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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (4): John Calvin

John Calvin is not a name that most Anabaptists like. Unfortunately, too many people today assume either that Calvin is the ultimate theological authority or, conversely, that his theology is completely warped. Neither assumption is close to the truth.

Given the traditional Anabaptist bias, perhaps it would be helpful to begin this post with a quote from Jacob Arminius (1560-1609)–the Arminius after whom Arminianism is named. After all, we are Arminians and not Calvinists, right? We don’t believe in “once saved, always saved” or that God elects people against their will to be saved or damned. Well, that may be true enough (although the way I’ve phrased things isn’t fair to Calvin or his adherents). But let’s listen to Arminius to see if we should bother listening to Calvin:

After reading of Scripture, which I vehemently inculcate [“hammer home”] more than anything else,… I encourage the reading of the commentaries of John Calvin, which I extol with greatest praise,… for I say that he is incomparable in the interpretation of Scripture, and his comments are far better than anything which the Fathers give us.1

Yes, you read that correctly. So let’s consider a little of what we can learn from Calvin about ecclesiology (church theology and practice).

This post continues our series on the ecclesiology of the Reformers, quoting from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. As George writes, “Calvin wrote more in one lifetime than most people are able to read” (Kindle Location 4193). This means that our observations about Calvin’s ecclesiology here will be even more selective than our past posts about Luther and Zwingli were. (See also the introduction to this series. Stay tuned for Menno Simons, William Tyndale, and my conclusions and questions.)

Calvin was a second generation Reformer:

Calvin’s great achievement was to take the classic insights of the Reformation (sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura) and give them a clear, systematic exposition, which neither Luther nor Zwingli ever did, and to adapt them to the civic setting of Geneva. From Geneva they took on a life of their own and developed into a new international theology… (Kindle Locations 3781-3784)

Calvin was an exceptional student, well-trained in Latin, theology, and law. By the time he graduated from his studies, his first love was studying ancient texts in original languages. Upon Calvin’s conversion to Protestantism, he soon became a natural but reluctant leader. From Calvin himself:

But I was utterly amazed
That before a year had passed
All those who yearned
For pure doctrine
Were coming again and again to me
To learn it.
Even though I had scarcely commenced
To study it myself…
In short, although I always cherished
The goal of living in private, incognito,
God so led me and caused me to turn
By various changes
That he never left me at peace in any place
Until, in spite of my natural disposition
He brought me into the limelight.
(Kindle Locations 3908-3925, emphasis added.)

Calvin was above all a teacher in the Church. Calvin’s teaching has endured largely because of his writing, and none of his writings has been more influential than his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Why did Calvin write (and rewrite, and rewrite) this book? He wrote it as a training manual for the Church:

The primary purpose of the Institutes… was catechetical. From the time of his conversion, Calvin had been pressed to serve as a teacher of those who were hungry for the true faith. One can still see a cave near the city of Poitiers where Calvin was said to have ministered to the needs of a (literally!) underground congregation. He knew firsthand the urgent need for a clearly written manual of instruction that would present the rudiments of a biblical theology and lead young Christians into a deeper understanding of the faith. (Kindle Locations 4002-4006, emphasis added.)

Calvin was “conscripted” (fascinating story) to come to Geneva to lead the Reformation there:

Calvin was genuinely shocked at the idea and protested that he was ill suited for such a task. He could better edify the church by his quiet study and writing. “ The summit of my wishes ,” he later wrote…, “was the enjoyment of literary ease, with something of a free and honorable station.” (Kindle Locations 4028-4031)

From that moment Calvin’s fate was linked to that of Geneva. In his earliest letters after his call, he referred to himself as “Reader in Holy Scripture to the Church in Geneva.” Though he took on many other duties over the years, his primary vocation remained that of pastor and teacher. (Kindle Locations 4048-4050, emphasis added.)

Calvin briefly left Geneva, spending three happy years in Strasbourg, where he continued developing and serving as a church leader before returning to Geneva. His time away was profitable. For example:

He gave serious thought to the role of worship in the church and translated a number of psalms into French meter. Thus began the congregational singing of psalms that became such an integral part of French Reformed worship. (Kindle Locations 4063-4065, emphasis added.)

