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Our Hope: Eternal Life!
By John Piper.
So that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.( Titus 3:7)
The portion of this morning's text to which I would like to direct your attention is found in Titus 3:7 where Paul teaches that Christians have been saved by God in his mercy, "so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life." And our particular focus this morning will be on that last phrase "heirs in hope of eternal life."
There is, to be sure, much, much more in these verses. In particular we find here in Titus 3 one of the most beautiful and God-exalting descriptions of his saving work found anywhere in Scripture. And while we won't have time to look at that picture in detail this morning, I don't want you to miss it. And so I want to invite you all to come back tonight for our evening service, because at that time I want to meditate with you in more depth on this beautiful portrait of God's saving work.
The Content of Christian Hope
But this morning our focus is on the phrase "heirs in hope of eternal life." And I want us to think deeply about that phrase in one final effort to understand the content of biblical hope. This morning is our fifth and final week of trying to answer the question, "What should we as Christians be hoping for?" In the past four weeks we've seen that the content of our hope includes "the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13); it includes "our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Romans 8:23); it includes "the hope [of perfected, completed] righteousness" (Galatians 5:5); and it includes "the hope [of seeing and sharing the greatness] of the glory of God" (Romans 5:2). And now this morning from Titus 3:7 we see that our Christian hope, our confident expectation as believers, centers on eternal life. And it is fitting, I think, that we look at eternal life in this final message on the content of our hope, for I'm persuaded that when we ultimately experience eternal life in all its fullness, we will be experiencing all those other dimensions of our hope as well.
To help direct our thoughts about our glorious privilege of being "heirs in hope of eternal life", I want to raise and then try to answer three questions.
What is eternal life?
In what sense is eternal life something we hope for? Or, if you will, why does Paul speak of the "hope of eternal life"?
And what is our present status with regard to the hope of eternal life? Or, what does it mean to be an "heir in hope of eternal life?"
1. What Is Eternal Life?
First of all, then, what is eternal life? I raise this question not because the phrase "eternal life" is a rare one, one that is little known and hardly used. On the contrary, it is a very common expression biblically, and the phrase is a regular part of the speech and prayers of most Christians. And precisely because this expression is used so commonly, it is often used carelessly, without any real sense of what it means. Last Monday evening, in the very early stages of my preparation for this message, Susan and I were talking about the many, many ways a text like this could be approached. And Susan said, "Well whatever you decide to do, I hope you'll try to define eternal life. I use that phrase all the time but I'd be hard-pressed to tell you exactly what it means." And I'm sure she's not alone. And so not only for Susan's sake but for the sake of the clarity of all our thinking and for the joy of all of our hope, I'm going to try to give a biblical definition of eternal life.
It Is Very Long
When we use the adjective "eternal" to describe someone or something, we mean that that person or thing is free from all the limitations of time. When we say, for example, that God is eternal, we mean that he has no beginning and that he has no end. God always was and he always will be. Now in that sense only God is eternal, because only God has no beginning. Everything else created by God has a beginning, everything else has a starting point in time--—including the eternal life promised by God to his children in Christ. But we call our new life in Christ eternal life because it is not bound by time with regard to the future. There are no limits to its duration. That is to say, our eternal life in Christ will last forever and ever and ever. It will never be cut short, never come to an end.
Now if you're like me, it's very difficult to imagine anything that goes on forever. And it's even more difficult to try to put that concept of eternity into word. I think that the last verse of that great hymn "Amazing Grace" perhaps does it as well as anyone can.
When we've been there [in heaven enjoying eternal life with the Lord] 10,000 years; Bright shining as the sun; We've no less days to sing God's praise; Than when we'd first begun.
Imagine that! Ten thousand years doesn't even make a dent in eternity! Ten thousand years in comparison to eternity are like one tick of the clock. No wonder that in light of eternity the apostle James says that our lives "are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes" (James 4:4). My friends, this life is very short and eternity is very long. Don't, don't fall into the trap of living your life as though the next 10, 20, 50, 60 years were all the mattered. Think hard about 100 years from now; 10,000 years from now.
