“What happens to the believer after death?”

Brian Reynolds

Some Thoughts on 2 Corinthians 5

“He leadeth me beside the still waters” (Psalm 23).

OUR EARTHLY TENT

“He leadeth me beside the still waters” (Psalm 23).

“For we know that if our earthly tabernacle house be destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1).

What happens to a believer at death?1 In 2 Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul gives us one of the greatest and most comprehensive teachings on this subject that can be found in the Word of God. Let us briefly explore this wonderful chapter.

When writing to the two epistles to the Corinthian believers about their moral issues, fleshly strife, assembly disorders, and even bad doctrine, it is lovely to see how the Apostle Paul often uses these occasions to open up a whole panorama of heavenly light and truth. This is the case in chapter five of the Second Epistle. In the first four chapters of Second Corinthians, Paul had been describing the character and source of his ministry (sadly, the Corinthian believers had questioned his ministry!). He sums up the purpose and result of his ministry with, “so that death works in us, but life in you” (4:12). From there he launches into heaven and eternity: beginning with the believer’s resurrection (4:14), the contrast of the present, temporal afflictions with the eternal glory that is coming (4:17–18), and then a doctrinal truth describing the state of the believer at death and the hope of a resurrection body (5:1–8)!2

In verse one the apostle writes to them about the dissolution of our “earthly house, this tent.” These dear saints, who were over-indulging the flesh on one hand and had faulty views of the resurrection on the other, needed to hear this. He describes the present condition of our body as a “tent,” which means a non-permanent, temporary structure. We are waiting for a new body, “a building from God” which will be “eternal” and not temporary like our present “tent”! We “groan” in this body waiting for the “house which is from heaven” (5:2, cf. Romans 8:23). Here the word “house” means “an edifice which is the result of construction,” a solid permanent dwelling place in contrast with the “tent” in which we now live. What a hope!

CLOTHED WITH OUR HOUSE

For indeed in this we groan, ardently desiring to have put on our house which is from heaven; if indeed being also clothed we shall not be found naked…yet we do not wish to be unclothed, but clothed, that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:2–4).

In the above verses, the apostle turns now from the dissolution of our bodies to their future condition in glory. In doing so he changes the metaphor from a tent to clothing; we will be “clothed” with our “house which is from heaven.” He uses three terms to describe the state of man at death or at the Lord’s coming: “unclothed,” “naked,” and “clothed.”

When a believer dies he is in an “unclothed” condition waiting for the resurrection—it is a blessed state—indeed it is “far better” than our current one (Philippians 1:23); this is the intermediate state as noted above. But Paul also warns in this passage of the danger of being “naked.” This is the state of unbelievers when they stand before God at the final judgment. They will be raised bodily but in their sinful condition. They are naked because they will not be clothed in a robe of righteousness before God and will face the “second death.” The believer will be unclothed at death, but the unbeliever will be naked. Solemn difference!

However, the Christian’s ardent desire is not death but is that at some time in the future we will “put on” our resurrected and glorified bodies. This is an important point that Paul stresses in several of his epistles: The believer’s hope and desire is not death, or even going to heaven, but the transformation that will take place at the Lord’s coming and the resurrection of our bodies. The believer will be “clothed” as being part of the “first resurrection” (see 1 Corinthians 15, 1 Thessalonians 4 and Revelation 20). At that time “what is mortal” will be “swallowed up by life.” The Lord Jesus has so completely conquered death that in fact we may never be “unclothed” at all but at His coming will be transformed into glory without ever dying! This is the blessed hope of the believer and what we ardently “groan” for.

THE GUARANTEE

“Now He that has wrought us for this very thing is God, who also has given to the earnest of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 5:5).

It is as striking as it is important to consider how the Apostle Paul presents the Holy Spirit in connection with the future state of the believer. The term “earnest” means that the Holy Spirit is the “guarantee” of the blessings that are to come to the believer—especially in regards to the resurrection or “redemption” of the body. The fact that this word is used today in the modern form of the Greek to describe an “engagement ring” helps us to understand its meaning. It is a token of something wonderful to come!

This is not the only time that Paul says the Holy Spirit was given as an earnest of what is to come. In Ephesians he shows that after we believed in Christ we were sealed with the Holy Spirit, “who is the guarantee [earnest] of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession” (Ephesians 1:14 NKJV). The Holy Spirit is living in our hearts and gives us assurance that before long our bodies, along with our sinful tendencies, will be changed and we will receive our heavenly inheritance!3

Similarly, in Paul’s magnificent Epistle to the Romans, he writes that we, “who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, we also ourselves groan in ourselves, awaiting adoption, that is the redemption of our body” (8:23). The Holy Spirit is described as the “firstfruits” because He is given as a foretaste of what is to come—even the redemption of our bodies at the resurrection. How wonderful that we have a divine Guest who dwells within and encourages us. We “groan” because of these old “tents” in which we live (Romans 8:23; 2 Corinthians 5:2, 4), but a day is coming when these bodies will no longer give us trouble but be conformed “like unto His glorious body.”

AT HOME WITH THE LORD

“Therefore we are always confident, and know that while present in the body we are absent from the Lord…we are confident, I say, and pleased rather to be absent and present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6, 8).

We saw in the above thoughts that the ardent desire of the believer is to be “clothed” with a resurrection body. Being “unclothed”—the intermediate state between death and the resurrection—is never presented as the hope of the believer. However, Paul does show in this chapter (and elsewhere) that death before resurrection is nevertheless a blessed state. Consequently, in verses 6–8 he describes one of the ways in which the “unclothed” condition of the Christian is preferable to living in this world. He says that as long as we are in this body, we are absent from the Lord and conversely, when we are absent from the body we will be “present” with the Lord. There could be no clearer evidence of the precious fact that when we are in our “unclothed” state we will be consciously in the presence of the Lord. The word “present” here means “at home”4 and it is for this reason that when a believer dies we sometimes say he or she is “at home” with the Lord. Several years after Paul wrote these words he revealed this same truth to the saints in Philippi, yet in a much more personal way. He was in prison and facing execution but was torn between two options. On the one hand he desired to remain in this world in order to be a help to the saints; on the other hand he had “a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Philippians 1:23).5

FINAL THOUGHT

The bright prospect of the Christian is wonderful. Should we die before the coming of Christ we will be immediately be at home with the Lord. But this is not the end. Whether we are at home with the Lord, or still alive in this present world we are waiting for the “obtaining the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 2:14). Now that is a prospect! In fact, as Christians, we are to “boast” in this hope of coming glory (Romans 5:2, see in JND).6 A Christian once stated that he was very worried about what would happen in the future. Someone responded to him that, “A Christian has no future but glory.” Amen.

Notes