Based on a message given at my mother’s funeral on 3 April 2013
A funeral usually involves memories and reflections of the life of the person who has died. But the funeral of a Christian can also look ahead in anticipation of what lies ahead.
Help from God the Creator
The source of a Christian’s help and protection throughout life is described in Psalm 121NIV.
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—He who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm— He will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
When this song was written about 3,000 years ago, God’s people knew that the only reliable help and protection comes from the God who made the universe – “the Maker of heaven and earth”. In this context the Hebrew word for “heaven” means the atmosphere and the stars and galaxies. A God with the intelligence and power to create the universe and populate it with living plants, animals and people was surely able to help them! The Bible says He was the source of life on earth whereas all other gods and philosophies are the product of the human imagination.
Unfortunately in our modern world we have largely lost this knowledge and this confidence. We have forgotten about God the Creator. Even though we have wonderful technology, science can’t explain how matter was created from nothing or how life originated, and we often replace God the Creator with the idea that things created themselves.
So when we struggle in life where does our help come from? Some people go to counsellors for help who encourage them to get help from outside themselves. Because people usually can’t solve their own problems, they need to get help from someone else. In a similar way, we all need “outside help” to sustain us and God the Creator is the ultimate outside help!
Psalm 121 ends with, “The Lord will watch your coming and going both now and forevermore”. Here those who trusted God the Creator were promised that God would protect them throughout life and into the future. They could live with assurance and confidence that God would continue to help them. Likewise Christians can have the assurance that God will sustain them during their life and afterwards.
A different world
You may ask if God created everything in the beginning, why is there so much suffering in the world? The world today is very different from the one God made originally. We live in a different world. In the beginning it was a perfect world with harmony between God, people and the natural environment. But when people turned against their Maker, it changed and sin, evil, suffering and death came into the world. This change was caused by people like us. We live in a world with consequences – an act has a consequence and an effect has a cause. Because people turned against God our relationships have been ruined. We ignore God and are separated from Him, we can’t get along with other people, and we exploit the natural environment. Another consequence is that the Bible says we are destined to eternal punishment. Because we are the cause of this problem, we need outside help. Because each of us is guilty, we can’t help each other. The only reliable help available outside humanity is God the Creator.
Help from God the Lifesaver
Fortunately, God didn’t only create the universe and the laws of nature in the beginning, but He also continues to sustain it. He is not only incredibly powerful, but He is also incredibly loving. We remember His special act of love at Christmas and Easter when we celebrate the unique birth and death of Jesus Christ. God knew that mankind was doomed to eternal punishment unless He provided them with outside help. He did this about 2,000 years ago when Jesus Christ lived on earth and died and came alive again. Jesus was unique; He was God living as a human being. He showed His power over our world by the miracles He did. When He died by crucifixion, He took the eternal punishment that we deserve. If we turn towards God by being sorry for our behaviour and accepting the fact that Jesus has taken the penalty for our sin, then He promises eternal joy instead of eternal punishment. This is called eternal life. So Jesus is like a lifesaver – He can rescue us from the eternal consequence of our selfish behaviour. In this way God is making a new creation and He gives us the choice of being a part of it. Although we spoilt God’s original creation, and there is now sin, evil, pain, suffering and death, these will be absent in God’s new creation. Instead we can be reconciled with God, we can love one another and we can look forward to the restoration of creation like it was in the beginning.
Because a Christian has accepted Jesus as their Savior they can have an inner assurance, joy and peace.
What happens when a person dies? Not only do the lungs stop breathing and the heart stops pumping. The Bible says that at death a person’s invisible soul and spirit is separated from their body. If they trusted in Jesus the Savior, their soul and spirit goes immediately to be with God in heaven. After death they are enjoying a perfect place. That is why Paul could say, “To die is gain” (Phil. 1:21) and that he preferred to be “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). So they are in a better place. Their death is a loss for us, but a gain for them.
But there is more! On Easter Sunday we recall that the body of Jesus was raised back to life after being buried in a grave. The Bible describes a coming day when the bodies of believers, who trusted in Christ the Savior will also be raised back to life:
“What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever. But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:50-57NLT).
This is also described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18. As part of God’s new creation they will have new bodies which won’t wear out and die (1 Cor. 15:42-49; Phil. 3:21; 1 Jn. 3:2) and they will be transported to be with God in heaven – spirit, soul and new body. This will be a great victory over the sin, suffering and death of our world. That’s why Christians can look forward confidently to the coming resurrection. There’s victory ahead!
