And Jesus said unto him, "Verily I say unto thee. Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise."
Luke chapter 23 verse 23.
A subject such as this cannot be approached in the spirit of dogmatism. We are not endowed with any faculty, which can apprehend the unseen direct and interpret it to us with final certitude. No man has ever returned to tell us of his experience. It is not without significance that Scripture has no record of any information derived from Lazarus after he was raised from the dead. Very probably silence could not be broken because speech was inadequate to reflect the impressions he had received. A reverent meditation of the Word of God appears to me to be the one right and proper way of approach to a subject over which, very obviously, a veil has been drawn. Scripture, indeed is not concerned to relieve us entirely of the mystery of death. It pierces the darkness with shafts of light but it does not dispel it. Undoubtedly that is part of God's purpose, and where He offers no light we will not penetrate with irreverence. The Scriptures are not uncertain in their testimony but they are partial, "the half has not been told," but what has been told we may be sure is true.
We must not overlook the singular and peculiar value of the Scriptures in this connection. Other religions have their teaching concerning the world beyond our sense experience but it is teaching, in the main which fills their devotees with dread. Science has not yet established empirically a life after death, it has nothing to offer of certainty to the cold intelligence of the modem world. There is nothing in the wide world capable of offering such sublime comfort to the bereaved and final consolation to those departing from this present sphere of time as the solemn, yet peaceful and hopeful, words of Holy Writ. Hence to the only authoritative revelation we turn for light amidst the shadows of time.
Let us remind ourselves that life and death are not respectively the equivalents of existence and non-existence. They are aspects of existence. There can be existence without life, and the resurrection of our Lord is conclusive evidence that death is not extinction. If He had suffered extinction in death He could never have been raised again. Death has probably many mysterious values for us but it does not mean extinction. We have seen too that the dead have not yet put on immortality. That is a boon reserved for those who, having already received eternal life, await their place in the first resurrection. Wherever they are now they have not yet received immortality. Later on I shall be dealing with the destiny of the wicked and therefore in this study, I shall confine myself to the present condition of the dead who have accepted the Son and have received eternal life. That the dead in Christ are not yet in the highest state of spiritual delight and experience we know from the fact that they have not yet received the gift of immortality. The writer to the Hebrews confirms this when, speaking of those who have died in faith, he says-"God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect." Peter, on the day of Pentecost declared David is not ascended into the heavens. It seems very clear, therefore, that there is an ultimate gloryof which the dead in Christ as yet have had no experience.
Corresponding with this are ideas, which are expressed by Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians, concerning them that are asleep in Jesus. Some hold the view that when the believer dies he remains unconscious until the day of Christ and the view is not without foundation in Scripture. But while I recognise such a conclusion to be a legitimate deduction from certain passages I do not regard it as the full teaching of the Bible. Was Paul thinking of a long sleep when he said that, " To be with Christ, which is far better; " when he declared that "to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord ?" Was our Lord thinking of a long sleep when He promised the dying thief, "To-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise?" It is possible, of course, that such was their meaning, and such an existence one would not altogether despise. When one contemplates the conditions under which millions have eked out human life on this planet, when one thinks how millions, even to-day, are living then the conviction is driven home that sleep, restful, undisturbed, is a boon to be grasped with thankfulness and joy. Thousands of our fellows would gladly exchange their present lot for such an abiding peace.
Yet I hold that there are other considerations which give deeper meaning to the quotations above and which enlarge joy in anticipation. There is that most incisive and illuminating rejoinder of our Lord to the Sadducces concerning the resurrection of the dead. "Now that the dead are raised, even Moses showed at the bush, when He called the Lord the God of Abraham, Isaac, and the God of Jacob. For He is not a God of the dead but of the living." In the mind of our Lord, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were living in another sphere when He was on earth. It is only fair to recognise that "living " and " sleeping " are not mutually exclusive terms and that the great patriarchs could have been in a state of blissful unconsciousness when our Lord described them as living. Upon that one utterance, therefore, we could not build too much concerning the present condition of the dead in Christ. We may, however, get increasing light from the record of the Transfiguration. That extraordinary event has given material for much extravagant speculation and those who care for the Word of God will be careful not to make questionable deductions from it. But it is quite clear that Moses and Elijah were in conversation with our Lord concerning his decease, shortly to be accomplished at Jerusalem. They are not merely alive or even dumb actors raised to make an impression upon the faint-hearted disciples. They enter into intelligent conversation with our Lord and appear to understand from their own enlightened sphere the meaning of His cross in a way which was impossible to the disciples who accompanied Him on the earth. It may be that these great saints of the Old Testament were specially raised up for this purpose of fellowship with the Lord at the moment of approaching crisis, but there is nothing in the record to suggest it.
From another angle a gleam of light comes in the epistle of Peter. There we have the account of our Lord's proclamation to the spirits in prison who were disobedient during the testimony of Noah. I believe that proclamation was made between our Lord's death and resurrection. It is an intriguing and perplexing revelation concerning which much remains mysterious, but it has a positive value for our present consideration in that our Lord certainly made His proclamation to those who were in a position to appreciate the significance of His utterance. If the disobedient have conscious existence shall we deny it to those who are the Lord's?
