Father, we now give you our full attention, as the word of God is being shared, we are here with open hearts and open ears, eager to receive that we might learn more about this topic that we all deal with or will soon one day all deal with. We pray that you would comfort us as we look forward to our future, that you would dispel ignorance and give assurance from your word. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Last week I told you about the Greek god Phanatos that was part of the discussion, and the ignorance of the early church. Phanatos was believed to be the god of death and yet, though people hated him they looked for all sorts of ways to cheat death, to escape death. And so there was a legend of a man who was walking through his city. And he came face to face with death. And as they passed each other, the creature Death looked at the man with a very surprised look but they passed each other without saying a word. Well, the young man who saw death went to his older wiser friend and said, "What does this mean?" And the older wiser friend said, "I think death will call on you and take you away tomorrow." The young man freaked out and said, "What do I got to do?" He said, "What you need to do is leave town. You need to get on your horse and ride as far away from here as you can." So the young man got on his horse and he rode all evening, all through the night til the next morning to a very distant town. He got off his horse in that distant town and he sighed with relief thinking, "I have eluded Death." Just then he felt a tap on his shoulder and he turned around and it was Death who said, "Excuse me, but I've come for you today." And the young many looked very surprised and he said, "But I thought I saw you yesterday in my own town." And Death said, "Exactly, that's why I looked at you so surprised for I was told you to meet you here today in this city."
You know it is interesting that as Christians we talk about living, Christian living, how to live the Christian life which is so important. We rarely talk about Christian dying, though it will be the fate of us all should the Lord tarry. And Paul found it necessary to do exactly that, to dispel the ignorance that was prevalent even in the early church. For in verse 13, Paul says, "I do not want you to be ignorant brethren concerning those who have fallen asleep." And we talked last week about all of the superstitious thought the Greeks and the Romans had that would influence the Thessalonian believers. And so, how do we as New Testament believers know with assurance what's going to happen? That's where Paul comes in, in verse 15 and says, "This we say to you by the word of the Lord." The only way we could ever pierce beyond the veil of death and know what's going to happen and have assurance is not by human superstition or imagination but by divine revelation. So the word of Lord applied to this area should give us assurance. It's certainly a topic we must deal with. For you know what the Bible says in Hebrews 9, "It is appointed to every man to die once and after this the judgment." Every single day 365,340 people are born on the earth. But every single day 147,276 people die. That means every second two people die, every hour 6,136 people die. And governments around the world are discovering that with this high birth and now death rate we have a problem: where do we put them all, where do we bury them all? They're running out of space to bury people. Down in Brazil one architect just came up with a cemetery that's actually a high-rise building, 130 140-some story building, that is capable of housing (get this) 147,000 corpses. That's the new cemetery, the high-rise. The real problem however isn't where to put people when they die, really the problem according to the Bible is where they go after they die.
So we turn once again to I Thessalonians chapter 4, a paragraph we began last week. And you should know that this is a section of the Bible that I at least refer to in just about every funeral service, because of the great comfort. Notice again, "I do not want you to be ignorant brethren concerning those who have fallen asleep lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, with the trumpet of God and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words."
Now when I do a funeral and I stare out at an audience, a sea of faces, there's an interesting couple of reactions that I see in that crowd. Sometimes I'll share this section of scriptures and others and you'll see people nodding, some even smiling, the truth connects with them, it means something, they're filled with hope, they're filled with comfort through great sorrow is theirs. But there are other faces in that same crowd: blank, hopeless, in total and utter despair, these truths do not connect. Well we want to connect with them because in this section of scripture, there are four truths that bring confidence and assurance regarding death. I think it was Woody Allen who said, "I'm not afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens." The truth is, you'll be very there when it happens, you'll be way there when it happens. More than that, you'll be there after it happens. And that's why people are skittish and not everyone finds assurance.
