1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
There is a scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, The Hobbit where Bilbo and the dwarves are walking through a very dark and dangerous forest. They haven’t seen the sun for days and the forest grows darker and darker and they grow more and more discouraged and afraid. Bilbo climbs one of the trees to see if he can see above the canopy overhead and get a glimpse beyond the forest. As he climbs to the top of the tree suddenly his head pops above the canopy and he see the blue sky and verdant green of the leaves, and off in the distance is the city to which they are traveling. He climbs down from the tree and tells the dwarves what he has seen and it renews their strength and courage for the journey.
The apostle Paul writes: 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. Therefore encourage each other with these words. (1 Thess 4:16-18)
Paul says, “encourage each other with these words.” That’s what this series of sermons on heaven is intended to do: by talking about heaven to encourage you and renew your strength for the journey.
Erwin Lutzer wrote a book entitled, “One Minute after You Die.” It is his take on heaven and hell and the afterlife. And while it’s a good study, the title is the best part of the book. There’s an immediacy to it, an urgency to it. Yes, I want to know about eternity, but what about the moment I die – when I close my eyes in death. What can I expect? Does the Bible have anything to say?
The OT writers used a word, Sheol to describe beyond death. It was the place of departed spirits, the place where all the dead go. David writes in Ps 89:48, “What man can live and not see death, or save himself from the power of the grave?” The word translated “grave” there is the Hebrew word Sheol. Isaiah speaks of Sheol: The grave below is all astir to meet you at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you—all those who were leaders in the world; it makes them rise from their thrones—all those who were kings over the nations. They will all respond, they will say to you, “You also have become weak, as we are; you have become like us.” (Isaiah 14:9-10)
Now, the Hebrews had a specific word for grave – that hole in the ground in which you place a dead body. This isn’t that. Whenever a writer is speaking about a funeral and the physical place where a body is laid, they use the Hebrew word for grave. Sheol is not that word. Sheol is more than the grave – it is the intermediary place where the spirit goes after the body dies. The Greeks had a word that was parallel to that – the word Hades. Both the Hebrews and the Greeks understood that Sheol or Hades was divided into two realms. For the Greeks it was Paradise and Tartarus. Paradise was where the righteous went, Tartarus where the wicked went. These are not the same as heaven and hell. Those come later.
When Jesus spoke to the thief on the cross he said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Their bodies would be placed in tombs, but their spirits would go to paradise.
In the story of the rich man and Lazarus (and I don’t believe it’s a parable, because characters in parables aren’t given names, so I think Jesus is telling a story of real life people), Lazarus, a poor beggar dies and goes to a place called Abraham’s bosom – another Hebrew term for paradise. The rich man dies and goes to a place of torment. This is not hell, nor is Lazarus in heaven. This is an intermediary place.
You’ll remember when Jesus rose on the third day and Mary reached for him, he said, “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.’” (John 20:17)
When the righteous in the OT died, they could not yet go to heaven until their sins were forgiven. Now the Hebrews writer talks about there being a time of forbearance of sins in the OT, but not the forgiveness of sins until Jesus died on the cross. The blood of bulls and goats could not forgive sins, but only the blood of Jesus. But when Jesus died and his blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins, heaven was opened for those who had lived faithfully in the OT. That is what Paul is referring to there in Ephesians 4:8 when he says, “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train…”
There in Revelation 1, the risen Jesus proclaims “I hold the keys to death and Hades.” When Jesus conquered death on the cross, he earned the right to open the door to Sheol, and when he did he released those righteous saints who had been waiting there.
From that point on Paradise and Heaven are the same place. Remember 2 Corinthians 12 where Paul talked about going up into the third heaven and seeing those “inexpressible things” – he referred to it as Paradise.
After Jesus’ ascension, the righteous dead are always referred to as being in heaven. That heaven, that will one day come down and become the new heaven and new earth, already exists in a spiritual dimension, hidden from us, but nevertheless real, awaiting its final revelation and final destination when Christ returns to earth.
When a person who is in Christ dies, I believe their spirit immediately goes to heaven to be with Jesus until the final resurrection of the body at which time we will be transformed into our new glorious bodies and we will take up residence in heaven on the restored earth.
You’ll remember when Stephen was being stoned – Luke writes in Acts 7: But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” And then as he died he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (Acts 7:55-59)
When you die, if you are in Christ, you will go to be with Jesus.
Now, some people try to describe death as sleep, and that when we die we go to sleep and are unaware of the passing of time or of where we are until the second coming of Jesus when we will wake up to our new surroundings. The Bible does use the word “sleep” when talking about the dead, but it is in a metaphorical or even a euphemistic way – it is speaking of the death of the body. At a funeral we’ll walk by the casket and say, “He looks so good, like he’s just sleeping.”
There are too many scriptures that talk about our awareness of people and time and experience to think we will simply go into a kind of cryogenic state. Our bodies may “sleep,” but our spirits remain fully aware.
In Revelation 6:9, John says, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”
John sees the souls of those who had died for their faith. They are aware of their surroundings, of the passing of time, of what is going on in the earth. They are not asleep, but they are eagerly awaiting and anticipating their full vindication. They are in heaven, but they are awaiting something more.
