Laying a loved one’s body to rest in the grave brings to mind all sorts of contrasts and a sense of inescapable change. Reflecting on the funeral of the late Queen Elizabeth, so much that was familiar is no longer here, and we are reminded that however gilded anyone’s life here has been, they still encountered difficulties and sorrows of one form or another. So is that the end, or are things any better in the afterlife? The burial service of the Church of England commits the deceased’s body to the grave, “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Who can legitimately take comfort from this “hope,” and what are we “hoping” for anyway? In the following updated extract, Alexander Nisbet reflects on the words of the apostle Peter in his first letter to distressed believers. To encourage and motivate them Peter tells them, “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to His abundant mercy, has begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for His people.”
Not death and despair, but life and hope
When we are regenerated it is “unto a lively hope” (verse 3). Before the Lord makes this powerful change in sinner, we are altogether without any true or well-grounded hope of a better life than this. But those who have been born again – given a new life and new nature from the Lord in regeneration – they have been given with it this grace of hope. This is what allows them to keep up their hearts in expectation of all that the Lord has promised.
If we have been born again, we have a “lively” hope – a hope that enlivens us to use all the means to attain what we hope for, and to keep ourselves free from everything inconsistent with being born to such great hopes. And the basis for this hope is “the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (verse 3). What keeps our hope alive is that after Christ died for us, He rose again as a conqueror. His resurrection is a testimony that He has fully discharged all our debt, and a guarantee that we will rise with Him and share with Him in the possession of all that He has purchased in our name.
Not uncertainty and futility, but a guaranteed inheritance
All who have been born again have a matchless inheritance to look for at the end of their lives. It is both excellent in itself and guaranteed to them.
What are its excellences? One is that nothing in itself is going to allow it to decay. A second is that nothing from outside it can stain its beauty. And the third is that it will remain to all eternity in all its glory. It is “incorruptible, and undefiled, and fadeth not away” (verse 4). All of these are sweetened by the fact that it is safely kept in store for them, in a place beyond all hazard. Its is “reserved in heaven for you” (verse 4).
So if you want to keep your heart in a praising disposition, and if you want to be steady and cheerful in adhering to the truth of Christ notwithstanding sufferings, then you must have your hearts absorbed with considering the excellence of the portion which is coming to you beyond time. In this way you will pay less attention to the afflictions that come by the way, and you will despise the pleasures of sin, and you will be able to stomach all the difficulties involved in holiness.
Not a thing, but a person
And what is this inheritance anyway? It is nothing else but the Lord Himself blessed for ever, enjoyed by His people to all eternity. He is called “the inheritance” of His people (Psalm 16:5-6). He is “incorruptible” (Romans 1:23). He is “undefiled” (Hebrews 7:26). He “fadeth not away” (Psalm 102:27).
Not earned, but a family inheritance
This heavenly inheritance does not come to the regenerate by their own purchase or procurement, but by virtue of their sonship. They are made sons as soon as they are united to Christ (John 1:12). This has been purchased for them (Ephesians 1:14), and He has left it to them in legacy (John 17:24). He lives for ever to be the executor of His own testament (Hebrews 7:25). So far from being merited from any of them, it falls to them by lot – it comes by heirship, left in legacy.
This blessed state is made very sure and certain for the regenerate. From eternity it has been decreed by judicial sentence to come to them (Matthew 25:34). In time it has been secured to them by the promise of the faithful God (John 6:40). And even now it is possessed for them in their name by their surety and covenant head (Hebrews 6:19-20). It is “reserved in heaven for them.”
Not yet fully in possession, but ready to be revealed
As the inheritance of the regenerate is kept in heaven for them, so they are “kept by the power of God” for it (verse 5). The power of God in making them persevere works principally by giving them faith to rest on His word (the word of Him who is faithful and able to save to the uttermost), and keeping this faith in life and exercise, providing it with necessary supplies. The power of God keeps believers “through faith.”
Because it is not yet apparent to the saints what a blessed inheritance is coming to them. The reason why they do not now have their inheritance in full possession is not because it is not ready for them (for it is purposed for them, Matthew 25:44, and brought to them, Ephesians 1:14, and possessed by Christ in their name, John 14:2) but because they are not ready for it.
Indeed, they will not be ready until the full number of the elect are brought in (Revelation 6:11), and every one of them brought to their full stature in grace (Ephesians 4:13). Both these things can be furthered by the prayers and endeavours of those who long to be in heaven.
But the particular time when they shall be put in possession of their heavenly inheritance is fixed. The marriage day between Christ and His bride is fixed, and it will take place at the time that is fittest and happiest for them. The day cannot be far off now, for these days of ours are the “last times” (verse 5). The bodies of the saints who are alive now will not have to sleep long in the dust.
Not heaviness, but great rejoicing
Sad-hearted sufferers the regenerate may sometimes be. But Peter provokes them to more spiritual joy and praise, noting that already they are rejoicing from considering their beautiful inheritance and their other spiritual privileges, and exhorting them to continue in it. “Wherein ye do (or, do ye) greatly rejoice” (verse 6).
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