There are certain assurances, therefore, that we may legitimately deduce from Scripture. It is perfectly clear that the child of God does not, at death, receive at once the gift of immortality. He has not yet entered into the highest experience of heavenly bliss that God has in store for him. He awaits the consummation of the age, for God has willed that " they without us should not be made perfect." Neither is the child of God asleep, unconscious. True, the Scriptures speak of them as asleep in Christ, but that may be to describe their attitude to us rather than to the world in which they find themselves. They are certainly unresponsive to us, but not all the dead who are His chosen ones have been unresponsive to God. The Scriptures give us excellent ground for thinking of our beloved in Christ as already enjoying some of the glories of the eternal world, waiting eagerly to share with us the consummation, which is yet to be.
To reach such a conclusion is to discover that it is a new starting point for many questions. In what vesture is the believer in the eternal world now clothed? One has only to ask such a question to realise how feeble must be one's answer and yet it must be faced. It is a question pressing for an answer even if we think of the saints as asleep. The whole note of redemption in the New Testament suggests that man is not man without a body. God's purpose and process of redemption includes the body, and we are not capable of thinking of the spirit of man functioning apart from it. At death the believer forsakes the body of this sphere of existence, and at the day of Christ he is to receive the body of incorruption and immortality; in what body is he now ? Let us not scoff at the idea of more than one eternal body, even a series of bodies. Revelation and experience are here united in testimony. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, is at pains to show there are various kinds of bodies in this world, the body of man, of birds, of beasts, of fishes. Very clearly there is a body adapted to each particular environment and responsive to the peculiar need. Whatever the sphere may be, earth, air or water, God provides the suitable body.
So, says Paul, there are bodies terrestrial and bodies celestial, bodies for this present temporal sphere, bodies for the eternal sphere. Furthermore, every individual is here conscious of a changing body even in the passage of time, passing through a complete change, we are assured, every seven years. We cannot, therefore, limit the possibilities, in this connection, of the eternal body.
Interest, however, will probably be focussed upon the resurrection body of Christ. The empty tomb is significant. When He was raised from the dead He took the crucified flesh with Him. It was the same body, for He showed His hands and His feet to Thomas, yet there was something strangely unfamiliar; for they failed to recognise Him on the road to Emmaus. That He was able to appear in their presence, in spite of locked doors, does not help us because, in the days of His earthly life, His body was capable of walking on the sea. There may be some significance, however, in His declaration to the disciples when Thomas was absent. Concerning His body He distinctly says " A spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have." He had poured out His blood unto death. Of this we may be certain, there is a definite correspondence between the body of this life and that which is to come. We may be equally certain there are also differences. Scripture also makes it clear that the body of the resurrection seen by the disciples is not the body of His present glory. When John, in Patmos, saw the Living One, he fell at His feet as dead, by reason of the overpowering awe of the majesty and splendour of Him who had the keys of death and of Hades. There was a glory integral to that body which earth had never known, and into that surpassing glory it is the privilege of the believer one day to be transformed. Paul looks forward to the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ " Who shall transform the body of our humiliation, that it may he fashioned like unto the body of His glory."
We may therefore, with much assurance, contemplate those who are dead in Christ not as having passed to extinction, or even to sleep, but to conscious experience. They have not yet received immortality, but they rest in the sure confidence that by the mercy of God and the grace of their Redeemer it will be theirs at His Coming.
They already taste of the lavish richness of the eternal world clothed in bodies suited to their sphere adapted to their powers. Life for them is a thrilling exhilaration, as they perceive from the heights of God the glory and purpose of God in the whole vast universe.
The glory of Christ has dawned in larger measure upon them, in their redeemed personalities they are reacting to it, without the hindrance of the sinful will and with a clear understanding of the meaning of His way with them. Their body is free from pain, no anxiety presses them down, rather the anticipation of glories upon glories dimly perceived, is a constant inspiration and exhilaration. Death though not yet vanquished, cannot touch them where they are, and so their joy is full.
For two things they wait with eagerness. They wait the day of His Appearing when they shall behold His unveiled glory, as perhaps they have not yet seen it. That will be the day when the body of His glory shall be theirs when infinite capacities and endowments shall fit them for a life of such activity and beauty as our feeble minds can but faintly dream. The added powers they have already received do but make them long with intensity for the final consummation when they shall be like Him and see Him as He is.
And they wait too for us. The Church of the Redeemed is divided. The greater part is already safely over but part still is on this side of the river. And God has lodged in our hearts the sense of a family unbroken, united together. This is the only sense in which the true Catholic Church of the Redeemed in Christ is divided. Men talk of the re-union of the Churches, but the Church redeemed in His precious blood, which is the only Church, has never been divided except by the narrow stream of death. And when one thinks of these things, one longs to put off from the shore. The company of those on the other side to whom our hearts are knit in Christ increases. We understand Paul when he found himself in a strait betwixt two having a desire to depart and to be with Christ which is far better. Work remains here to be done but with this vision it is done in a different way. We do not mourn our departed, we discover we mourn for ourselves!
"Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord."
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