Abiding in the Doctrine of the Last Things
The seventh in a seven part series by Lora A. Copley
I hiked the Grand Canyon this past June, a 60,000-step trek with two first-time backpackers- my preteen girls. Oh, the tears, the whining, the drama! - and that all from yours truly.
Seriously, it was tough. You know what helped? My husband Joel, having hiked the Canyon two dozen times before, knew the path like the back of his hand. He knew how many switchbacks there are between the 3 Mile and the plateau. He knew when not to arrive at the Devil’s Corkscrew, and what to expect at Phantom Ranch.
Knowing what was coming made all the difference. The gift of the future came rushing into the present and gave perspective, wisdom, and hope. Knowing the “last things” of the trail kept us going.
When we consider what we are trekking through as a denomination, it’s daunting. The canyon walls are steep, the way rocky, the path narrow, the heat of criticism blistering, and companions are thinning out. None of this is easy. It’s not going to get any easier. Holding the sexual ethic that Christians have held for 2000 years is now seen, culturally, as hateful --something only persons of malice or madness hold. Who in their right mind stays on a path that gets you lumped with racists or anti-Semites?¹ I give up! Airlift me off this path of blood, sweat and tears, comes the tempting thought. Let the helicopter of capitulation² return me back to an air-conditioned lodge, with my craft beer and my feet up.
The Apostle’s Creed knows the path, like the back of its hand. It confesses four truths for our future --1) The King Returns, 2) the Body Rises, 3) Judgment Reckons and 4) Eternity Rewards. Each of these doctrines provides perspective and wisdom, grit and grace, for the path we are on.
What will keep us on this path—this lifetime path of faithfulness? What will help us- no matter the cost to reputation, relationship or career? What will form the old song upon our lips: “The world behind me, the cross before me. No turning back. No turning back.” ³
The doctrine of the Last Things will. The Apostle’s Creed knows the path, like the back of its hand. It confesses four truths for our future --1) The King Returns, 2) the Body Rises, 3) Judgment Reckons and 4) Eternity Rewards. Each of these doctrines provides perspective and wisdom, grit and grace, for the path we are on.
First: The King Returns.
The temptation of our lives is to rate ourselves as too important--as if life is about me and what I get out of it: my happiness, my relevance, my gifts. But there is a King! He’s our life. “When Christ, who is your life, appears, you also will…” (Col 3:4) Our life is about Him: His agenda, His approval and the words He entrusted to us.
What will I say to Him, when I greet Him upon his return, if I have been making his words say what I want them to say rather than what He actually said?⁴ What will I say, when I bow at those nail-pierced feet, if I have been helping people walk away from Him and His rule, by muddying what He made clear? If I bury His truth in my silence, will I hear silence instead of the longed-for “Well done?”⁵\
Second: The Body Rises
Sometimes people demur, why all this talk about sexual sins, when corporate greed, and gossip, and greenhouse gases are sins too? On the one hand, agreed --we must not shade any sin. We must be killing all sin, or sin will be killing us. But one reason we must talk about sexual sin -- one reason the HSR is so important-- is because of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Our bodies are eternally important. How we use them, equally so.
Jesus made our bodies. Purposefully. Jesus bought our bodies. Purposefully. Jesus will keep our bodies for eternity.⁵ We are not our own. Our desires and feelings are not more important than His design and ends. Because our matter matters-- and matters into the eschaton-- we marvel. And we keep being clear about sex and the body.⁷
Third: Judgment Day.
Sometimes we quake before the wrong Judgment Seat.⁸ We stay silent because we fear those in power-- cultural power or church power, or maybe most of all, family power. We stay silent because we’re afraid of the judgment seat of our kids or grandkids. Without diminishing the pain and strain (and called-for wisdom) when we find ourselves facing gavels from loved ones, we still recognize none of them sit on the ultimate Bench. If we love (or fear) any of these more than Jesus, Jesus deems we are not worthy to be called his disciples. (Mt 10:34-39)
This doctrine helps us see whose court we are in. It also helps us weigh the utterances we make. “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Mt 12:36-37
If every idle word is judged, how serious is the stewarding of all the words we say, and the Covenants we sign, along with the comments we post and the characters we tweet.
This trek of faithfulness demands all. We may drop, exhausted. But, praise God, this exhaustion has an expiration date. Ultimately, this struggle is just a blip of time. Yes, it’s a blip swollen with meaning and consequence, but we are still speaking of nanoseconds on the scale of eternity.
Soon and very soon, we will be before His throne and we’ll acknowledge that He is more than worth every sacrifice-- He’s worth “our life, our joy, our all.” He is our Home. He is our Husband.
