Sermon Discussion Questions:
1. Read through 2 Cor 4:7-5:10.
2. Which point from the sermon stood out to you most?
3. If you were speaking with someone going through a season of serious suffering, how would you encourage them from these passages?
4. How does thinking on Heaven help us press on and do good works today?
“Why does God make His path so hard?”
That is a question my four-year-old asked me while reading a children’s version of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The story is an allegory of the Christian life where a pilgrim named Christian leaves the City of Destruction and walks the King’s Path to the Celestial City. Along the path, Christian meets friends, teachers, and evangelists to help him along the way. But he also meets several difficulties: the slough of despond, the terror of Mr. Legality, the valley of the shadow of death, the monster Apollyon, the castle of despair, and the violence of Vanity Fair. And some of those he encounters because he is tempted to leave the path—and some he encounters because he stays on the path. At the end of his journey, he must pass through the River of Death, and nearly doesn’t make it.
Which is what led my son to ask me: “Daddy, why didn’t the King make the path easier?”
What would you say? Why does the path to Heaven seem to be so difficult? Jesus taught us: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few,” (Matt 7:13-14). Following Jesus is harder than not following Jesus. If you follow Jesus, you walk His path. A path that pushed against the stream of the world.
This is what we reflected on last week: Jesus’ call for us to die to ourselves. Following Jesus is hard, life is hard. But Jesus promised us that if we lose our life for his sake, we will actually find true life. I think half of what makes suffering as a Christian hard is our assumption that life shouldn’t be hard. But where did we get that idea? Not from Jesus. So, the sermon last week was: deny yourself, and pick up your cross, expect life to be hard.
But the other half of what makes suffering as a Christian hard is that we lose sight of our eternal reward. We live as if our Christian faith is simply a means for securing victory in this life and suffer from eternity-amnesia. We live as if the melting ice-cube of this life is our only shot at happiness, blind to the eternal palace of joy that awaits.
Listen, we need to suffer like Christians. So, when the world says: Um, if you care at all about our country, about your family, about justice, about freedom, then you need to light your hair on fire, have a panic attack, yell at strangers online, get depressed, and claw the eyeballs of your enemies out, because this life matters…Here, here is the lighter, go on. We are going to say, “No.” Not because we don’t care about this life, but because this life isn’t where we tap into our hope or joy. So we follow Jesus and spend ourselves for the good of others, we work hard to make this world, this nation, and our community a better place.
“If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither,” (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, “Hope”).
My aim in this sermon is simple: I want you to long for heaven; I want you to see what vast riches it provides for equipping the Christian to not only endure life, but thrive amidst great difficulty. Life is only going to get harder, not easier. We need to rub the truth down deep into our souls—and one truth that we tend to neglect is the hope of heaven.
“16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor 4:16-18) (Turn to page 965-66 in the pew Bible)
Three points to draw from this and one application: The Bad Things in Life Can’t Stop Us, The Bad Things in Life Will Turn into Good, Our Bad Things Won’t Last, Therefore We Do Not Lose Heart
The Bad Things in Life Can’t Stop Us
“Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day,” (2 Cor 4:16)
Two simultaneous truths: you are wasting away, you are being renewed; you being peeled down, you are being built up; you are withering, you are flourishing— at the same time, day by day. There is an inner life and an outer life, a world of “wasting away” and a world of “being renewed.”
Paul brought this up back in verse 7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us,” (2 Cor 4:7). Of all the metaphors Paul could have used to describe your life, why use a clay pot? A jar of clay is inherently modest (clay is just special mud) and fragile—if you drop a clay jar, it will shatter. That’s your body, your life, according to Paul—non-impressive, easily broken. This is the outer self that Paul says is wasting away—creaky knees, emotional instability, boring careers, and besetting sins. The Christian life is not a Marvel movie of sexy heroes performing death-defying feats to the applause of an audience. It looks like a clay pot.
But within that clay pot? There is treasure. What treasure? What he just spoke of back in verse 6, “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” (2 Cor 4:6).