The hymn, “How great Thou art”, summarises the greatness of God and the reasons for our Christian faith.
The first verse is about God the great Creator and source of life on earth. It says “Your power throughout the universe displayed”. Do we see God’s power in His creation?
The third verse is about Jesus Christ the great Lifesaver and source of eternal life. It says “On the cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin”. When we stand before God, will He be like a lifesaver or like a judge? If we turn towards God by confessing our sins we can be ready to meet Him.
The last verse is about the great resurrection when the bodies of those who have trusted in Christ will be raised and changed to be with Him forever. It says “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home – what joy shall fill my heart”. Are you ready to experience this joy?
Written, April 2013
The Bible is Not a Myth
MythBusters is a TV show on the Discovery Channel that sorts out myths and facts in an entertaining way. Did you know that the Bible is written in a way to show that it is not a myth?
The Bible teaches that the truth of a matter should be established on the testimony of at least two or three eye-witnesses (Dt. 17:6; 19:15; Mt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Ti. 5:19; Heb. 10:28). This is also the case in law courts.
Paul emphasised that the resurrection was a proven fact and not a myth because afterwards Christ “appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep (died). Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all He appeared to me also” (1 Cor. 15:6-8NIV). There were many more than two or three eye-witnesses! As most of these were still alive, they could be questioned by anyone who doubted Paul’s account.
The life of Christ
The most comprehensive record of the life of Christ is given in the books of the Bible written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These are obviously four accounts of the same events, which satisfy the requirement of at least two or three witnesses. Who were these authors?
Matthew and John were two of the twelve disciples who accompanied Christ during His public ministry (Mt. 4: 21-22; 9:9; 10:2-4; Mk. 1:19-20; 2:14; Lk. 5:10-11; 27-28). They were there and saw the events they recorded. They were part of the twelve apostles who were Christ’s witnesses (Acts 1:8). When Judas was replaced by Matthias, Peter said that an apostle was a man who had “been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us”, who was “a witness with us of His resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).
As a tax collector, Mathew was skilled in writing and keeping records. John’s testimony is reliable: “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true” (Jn. 21:24). John was one of the three apostles that were closest to Jesus, the others were Peter and James (Mt. 17:1; Mk. 14:33). Also, he may have been a cousin of Jesus (Mt. 27:56; Mk. 15:40).
Mark lived in Jerusalem during Christ’s public ministry and was a cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10). Mark may have been at the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested as he wrote; “A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind” (Mk. 14:51-52).
Tradition says that Mark was Peter’s interpreter and wrote down Peter’s account of the life of Jesus. This is supported by the fact that he was with Peter when 1 Peter was written (1 Pt. 5:13). Also, when Peter escaped from prison, he went to Mark’s mother’s house (Acts 12:12-17).
Luke was a historian. His record begins: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Lk. 1:1-5). He interviewed eye-witnesses of the life of Christ, including Mary as he gives the best account of Christ’s early years.
Luke was a Gentile medical doctor who travelled with Paul and was one of his fellow workers (Col. 4:14; Phile. 24). He was well educated and had an outstanding command of the Greek language. He also wrote the book of Acts and witnessed many of the events recorded in Acts.
Confirmed and busted
As documented history always trumps science with regard to past events, we don’t need the MythBusters to test the truth of the Bible. Instead, because of multiple eye-witnesses the resurrection of Christ and the Biblical account of the life of Christ are confirmed to be proven facts and not myths. So the viewpoint that the Bible is myth is busted!
Postscript – The rest of the New Testament
The other New Testament writers were also eye-witnesses of the events they documented.
Peter was a disciple and apostle like Matthew and John. He was present during the public ministry of Christ and the life of the early church. He witnessed everything that Jesus did, including His death and resurrection (Acts 10:39-41; 1 Pt. 5:1). Silas may have helped Peter write his first letter (1 Pt. 5:12).
James and Jude were half-brothers of Jesus: they had the same mother, but different fathers (Mt. 13:55; Mk. 6:3). Although they didn’t follow Jesus at the time, they grew up with Him and were aware of His public ministry. The Lord appeared to James after the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7). James and Jude became believers after the resurrection and were part of the life of the early church (Jn. 7:5; Acts 1:14; Gal. 1:19).