The doctrine of eternity, of “Life Everlasting,” energizes our work in the Church because of Jesus’ love. How loved is the Church! She is being beautified so Jesus may present her to Himself. He scrubs her with fuller’s soap and the water of the Word. He prunes her with that same Word. He purifies her with refining fire. All this —the fire, the knife, the soap8 —means present pain for the Church. Yet we are assured that because the Church belongs to Him, the pain is purposeful. The path is not random. And the Church will last. She’ll make it. Maybe the CRC- as an institution- won’t. But Jesus will get His Holy Bride, and we’ll get Him -an end without end and a joy without equal.
Wonder, No Wonder.
No wonder John Calvin commends “meditation on our future life” as one of the practices of the healthy Christianity.⁹ No wonder Paul wrote “this one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward.” Phil 3:13-14.
It’s a wonder that all Jesus asks of us is to be faithful. We don’t have gain ovations or denominations. We just need to obey-- and follow. He took the faithful path before us. It got Him a cross (as it will for us too.) But his cross is our crown.
The doctrine of the Last Things, indeed all the doctrines of this 7-part series, provide us strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. Great is His faithfulness.
For 2023 and until the end, no turning back, no turning back.
1. The presidential remarks on the signing of the Respect for Marriage Act bill (12/13/22) is such. In the context of discussing opposition to the surgical alteration of children’s bodies, which even EU nations have pressed the brakes on, it was pronounced: “Folks, racism, antisemitism, homophobia, transphobia — they’re all connected. But the antidote to hate is love. This law, and the love it defends, strike a blow against hate in all its forms.” The conflation illustrated here troubles exceedingly.
2. Certain paths can only be taken-- and certain destinations only arrived at-- by foot. (The path to Supai in the Grand Canyon used to be one of them. The “Narrows” in Zion National Park is still one.) The path of Christian faithfulness will always be such a path. Helicopters and shortcuts only lead away from the destination Jesus has for us, never toward His ends. The only way is through – further up and further in. Cf Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
3. I Have Decided to Follow Jesus. Two notes: I was humbled when I heard folks sing this song in Native America. There was/is a cost to following Jesus for Navajo and Zuni believers. Yet the message came through: that when following Jesus is hard, we follow Him anyway. When holding fast to His words causes us to lose friends and cultural influence, we will yet sing “though none go with me, still I will follow.” Might it be that for those who have paid such a cost, their suffering is beautified with a more glorious crown?
It's been suggested we also sing “the world behind me, a crown before me.” In Scripture, this crown is preceded by endurance. “Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.” Rev 3:11 “Every athlete goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” 1 Cor 9:25
4. Rev. Clarence Macartney, in a memorable sermonic reply to Rev. Fosdick’s “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” entitled “Shall Unbelief Win?”, preached this very point: “No minister should preach or write a sermon which he would not be willing to place in the hands of Jesus should He appear in person.”
5 Luke 6:46 “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, but not do what I say?” AW Tozer warns of being a quasi-Christian: “quasi Christians follow a quasi Christ. They want his help but not his interference. They will flatter him but never obey him.” (A. W. Tozer, Warfare of the Spirit, 173.)
6. Cf 1 Corinthians 6, particularly vs 15-19—where all these truths are shown and sexual sins are distinguished as “sin against the body.” “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? … Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. … You are not your own; you were bought.” Bodily autonomy looks different in light of this verse and LD1.
7. Note: this doctrine of the resurrection of the body reaped much dialogue and journaling in my high-school Doctrine class. That chromosomes, including XX and XY, are resurrected and glorified, that there’s a scandal of particularity and glory within our bodies – foot size and melanin level – got us thinking. God gives us information about ourselves through the givenness (gift) of our particular body.
8. Zechariah 13:9; John 15:2; Malachi 3:2,3; Ephesian 5:26
9. Cf either Calvin, Institutes, III.9 or Calvin, The Golden Book of the True Christian Life. Chapter 4
PS Here’s a freebie, in case any reader is planning a Grand Canyon hike to the bottom, on the Bright Angel trail. Three tips, besides getting a Joel Copley to go with you. 1) Walking sticks. 2) Count out the 18 switchbacks from the plateau up to the 3 mile watering stop. Yes, count each one. 3) The hymn Higher Ground is secret sauce. As you make that 4,300’ ascent, and you think you can’t take one more step, just keep singing: “I’m pressing the upward way, new heights I’m gaining every day. A higher plane than I have found, Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.” Try it. So good.