It Has No Limits or Restrictions
So then, the first thing we can say about eternal life is that it is very long. But there's more. Not only are there no quantitative limits to eternal life, there are also no qualitative limits or restrictions to it. The joy and satisfaction of our eternal life in Christ will know no limit. To put it simply, it keeps on getting better and better and better--—forever. None of the things that diminish the quality of our life here on earth will trouble us. Sin will be vanquished completely. Disease will be no more. Interpersonal conflicts will all be healed. Every wrong will be righted. Injustice will be done away with. All will be joy. Listen to the apostle John describe eternal life in the new heavens and new earth in Revelation 21:3–4:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them and they shall be his people and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away."
Think back over that past year of your life and focus in on the greatest and most holy joy you experienced in that year. Perhaps it occurred during one of our Sunday morning worship services or during a private time you had alone with the Lord. Perhaps it happened in a context of ministry. Perhaps it involved an experience with your wife or husband, your children or parents, roommate or friends. Perhaps it was a time of intense satisfaction on your job. But whatever it was, focus in on the joy you experienced at that moment, and then multiply that joy a thousand-fold, and another thousand-fold, and then you can start to get a glimpse of the joy of eternal life. But we're not done yet. The really mind-boggling part is that this unbelievably heightened joy that you're imagining is only the beginning. The joy of your eternal life in Christ will start from that point and keep on getting better, and better, and better, forever.
What Eternal Life Will Not Be Like
But to convince ourselves that this is true, we need to look at exactly what eternal life is like. I say this because many of us have had or perhaps still have a conception of eternal life that seems anything but joyful. One writer described this unfortunately all-too-common view as "spending eternity in space as disembodied spirits who flit from cloud to cloud plucking golden harps in an endless day off" (Anthony Hoekema, "Heaven: Not Just an Eternal Day Off," Christianity Today, September 20, 1985). Is that what eternal life will be like?
NO--—for three reasons.
While it is true for a time we will be, to use Paul's words, "away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8), that will only be a temporary existence, one in which we eagerly await the resurrection of our bodies on the last day. Eternal life will be lived in new bodies, glorified bodies (Romans 8:23, 1 Corinthians 15:35–57).
Eternal life will not be lived floating in space or flitting from one cloud to another. Resurrection bodies are not intended for that. No, they call for a new earth on which to live and work and play to the glory of God. And Scripture reveals that God intends for the ultimate and eternal state of his universe to include not only a new heaven, but also a new earth (Isaiah 65:17, 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1–2) on which his redeemed saints will reign (Revelation 5:9–10).
And eternal life is not meant by God to be spent in idleness. No, the Bible contains glimpses of the activity that will fill the life of God's people for all eternity. In Revelation 22:3 we read, "The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city and his servants will serve him," and in v. 5 of that same chapter we read, "And they will reign for ever and ever." In the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, the master's reward to the faithful servants is this: "Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much" (Matthew 25:21, 23). And in the parable of the pounds in Luke 19, the master rewards the servant who made ten pounds by giving him authority over ten cities and he gives to the servant who made five pounds authority over five cities. In both parables, the promised reward for faithfulness to God in this life is not idle rest, but active, challenging service. Can you imagine yourself spending eternity fully engaged in activity that is as busy and challenging and fulfilling as that of being mayor of Moscow, Manila, Miami, Mexico City, and Minneapolis!
What Eternal Life Will Be Like
Well, if eternal life is not a disembodied existence, if it is not lived floating in space, if it does not consist of idleness and inactivity, what then is it like? Two Pauline images can help us here.