Paul was different to the other apostles as he became an apostle by special revelation. Instead of living with Christ during His three years of public ministry, Paul saw the Lord in a vision (1 Cor. 9:1; Gal. 1:16). He wrote that in this sense he was inferior to the others, like a premature birth compared to a normal one (1 Cor. 15:8). Nevertheless, he was to be a witness who told others about what he had seen (Acts 22:15; 26:16).
Paul was a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6; 26:4-5). As he studied under Gamaliel at Jerusalem, he was well educated (Acts 22:3; Gal. 1:14). Paul established churches in Asia Minor and Europe and was part of the life of the early church.
Written, September 2012
Suffering comes before glory
At Easter we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, events unique to the Christian faith. In this article we will look at what happened after His resurrection, and at four contrasts between His death and heavenly reign.
After the resurrection
After Christ’s resurrection, He appeared to His followers over a period of 40 days (Acts 1:3). Then “He was taken up into heaven and He sat at the right hand of God” (Mk. 16:19 niv). Luke reported, “He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid Him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as He was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven’” (Acts 1:9-11). The disciples were given a promise by two angels that in the future Jesus would return to earth in an event as spectacular as His ascension.
The Bible says repeatedly that Jesus Christ is now at God’s “right hand” – a place of honor, power, dominion and authority. His exalted position was noted by Peter (Acts 2:32-33a; 5:30-31; 1 Pt. 3:21-22), seen by Stephen (Acts 7:55-56) and mentioned in Hebrews (Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2). Paul added that Christ is above all other powers (Eph. 1:20-21) and that while He is at the right hand of God, He intercedes with the Father on our behalf (Rom. 8:34). Furthermore, believers will reign with the Lord in His coming kingdom: “I will give the right to sit with Me on My throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with My Father on His throne” (Rev. 3:21).
People sometimes say this was the greatest comeback since Lazarus because Lazarus came back from the dead, but died again because he was still mortal. But the resurrected Lord had a redeemed immortal body. He was the first to be resurrected to eternal life (1 Cor. 15:23). His was a different resurrection because He ascended into heaven to live forever. That’s a much greater comeback than Lazarus. In fact, Jesus went from the lowest place on earth, where He endured the suffering and humiliation of execution as a criminal, to the highest place in heaven, where He reigns over all creation. What a contrast!
Two types of crown are mentioned in the New Testament: a garland worn by a victorious athlete, and a diadem worn by royalty that symbolized the power to reign. Both of these crowns are used in the Bible to describe Jesus. Crowns are also mentioned in respect to His cross and reign.
Crown of thorns. Humanity, by way of the Roman soldiers, gave Christ the crown of thorns (Mt. 27:27-31; Mk. 15:16-20; Jn. 19:2-5), a purple robe and a staff in a mock coronation of the “king of the Jews.” Thorns are a product of the curse, which was God’s judgment on humanity’s fall into sinful behavior (Gen. 3:17-19). In Genesis thorns are associated with sin, struggle, sweat and death. At the cross, Christ had a symbol of the curse on His head.
Crown of glory. “We … see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because He suffered death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). He was lower than the angels for 33 years. At His death He was the lowest of humanity, executed as a criminal. He came down to the cross and the grave. Now He is crowned with glory and honor, His exaltation a result of His suffering. The cross led to the crown. His glory was the reward of His suffering (Heb. 2:9; Phil. 2:7-9; Rev. 5:12). Seeing Jesus in His glory will give us great joy (Jn. 17:5,24).
Jesus prayed, “I have brought You glory on earth by finishing the work You gave Me to do. And now, Father, glorify Me in Your presence with the glory I had with You before the world began” (Jn. 17:4-5). Before He came to earth, He lived with the Father in heaven and reigned over all creation as the Creator. He regained this when He ascended, but gained the additional glory of being the Redeemer of the fallen creation. So, at the cross, He was given the crown of thorns, but when He ascended to heaven, He was given the crown of glory.
Christ was crucified between two criminals (Mt. 27:38). It was a shameful death and a time of much grief and sorrow (Lk. 23:27-28,48). However, before going to the cross He prayed, “Father, I want those You have given Me to be with Me where I am, and to see My glory” (Jn. 17:24). At the cross He was in the company of criminals, but in heaven He is in the company of the redeemed and of angels (Rev. 5:11-12).