So let's look at, once again, death for the believer and the assurance we have at death. First of all the assurance that a Christian has at death is based upon redemption. Look at verse 14, "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again…" Do you believe that? Do you believe that Jesus Christ died and rose again? Because everything else is attached to that belief.
"Even so," he continues, "God will bring with him those who sleep in Jesus." Now in that verse Paul gives the irreducible core of the gospel. What is the gospel? At its core it's this: Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again from the dead. He died securing our salvation, buying our redemption and then he rose again from the dead. So, this is how we know we're going to conquer death: because the one who said he would do it did it. He predicted his death and he predicted his resurrection, then he died, then he rose, so when he makes a promise to us that we're going to conquer death, it means something, it carries weight to it. You know if a guy says, "Don't worry I'm going to die and rise again from the dead so that you all will have life." But just died and didn't get up again, it doesn't mean much. It's based upon our redemption. That's why when Jesus said to Martha in John chapter 11, "I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me though he may die, yet shall he live." Now that promise means something because of what he did.
Listen to this verse, it's I Corinthians 15, a text that we'll look at more in depth in future studies, Paul writes, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Christ is risen from the dead and is become the firstfruits of all those who have fallen asleep in Him." In other words, his resurrection is the proof and the pledge of our resurrection. It's going to happen because it already happened with him.
In the year 1506 Christopher Columbus died. And he died in a town in Spain called Valle Dolid, Spain, that's where there's still a monument to Christopher Columbus to this day. On the monument is something interesting, I want to describe it to you: there's a carved lion tearing away at a word in Latin that once formed the motto for the country of Spain. You see, before Christopher Columbus in 1492 sailed the ocean blue, the Spaniards believed they reached the end of the world. They had seen the outer limits of the earth, they had discovered all that was discoverable. So their motto in Latin was ne plus ultra which means no more beyond, there's nothing beyond this. Then Christopher Columbus went and came back and discovered, guess what? There's way more beyond this. And so there's the lion tearing out the word ne from the motto, or no. So the motto then read plus ultra, there is more beyond. And we know it's true because here we are in America, there's more beyond Spain. One day we'll be in heaven looking at each other going, "Yeah, remember that sermon, it's right, here we are." There's way more beyond that.
No wonder Walter Scott said, "Is death the last sleep? Oh no, it is the final awakening." So, this gives us great assurance, it's based upon redemption, Jesus died and rose from the dead, so we have assurance.
The second thing that gives us assurance is that death will be marked by relation. We have a relationship right now if you're a believer, you have a relationship with God through his Son. The relationship you have now will go on, in fact it will get better after death.
Go back to verse 14 and notice that little phrase, "sleep in Jesus." That's Christian death, somebody who is asleep in Christ, in Jesus. And then verse 16, "The dead in Christ." Now those are words that define relationship. You're asleep in Jesus, you died in Christ, and then verse 17, "So we will always be with the Lord." Then go back again to verse 14, notice God will bring with him those who sleep in Jesus. That happens at his coming for the church, the rapture. Well obviously they have to first go to him before they can be with him when he comes at this day.
Now death bring separation. That's why we weep when somebody dies, there's a separation. First of all there's a separation from the body. When a person dies, their soul is immediately taken into God's presence, there's consciousness, there's awareness. But their body is here, their spirit or soul goes to be with the Lord; there's separation of the spirit from the body. There's also separation from loved ones, friends, parents, etcetera, etcetera. But there will never be, ever be, a death for a believer, separation from the relationship that person has with God. In fact, that's when it gets deeper, more intimate, much better. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, as the spirit is in God's presence.
I was going through a familiar passage this week, John chapter 14, and it struck me how Jesus talked about heaven. You know the passage, it said, "Let not your hearts be troubled, don't be afraid, you believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many mansions, if it were not so I would have told you, I'm going to prepare a place for you." You know, he didn't refer to it as heaven. He didn't say, "In heaven there are many mansions." He spoke of it in relational terms, "My Father's house." I like that, that's very descriptive to me, "In my Father's house." See the greatest thing about heaven isn't, "Well, where is heaven exactly?" Or, "Well you tell me, what will be doing in heaven? Will I get to play football in heaven?" Or watch football? Or bring my iPod or whatever. Will there be pets in heaven? The greatest aspect of heaven isn't where or what, but whom. And the greatest whom is your Father. It's my Father's house.