This is the “inner self” that Paul says renews us “day by day.” In the deepest, truest parts of ourselves, beneath our outer self, beneath our physical body, beneath our social status, beneath what our family thinks of us, beneath our habits, beneath what people have done to us, how they have hurt us, beneath our sin—there is Jesus, shining His radiant, warm light. And every day, day by day, all of that other stuff is wearing you down, exhausting you. And every day, day by day, the light of Jesus shines, and says, You are mine, I will never cast you out, I died and rose again to keep you, your sins have been paid for, and I will take you home to myself forever.
So, we have a renewable power source that energizes and strengthens us, even as we feel like we are diminishing physically. And this makes us invincible:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh,” (2 Cor 4:8-11).
What is the difference between “afflicted in every way” and “crushed”? Or “perplexed” and “driven to despair”? There must be a difference, of course, because Paul can say that we are “afflicted in every way” but not “crushed.” Here is what that doesn’t mean:
- A Christian has a forcefield around them that prevents them from experiencing hard things.
- A Christian always understands why God is doing what He is doing.
- A Christian always feels like a winner, always feels popular.
No, we are just clay pots! We are fragile, we are insignificant, we are weak, we are just dirt. We crack, we bleed, we weep. This is why Paul says he always carries the “death of Jesus” in his body. His life is a billboard display of the sufferings that Christ endured. And yet, Paul isn’t crushed. And neither are we. Because our hope and joy and meaning and identity are secure in a place that rust and moth and old age and abuse and divorce and neglect and sin cannot touch. And when we tap into that, when we open the air ducts in our hearts and minds of that reality and let the heat flow in, we, in the words of Paul, “manifest” the “life of Jesus…in our bodies.”
Follow Jesus, and you will have to pick up a cross. Follow Jesus, and you will experience resurrection life.
Our Bad Things Will Turn Out for Good
Now, you may have noticed something in the previous section that I passed over. Look again at 2 Cor 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” Do you see the purpose clause given in the second half of the sentence? Why are we fragile clay pots? Why is life hard and painful? The answer, Paul says here, is “to show the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” If I drop a 10-pound steel ball off the Empire State Building, you won’t be surprised when it doesn’t break. But if I likewise drop a clay pot, and it doesn’t break? That defies everything that you expected, and you start asking questions. God takes His people through pain, through the path of the cross, so that we can see more clearly that God’s power—not our own—is what is sustaining us.
My life, in so many ways, is unbelievably comfortable. I have a beautiful family, a comfortable home, a secure job, good friends. I think lots of non-Christians could look at my life, see my joy and say, “Yea, I get it, his life is pretty nice.” But some of you guys have pain and suffering and trauma and loss and needs that would turn most people into a puddle. And when I speak with you, I feel like I am speaking with a celebrity. It is such an honor to have so many faithful sufferers here at Quinault. And when you walk through life with imperfect, flagging but real hope in Christ that keeps your head above waters, when through the deepest pain you say: God is enough for me. That is astonishing, that is miraculous. That is a testimony to the surpassing power of God. That leads other people to ask you what is the reason for the hope you have. (1 Pet 3:15)
But maybe you’re thinking, Yea, but this really hurts. And it feels like God wants to show His power off at my expense. And I don’t see any amazing testimony going on because of my suffering, it just feels like I am hurting, and I don’t see any good. Does He care about me, about my marriage, about my children, about my loneliness, or just care about His glory? Does He care about the living Hell I am walking through or am I just expendable?
There is a danger that comes from a twisted, malnourished, bastardized version of Calvinism and Reformed theology that essentially says: “God is so concerned with His glory that you don’t matter.” That isn’t Reformed theology! Thomas Goodwin was a puritan pastor who lived in England in from 1600-1680. He was friends with John Owen, a chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, and a member of the Westminster Assembly, who made the Westminster Confession of Faith—that’s about as Reformed as you can get. And here is what he writes, “Christ’s own joy, comfort, happiness, and glory are increased and enlarged by his showing grace and mercy, in pardoning, relieving, and comforting his members here on earth,” (The Heart of Christ, p. 107). God’s passion for His glory never comes at the expense of His care and concern for the joy and comfort of His people. Never.
