Chris Altrock – April 11, 2010
In his book Surprised by Hope N. T. Wright warns that some of the classic Christian hymns about heaven may be misleading. He cautions that some hymns can be misunderstood to teach a kind of escapism. They can be misconstrued and make us so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good. For example, the 1920 hymn “Where the Gates Swing Outward Never,” states: “Just a few more years with their toil and tears, And the journey will be ended.” The hymn states that life is filled with toil and tears. And thus it might lead someone to think that we’ve got to escape this toil-filled and tear-filled life as quickly as possible and get to heaven. The 1876 hymn “Beyond This Land of Parting” sings: “Beyond this land of parting, losing and leaving, Far beyond the losses darkening this, And far beyond the taking and the bereaving, Lies the summer land of bliss.” The hymn states that all this life offers is parting, losing, leaving, taking, and bereaving. And thus it might lead someone to conclude that the only thing to do is escape this life and get to that heavenly summer land of bliss.
There is, of course, truth in these Christian hymns. The comfort of heavenly life does give us hope during the discomfort of earthly life. We do look forward to a better life, one free from pain and tears. But N. T. Wright is correct. It is possible to become so heavenly minded that we begin to neglect this earthly life and only think of escaping this life. We just want to get to heaven as fast as we can.
But in the text we’ve been exploring—2 Cor. 4-5—Paul writes that just the opposite can happen. The more we have the right perspective on heaven, and on the resurrection life which makes heaven possible, the more it leads to an energetic and enthusiastic engaging in life on the earth. That is, heaven and resurrection life don’t lead to escaping life on earth. They lead to engaging life on earth. Here’s how Paul puts it: 8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, 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. 11For 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. 12So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Cor. 4:8-12 ESV).
It is important to note that Paul is writing here about life before death. He is not describing anything here about life after death. He is writing instead about what impact heaven and the resurrection should have on life before death. This is clear by his emphasis on our bodies: 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11For 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. Paul is writing about the way that heaven and the resurrection affect the way we live on earth in our bodies.
The first thing Paul does is highlight the “death” or “dying” that takes place in our bodies on this earth: 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus…11For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake… (2 Cor. 4:10-11 ESV). The word “death” here doesn’t simply refer to dying. Paul is not saying that the only thing that life in this body leads to is death. He’s writing about something that is unique to those who follow Jesus. We Christians undergo some kind of unique death, a death which Jesus underwent. The phrase “the death of Jesus,” refers not only to the “big” death of Jesus on the cross. It also refers to the “little” deaths Jesus died on the way to the cross as he served people. Paul’s phrase, “the death of Jesus,” refers to the physical and emotional pain that came from Jesus’ life of service. Jesus served people to death.
We know that Paul’s focus here is on the death that comes through ministry and service because Paul begins this chapter by writing about his own ministry and service. In fact most of 2 Cor. 3-5 is about the difficulty of Paul’s ministry and service. Paul uses the word “ministry” or “minister” seven times in these chapters. And Paul is saying here that those who follow Jesus will experience death through service. Just as it was costly and painful for Jesus to serve and minister to others, so it will be costly and painful for those who follow Jesus to serve and minister to others. Jesus died literally and figuratively as he served. And those who follow Jesus will die, at least figuratively, as we serve.
Paul illustrates the figurative death of serving. Writing about the service and ministry rendered by himself and his fellow servants, Paul remarks: 8We are afflicted in every way… perplexed… 9persecuted… struck down (2 Cor. 4:8-9 ESV). Paul is saying that this is what has happened to him and his fellow servants as they have ministered to others. They’ve been afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. Paul knows first-hand the cost of serving others while in this body. He knows the grinding fatigue and the constant criticism and the persistent disappointments. That’s what Paul means when he says that people like him are carrying in their bodies the death of Jesus.
And, as an aside, I’d like to point out how true this is for those elders, staff members, deacons, and ministry leaders at Highland who have served during the nine years it’s taken for Highland to relocate. It was nine years ago this year when we made our first attempt at purchasing a property for the purpose of relocating. And for Highland’s staff, elders, deacons, and ministry leaders, these nine years have been an especially pointed time of dying. More than at most times in our lives, we have experienced the pain and the cost of service and ministry. These nine years have fatigued us and wounded us. We’ve lost sleep, experienced health problems, endured spiritual crises, hurt our families, and been burnt out. We know what it’s like to carry in our bodies the death of Jesus. And I’d just like urge you to take some time in the next few weeks to encourage and bless those at Highland who have ministered in this time of transition.
But this is true not only for “professionals” like Paul. It’s true for any Christian striving to follow Jesus and serve others. Paul Barnett writes, “A Christian employee is passed over for promotion or is dismissed because he or she is a godly person who will not bend the rules. A missionary doctor loses her place in the structures of the profession because she has spent ten years in an out-of-the-way hospital…While there are great compensations, all ministry is costly not only in terms of what one relinquishes to pursue it but also in the accompanying misunderstanding or abuse, perhaps from friends and family.” Every Christian who strives to serve as Jesus served will experience something of the death and dying of Jesus.
But listen to the good news: 8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, 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. 11For 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. 12So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Cor. 4:8-12 ESV). Paul uses Jesus’ death and resurrection as a paradigm for service. Jesus’ death and suffering were not the end. Rather, they led to the resurrection and the new life. In the same way, the trials and troubles which come with Christian service are not the end. Rather, they lead to something else. They lead to life.