Different comings of Christ
The Lord was here once, and He’s coming again – the invisible God visibly present on earth. The purpose for His first coming was to die on the cross for sinners like us; to be a sacrifice. The purpose for His second coming will be to reveal His great power and glory (Mt. 24:30; 2 Th. 2:8; Rev. 1:7). It is the most prophesied event in the Bible. At that time, He will wear the crown of authority, dominion, government and sovereignty, judge all evil and set up His kingdom on earth. That is when all the wrongs done on earth will be made right, all crime will end, and justice will prevail.
In His first coming the Lord entered Jerusalem on a donkey. In His second coming He will be on a war horse: “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice He judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on His head are many crowns” (Rev. 19:11-12). His supremacy is emphasized by His wearing “many crowns.”
Suffering before glory
Although Christ’s suffering and glory were both foretold in the Old Testament, their relationship was not obvious at that time. Psalm 22:1-21 describes the Lord’s suffering. For example, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me? Why are you so far from saving Me, so far from My cries of anguish?” was spoken at the cross (Ps. 22:1; Mt. 27:46). Psalm 22:22-31 describe His millennial reign over the earth. For example, “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before Him, for dominion belongs to the LORD and He rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:26-27). We see in the same passage the cross and the crown; the suffering and the glory.
Likewise, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” (Isa. 9:6) describes Christ’s first coming which led to the cross, while the rest of this verse and the next describes the millennial kingdom established after His second coming: “And the government will be on His shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of His government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” Once again we see in the same passage the cross and the crown; the suffering and the glory. Other references to the Lord’s suffering and reign are Isaiah 53 and Psalm 110.
Christ’s cross and crown are keys to understanding the Bible. And aspects of His sacrifice and death for sinners, and His kingdom and future glory can be seen in many passages of Scripture. “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:10-11). The Old Testament prophets predicted the Lord’s sufferings and the glories that would follow, but they didn’t know that there would be thousands of years between these events.
Christ’s mission was to go to the cross to die for our sin. Now, having paid the price for sin, He is highly exalted at God’s right hand and will come again as King of kings and Lord of lords. His cross had to precede His crown: “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:8-11).
Lessons for us
Jesus went from the lowest place on earth (the cross) to the highest place in heaven where He reigns over all creation. What a change there is between His two comings to earth – from crown of thorns to crown of glory, from criminal to the redeemed, from death to dominion, and from suffering to glory.
Because Jesus endured the cross, He now wears the crown and we can have the assurance of eternal life with Him in heaven. For Jesus, suffering had to precede glory. The New Testament pattern of suffering followed by glory applies to us as well: believers suffer now, but will be released into the glory of immortal bodies at the resurrection (Rom. 8:16-25; 2 Cor. 4:16-18). Like the Lord, believers must be willing to suffer and lose their lives for His sake (Lk. 9:23).
Paul wrote, “if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:17-18). Meanwhile, “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17).
The Biblical pattern is that suffering in this life will lead to an inheritance of eternal glory. We should not be focusing on our present physical situation, but be looking ahead. We are not promised a trouble-free life; in fact the opposite is the case because Jesus tells us that trouble is inevitable (Jn. 16:33). Look at His life as an example, and focus on the One who went to the cross and who now wears the crown.
Published, April 2012
See the other article in this series:
- From the Cradle to the Cross
Where was Jesus between His death and resurrection? He told them He had “not yet returned to His father in heaven” (Jn. 20:17NIV1984) and He could not have gone to hell, so where was He?
The Bible indicates that Christ’s spirit went to heaven when He died. He told the thief on the cross, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43NIV). Paradise (“paradeisos” in Greek; Strong’s reference number 3857) is the same place as the “third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2,4) and means the dwelling place of God (Mt. 6:9). In Biblical times there was a concept of three heavens: the first heaven was the atmosphere (Heb. 4:14) and the second heaven the stars and galaxies. This means that He went to heaven after He died. This is consistent with the fact that just before He died Jesus called out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk. 23:46).
As the Greek word translated “returned” in Jn. 20:17NIV (“anabaino”; Strong’s reference number 305), means “to ascend” (NIV Study Notes); it has been changed to “ascended” in the most recent translation of the NIV Bible (2010). The context of this verse is that Mary Magdalene was probably worried that she would not be blessed when Jesus was no longer with her physically. He responded “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (Jn. 20:17NIV2010). She didn’t need to cling to Him as He would be around for another 40 days before He ascended back to heaven (Lk. 24:50-51; Acts 1:3, 9-11).
