Holiness: Are you dressed for heaven?

Every occasion has its own appropriate dress code.

Imagine a work friend casually informs you he is getting married, telling you to expect a formal invitation in the mail. Within a few days the invitation arrives, but distracted opening bills, you glance only the date, time, and location. To make matters worse, you then misplace the invitation. No need to worry, though, your friend is widely perceived as easy-going , a kind of ‘come as you are’ guy. So, based on your informed intuition, you arrive suitably attired. But instead of the informal gathering you expected, you encounter a strictly suit and tie affair. Surely this must be the wrong wedding? But no. The tuxedo-clad attendant informs you that this is, indeed, the wedding of your friend. Moreover, the attendant examines your casual attire and politely informs he is unable to allow you to enter. You try to reason with him that the groom is a good friend and he would understand if I were under-dressed. But your plea falls on deaf ears and remorselessly you are turned away.

Yes, appropriate clothing is important. In fact, in the Bible clothing is often used as a metaphor to describe the appropriateness or otherwise of a person’s standing before God, as these examples from the Psalms reveal: ‘Let them be clothed with shame and dishonour who magnify themselves against me!’ Ps 25:26 and again, ‘Let your priests be clothed with righteousness, and let your saints shout for joy.’ Ps 132:9.

Extending the application of this metaphor, did you realize that heaven also has a dress code? To get in, one has to be dressed in appropriate garments! But before we consider the practical implications of this statement, it is first necessary to ground such a claim theologically, by turning our attention to the, seemingly unrelated, subject of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the resurrection of Jesus, something truly unique happens: Jesus Christ becomes the first human being ever to be resurrected into a new bodily form. Jesus’ body was not resuscitated or reincarnated. This is not simply the ‘same old’ Jesus back from the dead, like his friend Lazarus. This risen Christ is Jesus transformed or reconstituted with an ‘entirely new form’ of body—a body fitted for another dimension of existence. Paul hints as it when he says, ‘…the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality.’1Cor15:53.  Jesus’ resurrection body is a body fitted for an eternal existence in God’s new creation reality; fully spiritual yet fully physical—able to eat fish, yet walk through walls! Indeed, the resurrected body of Jesus represents the first case in which God’s power has not only conquered the power of death, but has radically transformed the nature of human life.

The resurrection of Jesus now opens up an entirely new possibility.

Of course this concept is not lost on the apostle Paul, with its resultant relevance to Christian life and morality. He specifically addresses it in 2 Corinthians, and unsurprisingly, does so by way of a clothing metaphor. As we know, for Paul, the Christian is deemed to be ‘in Christ’; united with Christ through faith, their old life has been crucified with him and their new life shares in his resurrection victory over sin and death (albeit in an incomplete provisional manner).

In his understanding, the Christian’s earthly existence is destined to give way to a heavenly existence (2Cor5:1), and consequently argues that we groan (as a woman might in the travail of childbirth) in our earthly existence longing, ‘…to be clothed in our heavenly dwelling…so what is mortal may be swallowed up in by life.’ (2 Cor 5:4)  This, of course, is entirely the work of God, who, uniting us with the resurrected Christ, has, ‘…given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.’ (2Cor5:5).

This new creation existence, which is ours ‘in Christ’, is provisionally available through the Spirit’s indwelling empowerment, which enables us to be transformed into the likeness of Christ.  

This naturally translates into a practical life of obedient conformity, as Paul infers, ‘So we make it our goal to please him… For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2Cor5:9-10). Because the Christian is destined to give an account to Christ on the ‘last day’ for their life, they should see their new life in Christ, not simply as theirs to use as they see fit, but a life given for Him. For Paul, this is not merely a moralistic life driven by dutiful fear, but as he further intimates, a life compelled by Christ’s love. As such the Christian, ‘… should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.’ (2Cor5:15).  Notice here the link between Christian obedience and Christ’s death/resurrection!

