over what seems like major gaps in the Creed regarding what we need to know about God and salvation, we must remember that it is a creed and not a full-blown confession of faith. Its purpose is to provide the key contours and co-ordinates of the Bible's teaching and what it means to be a Christian. As we have seen already in our journey through its clauses, its brevity should not be mistaken for paucity. Each clause is in a very real sense the distilled essence of truth that is much broader and deeper than what appears on the surface. But each clause and the way it is related to all the others provide the framework we need for understanding the heart of authentic Christianity.

So, having been told how the Christian life begins in pardon and reconciliation, we are now told where it finally leads: here is the great destiny towards which salvation is taking us. The very fact that there is this seemingly giant leap from faith's beginning to its end speaks for itself of the weight of significance attached to each. Although Christians are so often inclined to look back to where it all began in their own experience - the point of their conversion - it is vital that they never lose sight of where it will all end. If we take our eye off where we are going, we will almost certainly lose our way and lose our confidence as the journey unfolds. Or, to put it another way, if we see the Christian Faith merely as something that will improve the quality of life in this present world, then we are guaranteed to be disappointed. As Paul so rightly tells the Corinthians, 'If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men' (1Co 15.19).

This important truth recurs repeatedly throughout the Scriptures and especially in the writings of Paul and it is to Paul's own testimony in his letter to the Philippians that we turn to help us see more clearly why this matters so much. There he makes it clear that for him and for God's people generally, the Christian life is governed by one thing above all others: 'I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead' (Php 3.10-11). This then crystallises in his final statement at the end of that chapter: 'But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body' (3.20-21),

As we draw these studies to a close, let's try and unpack what Paul means by this and see how it well expresses what is summarised the final clause of the Creed.

A Permanent Home
Paul speaks about 'citizenship' - where people really belong. He uses that language deliberately because his audience in Philippi belonged to a Roman colony who prized the Roman citizenship which went with it. That sense of pride and security that was very much part of being citizens of Rome is no different from the many expressions of citizenship that there have been through the ages and which are found throughout the world. A passport is a wonderful thing and it carries the sense of permanence and having somewhere to belong. Paul says that for him and every true Christian, 'home' is ultimately heaven. Here in this world - often quite literally - he was a restless traveller; but there in the world to come he would be forever settled.

The US Immigration authorities have a wonderful way of reminding those who come from other countries to work or study in America that they don't belong there. They stamp their documents with the words 'Resident Alien' and that says it all. 'You can live here, work here, enjoy what is on offer in this country; but you don't belong here!' How gloriously true for those who are Christians whose true citizenship is in heaven.

Paul puts it eloquently earlier on in Philippians in one of his best-known sayings: 'For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain' (1.21). Although he already knew Christ and the salvation found in him in this life, the very best of what that could mean in this world would be eclipsed by it fullness in the world to come.

For Paul and for all Christians that means there will always be a holy discontent with our experience of the life of faith in this present world. Having tasted of the powers and perfection of the age to come, we can never be fully satisfied until we enter permanently into that world. Like those who have dined at the Ritz only to return to return to their local MacDonalds and never quite enjoy it as they used to, so with those who have come to know and love the Lord Jesus Christ. What we enjoy already will always be affected by the sense of anticipation of what is yet to come.

Paul picks up that theme when he speaks so candidly of his own experience in the third chapter of Philippians. Having spoken of the perfection he looks forward to (3.11) he goes on to say, 'Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me' (3.12). He knows the tension between the 'already' and the 'not yet' of Christian experience and that is very much what the Creed wants us to grasp. It sums up the Christian life in terms of what we already enjoy - forgiveness - and what is still in the future - life everlasting in its fullest sense.

Christianity is ultimately an otherworldly religion: it sets our horizons for life firmly in the future in the whole new world that Jesus is preparing for his people. So Christians live their life here echoing the words of the old Negro Spiritual: 'This world is not my home, I'm just a-passing through...' This must give us all pause for thought - especially in an age that is obsessed with the present. As the author of Hebrews puts it: 'For here we do not have an enduring city; but we are looking forward to the city which it to come' (13.14). There we will have a home that is permanent.

A Perfect Existence
It is hugely important to appreciate what kind of future existence Paul is anticipating, because too many Christians have had misguided notions about heaven and what it will be like. The most widespread idea being of some kind of ethereal existence in the form of disembodied spirits. Such a view of the future life is at best unnatural and at worst subhuman, since our bodies are an essential part of our humanness, and carries overtones of the Gnostic heresies that did such damage to the church in the late First and early Second centuries AD.