Dwight L. Moody said, "It's not the jeweled walls and the pearly gates that are going to make heaven so attractive, it's being with God." You see folks, that's where the relation with God gets really intimate. Now we have a relationship with God today, we call it a personal relationship. That's sort of a favorite evangelical watchword, "Do you have a personal relationship with God?" But honestly, how personal can you be with someone that you never see? The real personal relationship aspect of it will come in eternity. We only experience a level of intimacy. And there have been times where it's greater than others. You've had worship service you've gone to where it's like, "Oh man, I felt God's presence so amazing tonight," or this morning, or maybe you have a devotional time and it's like, you connect, it's so close you feel. Jesus did say, "Wherever two or three are gathered, I'm in the midst of them." And he also promised, "Lo, I am with you always even to the end of the world." But real total intimacy will never be reached, full satisfaction will never be enjoyed until then, that's when the relationship really gets close. The psalmist, Psalm 17 verse 15 said, "I will be fully satisfied for I will see you face to face."
I have a friend who's a doctor who actually wrote on a piece of paper, he handed it to me, something he read in a graveyard. He was walking by a tombstone, had the fella's name on it, and then Psalm 17:16, and then one big word underneath in quotes, "Satisfied." There's a man who's now satisfied.
Well, when this happens, when death happens for the Christians, there will never again be any distractions that you have to push out of your mind. You know how it is, you're sitting down with the Bible, you're sitting down to pray, okay this is God's time. And then the phone rings, or forget the phone, your thoughts go in a million directions. You've got to pull them back and concentrate. Or, it's second service on Sunday morning and it's like, "I can't concentrate on what this guy is saying, he's way out there, and you've got to discipline yourself to pull yourself, you'll never again be distracted. Never again will anything tempt you, never will anything ever compete for time with God. Never again will you have to close your eyes and concentrate to pray or depend on a certain mood of the worship music; you'll be in his presence face to face.
Now I want to talk about something in brief that I'll develop in the next several weeks: at the moment of death, at the moment of death which by the way the best Bible description that I read about death is James chapter 2, verse 26. It says this, "For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead." Think about that first part, that defines death: the body without the spirit is dead. Now when that happens, when a Christian dies today, their body remains, their spirit is gone from the body and goes to be in the presence of God. What is that state like? Now theologians give that a term, they call this the intermediate state, this is before the resurrected body, before you get resurrected, you're in heaven, you're spirit's in heaven, but what's that like? Theologians call it, funny, theologians are funny people. It's like what's the most unattractive term? The intermediate state. Where you going to go when you die? "I'm going to go to the intermediate state." What, are you punished or something?" So what is that like? Well, here's where it gets cloudy. Now follow me, there's not a whole lot definitive in the Bible about this intermediate state where the spirit leaves the body and goes to be with the Lord. Even Wilbur Smith wrote, "However abundant the scriptural data is on the resurrection and life in heaven, the state of the soul between death and resurrection is rarely referred to." So I'm going to shoot out a couple of possibilities just to trigger some thinking. Some people believe that when a Christian dies and their spirit goes to be with the Lord that gives them a temporary form, a temporary body, before the resurrected body, because, how could we relate to Christ? How could we relate to each other otherwise? Okay, that's just a thought. Now push it aside because we'll deal with it later. Some people think that when a Christian dies, their spirit goes to be with the Lord, that their soul, their spirit takes on some functions like a body or like a form. Because there's a text, one of them in Revelation chapter 6, it says, "The souls that were under the altar." These were souls, these are people who were killed for their faith in the tribulation period, and their souls awaiting resurrection are with the Lord under the altar. And the souls under the altar cry out, "How long oh Lord until you avenge our enemies?" So here these souls, these spirits are able to articulate and feel, having some kind of ability like a body would. Well we'll get more on that in studies to come. The most important thing to remember since it's sketchy, is that you will be fully conscious and that the relationship gets really good, however you imagine that is how you imagine that.