In 1539 Calvin published his Commentary on Romans, a masterful treatment of what for him no less than for Luther was the most important book in the Bible… Eventually he published commentaries on most of the Old Testament and on every book in the New Testament except Revelation and 2 and 3 John. (Kindle Locations 4083-4086, emphasis added.)

Calvin was a church statesman. [He] participated in a series of conferences aimed at reuniting Protestants and Catholics . Unity still seemed possible in 1540 because the Council of Trent had not yet convened… He traveled to Frankfurt, Hagenau, and Worms as a kind of adviser to the Protestant delegations at these interfaith conferences… The real importance of these meetings for Calvin was the worldwide vision of the church they confirmed for him. He lamented the fragmented character of Christendom: “Amongst the greatest evils of our century must be counted the fact that the churches are so divided one from another and that there is scarcely even a human relationship between us.” Calvin was not willing to compromise essentials for the sake of a false peace, but he sought to call the church back to the true basis of its unity in Jesus Christ. (Kindle Locations 4093-4102, emphasis added.)

These three paragraphs hint at the wide range of Calvin’s ecclesiological interests–worship, biblical studies, church unity, and more. I think his lament about church disunity remains timely today!

Upon his return to Geneva, Calvin resumed his series of expository sermons where he had left off three years before.

Calvin was a master preacher in an age when the pulpit was the primary medium of communication to the entire culture. “When the gospel is preached in the name of God,” Calvin said, “it is as if God himself spoke in person.” Following the pattern Zwingli had instituted in Zurich, Calvin generally preached continuously through the books of the Bible. (Kindle Locations 4183-4186, emphasis added.)

Calvin was a teacher and a preacher in the Church. But how did he define the Church? What was its core? What was its relationship to Scripture?

Calvin , like Luther, affirmed that the Scripture was the womb from which the church was born and not vice versa. Popes, councils, even the early church fathers whom Calvin frequently quoted, could be and often were in error. Through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures authenticated themselves and disclosed their proper interpretation to the diligent believer. (Kindle Locations 4359-4362, emphasis added.)

Significantly, Calvin did not follow Bucer, as did the Reformed tradition generally, in elevating ecclesiastical discipline to the technical status of a nota. For Calvin, as for Luther, the more certain… marks remained the Word purely preached and the sacraments duly administered. However, he did not for that reason disparage the importance of discipline for the well-being of the church. If the saving doctrine of Christ was the soul of the church, then discipline served as its sinews… through which the members of the body were held together, each in its own place. Discipline, then, pertained to the constitution and organization, if not to the definition , of the true congregation. (Kindle Locations 5113-5119, emphasis added.)

So the Church is born from the womb of Scripture and has the saving doctrine of Christ as its soul. But the question of church discipline raises more questions: What is the boundary of the Church? And what is the relationship between the universal (or invisible) Church and the local (or visible) church?

Luther’s predominant concern was with the evangelical center of the church; later reformers took up the difficult task of determining with some precision its circumference. Zwingli, Bucer, and Oecolampadius struggled with this problem; yet it remained for Calvin, the “poor, timid scholar” as he described himself, to exploit fully the theory and practice of the Protestant congregation. Beset by a resurgent Catholicism on the one hand and a proliferating sectarianism on the other, Calvin developed a more formal theory of the relation of the invisible church and the church as an external institution recognizable as true by certain distinguishing marks. (Kindle Locations 5101-5106, emphasis added.)

Calvin’s concern for the order and form of the congregation derived from his emphasis on sanctification as both the process and goal of the Christian life. In contrast to the unilateral accentuation of justification in the Lutheran confessions, Calvin gave precedence to sanctification in his systematic arrangement of the “benefits of Christ.” …In this life the locus of sanctification is the congregation, the visible church, in which the elect participate in the benefits of Christ not as isolated individuals but as members of a body in which “all the blessings which God bestows upon them are mutually communicated to each other” (Inst. 4.1.3). In this way the visible church becomes a “holy community,” an agent of sanctification in the larger society in which every aspect of life is to be brought within the orbit of Christian purposes and Christian regulations. (Kindle Locations 5121-5128, emphasis added.)