The idea that Jesus went to hell between His death and resurrection comes from Article 5 of the so-called “Apostles’ creed”: “… He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead[i] …”. The creed was apparently used as a summary of Christian doctrine for baptismal candidates in the churches of Rome. Presumably Article 5 was derived from interpretations of Psalm 16:10, Acts 2:27,31, Eph. 4:9 and 1 Peter 3:19. It has been stated that the purpose of Article 5 was to declare that Christ had a human soul that departed from His body when He died[ii]. Also, in the Middle Ages, the words “hell” and “hades” become confused. Consequently, the King James Bible incorrectly used “hell” instead of “hades” in Psalm 16:10 and Acts 2:27,31. “Hell” (“genna”; Strong’s reference number 1067) is the place or state of everlasting punishment. “Hades” (“hades”; Strong’s reference number 86) is the place or state of the spirits of unbelievers after death—it is also a place of torment (Lk. 16:23-31).
Before Jesus’ ascension, the spirits of all people went to Hades (“Sheol” in Hebrew) (Ps. 89:48). After His ascension, only the spirits of unbelievers go to Hades, while the spirits of believers go directly to be with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:1-8). After the final judgment, those in Hades will be cast into hell, which is also known as the “lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14).
Ephesians 4:9 states: “What does ‘He ascended’ mean except that He also descended to the lower, earthly regions?”. This means that the Lord’s ascension necessitated a previous descent from heaven to earth, but not to hell. The word “lower” refers to the fact that the earth is beneath the heavens. A similar thought is given in: “Sing for joy, O heavens, for the LORD has done this; shout aloud, O earth beneath” (Is. 44:23).
According to 1 Peter 3:18-20, “He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” This passage is difficult to understand. The interpretation that best fits the context is that by the Holy Spirit, Christ preached through Noah (Gen. 6:3; 1 Pt. 1:10-11; 2 Pt.2:5) to people who were now spirits in hades because they had rejected Noah’s message. The Bible teaches that there is no second chance for salvation after death—“Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27). So Christ didn’t preach to spirits in hades. Furthermore, there is no evidence in the Bible of “purgatory”: a place or condition of temporal punishment before one goes to heaven. Therefore, there is no benefit of prayer for the dead or baptism of the dead—these are merely human traditions with no Biblical basis.
So Jesus did not go to Hell between His death and resurrection. Instead, His spirit was with the Father in heaven.
Written, August 2006
In this Series we have seen that Paul visited Thessalonica and in response to his preaching a church was established. Because he was unable to visit them for some time, he wrote a letter to encourage these new believers. In chapter 4 Paul told them how to live to please God. They were to avoid sexual immorality and excel in holiness and brotherly love. In this part we will look at the Second Coming, a major theme mentioned in each chapter (1 Th. 1:9-10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:17; 5:23). The Thessalonians knew of the Second Coming as part of the gospel message. In fact, some were so sure it would be soon that they gave up their jobs to prepare for it (1 Th. 5:14; 2 Th. 3:6-12). Further teaching was needed on this topic.
Death Is Like Sleep
“We do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 NIV).
The Thessalonians who were expecting the Lord to return any day (1 Th. 1:10) must have been worried about those who had already died. Would they see their loved ones before the final resurrection at the end of time (Jn. 11:24)? Also Paul had probably taught them that Christ was coming back to reign and that Christians would reign with Him (Rev. 20:6). Would those who had already died miss this? Paul wrote this passage to allay their fears.
He used “asleep” three times to describe the state of the believer after death (13,14,15). When someone is “asleep” or resting, we can have contact with them again after they wake. This metaphor teaches us that death is not the end; as waking follows sleep, resurrection follows death. Paul said they were “asleep in Jesus” (4:14), meaning they were in His care. The soul and spirit don’t sleep in death, as they are “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).
When a believer dies, there is sorrow but not despair, because there is the hope of heaven and reunion (4:13). The basis of our hope is the resurrection of the Lord (4:14). Paul wrote elsewhere: “Since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:21-22). Because Christ rose, so will all believers who have died. We are assured of this because God will bring them with Jesus (4:14). When will this be? When Jesus returns in power and glory. The dead won’t miss the glory of the coming kingdom.