But that’s just an assertion, let me prove it to you from the text. “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,” (2 Cor 4:17).
I just want to draw your attention to the word “preparing.” Think of a slingshot. The further back you pull it, the farther it goes. And if you have a serious slingshot, not a cheap one, but a heavy-duty sling shot, you can really launch something! But is the distance that you pull backwards even worth comparing with how far forward it goes? If you put a stone in a slingshot and pull it back a foot or two, maybe a little more, it doesn’t shoot forward only a foot or two, or maybe a little more. It goes way beyond that.
John Bunyan, in his second volume of Pilgrim’s Progress, describes the Christian life like this: “The bitter must come before the sweet, and that also will make the sweet the sweeter.”
Your pain isn’t pointless. It is doing something. Every ounce of suffering you have endured in this life is being magnificently transformed into eternal beauty and joy in the next…beyond all comparison. Notice the comparison he makes between our current affliction and glory to come: What is more solid, something that is light or something with weight? What is more enduring, something momentary or something eternal? Every disappointment, every heartache, every tear, every horribly embarrassing moment and life altering calamity that you wish more than anything had never happened…is deepening and widening and sweetening your experience of joy forever.
“That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, "No future bliss can make up for it," not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory,” (CS Lewis, The Great Divorce).
Our Bad Things Won’t Last
“…as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal,” (2 Cor 4:18).
If we look to what is “seen,” what do we see? We see our outer selves wasting away. We see our pain. We see the world appearing to win the day. We see godliness regarded as strange, benighted, quaint, antiquated, silly, outdated, corrupt, abusive, oppressive, anti-intellectual, and maybe even evil. When was the last time you turned on awards show and saw someone honored and revered for their Christ-like-ness? The current of the world flows against Christ. And we don’t even have to go out into the world to see all this, we just need to see ourselves. We see our own sin. We see our loved ones die. We see relationships falter and cool. We see need and poverty and sickness. That’s what we see.
But Paul reminds us: don’t look to that! Don’t look to what can be seen, but look at what is invisible, at what cannot be seen. What on earth is he talking about? We tend to assume that what we see is what is really real, and what we cannot see to be less real. That’s why it is easy to live functionally like an atheist. But here is out situation according to the Bible: it is like we are prisoners in a POW camp who have just heard over the radio that the Allies are coming to liberate the camp tomorrow. We cannot yet see the soldiers, but we know they are coming. And while nothing has materially changed about our circumstances, we endure the beatings from the guards, the meager food, and go to bed that night with a peace that surpasses understanding. Tomorrow, we will be free!
In the following chapter, Paul leans more into what awaits us on the other side of heaven. He compares our body to a tent and says that if it is destroyed (we die), then we will receive an eternal building from God in the heavens (a new body).
“For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life,” (2 Cor 5:4).
What are we longing for? Not to be “unclothed, but that we would be further clothed.” Paul is talking about the body. Our experience in heaven will not be a diminishment of pleasure, but an enhancement. We will exist with new bodies in a new world, scrubbed free of sin and the curse. No sickness, no pain, no death. Our bodies will finally do and be what they were made for.
In these next two passages, pay attention to what will be in heaven, and what won’t be:
“1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:1-4)
“And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life,” (Rev 21:23-25)
The glory of the nations: art, science, technology, philosophy, music, food, sports, games, architecture, botany, literature, dance—all scrubbed clean from sin.
Therefore, We Do Not Lose Heart
See what resources this provides: “we do not lose heart” (2 Cor 4:1), “we do not lose heart” (2 Cor 4:16), “ we are always of good courage” (2 Cor 5:6), “Yes, we are of good courage,” (2 Cor 5:8)
John Wesley’s conversion story.
“In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, “Were you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no.” I asked, “But were not your women and children afraid?” He replied, mildly, “No; our women and children are not afraid to die.” (Excerpt from John Wesley’s Journal, Sunday, January 25th, 1736)