If I read only the previous paragraph, I might guess that Calvin was an Anabaptist! (Perhaps this shared concern for sanctification is explained in part by how both Calvin and the Swiss Brethren Anabaptists share Zwinglian roots–Zwingli who was more zealous than Luther both in pruning away extrabiblical practices and in attempting to form good Christian citizens?) How did this concern for sanctification affect Calvin’s thinking about the tension between the visible congregation and the invisible Church?

The two poles of Calvin’s ecclesiology, divine election and the local congregation, are held together in the closest possible connection, frequently in the same sentence. The church is called God’s house, explained Calvin, because “not only has He received us as His sons by the grace of adoption (election), but He Himself dwells in the midst of us” (the congregation)… Only when we realize that Calvin never relaxed the visible/invisible tension can we understand his diverse characterizations of the church. On the one hand, the church appears in mortal danger. If false doctrines are allowed to spread, they will “completely destroy the church.” …At the same time, …human fickleness and unfaithfulness “cannot prevent God from preserving His Church to the end. (Kindle Locations 5142-5150, emphasis added.)

Other than the emphasis on election (perhaps), this still sounds quite Anabaptist. But our next quote sharpens the contrast:

For Calvin the visible church was not a progressive approximation of the invisible. The former was a corpus permixtum, wheat and tares growing in the same field, whereas the latter included elect angels, Old Testament worthies, and assorted predestined souls who find themselves outside the “Lord’s walled orchard.” (Kindle Locations 5151-5153, emphasis added.)

So again, as with Luther and Zwingli but in contrast to the Anabaptists such as Menno Simons, Calvin believed the visible church was a corpus permixtum. And again, perhaps even more clearly than Zwingli (George’s words are a bit vague), Calvin understood the invisible Church to include even beings who have never been part of any NT church. Here, again, is the Zwinglian emphasis on continuity between old and new covenants.

So is it correct to consider the visible church a corpus permixtum? On the one hand I want to say “no,” for in Jesus’ parable the field where the tares grow is the world, not the church (Matt. 13:38). On the other hand I think it is very possible to develop unrealistic, unPauline, and ultimately unbiblical expectations about how pure the Church will be before this present evil age is finally laid to rest (see here). Either way, unbiblical expectations will lead to unbiblical strategies and methods. I would want to push back against the assertion that the visible church is not supposed to be a progressive approximation of the invisible Church, and I would also want to push back against the idea that perfect church order can lead to a perfect match between the two.

I’m not sure this tension was ever fully resolved within Calvin himself–for, as we saw earlier, he, too, was very eager to see the church grow in maturity. He often expressed this by describing the church as a school:

We are conceived in the womb of Mother Church , nourished at her breast, and enrolled as pupils in her school all the days of our lives (Inst. 4.1.4). (Kindle Locations 5159-5160)

The church, of course, is a school from which one never graduates (this side of heaven, if then!), hence the need for continual instruction. The church is also, in the best sense of the term, a “reform school,” complete with specified dress code, censored reading matter, compulsory attendance at chapel, and truant officers to deal with recalcitrant students! (Kindle Locations 5188-5190, emphasis added.)

Okay, that sounds pretty familiar to this modern Mennonite, at least until the truant officers bit. This bit points to another crucial difference between Anabaptists and Calvin–the relationship between church and state:

By rejecting the Anabaptist concept of the congregation as a conventicle sequestered from the environing culture, Calvin rooted his reformation in the “placed Christianity” of the medieval corpus christianum. (Kindle Locations 5268-5270, emphasis added.)

The rule of Christ was to be manifested, ideally, in the institution of a godly magistracy… In the words of Isaiah, Calvin urged the magistrates to be “nursing fathers” to the Reformation. They were to maintain not only civic order but also religious uniformity… The proper relationship of the two [congregation and magistrate] is illustrated by the example of a pertinacious [stubborn] heretic. After thorough examination… and patient admonition, the obstinate heretic may be, must be, expelled from the congregation by excommunication. Beyond this the church cannot go. However, the magistrate was well within his bounden duty in bringing to bear what Calvin called, somewhat euphemistically, “further measures of greater rigor.” (Kindle Locations 5286-5293, emphasis added.)