A Period Of Time
The “coming” of the Lord “down from heaven” (4:15-16) is derived from the word parousia. It means both “arrival” or “coming” and “presence with.” It is the opposite of absence. In the Bible, parousia is associated with: the Rapture, when Christ returns for all true believers (1 Th. 4:15); the Judgment Seat of Christ, when rewards are given to believers for service (1 Th. 2:19; 5:23); and the appearing, when Christ returns to earth in great power and glory (1 Th. 3:13; 2 Th. 2:8). The Second Coming (or “presence”) of the Lord will be a series of events that occurs over a period of time, not all at once.
This sequence of future events can be inferred from The Revelation: the Church on earth (Rev. 2-3); the Rapture, that is Christ’s return to take all believers (dead and alive) home to be with Him; the Church in heaven (Rev. 4-5); the Tribulation on earth (Rev. 6-18); the appearing, that is Christ’s return to earth in great power (Rev. 19); the Millennium, a 1,000 year kingdom (Rev. 20); and the new heaven and new earth, a new eternal universe (Rev. 21-22).
When we think of the Lord’s coming, we should think of a period of time, not an isolated event. For example, Christ’s first coming to earth (“presence”) was over a period of 33 years; that’s how long He was physically present on earth. In fact, one of His names is “Immanuel – which means ‘God with us’” (Mt. 1:23).
“According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17).
The Rapture (4:15) was a new revelation, referred to as a mystery or truth previously unknown (1 Cor. 15:51). Two categories of Christians are mentioned – those living and the dead. The bodies of the dead will not be left behind at the Rapture. The sequence of events is in four steps. First is the Lord’s return, when Jesus will come down from heaven with a loud command, the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God. The command is probably addressed to the dead (Jn. 5:28-29; 11:43). Second is the resurrection of the dead, when the “dead in Christ” will rise first, with God recreating from the remains of dust the bodies of all who have died. Third is the transformation of the living believers who will be “caught up” (rapturo in Latin) together with the dead. Fourth is the reunion, when we will meet the Lord in the air to be with Him forever. Jesus summarized the Rapture this way: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with Me that you also may be where I am” (Jn. 14:3).
The truth of resurrection was not the mystery, since it appeared in the Old Testament; the change of the living believers at the Lord’s return was the mystery. Paul described this sudden change: “We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Cor. 15:51-53).
Paul also wrote that “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables Him to bring everything under His control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body” (Phil. 3:20-21). When He returns, our bodies will be transformed to be like His resurrection body – suited to heaven, not subject to sickness, decay or death, and free from sin and its effects. This is called the “redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). The Bible doesn’t say whether it will be a secret or a public event. Because it takes place in a flash, some say it won’t be seen by unbelievers. Others say it will be heard. Paul’s answer to their concerns was this: When the Lord returns, your loved ones who have died will not miss His appearing or the Millennium.
The Day Of The Lord
“About times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:1-4).
The “day of the Lord” is not a 24- hour period. In the New Testament, it refers to God’s future time of judgment of the world (Acts 2:20; 1 Th. 5:2; 2 Pet. 3:10). It will be characterized by gloom, darkness and destruction. The sun moon and stars will be darkened (Mt. 24:29; Rev. 6:12). There will be judgments on God’s enemies as described by the seals, trumpets and bowls in the Revelation. The “day of the Lord” is used to describe events in the Tribulation, the appearing and the final destruction of the heavens and earth with fire.
The “day of the Lord” will be a time of judgment of unbelievers; note the words “them” and “they” (5:3). Paul gives three characteristics of that time: it will be unexpected, destructive and inevitable.
First, Jesus said it will be unexpected: “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all. It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed” (Lk. 17:26-30). Life will go on as usual until God removes His people, and then His judgment will come on the earth.
Second, He also said it will be destructive, and described it as follows: “For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now – and never to be equaled again” (Mt. 24:21). The great distress only ends when the Lord comes in great power and glory (Mt. 24:29-31).
Third, it will be inevitable, like the labor preceding birth. Once it starts a woman can’t change her mind, and birth follows soon after. Paul said the world cannot escape God’s terrible judgments.
Salvation Instead Of Suffering
“But you … are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:4-5).
Paul said that there is a way of escape. The words “you,” “we” and “us” (5:4,5,9,10) tell us that Christians will not go through these judgments. Paul contrasted two groups: Unbelievers are in darkness and night, while believers are in light and day. In Scripture, “light” represents what is good and true, while “darkness” represents what is evil and false (Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 6:14; 1 Jn. 1:5-7). He said that only those in darkness will experience these judgments. “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him” (1 Th. 5:9-10).