The rich man and Lazarus were both acutely aware of their surroundings and their situation. The rich man experienced pain and thirst and regret. He saw, he heard, he understood.
In Hebrews 12, the writer talks about our earthly life and struggles and the need to remain vigilant and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. And listen to the encouragement he gives: Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. You are surrounded by the spirits of those Christians who have gone before you, and they are cheering you on. In sports it is called the home field advantage. Just this week, the Kansas City Chiefs had their stadium officially declared the loudest stadium in the NFL. Their fans cheer the loudest, make the most noise, intimidate their foes with the most clamor during huddles. I suspect there is one stadium they left out of the competition. You may not hear them, but you are being cheered on by the greatest home field advantage that ever existed.
Let’s spend a few moments looking at the Scripture we began with: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 Brothers, 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. 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.
Let me make a quick distinction here. If you watch any religious programming on TV or read any mainstream evangelical writings you will hear the term “rapture.” They are even remaking the “Left Behind” movie from the 1990’s that will tell you that suddenly, one day, all of God’s people will disappear and God will send seven years of tribulation on the earth preceding a thousand year reign of Christ. It is all bundled up in the term “pre-millennialism” that views the book of Revelation as a prophetic roadmap to the future.
And I want to tell you that it is absolutely wrong, both about the book of Revelation and about what will happen at the end. There will be no rapture, no seven year tribulation, no millennial reign of Christ. That entire interpretation of the Bible is wrong. We do live in the end times – we have ever since Jesus walked out of the tomb on Easter morning. And yes, there have always been wars and rumors of wars and signs that the end is near. But Paul’s description of the saints being caught up in the air with Christ – that is the second coming of Christ, not a pre-tribulation rapture. When Christ comes, that will be the end – and the beginning of all things being made new.
This brings up the question of how are the dead raised?
How will God be able to resurrect the bodies of those who died centuries ago whose bodies have disintegrated and are no more than dust in a cemetery, or those whose bodies have been incinerated in a fire, or those who have been dismembered, and what about those who are cremated instead of buried? How can God raise those bodies? I’m not certain I have an answer for you other than, if God can create your body in the first place, I’m sure he can recreate your body in the last place – regardless of the condition of your mortal remains. And those perishable bodies (as Paul calls them) will be raised imperishable, “and then the saying will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’”
I know this kind of talk is exciting for some – you struggle daily with bodies that are showing their age – disease and illness have taken their toll and the promise of a new body and eternal life with God is a welcome thought. But…
But, in the back of your mind is that question – what about my loved ones who aren’t in the Lord? How can it be heaven without the ones I loved here on earth?
I In Revelation 21, John tells us something about heaven that seems unbelievable: “… He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
No more death or mourning or crying – God himself will wipe away every tear. There will be physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. There will be no regrets, no shame, no guilt, no questions unanswered.
Some have suggested that God wipes away our memories, but I don’t think that’s true – we will recognize each other and know our loved ones from the past. I don’t think God answers our prayers by giving us ignorance, but by giving us knowledge and wisdom. When we understand God’s justice and wisdom, we will have no questions or regrets about anything or anyone in this life. It will be perfectly clear and perfectly just. I know that I cannot understand or explain how this will happen, but I know that it will – I trust God that heaven will be perfect just as it is.
Everything that had to do with the old order of things – the fallen world with sin and guilt and shame and regrets will no longer exist. We will experience perfect joy because we will have the one thing that matters most – to be in the presence of God.
One thing that will be missing in heaven that will be most notable is pride. There will be no room for pride in heaven because we will all recognize how dependent we are on God’s grace to be there.
In a 1997 survey of Americans on who they think will be in heaven, #2 on the list was Mother Theresa, #3 Oprah, #4 Michael Jordan. Rounding out the bottom of the list was Dennis Rodman and O.J. Simpson. But who do you think ranked #1 on almost everyone’s list? Themselves.
I came across this poem that might resonate with you:
I was shocked, confused, bewildered
as I entered Heaven's door,
Not by the beauty of it all,
by the lights or its decor.
But it was the folks in Heaven
who made me sputter and gasp--
the thieves, the liars, the sinners,
the alcoholics, the trash.
There stood the kid from seventh grade
who swiped my lunch money twice.
Next to him was my old neighbor
who never said anything nice.
Herb, who I always thought
was rotting away in hell,
was sitting pretty on cloud nine,
looking incredibly well.
I nudged Jesus, "What's the deal?
I would love to hear Your take.
How'd all these sinners get up here?
God must've made a mistake.
And why's everyone so quiet,
so somber? Give me a clue."
"Hush, child," said He "They're all in shock.
No one thought they'd see you."
I suspect there will be a few surprises when we get to heaven. People we never expected to see, and perhaps a few who never expected to see us. Certainly, what heaven will look like will be more amazing than we can imagine. And the glory of God will fill us with such awe that we will have no words to respond except amazing grace.
(I want to acknowledge my dependence on two resources for some of the content in this sermon: Rick Atchley’s, Amazing Place, and N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope - both excellent studies on heaven.)