The Perseverance of the Saints

By Joanna Tien, Class of ’18

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In the New Testament, the Christian walk is often compared to a good fight, race, or an act of pressing on toward a goal (2 Timothy 4:7; Hebrews 12:1-2; Philippians 3:13-14). All of these metaphors correctly illustrate the reality that the Christian life is not a life of comfort but rather a life of struggle and perseverance towards an end. The Apostle Paul writes that the spiritually mature ought to think of the Christian life as a life that is filled with difficult circumstances and struggles which require spiritual discipline to overcome (Philippians 3:15).

It may seem tempting to focus on the negative or on the struggles and difficulty of living a genuinely Christian life, as such struggles are made explicit in Scripture and apparent even through mere observation. However, God also makes it clear in his Word that such suffering is not worth comparing with the future glory that will be revealed to Christians (Romans 8:18). In addition to that divine promise, God has also graciously revealed to us in Scripture information regarding the nature of our own shortcomings [1] and how to effectively overcome such struggles. The Christian life is indeed a race that ought to be run with spiritual endurance, but thankfully we can view that in a positive light because God has promised us with a heavenly reward and explicit instructions on how to persevere so that we may attain it. It is important that we know what this reward truly is because if we fail to genuinely know it, our desire to persevere will be severely affected. On the other hand, a proper understanding of the end goal God has promised us will serve as invaluable motivation for us to fight the good fight.

 

What are we Persevering Towards?

The end that Christians are persevering toward is being in perfect fellowship with God in heaven forever (Philippians 3:20-21; Romans 8:23-24). Since heaven is something that Christians hope for but cannot see while we are alive, it is important to have a correct biblical understanding of it, a misunderstanding of what heaven is like can seriously affect our resolve to endure suffering for it. One common misconception of heaven is that heaven is just an infinite expanse of white clouds and angels with halos above their heads. This view of heaven is extremely harmful because it makes heaven sound boring and undesirable, which then dampens our anticipation of our heavenly reward. And when our anticipation is dampened, so is our motivation to persevere in living a life that is glorifying to God.

Scripture makes it clear that heaven is quite the opposite of a bunch of white clouds and nothing else. Heaven is God’s central dwelling place[2], and as a place that is more glorious and satisfying than earth, heaven is also complex. The information regarding heaven that God has revealed through Scripture is not exhaustive, but such information and our faith in him ought to be sufficient motivation to persevere in anticipation of heaven. In Romans 8:23, Paul writes that there will be a time when our physical bodies will be redeemed and set free from the curse of sin. However, until then, there will be a separation of body and spirit when we go to heaven. Until God fulfills his ultimate plan to create unite the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:1), our spirits are immediately taken to be with God in heaven when we die (Luke 23:43). However, God is still committed to making the earth his dwelling place. Revelation 21 illustrates the beauty of the end goal vividly:

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. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 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. 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.”

 

Our communion with God and our lives on earth are often disrupted by suffering and pain, and our Father is keenly aware of the hardships we encounter in this sinful world. Only he is able to understand and bring about what would truly satisfy our souls for eternity, and true satisfaction rests in eternal, undisturbed fellowship with God. Thus, what this passage from Revelation describes is rightfully more desirable and exciting than the idea of heaven as an expanse of white clouds. The latter conception is unbiblical and wholly incorrect and the former reality comes from God.

Revelation 20 and 21 state that God will unite heaven and earth as the ultimate dwelling place for him and his people after Satan is defeated and the dead are judged. There will be a restoration and renewal of all physical creation (Romans 8:20-22). The physical things that God created are not inherently bad, as seen in the first two chapters of Genesis[3]. It is only bad because the entire world is corrupted by sin. We live in a broken world, but God promises us over and over again that we will be made new physically and spiritually in the new heaven and new earth (Philippians 3:21). Furthermore, Christians will have a perfected resurrection body that will not fail physically (Matthew 22:30; Romans 8:23)[4].