Now perhaps the moment you die you will see angels escorting you into God's presence. Because in Luke chapter 16 the story gave of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, it says, "The beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's bosom." Maybe you'll see that at the moment of your death. Perhaps at the moment of your death, you'll hear Jesus call your name and maybe you'll see him as he stands to receive you in his presence. When Stephen was being pelted with stones, before he died, in Acts chapter 7, he said, "Look I see the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father," welcoming him in heaven. Maybe you'll hear him call your name because Jesus said in John chapter 10, "I am the good shepherd, I know my sheep, they hear my voice and I will call them by name." What could be cooler than that? For you to hear the Lord Jesus Christ announce your name as you enter into his presence.
I heard of a pastor who had a friend and the friend lost his wife and the pastor came up to his friend and he said, "I'm so sorry, I heard that you lost your wife." And the man turned to the pastor and smiled and said, "Come on pastor, you know better than that. Something isn't lost when you know where it is. She's not lost, I didn't lose her. I know what you meant by that but I know exactly where she is." That's the most important truth.
The third truth here that brings assurance to the believer is what death leads to. It leads to resurrection, look at verse 15 and 16, "For this we say to you by the word of the Lord that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who are asleep." Keep in mind Paul is writing to the Thessalonians who thought, "Uh-oh what about my loved ones who died, they're going to miss out when Jesus comes back." He's saying, "They won't miss anything." "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout with the voice of an archangel with the trumpet of God and the dead in Christ will rise (there's the resurrection) will rise first." So when Jesus comes back for the church, we call that the rapture, that will be the resurrection day for the dead believers in Christ. That's resurrection day. And it will be transformation day for all those who haven't died, who are alive when that happens. Listen to Paul's writing in Philippians 3:20 and 21. He says, "For our citizenship (literally our politics) is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to his glorious body according to the working by which he is able to subdue all things to himself." I don't know if you agree with Paul's description about your body. Notice what he called it, "who will transform our lowly body." Now you may not agree with that, but I dare say the older you get, you'll start nodding more and more with texts of scripture like this. You go, "Yeah, I think he had it right." Especially when you think where it's going to end up in the resurrection, he's going to transform our lowly body into his glorious body. Ever see Extreme Makeover? This is the ultimate extreme makeover. Your body will be totally changed at the resurrection. And it says here in our text that the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout. Remember when the Lord stood before the tomb of Lazarus? He didn't whisper, did he? He didn't say, "Psst, Lazarus, it's me." He shouted, "Lazarus! Come forth!" Now why did he shout? Because he was dead and he couldn't, not hat's not why he did it. He did it to announce the event, for the presence of everyone standing around. This will be a shout from heaven.
So here's the sequence at the coming of the Lord for the church, the rapture. The first thing that will happen is all those who have died in past history who were believers in Christ, at that moment will be a resurrection; that's where they are joined to their newly redone body. Immediately after that event and probably almost simultaneous to it, immediately afterwards will be a total physical transformation of believers who are alive. It's like a transformation, a resurrection without having to die, for those who are alive. So a combination of the descending Lord from heaven and the ascending saints on earth.