Paul's hope for the future is bound up inextricably with the hope of a resurrected body. He has alluded to it already when he speaks of somehow attaining to the resurrection of the dead (3.11), but at the end of the chapter he spells it out categorically, saying that when Jesus returns, he 'will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body' (3.21). The key to understanding what lies behind this is seen in the previous verse where he says of Jesus that he has the 'power that enables him to bring everything under his control' (3.20). In other words, the resurrection of the bodies of individual believers who have died will be part of the renewal of all things when Jesus comes again.

It is crucial to see those two things side by side and in relation to one another. There is no use having a perfect body for an existence in an imperfect world. Just as a pristine Lamborghini sports car could never be 'at home' in a ghetto, neither would a perfect resurrected body in a world still spoiled by sin. The apostle looks forward to a totally transformed existence in a totally transformed environment - a perfect life in a perfect place.

It is that double reality that the Creed captures so well as it runs these two clauses together: 'the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting'. Notice that it does not merely speak of 'life everlasting', but 'the life everlasting'. Immortality in itself is no guarantee of joy and blessing. The devil and his demons and all who die rejecting God will also have a never-ending existence; but it will be one that is the opposite of perfect.

The clue to understanding the kind of perfection envisaged in these words is Christ himself. It was he who proclaimed himself to be 'the resurrection and the life' (Jn 11.25) and he of whom Paul says, 'in him all things hold together' (Col 1.17). Or, even more explicitly, writing to the Corinthians, 'Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, New Creation!' (2Co 5.17) [Lit]. The essence of God's New Creation will be a world and universe in which Christ is consciously acknowledged as the One upon whom all things depend and to whose lordship all will submit.

At one level all this has major implications for how we prepare ourselves for death and face it when it finally comes. That is true for each of us personally: we need to see that death is not the end and that Christ is our only hope for the future. It must serve also as a comfort to those who mourn the death of Christian loved ones. There are few more precious words in a funeral service than those spoken during the committal of the body to the ground: it is laid to rest 'in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the body'. And historically it has controlled the way that Christians have treated the mortal remains of the deceased with dignity and respect - because those same mortal remains will one day be raised to immortality.

At an even greater level, however, these truths about the future must shape our expectations of life itself. Even though we share a longing for a life that is better than what we can ever know it to be in our present existence, we will neither abandon ourselves to cynicism and despair, nor detach ourselves from the present in mystical escapism. Rather, we will wait patiently for the day of Christ's appearing, looking forward to all it will usher in. We will cling to the certainty that there is indeed such a thing as a perfect existence; but it can only come in heaven.

A Powerful Incentive

It would be all too easy to turn these teachings into the kind of spiritual escapism that we have just mentioned - allowing them to become a spiritual version of the virtual reality existence found in the cyber-world of 'Second Life'. (That has been the case throughout church history with the bizarre array of sects and communes that have tried to manufacture some kind of heaven on earth.) But for Paul these truths have radical relevance for the present.

Far from using this strand of Christian teaching as an excuse for running away from the pressures and demands of life in this world, he sees them as the means for facing them with courage and determination. So he rounds off his train of thought in this section with these words: 'Therefore, my brothers...that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!' (4.1).

Paul's outlook on life stands in stark contrast to those who have no genuine hope for of a future life. Indeed, he speaks earlier of those who live only for themselves and for this present age, saying, 'Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things' (3.19). For them, life without God becomes a misery in the present long before it leads to endless agony in the future.

Paul's readers might well have been tempted to dismiss what he was saying here as being the ultimate spiritual con: claiming something that is impossible to prove or guarantee. But that is not what Paul is doing. His hope for what God has promised for the future rests firmly on what God has done in the past. He 'presses on to lay hold of' future, only because Christ has already taken hold of him for that future in his past (3.12). And for Paul that was not merely his personal conversion experience on the road to Damascus; but, rather, the once-for-all accomplishment of redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Everything God has promised for eternity has its foundation in history in all he has done through sending his Son as the Saviour of the world.

That grand certainty of the past undergirds our great confidence for the future - both of which converge and find their focus in Christ and all he has come to do.

The pop star and international fund-raiser, Bob Geldof, published his autobiography under the title, 'Is that it?' As far as he was concerned, he had 'done it all' in terms of what this life could possibly offer - from self-indulgence to public-spirited self-sacrifice - yet he was left with that empty feeling that life really doesn't amount to much. Sadly that epithet is the story of many lives: lived to the full by this world's standards, yet hollow and empty. The glory of the Christian gospel is that this doesn't have to be the case. The full depth and scope of that gospel - embodied as it is in the Apostles' Creed - begins in the heights of glory with God and it ends in even greater glory with man restored to perfect fellowship with God in Christ.

There is no greater truth this world has ever seen and no greater message it could ever hear!

Mark Johnston is Senior Minister of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London.