The first is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18. In those verses Paul speaks of the future of those Christian brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep (that is, who have died in the Lord). He says that when the Lord Jesus returns, the dead in Christ will rise first and then those believers who are still alive will be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air. And then Paul concludes triumphantly, "And so we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:17). That, in a nutshell, is Paul's view of eternal life. Eternal life is a life of being with the Lord forever. And that preposition "with" is a very rich one. For it denotes not just proximity but intimacy, fellowship, warmth, joy. Listen to how Paul describes this eternal state of affairs in 1 Corinthians 13:12.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.
Yes, we are with the Lord now. Yes, we see him now. Yes, we know him now. But now we know in part; now we see in a mirror dimly; now our fellowship with the Lord is marred by our sin. But then, when we are experiencing eternal life in all its fullness, then we shall see him face to face (or to use John's words in 1 John 3:2, "we shall see him as he is"). Then we shall know and understand fully. Then our fellowship with our maker and redeemer will be perfect--—undivided, uninhibited, uninterrupted, unhindered by any physical or moral defects within ourselves--—forever. That is eternal life!
And in conceiving of eternal life this way, Paul is squarely in line with the promise of Jesus. In John 14:2–3, Jesus made tremendous promises to his disciples concerning their life beyond the grave.
In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself [or: to be with me], that where I am you may be also.
And listen to how Jesus prayed to his Father for you in John 17:24:
Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the earth.
The other Pauline image that can help us understand eternal life is found in 1 Corinthians 15. Here Paul writes concerning eternity,
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the first fruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority, and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death . . . When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all." (1 Corinthians 15:22–26, 28)
That is the eternal state. Every enemy to the glory of God and to the fullness of our eternal joy will be put under the feet of the risen Christ and destroyed. We will be in perfect fellowship forever with the Lord Jesus who then in turn will submit himself to God so that God might be all in all.
A Life Filled with the Infinite God
And now we can see why eternal life has no qualitative limits as well as no quantitative limits. The reason why eternal life for you and me as Christians will get better and better forever is that it's a life filled with God! It's a life in which we will be forever with the Lord and where God will be all in all. And the point is--—God is infinite! He is an inexhaustible well-spring of joy for everyone who puts their trust in him. One last glimpse of the grandeur and glory and joy of eternal life (both in its endless quantity and in its limitless quality). This time, however, it doesn't come from Scripture but from one of the most imaginative and insightful Christian minds of our time--—C.S. Lewis. Listen to Lewis' words, taken from The Last Battle, the seventh and final volume of his series The Chronicles of Narnia, as he concludes the adventures of Peter, Edmund, and Lucy in Narnia.
Aslan turned to them and said: "You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be."
Lucy said, "We're so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often."
"No fear of that," said Aslan. "Have you not guessed?"
Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.
"There was a real railway accident," said Aslan softly. "Your father and mother and all of you are--—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands--—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning."
And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before. (C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, New York: Collier Books, pp. 183–84)
Now can you see why Paul wrote that "no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9)?
Well, that's an attempt, feeble as it may be, to try to give you a glimpse of eternal life. Now we need to move on to our second question and ask, "In what sense is this eternal life something we hope for?"
2. How Is Eternal Life Something We Hope For?
In answering this question, let's keep in mind the definition of hope that we've been working with throughout this series of messages. Christian hope, biblical hope is "a confident expectation and desire for something good in the future." And from that definition we can see three tings that must be true about something if it indeed is to be the object of biblical hope.
What we hope for must be something good.
What we hope for must be in the future.
And what we hope for must be certain not doubtful, so that our expectation of its coming to pass may be confident not wavering.
Eternal Life Is Good and Future
Now from the description of eternal life I've just given, it's quite easy to see how the first two criteria are fulfilled. Eternal life is a proper object of biblical hope because it is truly a good and desirable thing, indeed it is infinitely good and desirable for all those who love God. And eternal life is a proper object of biblical hope because our full enjoyment of it as Christians is in the future.