I Corinthians 15, verse 51 through 53, now I Corinthians 15, it will be a passage we'll look at more in the future but let me just whet your appetite. Because you've got to pull in a lot of these to understand Paul's and the Lord's theology on these truths. Paul writes this, "I tell you a mystery, we shall not all sleep (which means die) I tell you a mystery, we shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed." I hear there's church somewhere that has that over their nursery, "We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed." But that is not what it's referring to at all in this passage. He continues, "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, for the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality." So imagine what's included in these verses, the earth and the sea yielding up the dust, the particles, of all of the dead who have ever died who are believers in Christ. And that transforming miracle whereby all of those particles are transformed into a body that will see no death, no sickness, no pain, no disease, and then a quick space trip up to heaven where we're always with the Lord, all in the twinkling of an eye. That's the resurrection that we look forward to.
There were a couple guys who were raised in the jungles of Indonesia. They had never seen a large city before, they had never been to America, they were saved by a couple of missionaries who went there and they brought these guys back to New York City. Imagine being raised in the jungles and seeing New York for the first time. So they walk into a large hotel, they'd never seen an elevator, they just see these doors open up, and these two elderly walk through the doors of the elevator, the doors close. They just see, they go into a room and then the numbers move and back. And then five minutes later the doors open again and out walked two young beautiful girls. Now they'd never seen this before. So imagine what they're thinking. The guy turns to the other guy and said, "Oh man, we've got to bring our wives to ride in that machine." Naw you don't.
We'll all have an extreme makeover at the resurrection, the coming of the Lord. Now all of this, again go back to verse 14, all of this is based upon what already happened: the death, burial, and resurrection from the dead. Because he raised, we'll be raised, our bodies will also be raised and totally totally transformed.
I read something that was a very helpful analogy to me, maybe it will be to you. There was a scientist working in his lab and he had a beaker of very strong acid. And as he was working and there was the beaker of acid on the table, an object made out of silver fell into the acid and it immediately dissolved. So the scientist placed some chemical compound into that solution. And after a period of time all the particles of silver came together at the bottom of the vase in a formless mass. He drained the beaker, washed off the silver and sent it to a silversmith where he reconstructed it and made it a beautiful shiny silver goblet. Total change from those existing materials. And that is a good illustration really of the resurrection, what will happen to our bodies as they get reconstituted, resurrected, exchanging the old for the new. More on that later.
But look at verse 17, here's the fourth truth that brings assurance. It's going to end in a beautiful reunion. Look at verse 17, "Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord." Notice those words, "together with them." Who's the them? Those who have died and are now resurrected. Those who are alive, let's say the Lord comes back tomorrow, all of that instantaneous change occurs and then you're together with them. No wonder he writes in verse 18, "Comfort one another with these words." There's going to be a reunion with your father who's in God's presence today, or your mother who's in God's presence today, or your brothers, or your children. And your heart has been aching so long because you miss them so much. You will see them again, if they are believers in Christ and you are a believer in Christ.
I love the story, it's in Luke chapter 7 where Jesus is in the little town called Nain and there's a son of a widow who dies, and Jesus goes to that town, raises the boy from the dead. Then it says, "Jesus presented the boy to the mother." I think he took great delight in that tender, "Here. Here's the reunion. Here's your son back. You can now enjoy life together." Jesus will have that same tender ministry in heaven, of reuniting families, and spouses and friends together.
So death is the great separator, but Jesus is the great reuniter. What a great thought. I was thinking this week, and I mean this, one of the greatest things in heaven that I'm going to enjoy is being with you, without limitation. You know we get to connect sometimes after a service and exchange hello and pray for one another. But then we have to come home or there's another service to do. But there we'll be home. We can hang out for two, three hundred thousand, million billion years and then move on the next person, because we've got forever. Just endless joy in that reunion.
