Inch by inch, the case is gingerly lowered into the pit. The base disappears from view. And then the flowers atop the lid sink as well, their fragrance still lingering in the air. A final thud. The ropes are removed, and the earth is piled in. Tears are shed as we bid good-bye.
"Why did grandma leave us?" a little girl sobs.
"She didn't leave us, dear," her mother whispers as she wipes the tears from her daughter's cheeks. "Grandma has gone before us. She is now in the city above. One day, we'll meet up with her there."
The Bible says that it is better for us to go to the house of mourning rather than the house of feasting (Eccl 7:2). I was reminded of this verse during a recent memorial service. As I watched the abysmal descent of the casket, it reminded me that, one day, I would have to confront death alone, whether I liked it or not. We often push away such thoughts, morbid you may say, but that does not mean death will not strike. Death comes to everyone, young and old alike. As Christians, we know we will go to heaven, for the Bible says so. But still, deep down inside, we are scared. Scared to leave this familiar world. Afraid to be cut off from our loved ones. Fearful of entering an unknown world. After all, we are human still, no matter how much faith we claim to possess. We all hope to live in this world as long as possible. It makes me wonder too, when will it be my turn? When will my soul be required of me? When will my body be made to lie in a box, and be buried into oblivion in the earth beneath?
The Earthly Tent
Oftentimes, in life, we find that we are merely sojourners in this world. We are constantly wandering in search of, but never finding, the true meaning of life. We find ourselves caught in the mundane routine of life, living day after day in a monotonous existence. So predictable. So boring. We seek for "permanence" in our friendships. We hope to secure a "permanent" job. We wish to "live happily ever after" with our newly wedded spouse. We work hard to service the mortgage of a "permanent" house to raise our children. We have an endless list of wants, wishes and desires. It seems that security in life is measured by all these material things, and that our anxiety will be replaced by happiness once we become "successful," so to speak. Yet in the grand scheme of things, we know that nothing is permanent in this world, for there are many factors in life that are way beyond our control. We become frustrated because we are held captive by the curse of mortality. Though we seem to possess freedom and liberty, yet in fact, we are wrapped up in a cocoon of worldly obligations and false hopes.
Since we live a life characterized by transience, what then, is the true hope of our life? The apostle Paul exhorts,
For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee (2 Cor 5:1-5).
Our true home is not this earthly tent we now dwell in, but rather, it is in the eternal mansion above. That is where our souls yearn to dwell forever. But for us today, how can we see this invisible city, the city "whose builder and maker is God" (Heb 11:10)? The author of Hebrews says that it is "by faith" in God that we can see. For we "do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2 Cor 4:18). As Christians, "we walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor 5:7).
Praise the Lord! If God did not mercifully raise us to new life through faith in Jesus Christ, we would have nothing to look forward to but death. As we pass through life, our outer person may be aging everyday, but as Christians, we have assurance for we know whom we have believed (2 Tim 1:12). Our hope is in the living Godâ€”Jesus Christâ€”the Lord of Resurrection and Saviour of all humankind. Only in Jesus is the way to the heavenly kingdom, for He is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6). God has given us the precious Holy Spirit His Spiritâ€”so we know for sure that heaven exists in reality. The Holy Spirit is our pledge for entering the heavenly city. Therefore, we have full confidence of our heavenly inheritance (Eph 1:13-14).
Jesus Dwells among Us
Today, the Lord Jesus makes His abode among us by the Holy Spirit He gives us. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Himself; He is the "river whose streams shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacle" (Ps 46:4). The Holy Spirit is mercifully showered on the True Jesus Churchâ€”the "city of God" in this world. Individually speaking, the Holy Spirit dwells within each member. He is our Counselor and Helper as we journey in life. Do we, the members of the True Jesus Church, realize that the Holy Spirit is our utmost treasure in life?
Let us learn from the parable of the ten virgins (Mt 25:1-13). Five of them were wise. Not only did they take flasks of oil with them, they continued to trim their lamps as they awaited the bridegroom. They were ready and their lamps were found shining when the bridegroom came. Thus, they made it to the wedding banquet.
Today, are we like these five wise maidens who constantly watch over the level of "oil" within ourselves? If we have yet to receive the Holy Spirit, do we feel the urgency of fasting and praying for it? Are we convinced that we can no longer live another day without the Holy Spirit, and will not stop pleading to God until He fills us? For those of us who have been anointed with the Holy Spirit, what is the level of "oil" within us? Is it boiling hot, at room temperature, or freezing cold? Are we truly praying for the Holy Spirit to fill us completely, or have our prayers become mechanical, devoid of feeling, just another one of those daily routines? Can we feel the vibrancy of God's presence at work in us, and with us? Let us not be like the five foolish maidens. God cannot be mocked (Gal 6:7). He knows those who are true to Him.
However, salvation is not just about working on ourselves, it also entails working for the salvation of those around us. God wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves; this is the reason why He preserves our lives today. God desires that we deny ourselves so as to spread the life-saving gospel to the world. We have a lot of work to do. "The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few" (Mt 9:37). Let us not waste our lives. Our dollars will not buy us a mansion in the celestial city above. Our Mercedes Benz will not drive us to the heavenly gate. Our Ph.D. degree cannot even be a piece of wastepaper on heaven's spotless streets of gold. If you truly think about it, all these material pursuits that you strive after is only good for this worldly life. Let us not be too attached to them. Be wise. For when death knocks we have to put down everything. At that moment, only one question remains: Am I saved? Am I ready to face my Lord Jesus, the Lord of judgment?