To be sure, we experience the first fruits of eternal life now. We have in a worship service like this, in our own personal walks with the Lord, in loving and being loved by family and friends foretastes of eternal life and glimpses into its glory and joy. Indeed these foretastes are so real that biblical writers at times speak of eternal life as the present possession of the children of God. For example John says in 1 John 5:11–12, "And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life." But as real and as glorious as these foretasted are, they are only foretastes, only glimpses into future when we will experience eternal life to the full. They are, as C. S. Lewis said, only the cover and title page, not the whole story.
Why Eternal Life Can Be Certain: God
But not only must eternal life be good, not only must it be future in its fullness, it must also be certain to qualify it as an object of biblical hope. And at this point Paul's letter to Titus helps us greatly for it points us very clearly to the ultimate reason why a Christian's hope of eternal life can be confident and assured. And that ultimate reason is God himself.
Turn back with me a couple of chapters to Titus 1 and let's look at another place where Paul uses the phrase "hope of eternal life." It's found in the introduction to the letter. Titus 1:1–3:
Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to further the faith of God's elect and their knowledge of the truth which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life which God, who never lies, promised ages ago and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by command of God our Savior.
So Paul speaks of the "hope of eternal life" in Titus 1:2 and immediately ties it into God's promise. God's elect have the hope of eternal life because God promised it would be so. And God's promise will most certainly be fulfilled, because the God who promised is a God who never lies. The utter truthfulness of God lies at the root of the believer's confident expectation of eternal life.
And then flip back to Titus 3. In Titus 3:7 becoming an "heir in hope of eternal life" is an intended result of the mighty working of God's saving mercy. Note that in Paul's beautiful description of the saving work of God in vv. 4–7, there is only one main verb, one main clause--—v. 5: "He saved us." All the rest of these verses describe when, why, how, or to what end he did it, but the focus of this whole passage is on those three words in v. 5: "He saved us." We'll look much more fully at these verses this evening, but for now the point I want you to see is that God is the subject of that sentence. Our salvation in Christ, which is the necessary pre-requisite to becoming an heir in hope of eternal life, is God's work from beginning to end. And therefore eternal life can be a sure hope for everyone who has become a recipient of God's mercy in Christ. It's a sure hope because it is grounded in the work of a God whose sovereign power is always sufficient to bring to pass all his merciful purposes.
And so we see that eternal life is indeed a proper object of biblical hope because (1) it is an infinitely good and desirable reality, (2) its ultimate fulfillment lies in the future, in the age to come, and (3) that future eternal life in all its fullness is certain and sure. It's sure because of God, because of the utter truthfulness of his saving promise and because of the utter omnipotence of his saving mercy.
3. What Is Our Present Status?
And now all that remains for us this morning is to look briefly at our third question: "What is our present status with regard to eternal life?" And the word Paul uses to describe our present status in Titus 3:7 is the word "heir." We as Christians don't yet possess eternal life in all its fullness, but right now we are "heirs in hope of eternal life." You know what an heir is like, don't you? An heir is like Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne. As the Crown Prince of the United Kingdom, the heir, Prince Charles has a legal right to that throne. It rightfully belongs to him. But he doesn't possess it yet. Something must happen first, before he comes into the full possession of the throne that is rightfully his as heir. His mother, Queen Elizabeth, must either resign or die. Then Prince Charles will no longer be the heir, no, he will sit on the throne as the King of England. So it is with us, believers, who are heirs in hope of eternal life. Through God's saving mercy in Christ all those and only those who have been begotten anew by the Holy Spirit have a legal right to the infinite joys of eternal life. But our full possession of that right is not yet. It will only be ours following our Lord's return.
But just as Prince Charles, though not yet king, nevertheless, lives a royal lifestyle, one that is even now training him for his future life as king, so also you and I as Christians, being of the hope of eternal life, should express that hope in a lifestyle that is fitting for those in training for eternal life. Look how Paul expresses the lifestyle springing from the hope of eternal life in Titus 3:8:
The saying is sure [thus again reiterating the trustworthiness of the promise of God regarding eternal life]. I desire you to insist on these things so those who have believed in God may be careful to apply themselves to good deeds.