Verses 9-10 tell us that instead of suffering judgment, believers will receive salvation; they will be with Christ where there is no sin. Other verses also show that Christians will not experience the suffering described in the “day of the Lord” or the Tribulation (Rom. 5:9; 1 Th. 1:10; 2 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 3:10). Instead, we will be raptured, that is taken away as Noah was taken away from destruction of the flood and Lot from the destruction of Sodom.
Living In View Of The Second Coming
“Let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Thessalonians 5:6-8).
Paul urged believers to live consistently as children of the day and of the light, alert and self-controlled. We should be expecting Christ’s return at any moment, living for Him and not being lazy, careless, distracted, self-indulgent, or living in sinful behavior. We should also be sober, seeking to further the kingdom of God instead of our own entertainment, being self-controlled and not losing control of our behavior.
He then said believers should exercise faith, love and hope like armor that protects us from losing control. Faith involves depending on God. Our love for the Lord and for each other can help us live for God today. And Christ’s return is our hope. The prospect of heaven helps us live for God today.
Paul’s passages on the Rapture and the day of the Lord have similar conclusions: “Encourage one another with these words” (1 Th. 4:18). “Encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (1 Th. 5:11).
Lessons For Us
The second coming of the Lord is a series of events over a period of time. The Rapture will be a great reunion of believers both dead and alive. Like the first century Christians, we should expect it to occur at any moment. Are we encouraging each other as we eagerly wait for it?
Published, May 2009
See the next article in this series:
- Living as a Christian
A video entitled “Raised From The Dead” claims to be a 21st-century miracle resurrection story. Is it true?
This video, sold in bookstores and on the Internet, claims that in 2001, a Nigerian man died from injuries due to a car accident, and then came back to life two days later after being taken to a church. The man reported that during this time he had been taken by angels to heaven and hell, before God sent him back to warn people of hell.
The account is unusual because, although the man was said to be critically injured, after being taken to a hospital he was able to demand transfer to his hometown hospital, a 1.5 hour drive away. Then he was taken to a clinic, a mortuary and a church. No proof is given regarding the accident or the man’s injuries, and the only evidence of death is a clinic certificate and verbal report. Although the man’s family, a doctor and a mortician claim he was dead, the evidence is not conclusive.
The claim of being taken to heaven and hell goes against Bible teaching. As the man himself said on one occasion, “It may have been a dream.” Heaven is the eternal destiny of believers while hell is the eternal destiny of unbelievers. After death people go to one or the other, not both. The Bible says there is a great chasm between heaven and hell and no one from either side can cross over (Lk. 16:26). For example, Lazarus went to heaven and the rich man went to hell (Lk. 16:19-31). The reason the rich man was in hell was because he rejected the message given in the Old Testament.
The phrase, “women received back their dead” (Heb. 11:35), quoted in the video to support the alleged miracle, refers to events in the Old Testament such as the son of the widow of Zarephath and the Shunammite’s son (1 Ki. 17:17-24; 2 Ki. 4:18-37). On these occasions God used a prophet, either Elijah or Elisha, to raise a boy back to life.
Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter (Mk. 5:22-24, 35-43), the son of the widow of Nain (Lk. 7:11-17), and Lazarus (Jn. 11:1-44; 12:1-2). In the second case it occurred during the funeral and in the third case it happened after the burial. When Jesus died many godly men and women were raised from their tombs (Mt. 27:52-53). Three days later, Jesus was resurrected from the tomb (Jn. 20:1-31 ). Peter said, “We are all witnesses of this fact.” Paul said that Jesus appeared to more than 500 followers at the same time (Acts 2:32; 1 Cor. 15:6). Dorcas was raised after Peter prayed (Acts 9:36-42). Eutychus died after falling from the third story of a building, but came alive after Paul put his arms around him (Acts 20:9-12). All these New Testament instances of people being raised from death involved either Jesus or an apostle.
This video promotes a gospel of works. It states that a person is in hell for stealing, not for rejecting Christ’s work of salvation, and the man who died would go to hell because of angry words spoken to his wife. The video supported this with Jesus’ statement that God will not forgive our sins if we do not forgive others and only the merciful will obtain mercy (Mt. 5:7; 6:14-15). These verses are taken out of context; they do not refer to salvation, which is an unconditional gift received by faith in Christ, not a goal achieved by works (Eph. 2:8-9). Instead, they are part of the Sermon on the Mount giving the Lord’s disciples principles for daily living (Mt. 5:1,2). They teach that forgiveness is necessary for believers to maintain fellowship with God, and that believers will be rewarded according to their compassion displayed (1 Jn. 1:9; 1 Cor. 3:12-15). The man said to have been raised from the dead was afraid that he would sin again and not go to heaven. He had no assurance of salvation.
