“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.”Philippians 3:20-21
The last several months have seen a unique uptick in the number of people I know who have either died or were diagnosed with terminal illness. It’s bound to happen if you live long enough, but it’s still striking. When you’re a child, you go to funerals, but usually not many. As you get older, the number increases.
It’s not just people but the places I remember that have changed significantly. Once quiet fields of cotton, wooded creeks, and small shops are now subdivisions, businesses, and parking lots. All these changes remind me that an older world is passing away.
It’s easy to lament changes, as the poet R.S. Thomas did in poem “Ninetieth Birthday.” He ends it this way:
And there at the top that old woman,
Born almost a century back
In that stone farm, awaits your coming;
Waits for the news of the lost village
She thinks she knows, a place that exists
In her memory only.
You bring her greeting
And praise for having lasted so long
With time’s knife shaving the bone.
Yet no bridge joins her own
World with yours, all you can do
Is lean kindly across the abyss
To hear words that were once wise.
The passing of time will not relent. It continues daily, as God intended it. The looming specter of death grows with every passing year. We can easily ignore it when we’re young, but as we get older and more friends and family die, that ignorance is harder to maintain. With every death we join a little more with the groaning of creation, looking for the day of final deliverance.
I used to hope that deliverance would come through the rapture, when Jesus would come, rescue us from suffering, and take charge of everything. Over the years, I’ve come to see that Jesus is in charge of everything, and that being God’s child doesn’t mean escaping suffering but learning to face it with strength and joy.
In forty years on this earth, I’ve formed attachments. I’ve come to love many people and places. For all of this I am grateful, which is why I’m sad when He takes them away. I want to hold on to what I know, to what I’m comfortable with, and especially to the people I love. Because I know more loss will come, the temptation is to try to shield myself, to resign myself to losing things. But no internal fortress can protect us from loss.
Paul wrote to the church at Philippi about dealing with loss. For him, it was the loss of his previous life. If anyone had a good thing going, it was Paul. He calls himself “a Hebrew of Hebrews,” or we would say, “who’s who.” He had everything a first-century Jew could want, and he gave it up to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah of God’s people. All his attachments, his friends, his life was overturned. He gave up the equivalence of a being a wealthy, tenured seminary professor to be a wandering missionary who suffered for Christ. Yet in the midst of this he maintained hope. That hope was tied to the resurrection, the new world that was breaking in.
After speaking of what he gave up, Paul talks about that new world in Philippians 3:20-21. He reminds them that their “citizenship is in heaven.” This is not some “pie in the sky when we die” encouragement, a call to pretend like nothing on earth matters because one day we will go to heaven. Paul’s hope is in the coming resurrection. It’s not just that we will one day have new bodies, as wonderful as that is. The final resurrection will be complete when Jesus will “subdue all things unto Himself.” Paul could face the loss of his old world because he was prepared for the world that was coming.
What then, can we learn about preparing for the coming world?
First of all, the world as it is will not remain. Death brought evil into the world and it has been running down ever since. We will all age, earthly beauty fades, and we can only slow the process. It was for love that God didn’t allow Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of life after they sinned, for that would have locked them in this world as sinful creatures forever. Corrosion is a product of the fall, and to be sad when we see it is to acknowledge what is right. But decay is not the end and we should never mourn without hope.
Second, remember our heavenly citizenship. When you entered into God’s family, you left the old world behind. Being citizens of heaven means we yield ourselves and our attachments to our Maker, the one who providentially cares for us, who gives and takes away. Suffering is when God allows us to face evil, either through loss, decay, or sin. Suffering is a reminder that the old world is not yet restored, and through suffering God graciously reminds us that we are citizens of the new world, the one just breaking in. We don’t like it because it hurts; we feel the pain deeply. But this is a part of our preparation.
Recently, a friend was talking about how we prepare to reign with Christ. He said that God prepares us through suffering. It’s not the triumphant display of going from victory to victory. It’s facing trials and rejoicing in them. It’s enjoying God’s blessings, thanking Him for them, and continuing to thank Him when they’re gone. This is the lesson from the lives of Job, Jacob, Joseph, Daniel, Jesus, and Paul. Every time we face it, He is preparing us for the world to come. While we don’t see it, we are being filled with the weight of glory.
This doesn’t mean we merely wait for the coming world. The language of Peter, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament writers is that the new world is already breaking in. Every time we worship God, when we put sin to death, love our neighbor, and sacrifice our desires for the good of someone else, God is using us to bring a little bit of the new world into this one. We aren’t just waiting for it; we’re participating in it.
Though we may not die for our faith as Paul did, we will suffer. It may look like death wins in the end, for as we age, we will face this enemy more and more until the time we confront it directly. But that’s not the end. One day the evil of the world, even death itself, will be destroyed. The resurrected saints will see and enjoy the world promised from the beginning. All that is good, true, and lovely will be restored to glory and we will see how all our suffering was actually preparation for the world to come.
Matt Carpenter is the Associate Pastor at Trinity Reformed Church. He taught history for fifteen years and has served in pastoral ministry for eleven years. He is married to Amanda and they have four children: Phoebe, Simeon, Emmaline, and Olivia. In his spare time he enjoys cooking, reading, hiking, and fishing.
 I’m thankful to Gage Crowder for this insight.