Now that brings up a question that I want to address here before we close. It's often asked, especially when we think through all of these truths we've heard so far. The spirit or soul leaves the body, we're in God's presence, what's that going to be like? And here comes the inevitable question: Will we recognize each other in heaven? Will we recognize each other in heaven? After all, Jesus said in heaven there's not marrying or given in marriage but we're like the angels (we'll discuss what that means at a later date). Will we recognize each other in heaven? Or remember when Jesus, Moses and Elijah were transfigured before the disciples? And Peter, James and John were there to see it? Did they recognize Moses and Elijah, though they had been dead nine hundred years? Yeah, instantly, intuitively they did. I don't think Moses wore a nametag. Or Elijah. I don't think Jesus had to give a formal introduction: "Moses, Peter. Peter, Elijah." I don't think he had to do that, there was just this intuitive knowledge in that event. And I believe in heaven, on the other side of this earthly existence, since we have such limited knowledge now, our knowledge will be greatly expanded so that we will immediately know those that we've known, pick up where we left off; and recognize others who've we heard about but have not yet met. And that's because in I Corinthians 13, verse 12, Paul writes, "For now we see through a glass darkly but then face to face. Now I know in part but I shall fully know (is the translation) even as I am fully known."
I've always loved, I think he did it the best, the way Charles Spurgeon answered this very question. Someone came up to him and said, "Mr. Spurgeon, will we recognize each other in heaven?" And he simply said, "Well do you think in heaven we'll be more stupid than we are now?" I mean if you can do it here and now, don't you think in heaven you'll have at least that same ability?
Well, there is great assurance and confidence, and enough, as it says in verse 18, "Comfort one another with these words."
I'd like to close with a story, it is Mother's Day and we thank you moms for, even in the very least, just giving birth. I've watched birth, Man! Monumental. Well Phillip Yancy likens death to birth in a very inventive way. Listen to what he says, "Each of our individual deaths," writes Yancy, "can be seen as a birth. Imagine what it would be like if you had full consciousness as a fetus and could remember those sensations. Your world is dark, safe, secure. You're bathed in warm liquid, cushioned from shock. You do nothing for yourself, you are fed automatically. And a murmuring heartbeet assures you that someone larger than you fills all of your needs. Your life consists of simple waiting, you're not sure wait for but ay change seems far away and scary. You meet no sharp objects, there is no pain, no threatening adventures, it's a fine existence. But one day you feel a tug, the walls are falling in on you, those soft cushions are now pulsing and beating against you, crushing you downwards. Your body is bent, doubled, your limbs twisted and wretched. You're falling upside down. For the first time in your life, you feel pain. You're in a sea of rolling matter. There's more pressure, almost too intense to bear. Your head is squeezed flat. And you are pushed harder and harder into a dark tunnel. Oh the pain, the noise, more pressure. You hurt all over. You hear a groaning sound, an awful sudden fear rushes through you. It's happening, your world is collapsing. You're sure it's the end. Then you see a piercing, blinding light and cold rough hands pull at you and a painful slap! "Waah!" Congratulations," he writes, "you have just been born." Writes Yancy, "Death is like that. On this end of the birth canal it seems fearsome, pretentious and full of pain. Death is a scary tunnel and we are being sucked toward it by a powerful force." That's a really brilliant description of death. Because to a child about to be born, what is birth and wonderful life must seem horrible and cold and foreign and painful. But then life. And so it is in our death: what seems painful will give birth to immediate, full, satisfying relationship with Christ, future resurrection of our body and reunion with those that we miss so dearly. No wonder he says, "Comfort one another with these words."
Heavenly Father, as we in the last few weeks have considered eternity and heaven and what it takes to get there, for many, this experience we call death. Funerals are a daily part of life as are birth announcements. But Lord, even though we sorrow, as Paul writes, we're not hopeless. We're filled with hope. We have every reason to have assurance and hope. Because we're going to see them again. And what's more a rich relationship, we can have comfort in that, we really can't wait for that event. It's going to get much better than life is now. Thank you for this truth. Thank you for the moms, Lord, who have sacrificed their lives and we pray Lord that we would honor them by honoring you, the one who gave them to us. And I pray Father that anyone here who doesn't personally know Christ, by receiving him into their hearts and lives by an act of faith would do that, would come to know Jesus, would be born again so that they would never see total ultimate eternal separation. In Jesus' name.