But then again, death does not come easily to Christians. We do not deserve our eternal rest in heaven unless we have toiled hard enough for our Lord in this world today. How can we face our Lord if we have not won any souls to His kingdom? Really, how can we deserve to die unless we have lived? Therefore, "if we live we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's" (Rom 14:8). And no wonder Paul yearns with all his heart: "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better" (Phil 1:21-23). Where does Paul gain his confidence over death? From knowing that God's promises are true, since he has been taken to the third heaven and "heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter," because they were too sacred (2 Cor 12:4). The city above is holy, for God is holy. And in order to be a citizen of this Holy City, we have to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).
With this mindset, we ought to realize the true meaning of our existence in life which is to sow the seed of the gospel of salvation, and to save the many "homeless" souls out there. We have no excuse, for we are equipped with the tools that God has given usâ€”His word, His blood and His Spirit. Therefore, in church, let us not bury the talents that God has given us. He has granted us individual gifts to help out with the work in church. If we cannot identify what we can do for God, we can at least pray. Each and everyone of us plays a significant role in church. Let us be faithful and humble servants as we work together to glorify the name of our dearest Lord. Let us help one another as we climb the stairway to heaven together, for we have a glorious city above that is awaiting our entry.
The City Above
The city above is the temple of the Holy Spirit, a spiritual city existing beyond the three-dimensional realm (Rev 21:10-22:5). She is the city of the eternal Sabbath, the abode of supreme peace, serenity and tranquility. She embodies the peace that is attainable with one's complete submission to God; a haven for those who have overcome the storms and tides of the earthly pilgrimage. She will be made ready for the inhabitation of the faithful ones whose terrestrial pilgrimage culminates in a place where "And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying; and there shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away" (Rev 21:4). Every weakness that entangles and burdens the frail body is discarded and every wound of the soul is healed. Evil no longer reigns and all wretchedness of the soul is entirely gone. "So the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away" (Isa 51:11).
In his book The City of God, Augustine (A.D. 354-430) makes a distinction between two cities:
Jesus is the crown of all our unceasing vision, endless love and tireless adoration. He is the consummation of all joy and paean of praise. Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the sole love of our life and the strength of our days. As Christians, we live for Christ, and we die for His kingdom. We are not "wandering sojourners" who know not where to go, nor do we lead a "mundane existence" in this world. Ours is "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Pet 2:9). This is where we stand.
Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, "Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head." In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all. The one delights in its own strength, represented in the persons of its rulers; the other says to its God, "I will love thee, O Lord, my strength." (Saint Augustine, The City of God, transl. Marcus Dods [New York: Modern Library, 1993]: 477)
My beloved brothers and sisters, let our spirits be set aflame by the Holy Spirit! Let us strive with all our might to multiply the citizens of the city of God in this world! Let us transcend the mortality of life and laugh in the face of death, "O death, where is your sting, O Hades, where is your victory?" (1 Cor 15:55). The greatest reward we can ever receive in life is when Jesus says to us, "Well done, good and faithful servantâ€¦enter into the joy of your Lord" (Mt 25:21). Such is the everlasting joy that is awaiting us in the city above where we shall forever "dwell in Your house; they will still be praising you" (Ps 84:4). Our reward is to "behold the beauty of the Lord" all the days of our eternal life (Ps 27:4). While we are still in this world, let us toil for our Lord with endurance. For when the hourglass of temporality is over, we shall be clothed with eternity. As we sojourn in this world, carrying with us our earthly tents, let our eyes be focused on our Savior, the Lord Jesus, and the glorious mansion He is preparing for us in the city above.
Jesus Christ, the Word of life, "became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (Jn 1:14). Apostle John refers to Lord Jesus as the "tabernacle" of God. Jesus also referred to himself as the temple: "But He was speaking of the temple of His body" (Jn 2:21). The word "tabernacle" is miskan in Hebrews, referring to the tent sanctuary of the Israelites in the Old Testament (Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1st ed., s.v. "tabernacle"). The tabernacle was a portable "house of God" which was transported wherever Moses and the people sojourned in the wilderness. At that time, God assured His people of His continued presence, "I will set My tabernacle among you, and My soul shall not abhor you" (Lev 26:11).
A meaningful life is one where we walk with God, "fear God and keep his commandments" (Eccl 12:13). On the other hand, a life of vanity is the lamentation of those who walk in their own ways, whose selfish pursuit of this world leads to their own destruction of body and soul. When we look at Enoch, he was transported to heaven without seeing death (Gen 5:2 1). The same goes for Elijah and Moses. One did not see death, as recorded in the Old Testament, while the other died and was buried by God. But both appeared with Jesus on the mountain of transfiguration in the New Testament (Deut 34:5-7; 2 Kgs 2:11; Mt 17:3). Death is therefore not fearsome, it is merely a transition for the faithful ones of God to a more glorious place.
Faith never knows where it will be led, but it loves and believes in the One who is leading. It is a life of faith in God that makes us "go," not intellect and reason, not wealth and statusâ€”but keeping a vision that is focused on Jesus alone and this faith will ultimately lead us to our true homeâ€”a glorious mansion in the city above that Jesus is preparing for us (Jn 14:2,3).