“Further measures of greater rigor” could include, as Servetus discovered, burning at the stake. It is sad that Calvin did not learn to renounce the sword after his own early experience as a persecuted Protestant minority in France.

I’ll bring this survey of Calvin’s ecclesiology to a close with some quotes about church leadership. Calvin believed that “a fourfold office of pastor, teacher, elder, and deacon… was mandated by Scripture” (Kindle Locations 5194-5199), but he spoke most often and most clearly about pastors.

Calvin believed that the offices of prophet, apostle, and evangelist, so prominent in the New Testament, were temporary in nature and had ceased at the end of the apostolic age. Of the offices that are extant in this dispensation, that of the pastor is clearly the most honorable and the least dispensable for the proper order and well-being of the church. (Kindle Locations 5220-5223, emphasis added.)

What is the role of the pastor?—to represent God’s Son…, to erect and extend God’s kingdom, to care for the salvation of souls, to rule the church that is God’s inheritance. Calvin held that there should be at least one pastor in every town… (Kindle Locations 5227-5230, emphasis added.)

How was a pastor to be chosen? …While it was certainly wrong for an individual to “thrust himself forward” out of self-seeking ambition, it was proper for one moved by a godly desire to prepare for the office. “What are theological schools if not nurseries for pastors?” Yet one had to be publicly called according to the order the church prescribed. (Kindle Locations 5231-5234, emphasis added.)

Ordination… Calvin described as a “solemn rite of institution” into the pastoral office. Calvin elsewhere referred to ordination as a sacrament and admitted that grace was conferred through this outward sign. (Kindle Locations 5236-5237)

But why are pastors so important to the church? “Does not everyone have a chance to read the Scriptures for himself?” asked Calvin. Yes, but pastors had to carve or divide the Word, “like a father dividing the bread into small pieces to feed his children.” Pastors must be thoroughly taught in the Scriptures that they can rightly instruct the congregation in heavenly doctrine. The importance of preaching in Calvin’s thought can hardly be exaggerated. (Kindle Locations 5246-5250, emphasis added.)

The pastor is charged with preaching and governing. “A pastor needs two voices,” said Calvin, “one for gathering the sheep and the other for driving away wolves and thieves.” (Kindle Locations 5261-5262, emphasis added.)

Calvin did not hesitate to advocate a double standard for clergy/laity… Calvin had not here relapsed into the two-tiered morality of medieval Christendom. Rather, he was concerned with the visibility of the church, with the “face” of the church. An unworthy minister can do irreparable harm to the congregation. For this reason he must hold to a stricter accountability. (Kindle Locations 5263-5268, emphasis added.)

I think we conservative Anabaptists could learn from Calvin’s emphasis on the importance of pastors and preaching. I am not entirely comfortable with everything that Calvin and some of his Reformed heirs say about the father-like authority of pastors, and I think a sacramental understanding of ordination sometimes bears bad fruit even in our own churches. I would want to remember Luther’s insistence on the priesthood of all believers and his reminder, spoken in the voice of a godly congregation, that “What we give him today we can take away from him tomorrow,” should the pastor prove unworthy. (And Calvin almost certainly agreed; reread the last quote.)

But, caveats aside, I have been impressed with how much more seriously many Reformed preachers take their duties as teachers and preachers of Scripture than many leaders in our own churches do. Most church members never rise above the level of the biblical understanding and vision cast by their pastors. We could learn, I believe, from Calvin’s emphasis on pastoral training. I know from experience that there is a helpful “third way” between seminary training and no training (and I have also been blessed by leaders in our own church fellowships who have had some formal seminary training). If more local church leaders caught a vision for rigorous training right in their own congregations, we might be surprised at the caliber of our future leaders.

I’ll give the last word to Timothy George:

In the midst of our secular culture, we need to appropriate Calvin’s vision of the church as the special creation of the Holy Spirit, a community that can point men and women beyond itself to the transcendent source of their lives and of life itself. On the other hand, we can only deplore Calvin’s coercive view of society, his intolerance of dissenters, his acquiescence in the death of Servetus, notwithstanding his plea for leniency in the mode of execution. (Kindle Locations 5363-5366. B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

(Next up: the ecclesiology of Menno Simons.)

What do you think? Are you surprised by anything in this survey of Calvin’s ecclesiology? What would you add? What do you think we should learn from his example? Gather the sheep and drive off the wolves by sharing your insights in the comments below!


PS: If you are enjoying this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has much more to say than what I am sharing here. (Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link, so I’ll make pennies if you buy the book.)

  1. Jacobus Arminius to Sebastian Egbert, 3 May, 1607, Christiaan Hartsoeker and Philippas van Limborch, eds., Præstantium ac eruditorum visorum epistolæ ecclesiasticæ et theologicæ (Amsterdam Henricum Welstentium, 1660), 236-37. As quoted by Mark A. Ellis, ed., in The Arminian Confession of 1621 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2005), vii. Emphasis added.

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What Is the Christian’s True Hope in Death?

My father-in-law, Albert Mast, is nearing death. At least, that’s the way it looks to those of us who are nearest to him. It sounds strange to say it, and stranger still to experience it, but we are waiting for him to die. I waited beside his bed for some four hours last night, then one of his brothers waited till morning. I think Albert’s been waiting longer than any of us.

While we wait, we think. My wife Zonya’s thoughts, along with the thoughts of many in her family, seem to be drawn mostly to the past, reflecting on memories of Albert from before his illness turned much worse about five years ago. Since I have fewer memories of Albert from before that time, and since I may have opportunity to speak publicly after his passing, my thoughts are wandering more to the future than to the past.

What will happen to Albert when he dies? What will he experience? What should he hope to experience? He’s lived in a crippled body for so long; what measure of relief will he experience immediately? What surprises might he experience? To what extent is his hope shaped according to the biblical revelation, and to what extent has it been shaped by gospel songs we sing and by that vast stock of traditional Christian phrases that reveal and drive our popular theologies?

Don’t worry. I’m not on a campaign to change my father-in-law’s theology at this point. I’ve read some Scriptures to him (1 Cor. 15) and prayed with him, but this is not the time for theological education. His hope is fixed on Jesus, and that’s more than sufficient for his journey ahead! But for those of us who will remain, I think a better understanding can lead to a fuller hope, a more expansive vision of what lies ahead. So here are a few thoughts while I wait.

A question: When Jesus endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Heb. 12:2), what was the joy that he was anticipating? What anticipated joy gave him such great endurance? Was Jesus anticipating “dying and going to heaven”? Was he eager to “spend eternity in heaven with God”?

I’m certain Jesus was indeed eager to return to the presence of his Father, but I think such phrases miss a crucial element of the joy that fueled his endurance. Hebrews summarizes Jesus’ reward by saying that he “is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” This phrase does not mean merely that Jesus is in the presence of God. Rather, it means that he is reigning with God. So, when did Jesus begin to reign? On Friday evening, immediately after he cried “It is finished” and gave up his spirit? Sometime on Saturday, while his body lay in the grave? Or on Sunday, after the stone was rolled from the tomb?

I think Paul summarizes the NT answer to this question well: “[God] raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:20). In other words, Jesus was granted authority to reign not on Friday, not on Saturday, but on Sunday morning–or maybe at his ascension about 40 days later.

What is very clear is that “the joy that was set before Jesus,” the joy that fueled his endurance, was not something that he anticipated would happen on Friday night or on Saturday. The joy that fueled Jesus’ endurance was the joy of his upcoming resurrection and all that would flow from it. 

We can see this, too, in Jesus’ repeated prophecies of his own suffering. Each time he told his disciples of his impending death, it was all bad news until the final line: “and he will be raised on the third day” (Matt. 17:23; 20:19; etc.). Never do we read anything like, “and he will go to heaven to be with God.” As true as that was, Jesus didn’t mention it. It wasn’t on his radar. The focus of his hope was his upcoming resurrection. I simply cannot imagine Jesus being satisfied with “going to heaven to be with God” on Friday without also being “raised on the third day”! The very idea is so strange that, if you’re like me, you’ve never even thought of that possibility before today.