The view that heaven is boring, immaterial, and just a bunch of white clouds is not only refuted by the biblical truth that heaven will be physical; it is also refuted by the biblical truth that human beings will be engaged in activities that we will delight in (Matthew 25:23). Human beings were created to work since the beginning, as seen when God appointed Adam to take care of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15)[5]. We will feast upon “well-aged wine” and “rich food full of marrow” (Isaiah 24:6)[6] and continue to associate with our brothers and sisters whom we know from earth. But most importantly, we will worship God and be able to have perfect fellowship with Jesus Christ. We will see Jesus face-to-face and continue to ascribe glory to him for being the ultimate sacrifice (Revelation 22:3-4). The new heavens and new earth will be the full reversal of sin’s effects on creation after the Fall, and creation will be restored to its intended, perfected position. Human beings will be restored to their intended position of submitting to and having a personal relationship with God, and we will be eternally and maximally delighted in our rightful role of glorifying God. However, such a description of heaven is not intended to distract us from the obstacles we will encounter in this life. It is intended to provide us with hope in the midst of our struggles and reassurance that there is something greater than this world. And when we do encounter struggles, we ought to let them serve as a reminder that our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20).

 

The Obstacles in our Race of Endurance

Christians, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). The Apostle Peter reminds Christians about the importance of being careful in this sin-filled world because although the Holy Spirit has regenerated our spirit, we can still fall into sin. Loving the sin-filled world is one of the sins that can most effectively prevent us from cultivating the spiritual discipline to persevere towards our heavenly reward. The world and its desires will pass away, but  whoever does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2:17). Holiness comes from God and is part of his nature, which is why Hebrews 12:14 commands Christians to “Strive … for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Unrighteousness, then, comes from every individual if they give into external temptation (James 1:14-15). As John Calvin writes in A Little Book on the Christian Life:

Our minds, having been dulled by the blinding glare of empty wealth, power, and honor, can see no farther than these [earthly] things. And our hearts, burdened with greed, ambition, and lust for gain, can rise no higher than these things. In sum, our entire soul, entangled in the enticements of the flesh, seeks its happiness on earth.

 

As seen from these sources, loving the world is deplorable because we are putting our time, energy, hope, and love into things that never fulfill their promises and pass away. God, on the other hand, is eternally faithful and always fulfills his promises. A bigger issue, however, is that “there’s no middle ground between these two things: either earth must become worthless to us, or we must remain bound by the chains of extravagant love for it” (Calvin). Jesus famously stated that no one can serve two masters (e.g. God and money), because anything apart from God is so different, sinful, and unholy that no compromise is possible (Matthew 6:24). The Bible places humans in two categories: as either slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness due to the glaring differences between God and the sinful world (Romans 6:19). In other words, God’s righteous commandments and this world’s sinful standards are contradictory; thus, it is impossible to genuinely love both God and this world. Thus, falling deeper and deeper in love with this world means that we are also falling further and further from God. And if we are so enticed by this world that we denounce the one just God, then our eternal condemnation is deserved. In light of the fact that human life is like a vapor or mist due to its brevity (James 4:14), it is important for the reader to concern whether it is wiser to live in sin and suffer for eternity or suffer a little now and enjoy eternal glory[7].

Thankfully, God is gracious enough to send his Spirit to transform our hearts so that we can recognize our sinfulness and fight our love of this world. Sometimes the suffering we encounter is just the product of living in a sinful world, but other times God uses suffering to discipline our spirit from loving this world (Hebrews 12:3-11). It is through this suffering that we “conclude we should expect and hope for nothing other than trouble in this life, and that we should set our eyes on heaven where we expect our crown” (Calvin).

 

How do we Persevere?

The fact that God is able to use suffering for our sanctification and his glory does not always make suffering less painful, and there will be times when this world just seems a little too enticing. However, God has also graciously provided us instructions on perseverance in his Word, and he makes it clear that we ought to persevere well and not just make a half-hearted commitment to persevere. The Bible states that when we go to heaven, we will receive the rewards allotted to us depending on the deeds of our body, and we will have to give an account to God regarding what we have done on earth (2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:12). Therefore, it is important not only to persevere but also persevere well.