Now, having presented his argument, he beautifully summarizes it with this powerful statement, ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.’ (2Cor5:17) Do not underestimate the significance of this profound statement. Christ is the firstborn of the new creation through his resurrection. Therefore, if anyone is ‘in him’ they are also a ‘new creation’; they also share in this new existence, this new reality initiated through the resurrection, provisionally granted through the deposit of the indwelling Holy Spirit and anticipated in all its fullness, by the same.  

In short, the Christian ‘now’ belongs to a new existence, an existence pre-empting eternity in a new heaven and new earth. Consequently, their present moral ‘clothing’ should necessarily reflect that current ‘new’ state and ultimate destiny.

Consequently, the focus of the Christian’s life should no longer be the sordid moral adornments of this fading world, but the righteous garments of heaven. This is why Paul applies the clothing metaphor to Christian morality repeatedly in his epistles, as this example from Ephesians indicates, ‘… put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph 4:22-24) For Paul, then, God-like holiness is the dress code of heaven ; it is the only suitable attire for those with a hope of residing in God’s eternal abode.

Oh yes, and don’t just think this notion is exclusively Paul’s; the apostle Peter also has something to say on this matter too.

Peter views Christian morality in the light of the apocalyptic end of the world. Noting that when the Lord returns, the current created order will be dissolved, and in light of this, the Christian should live accordingly, ‘ Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness…’(2 Pet 3:11) He embellishes the former statement by speaking of  the righteous nature of the new creation, and the resultant morality of its intended inhabitants, ‘But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.  Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. (2 Pet 3:13-14)

So then, these apostles are in agreement, holiness is the only suitable dress code for those destined for the new creation.

For the longest time, many Christians have misunderstood holiness because they have been approaching it through the matrix of Old Testament law. This has generally led to two outcomes: Either, a legalistic duty driven morality characterized by constant failure and chronic guilt, or a frustrated abandonment of the former morality and a life resigned to carnal living, as the only apparent alternative.

Have we been looking in the wrong place for the basis of holy living? Instead of looking back to the Mosaic Law, we should be looking forward, through the lens of the resurrection of Jesus, to the new creation. If we fix our hearts on our destined heavenly abode of righteousness, I am certain that our practical obedience and morality, under the promptings and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, would soon fall into line with it. Indeed, through the finished work of Christ and the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, we have the all the resources we need to actualize the potential holiness that the apostles fervently encourage.

Now, let me conclude with a challenge from a parable of Jesus; that ‘this holiness’ the apostles encourage, is not something we approach on our own terms.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus relates the Kingdom of Heaven to a banquet given by a king—the wedding feast for his son. The invitation goes out to the guests that everything is ready and they should come. Many ignore it, simply going about their business, and others actively mistreated the king’s messengers, even killing some! In response, the king rightly meters out justice against the murderers. Ignoring the initial invitees, the king then graciously extends an invitation to anyone and everyone; both good and bad. The wedding hall is filled to the brim. But when the king entered the banquet hall he noticed a man inappropriately dressed, ‘And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ (Matt 22:12) The man had no excuse. In response, ‘… the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’  (Matt 22:13)

Just because a person has been extended the grace of God and responded to God’s offer of salvation does not imply they can presume on that grace and simply enter into heaven without paying due attention to the moral dress code that should accompany such an offer of grace. We enter into God’s banquet on His terms, not ours! This is why the author of Hebrews offers such a stern warning, ‘Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.  See to it that no one misses the grace of God…’ (Heb 12:14-15)

Friends, whilst such a sober warning is necessary in order to grasp the consequences of indifference toward God’s grace, I am confident it need not give us cause for alarm if we firmly fix our eyes on our heavenly destiny, through the lens of our union with our resurrected saviour, and the reality of the new creation that is ours ‘in Him’.

For when we capture heaven’s true greatness and wonder, and the wondrous means through which we attain it, we will embrace God’s holiness with great eagerness and an ever increasing hunger; willingly preparing ourselves for our new home and the warm welcome awaiting all those appropriately dressed for such a grand occasion.

So, start dressing!

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