If all that is true, then what about our own hope in death? I’d like to suggest that it is just as strange for us to focus our hopes on “going to heaven to be with God” when we die as it would have been for Jesus to do so. I’ll say that again: I think it is just as strange for us to focus our hopes on “going to heaven to be with God” when we die as it would have been for Jesus to do so.

Here’s a challenge: Do a word search in the NT for “heaven,” and see if you can find any passages that are anything like “go to heaven when you die.” See if you can find any passages that invite the Christian to set his hopes on going to heaven after death. Then do another search, a search for “resurrection,” “raised,” and all the other related words you can think of. See how many pages of passages you can find describing the hope that awaits the Christian in the coming resurrection, at Christ’s return. I did such searches several years ago, while preparing for Easter sermons, and I’ve never recovered. (Here is where I must also thank N.T. Wright and Randy Alcorn for starting me down this path and surprising me with new hope–see here and here.)

Millions of saints who have believed in purgatory have faced a pleasant surprise after death: They have found themselves immediately with Jesus, with no need to suffer long years in purgatory! But some of us who have rightly rejected purgatory have set ourselves up for a less pleasant surprise: If we think we are going straight to our full eternal reward immediately after death, we will suddenly discover that we need to “wait a little longer” (Rev. 6:11) for Christ’s return, bringing our resurrection and the final judgment. This is a less significant error than purgatory—but also a less pleasant surprise. Yes, it is “far better” to leave our bodies and be with Jesus (Phil 1:23). But let’s “set [our] hope fully on the grace that will be brought to [us] at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13) and “encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18).

Much should be said about why this clarification of our hope matters. Perhaps the most important thing to mention is that a hope fixed on “going to heaven when you die” tends to be more self-centered than a hope fixed on Christ’s return and the resurrection and the restoration of all things. The former focuses on personal salvation; the latter on cosmic salvation. The former focuses on us going to be with Jesus; the latter focuses on Jesus coming to be with us and with his entire creation. I’m sure many selfless saints have fixed their hopes on “crossing the river” to see Jesus face to face and meet their loved ones. But I think a hope fixed on Christ’s return helps us see much more of the glory of Christ!

A bigger vision of a bigger Christ, a greater hope that fuels a greater endurance. I’m sold. Where are you pinning your hopes?

I’ll end my polished thoughts here and invite you to respond in the comments below. But I’ll also post the Scriptures I was mediating on today, along with my observations about four things I think we can learn about from each passage: death, afterdeath, resurrection, and implications for us now. Many more passages could be cited, but these alone are enough, I think, to shift the focus of our hopes from after death to the resurrection to come.


Afterdeath and Resurrection – Scriptures Describing the Christian’s True Hope

 Note: I am using the term afterdeath rather than afterlife for the intermediate state (between our death and Christ’s return) because afterlife is potentially misleading. For the Christian, though death brings an end to the natural life of our bodies, our life continues and then blossoms into fullness after death. Eternal life is unending, so there is nothing that comes “after” life for the Christian.


2 Timothy 4:6-8

6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

Death: Death is the time of departure, the end of the fight, the end of the race, the end of the fight/race of preserving the true faith from attack and corruption. (It could also be called an offering, at least if it involves the suffering accompanying a martyr’s death, as with Paul’s suffering and impending death.)

Afterdeath: No more fight, race, or faith-keeping. Time of waiting for final rewards.

Resurrection: Christ’s appearing on that Day, the day of judgment, is when the crown of righteousness will be given.

Now: We love and long for Christ’s appearing, willingly suffering for Christ as we pin our hopes on that Day.


Philippians 1:21-24:

21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.

Death: When we die we no longer remain in the flesh. We depart from fellow believers and our time of labor and serving others in gospel ministry ends.

Afterdeath: Christians are with Christ in a fuller way than we presently are. (Cf. Stephen in Acts 7:59: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and Jesus’ words to thief on cross in Luke 23:43: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”) They rest from their labors. Therefore, the afterdeath is far better than remaining in our corruptible flesh. Yet it is a time of separation from earthly saints.