Since perseverance is linked to faith (i.e. we are more likely to persevere well when we trust in God and his promises), having stronger faith will help us persevere well. Thus, it is important to know how Christians should actively maintain steadfast faith. The author states that the mature in faith have trained themselves to distinguish between good and evil (Hebrews 5:14). It is not just enough to know the difference between good and evil; Christians need to actually exercise their faith—i.e. obey God’s commands as revealed through the Bible with the trust that God will remain faithful in fulfilling his promises.

The best way to identify what mature faith looks like is to examine the life of Jesus Christ. Hebrews 12:3 says to “consider”, or think carefully, about what Jesus has done. Indeed, the cross itself is the most important example of perseverance, as Jesus endured social opposition, betrayal, and gruelling physical torture because he trusted that the Father’s will of allowing Jesus’ suffering was righteous and perfect (Luke 22:42). In fact, Jesus has already done everything that God the Father is commanding us to do. He “endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). According to Hebrews 2:1, sincerely considering the life of Jesus is an extremely effective way to  prevent us from drifting away from God, as his life, death, and resurrection serves as our encouragement and model for what perseverance looks like in daily life.

Secondly, the Word of God has so many more examples and instructions regarding perseverance, and Christians ought to make a daily habit of reading Scripture to obtain the instruction and encouragement they need to fight sin. For example, persevering in anticipation of heaven is exemplified by Paul, who endured whippings, shipwrecks, sleeplessness, anxiety, hunger, and much more for the advancement of the Gospel (2 Corinthians 11:24-28). This was the same man who wrote, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Paul is an example of someone who trusted God’s promises so much that he was willing to righteously endure anything. His life, as well as the lives of other figures in the Bible, provide both encouragement and instruction regarding how we ought to persevere.

Another important facet of remaining steadfast in faith is to apply the understanding that being involved in a spiritual community is indispensable. Human beings were created to be in social relationships with one another—this goes all the way back to Genesis, when God stated that it was not good for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18). Hebrews 10:24-25 commands Christians to “stir up one another to love and good works” and continue to meet together for mutual encouragement. For Christians today, such a commandment is applied in our involvement in a local church. The local church is not only a community that will hold us accountable by continuing to point us to Christ, but it is a gathering place for Christians who have experienced all kinds of struggles to learn from each other and support each other in persevering together.

Finally, it is important to note that salvation and receiving our heavenly reward is not of our own doing. Rather, it was made possible through the sacrifice of the Son on the cross in the place of our sins and the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. The reader ought to be reassured that in addition to God’s past actions in making salvation possible, he is continually working in the present and the future to sanctify us (Philippians 1:6-7; 2:12-13). First Thessalonians 5:23-24 reminds us that “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it”, that is, sanctify us completely. Although salvation and future glory is not of our own doing, our actions do indicate the strength of our faith. In other words, we ought to show our faith by our works (James 2:18). In the context of perseverance, we ought to show our faith by knowing and following God’s commands to strengthen our spiritual discipline and have faith in him. In doing so, we will persevere well for the future heavenly glory that God has mercifully promised us.

 

“To sum up everything in a word: The cross of Christ finally triumphs in believers’ hearts—over the devil, the flesh, sin, and the wicked—when their eyes are turned to the power of the resurrection” – John Calvin

 

 

 

[1] Such as why Christians still sin and experience spiritual droughts.

[2] However, this is does not imply that God is less than omnipresent. Heaven is God’s central dwelling place in the sense that God’s sovereign will is carried out unopposed there, and God is manifest solely for good there.

[3] This is just one of the reasons why the view that heaven is a bunch of white clouds is heretical. God only condemns the physical creation because it is corrupted by sin, but God can and did create matter that he delights in.

[4] Many people have raised questions about the specific details of our promised resurrection bodies. The Bible does not go further than claiming that they will function perfectly. God is a faithful god, and he has shown that throughout the entire Bible. He will fulfill what he promises, and we ought to trust that as the only omnipotent being that exists, he knows how to create bodies that we will delight in.

[5] God has not provided specific details about what work we will do in heaven, but once again we ought to trust that he knows what will be most satisfying to us and glorifying to him.

[6] This expression from Isaiah is intended to serve as an expression of God’s bountiful provision in heaven and our enjoyment of it.

[7] Suggested by Theodore Ma.

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