“Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,” (2 Timothy 1:8-10).
It is more than passingly strange that people would persecute Christians for believing and teaching what Paul believed and taught. He calls on Timothy to not be ashamed of what he preached but to “share in suffering for the gospel” as he was suffering. From his remarks (written from his prison cell) in the last chapter of this letter he probably knew that his execution at the hands of the Roman authorities was near. It would be for preaching, among other truths, life and immortality, the very things Jesus brought to light.
In the text above he speaks of what Jesus did when he came into the world manifesting God’s “eternal purpose and grace.” He said that he “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” That was startling teaching so far as most people were concerned.
What is so offensive about these things Paul and Timothy taught that would cause people to persecute them? It very well could have been that the gospel preached by Paul was radically different from the beliefs of the Greeks whose influence had shaped the world of the apostolic age, specifically what he taught about the subject of death and immortality.
Immortality is immunity to death. One who is immortal cannot die. The Greeks and particularly the Platonists, believed in the inherent immortality of the soul. The body was mortal, entrapping the immortal soul and thus gladly dispensed with at death. According to their concept, the soul is immortal and will experience “salvation” at death by being freed from the body to go flying away to their concept of heaven. Thus, death was a friend instead of the “last enemy” of mankind. Regrettably this concept found its way into the teachings of the church over the years and variations of it are still widely accepted rather than what the Bible actually teaches.
When Paul says that Jesus “abolished death,” he didn’t mean that it was by embracing death. He abolished death by his resurrection. This is not speculative philosophy, but an historical fact as proven by the numerous witnesses to his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). He abolished death in the sense that he proved that it cannot hold man. He was the “firstborn” from the dead, (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5), meaning that there will be more – many more who will be raised to immortality.
For the present, however, death still holds sway over mankind. Death comes to man because of sin. It entered the world when Adam sinned. Spiritual death and physical death. Spiritual death because our own sin separates us from God who is the source of life. Physical death because we are still in the world where sin still exists and where death occurs on account of sin. Death occurs because we have not yet received immortality.
After elaborating on the truth of a future resurrection of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul gives out what might be called a “victory cry,” exulting in the assured prospect the resurrected life.
“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55).
By this historically established fact of his resurrection he brought life and immortality to light. This means that immortality applies not just to the disembodied spirit, but to the whole being of man, his body as well as his spirit. When we look at the resurrected Jesus we can see what immortality looks like. When we look at the resurrected Jesus we see what we will be like following our own resurrection.
The implications of this teaching are enormous. Starting with our own physical body, we conclude that God places great value upon it. Human beings were deliberately created by God because of his love and that creation declared to be “very good.” Rather than being a prison for the spirit, the body is intended to be a visible manifestation of the inward man, the spirit. It is the instrument of the spirit, and while it is continually in the process of decay that leads to death, it remains the means by which we serve and glorify God. Its value is also seen in the fact that it will be resurrected, albeit in a glorified form, to continue to be the immortal instrument of the spirit.
Biblically speaking, salvation is not deliverance from bodily existence, but the forgiveness of sin. The salvation God provides is for the whole being, body, soul and spirit. Paul’s benediction in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 shows this.
“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
No man and no part of man is inherently immortal. Paul in his doxology to his first letter to Timothy speaks of “our Lord Jesus Christ… who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:15-16). If we ever become immortal it will be because we have received it from him. Again, Paul explains that at the judgment God “…will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life…” (Romans 2:6-7). This will only occur at the judgment when the righteous and the unrighteous are separated according to their works.
“But,” someone says, “doesn’t the Bible say that Christians have eternal life before death?” The answer is an emphatic “Yes!” John said, “…this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” (1 John 5:11). Again just two verses later he says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:13).
But we must understand what is meant by the term eternal life in these passages as well as the word immortality. First, eternal life and immortality, while related ideas, are not identical in meaning. Eternal life means life that is unending. Immortality is the condition of not being capable of dying. One has eternal life in the ultimate sense of unending existence when one is immortal. If he were capable of dying he would not have eternal life. And yet there is a sense in which John and other NT writers used the term that obviously refers to a different kind of existence since these who were said to be able to know that they had eternal life.
To clarify let me ask, did those who possessed eternal life to whom John wrote ever die? If they did, then eternal life must mean something different from unending life in these verses. Think about what we know about the Christian’s of life. The life of a child of God is “in Christ” or living in a relationship with him who is eternal. The present Christian life being holy, it is also of the same character as the life we will live in our eternal home for nothing unholy can approach God who is altogether holy. It is characterized by the same kind of spiritual worship and service we render to God presently. Therefore the eternal life the Christian possesses is of the same quality as that for which we presently hope (Titus 1:2).
We will obtain eternal life in what might be called “quantity” at the last day. James said of this life…
“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12).
Jesus promised the crown of life (eternal life) to those who endure persecution “unto death.”
“Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10).
When do we obtain immortality? Is it not when we receive eternal life? Paul wrote in Romans 2:7 that at the judgment “…to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, [God] will give eternal life.” So while we possess eternal life in a sense here, there is coming a day when we will possess it in its fullness. Now we hope for that day and the reception of the gift of eternal life, but hope will end in realization.
“Oh! What a day, glorious day that will be!