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Fixing our eyes on the unseen

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Fixing our eyes on the unseen
Posted on May 6, 2020  - By Ethan Merck

Where can I find stability in an unstable world?

To be alive means near-constant change… Today, that change includes COVID-19. Tomorrow, there will be more changes still: happy ones and painful ones. Where can I find a stable place to stand, a place to rest my soul even in the face of hardship and loss?

Jobs, marriage, money, health — none of these will do. None of them are guaranteed, and I can’t take any of them with me in the end either. To build a life, to rest a soul, I need something more permanent.

“Something more permanent” is exactly what the apostle Paul had in mind as he wrote to believers in Corinth 2,000 years ago:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day… 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Two kinds of things

Understanding Paul’s distinction here between seen and unseen things is foundational for living the Christian life. He says that only by fixing our eyes on unseen things can we keep from losing heart, and instead be renewed inwardly day by day.

We tend to think of spiritual realities as misty and ethereal, and physical things as more solid, but Paul says here the opposite is actually true! It is unseen things that are more solid and dependable — because they are eternal.

We tend to think of spiritual realities as misty and ethereal, and physical things as more solid, but Paul says the opposite is actually true

Far from being a one-time mention, Paul refers to this framework of seen and unseen things throughout his writings. In other places, Paul calls these two dimensions the earthly and heavenly realms, and the natural and the spiritual.

Once you start to see them in Paul’s writings, they are everywhere. You will start recognising unseen things in John’s and Peter’s writings as well, in the book of Hebrews, and throughout the Old Testament.

What does Paul have in mind?

Unseen things in Paul’s writings mostly have to do with the gospel, and our union with Jesus as believers. In our passage from 2 Corinthians, unseen things include the Spirit helping us manifest the life of Jesus in our mortal bodies, and our hope of an immortal body at the resurrection.

Here are some more examples:

  • “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
  • “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

These two verses sound incredible, but one of the first things we may notice is that they don’t make literal physical sense! There is no apparent change in our bodies at conversion, and Paul didn’t die physically on the cross with Jesus.

These truths, then, are describing something we can’t see; they are unseen realities.

Though we may struggle to understand what Paul means by us dying with Christ and becoming new creations, these are opportunities to take God at His Word. God sees these things, even though we do not at present. And according to Him, these spiritual realities are more permanent and dependable than the things we can see.

Because He has told us how important they are for our Christian lives, we can trust Him to give more understanding over time as we seek it.

What is at stake?

The story of Jesus that people are most familiar with is centred around seen things: how Jesus lived in the flesh and died in our place as a spotless lamb. But the gospel also has inner workings. It is a romance in two dimensions.

The unseen dimension is where our eternal change of being has taken place at conversion, forming the basis of all other ways God is transforming us in space and time. The heavenlies are where we have become located “in Christ”, enveloped in Him as the source of both our standing before God and our actual ability to live righteously.

When Christians miss this ordering of significance in the Word, seen realities like our life circumstances begin to feel most real.

When Christians miss this ordering of significance in the Word, seen realities like our life circumstances begin to feel most real

We focus on trials and present struggles, our failings and sin, and our weakness in the flesh — trying to understand these as of first importance. We try to compensate for that creeping feeling of “not being enough” by looking for success in ourselves, our possessions and our relationships.

But God’s complete salvation flows into our lives from the permanence of the unseen — heavenly realities taking over the earthly.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Colossians 3:1-4

I pray this article will motivate you to start looking for more of these truths in the Bible yourself. Start with Paul’s letters, taking note especially of things that do not make physical sense.

Wrestle with these passages, meditate on them, pray them back to God, and ask for His help to re-orient your thinking and approach to living around them. Because they are more concretely and permanently real than the physical world you can see.

They are God’s gift to build your life on.

Ethan Merck

About Ethan Merck

Ethan is a cross-cultural consultant who has lived in a number of major cities across Asia. He has served on staff at three churches, including one he helped plant. Some of his hobbies are reading, hiking, ultimate Frisbee, drawing, and exploring the gospel in all of life. Find him on Instagram at @insidethegospel.



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