Those who by God's grace have believed in God and thus are heirs in hope of eternal life are to be careful to apply themselves to doing good. For Paul, the hope of eternal life is no "pie in the sky" that makes no difference at all in this life. It is real, it is practical, it leads to great joy and earnest efforts toward righteousness. And let me conclude by offering you an illustration which I believe pictures how this is so.
How the Hope of Eternal Life Makes a Difference
Imagine yourself as a 16 year old boy. One day while you are practicing basketball in your driveway, an angel appears to you and delivers a message about the future. "Good news," he says, "you are destined to be a great basketball player. When you graduate from high school, you will play basketball for the University of Minnesota. And you will lead the Gophers to the Big Ten Championship and the NCAA Title. You'll be a first round draft choice in the NBA, drafted by the Boston Celtics, no less. In your first year as Celtic, you'll be the NBA's rookie of the year and Most Valuable Player. And you'll go down in history as one of the very greatest players who ever lived."
"So what's the catch?" you ask suspiciously.
"Nothing. This is free, a gift from God, no strings attached."
Now suppose that the angel, using means that only angels have at their disposal, was able to persuade you that he was in fact a real angel and that his message really was from God and so its fulfillment was guaranteed. And suppose you believed it. Two questions. How would this news make you feel? And how would it make you live? Would you feel happy or ho-hum? And would you practice basketball more or less?
The answer to both questions depends upon your heart. If the angel merely happened to find you playing basketball out of boredom and you really didn't care much for the game, the angel's message wouldn't affect you very much. You might figure out that there would likely be some financial implications in being an NBA star and that might make you happy if you really valued money. But the thought of being a great basketball player itself wouldn't stir your heart very much and the angel's words certainly wouldn't make you practice any more. After all your future success is assured.
But suppose you lived and breathed and dreamed basketball. Suppose the greatest joy you every dared imagine was to be the NBA Rookie of the Year. And now you believed that that great joy was assured, a future certainty. It would change everything--—in your heart and in your life. Specifically it would free you to work harder than ever to improve your game. You would lose forever the very common kind of discouragement that says, "What's the use? I'll never make it. Who am I trying to kid?" Instead you would know that every moment you practiced was preparation for the very thing you longed for most of all. When you made a basket, you would say, "I'm on my way." And when you missed one, you could shrug your shoulders, knowing that your mistakes were only transitional, and say, "Well I still have a way to go, don't I?" The hope of stardom in the NBA would change everything—that is, if you really loved basketball.
And the same thing is true (only more so) with the hope of eternal life. Being an heir in hope of eternal life will change everything in your heart and in your life--—if, that is, you really love the God in whose fellowship you'll spend eternity. But there's one big difference between the basketball analogy and the truth of God's Word regarding eternal life. There is a condition involved in God's promise of eternal life. He only will give it to those who want it. And the only people who really want eternal life are those who love God above all. And the only people who really love God above all are those whose hearts he has changed. No one who is antagonistic or indifferent toward God will receive the promise. Nobody whose heart does not beat fast at the thought of spending eternity in perfect fellowship with the Lord will inherit eternal life. And the kind of heart that longs for God to be his all in all exists only in those people who have experienced the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
And so my friends, the word of God to you this morning is that eternal life in Jesus Christ is available to each and every one of you--—if you want it. And the word of God also says to you that only God can make you want it. And so this morning if you are longing for eternal life and thus stand confident and assured of an eternally blessed future, thank God for his amazing grace that changed your heart and made it new. If that is not true of you, humbly ask God for his grace to make it so in your life too, so that none of us leaves this sanctuary without a confident assurance of being an heir in hope of eternal life.
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