The video says that this miracle was a sign from God to lead us to Jesus. However, our faith in Christ is not based on modern miracles, but on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as documented in the Scriptures. The way to heaven is through believing the message of the Bible, not a so-called modern miracle.
Published, May 2006
A special Easter message
Every city, town and village has a cemetery that contains memorials to people of all walks of life, reminding us that death comes to us all. If Christ doesn’t return in the meantime, our bodies will all end up in a cemetery. It is a natural consequence of the “bondage to decay” that we share with the rest of God’s creation (Rom. 8:21 niv). Even if you have the best medical specialist in the world, you will have to face death one day.
An Empty Grave
But the foundation of our Christian faith is an empty grave, marked with the joyful exclamation, “He has risen!” (Mk. 16:6). After Christ’s crucifixion he was buried in a grave that had been cut out of rock and sealed with a big stone (Mt. 27:60). Luke’s account of what happened on the next Sunday is as follows: “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the grave. They found the stone rolled away from the grave, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; He has risen! Remember how He told you, while He was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’” (Lk. 24:1-7).
Later that day Jesus joined two of His followers as they walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35). They were amazed that the grave was empty; they didn’t recognize Jesus. It is interesting to note their response after they recognized Him. Their hearts were warmed as the Lord talked with them and explained the Scriptures. They were encouraged as they understood what God had done. Then they got up and returned at once to Jerusalem, a distance of about seven miles (11 km), to tell their colleagues who responded, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon” (Lk. 24:34). They also recounted how He had walked with them, talked with them and revealed Himself to them. So their response to the risen Christ was both internal and external: They were excited instead of despondent, and they spread the good news to their friends.
Unlike the bodies of other people, including King David, Christ’s body did not decay in a grave (Acts 2:25-32; 13:36-37). Although Christ had a funeral and was buried in a grave, three days later He rose from the dead and was seen by more than 500 men (1 Cor. 15:6). The women didn’t need to visit Christ’s grave anymore. His resurrection demonstrated His victory over death and ushered in the kingdom of God which is eternal life (1 Cor. 15:50-57). It also is a foretaste of the coming resurrection of all believers: “In Christ all will be made alive … who belong to Him” (1 Cor. 15:22-23).
We Will Rise
Arnold Schwarzenneger’s recent action film, “The 6th Day” shows a new world where man has attained near god-like biotechnological powers, where genetic technologies are used to eliminate disease, and cloning is possible for any living being. It is a remarkable world, said to be coming in the near future, in which immortality is finally within reach. This is similar to the dream of some scientists researching longevity who imagine a world where aging and even death is not inevitable.
But the Bible says that we will all die and that everyone who has died will be raised from the grave (Jn. 5:28-29; Rom. 3:23; 6:23). Resurrection is the opposite of death. In death the soul separates from the body, while in resurrection they are reunited. The Bible states that people will be in either one of two resurrections, based on whether their names are in the “Book of life” (Rev. 20:11-15). Those not in that book are judged by God at the Great White Throne and thrown into the lake of fire. Those in the “Book of life” have been rescued by Christ’s death and will be raised back to life when Christ returns. Then they will be “with the Lord forever” (1 Th. 4:17). These two destinies are illustrated by the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the beggar (Lk. 16:19-31).
A Sleeping Place
Another Lazarus mentioned in the New Testament, who lived in Bethany, was buried in a cemetery twice (Jn. 11:1-44). Jesus told his sister Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die” (Jn. 11:25-26). Therefore, believers that have already died will be resurrected when they are raised back to life at the Rapture: “He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies.” On the other hand, believers that are alive at His return will be transformed and all the faithful will be transported to heaven: “Whoever … believes in Me will never die.”
When Lazarus was dead, Christ said that he was asleep (Jn. 11:11). This metaphor is applied in the Bible to the bodies of believers after death, indicating that such death is temporary, restful and peaceful (1 Cor. 11:30). In fact, the word “cemetery” is derived from a Greek word meaning “the sleeping place.”
So, the next time you see a cemetery remember the good news of Christ’s resurrection: He left an empty “sleeping place,” and the graves are only “sleeping places” for believers as they wait for their resurrection.