Resurrection: Paul says nothing about the resurrection in this passage. Later in the same book he does (3:10-14, 20-21), and notice how he makes it the centerpiece of Christian hope:

“10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus… 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

Now: For us to live is Christ—we live Christ-shaped lives, imitating him in suffering service for his sake, laboring for the good of others.


Revelation 6:9-11:

9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

Death: Can come through martyrdom, unjustly, because of our faithfulness to the word of God for the witness we have borne. Yet even this kind of death is “numbered” and overseen by God. Yes, death is our enemy. But every Christian dies under God’s watchful eye.

Afterdeath: At least for some (martyrs), a time of intense longing for God to bring final justice on the earth. Saints are crying, “How long?!” just as the ancient psalmists did. They are conscious. They can speak with God. They experience the passage of time. They remember their earthly lives and have a least some awareness of what is currently happening on earth (cf. 1 Sam. 28:16-19; Rev. 18:20; 19:1-5)—at least that suffering and wickedness is continuing. Tears are seemingly not all wiped away until the coming of the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21:4). Yet saints now in God’s presence also receive God’s comfort—purity (Rev. 3:4-5; 7:9-14; 19:8) and glory as symbolized by a white robe, and the assurance that it will be only “a little longer” until God judges evil and rescues his people. Note: these robes are clearly metaphorical in Revelation (“washed… and made white in the blood of the Lamb,” 7:14) and do not indicate that saints in the intermediate state possess bodies.

Resurrection: Not mentioned directly, but the joint-event of the final judgment is presented as the hope of the saints.

Now: Endure faithfully as witnesses for Christ.


2 Corinthians 5:1-10:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 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. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

Death: Our tent (body) is destroyed; our time of being in the body and away from the Lord ends.

Afterdeath: We are “away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Sight begins to replace faith. Yet it is still a time of waiting for our final clothing. (Vs. 3-4 are difficult. Perhaps they suggest that during afterdeath, as now, we will still experience something of the shameful nakedness of Adam as we wait for our final glorious bodies and the full restoration of all that was lost at the Fall; see Scott Hoffman NIVAC. But Murray Harris NIGTC thinks the “nakedness” comments are rather designed to refute the Corinthian doubts about bodily resurrection during the eternal state, as in 1 Cor. 15.)

Resurrection: We will put on our heavenly dwelling, our eternal bodies, our final and full clothing. This will happen at the judgment seat of Christ (which happens at Christ’s return) we each receive what is due for what we have done while in our bodies. All that is mortal will be swallowed up by life!

Now: We are only partially clothed, and we groan for our “overgarments”—our eternal bodies; we don’t yet see all we long for, but we are of good courage as we walk by faith, because we already have the Spirit as a guarantee of our eternal bodies to come.


1 Corinthians 15:20-26:

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Death: Experienced by all descendants of Adam; a result of the Fall, an enemy that has not yet been fully destroyed.

Afterdeath: A sleep. This was a common way of referring to death, used by pagans, Jews, and Christians alike, whether or not anyone believed in a coming resurrection (Green, Thessalonians, 217). Perhaps this term was used as a way of expressing the fact that we can’t communicate with the dead, just like we can’t communicate with people who are sleeping. Or maybe it was just a pleasant term to soften the ugliness of death. Most important: It does not indicate that those who are dead are unconscious (which would contradict other texts like Luke 16:19-31 or Rev. 6:9-11). Although it was used by all kinds of people, it is sometimes used in Scripture to insinuate that death isn’t the final end (Dan. 12:2; Mark 5:39). Therefore, even though the term in its original usage doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the afterlife, it is a doubly-fitting term for Christians: death, like sleep, is a temporary time of waiting that will be followed by an awakening on the resurrection morning.

Resurrection: All who are belong to Christ will be made alive at his coming—they will receive incorruptible, spirit-powered bodies. Then, at the end, death itself will be destroyed.


In Conclusion: Being with Christ is “Far Better,” But Sharing in Christ’s Resurrection is Our True Comfort and Hope

The message we use to comfort each other:

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

The place where our hope is fixed:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ… 13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:3-7, 13)


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