As we go around in our bodies serving, the death and dying of Jesus manifests itself in us. But, something else also manifests itself: the resurrection life of Jesus. Somehow, as we serve and minister, what began in the resurrection of Jesus continues through us. What started as one new life which transformed death and evil spreads through us as we serve others. That resurrection life makes itself known, it reveals itself, it manifests itself, through us as we serve in the here and now. That is, every time we serve, it’s like another little death of Jesus taking place. Every time we serve, there’s pain and suffering that springs forth. But, every time we serve, it’s also like another little resurrection of Jesus taking place. Every time we serve, there’s new life and transformation that springs forth.
And here’s the most exciting point: 12So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Cor. 4:8-12 ESV). Paul says that as we serve and minister, we will experience pain and suffering and a kind of dying, just like Jesus. But those we serve and minister to will experience just the opposite. They will experience the resurrection life of Jesus. When Paul says “death is at work in us, but life in you,” he’s saying, “Even though serving is killing me, it’s transforming you.” Through our ministry and service to others, that death-stopping and evil-crushing life which appeared at Jesus’ resurrection is unleashed into the lives of those whom we serve. Paul is not only saying that those who follow Jesus experience death through service. Paul is also saying that those who follow Jesus release life through service—resurrection life.
And just what is that resurrection life? It is essentially, heaven coming to earth. It is God moving toward the glory of our new bodies and the glory of our new heaven and earth. The resurrection of Jesus is really the beginning of heaven. It’s our first step into that new country. Author N. T. Wright states that early Christians believed, “that God was going to do for the whole cosmos was he had done for Jesus at Easter.”  The Easter resurrection was the beginning of God’s wholesale renewal project—a project that would ultimately result in what we call “heaven”—renewed bodies and a renewed heaven and earth.
And Paul is saying that when Christians serve, that renewal takes another step forward. Heaven becomes that much closer. Each time we love and give and sacrifice on earth, the resurrection life spreads that much more. Where there was decay, death, or despair, there is now life, love, and joy. Heaven doesn’t cause Christians to want to escape the earth. Rather heaven, and it’s beginning in the resurrection, causes us to want to join God in the renewal and recreation of earth. And every time we serve, that renewal takes another step forward.
C. S. Lewis writes, “If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did the 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 been so ineffective in this.” The resurrection and heaven reveal what life was intended by God to be. And that image compels us to begin working with God toward that life. Through our life of service, the heavenly resurrection life continues to renew and recreate.
Author and professor Lewis Smedes used to ask his students if they wanted to go to heaven when they died. “Who would like to go to heaven?” he would ask. Everyone would raise their hand. “Who would like to go to heaven today?” he would ask. Only a few hands would go up. Then he would change the question: “Who would like to see the whole world made right today? No more common colds, no more uncommon cancers. Hungry people would have plenty; no one would lift a finger to harm another; we would be at peace with everyone, even with ourselves. Anybody interested in that?” There would be a frenzy of hand-lifting. Then Smedes would point out that if that new world made right is what you really want, then heaven’s really where you’d like to be. Because heaven is the world made right—made right by the resurrection power of God. And every time we engage life on this earth through ministry and service, that resurrection life spreads and heaven comes closer.
Jim McGuiggan tells a Jewish fable. In a small Jewish town in Russia, there is a rabbi who disappears each Friday morning for several hours. His disciples boast that during those hours their rabbi goes up to heaven and talks to God. They believe that during that time, he ascends to heaven. A stranger moves into town. He hears this story about a rabbi who ascends to heaven each Friday. He’s very skeptical about the story. He doesn’t believe it. So he decides to check things out for himself. One Friday, he hides and watches for the rabbi. The rabbi gets up in the morning, says his prayers, and then dresses in peasant clothes. The rabbi grabs an axe, goes off into the woods, and cuts some firewood. Then he then hauls the firewood to a shack on the outskirts of the village. There an old woman and her sick son live. The rabbi leaves them the wood, enough for a week, and then sneaks back home. The rabbi hasn’t been ascending to heaven. Each Friday he’s been anonymously serving a widow and her sick son by cutting firewood for them. But having observed the rabbi’s actions, this skeptical stranger decides to become a follower of the rabbi. And whenever he hears one of the villagers say, “On Friday morning our rabbi ascends all the way to heaven,” the stranger quietly adds, “If not higher.” He understood that there’s nothing more heavenly than service. Through service, heaven and earth meet. And as we serve and love and minister, heaven comes to earth. The resurrection life of Jesus manifests itself. The world becomes more right. And heaven becomes more real. May we leave this place and this week, through simple acts of service, join God in working for heaven.
 N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (HarperOne, 2008).
 Inspired by Paul Barnett, The Message of 2 Corinthians (IVP, 1988), 89.
 Barnett, 89.
 Wright, Surprised.
 Mark Buchanan, Things Unseen (Multnomah, 2002), 24.
 John Ortberg, “Our Secret Fears about Heaven,” Today’s Christian Woman (July/Aug, 2003), 39-40.
 Jim McGuiggan, Jesus, Hero of Thy Soul (Howard Publishing, 1998), 15.