Last week we saw that the resurrection of Jesus is the massive sign that God has not abandoned our little world of time and space, but penetrated it, shattered it, and begun its transformation. This transformation is not just for the human family.
In Romans 8:21 St. Paul says, “the whole will be set free from its bondage to decay to obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” What does this mean? It means that people who have heavenly bodies (as opposed to earthly bodies) will live in a heavenly environment, an environment that is at least akin to the world we have known.
In 1st Corinthians 15, the apostle assumes that it is when Christ comes back for his church on earth that the resurrection harvest will take place, and those who belong to Christ will receive their new bodies. In the early days of the church, people thought that Christ would come back, soon, any day, and few expected to die before Christ’s return.
Of course, people continued to die. In 1st Thessalonians 4:13-18 St. Paul wrote to comfort those who had lost loved ones saying:
13 But we would not have you ignorant, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; 17 then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.
As you can see from verse 17, Paul still expected to be alive at Christ’s return. But a time came when this was no longer his expectation. As time passed, he was forced to consider that many believers, himself included, would face death before the return of Christ. It was with this in mind that he wrote another letter to the church in Corinth saying:
2nd Cor. 4:16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 5:1 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
So, which is it? Are believers raised “on the last day, when Christ comes back for his church on earth?” If so, then we may ask, “What happens when believers are called home to be with the Lord, as in death?”
The Moravian Church has always taught that “Christ coming back for his church on earth” or “our being called home to Christ in death” is but two sides of the same coin.
Emil Brunner, the great 20th Century Neo-Orthodox theologian said that this seeming contradiction can be so because of the difference between time (which is linear) and eternity (in which all things happen at once). He based his discussion on what Einstien had said about the relativity of time and space. Brunner pointed out that, in time, things happen in a straight line. I die. I am buried. I experience dying, but I do not experience my own death. My loved ones do. They survive without me for a time. Eventually, of course, they too die and are buried. Eventually, time will come to an end. Then, whether as the last act of time, or the first act of eternity, Christ will appear in Glory and Eternity will begin for all. It goes without saying that despite the way that people have abused the idea, Christ must return in glory. For the Christ who appeared for the first time on the plane of human history in humility and hiddenness, his true identity known to just a select few witnesses, and to faith, must of necessity appear a second time, in power and glory, his true identity known to faith and unbelief alike. But back to me and my death.
When I die, I will pass into Eternity. I look will around. It is the end. Christ has been revealed in glory, and I am suddenly surrounded by all the people I love, those that I thought I had left behind. The heavenly future will have begun for me and them, and for all who belong to Christ. We have all been judged, not in our own merit, but in Christ, and in Christ we have been found, “Not guilty!”
Resurrection is a powerful idea. It is in his resurrection that Jesus was “designated Son of God in power.” It is in the resurrection of Jesus that God reveals his plan for humanity. It is in the resurrection of Jesus that God revealed God’s power to defeat every enemy. The apostle wrote, “The last enemy to be defeated is death.”
In Christ, God has defeated even the Last Enemy. The war is one, though battles still rage. We Christians wait for the final consumption of all things and the beginning of Eternity. Meanwhile, we live in the knowledge that the power that took Jesus Christ out of the grave is available to us now, not just in the moment of death, but in the midst of life. If God could raise Christ from the dead, then he can help us overcome our difficulties. It may be that God will restore to us, even the years that “the locust hath eaten.” If we truly believe in the God who raises the dead, then nothing will be impossible for us. Do you believe it? The apostle did. In Romans 8 he wrote:
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?36 As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.38 For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.