At one time, I had a better body than the one I’m wearing now. Actually, it was this one—just newer, faster, stronger. There’s a picture of it in my mind’s eye: I’m 23 and lean, powering forward yet going nowhere, on a treadmill in my parents’ house in upstate New York. My grandpa is there watching and teasing me about the futility of this ridiculous athletic equipment. He sits with a geriatric slouch in an upright lawn chair, his body running out of time.
In an earlier scene, years before that, I’d be the one watching—wiggly, three feet shorter, and keeping my corduroy bottom planted atop a Toro lawn mower, as Grandpa joked with a customer in his small motor repair shop. His mind was sharp, his fingers dexterous, his eyes crinkled from the mileage of a million laughs. I wanted to be just like him.
Now Grandpa is away, absent from his body but present with the Lord. Though he is, no doubt, abounding in joy in the realm of angels and departed saints, he waits. Like all who’ve fallen asleep in Christ, he is not yet what he will be. He is among those who have died, longing for his body to return in glory. Longing for resurrection.
It may sound a bit odd, but the dead in Christ are incomplete. They wait, as we do, for the last trumpet blast. It’s a mystery, promised to happen in the twinkling of an eye—bodies reanimating from the grave and rejoined with their heavenly spirits in the air. Those of us who are alive at Christ’s return will tarry just long enough to see their feet, and then we, too, will lift off—to be changed. Bodies meant for decay will be exchanged for those that are imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:51-53), built for eternity just like Christ’s final, perfect form (Phil. 3:21).
Preparations for Eternity
Sometimes I try to see heaven. I squint, imagining the confluence of millions of sanctified spirits in the presence of God. By faith in the risen Christ, I know that my death will take me there also. Yet it seems so foreign, so indiscernible. Life in the body I understand, but this spirit-reality is a strange, sometimes uncomfortable thing. Maybe that’s why we think of it so seldom, especially when we’re young.
Perhaps the daily, worsening failures of an aging body made Grandpa homesick for heaven in a way I haven’t experienced yet. Though he didn’t talk about it, it’s likely that dying was on his mind when he booked that long flight from Vancouver, Washington, to see us in Syracuse, New York. He still had that whimsical glint in his eyes, as if he was brewing up a joke about to brim over, yet his outer self was wasting away. His clothes draped loosely over his thinning body, his back stooped, and he shuffled when he walked.
But aging prepares us for eternity only insofar as it sharpens our desire for Christ. The apostle Paul tells us that God’s will for us is our sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3). Through daily submission in the Holy Spirit, we become more Christlike—counting “all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing [Him as Lord]” (Phil. 3:8). It makes me think of Psalm 42:1-11 and the image of the deer panting for flowing streams of water. Does that describe the panting of my soul for God? If it did, perhaps heaven would seem nearer.
I wish Grandpa had made more of our time together, that he would have shown me more, that he would have marveled with me at the power of the resurrection and the mystery of Christ in us. His aging, creaking body might have been his greatest object lesson, used to show me that the days are meant for preparation. “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Here there is a comforting alignment between Paul’s first and second clause—though our affliction in the body can seem difficult and unending, when set against the glorious and eternal reality of the life to come, it is cast as light and momentary. In fact, so great is the future of those Christ has ransomed that Paul says there’s no comparison between today and then.
The Consummation of All Things
There’s a reason so many movies and novels from the last century end with a wedding. Marriage is seen as the consummation of the central plot and a satisfying way to bring together a story’s supporting characters. God, the author of this institution, is Himself preparing an epic ceremony for His people. His loving pursuit completed, He’ll clothe our perfected bodies in fine linen, and the church will be wed to Christ.
Aging prepares us for eternity only insofar as it sharpens our desire for Christ.
Because our resurrected bodies will need a home, God will give us a new earth. The holy city—the new Jerusalem—will come down from heaven to us, and the dwelling place of God will be with the redeemed. God will dwell with us, and we will be His people (Revelation 21:1-4). What a day that will be.
Nearly 20 years ago on my own wedding day, I saw Grandpa in his earthly body for the last time. I was 29, and the marriage supper of the Lamb became a living metaphor for my wife Paula and me. Grandpa sat in a wheelchair on the end of the front row, his mouth drooping at the corners. It tore me up to see him there, knowing what he must have endured to travel so far on his own.
At the reception, Paula and I posed for photos, laughed with folks, and snuck in bites of cake. Then, too soon, our limo arrived. I raced to find Grandpa, knowing this was our final goodbye. But it was like running on a treadmill, and my effort got me nowhere. I couldn’t find him. So I gripped Paula’s hand, and grinned through my tears, as I walked bravely through the hail of rice. Grandpa’s physical presence was gone from my life, and we’d share just one last phone call before his funeral.
In the years since then, my body has grown paunchy and gray, with miles of laugh lines of my own. Though I’m not quite ready to leave this life, I look forward to knowing Christ in fullness someday. And increasingly, there are days and seasons I’m more aligned with Him, when the Spirit is ruling over my flesh and I can sense the work of God, preparing me and making me like Him. These moments are like a call from home, equipping me for the race and making me homesick for the promises to come. They remind me that I’m a delight to my heavenly Father, who takes pleasure in those who fear Him—who hope in His steadfast love.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft