I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue lagoon. She is an object of beauty and strength, and I stand and watch her until, at length, she is only a ribbon of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other. Then someone at my side says, “There, she is gone!” Gone where? Gone from my sight, that is all. Her diminished size is in me, not in her, and just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There, she is gone,” there are other voices glad to take up the shout, “There, she comes.”
The tomb is not a blind alley; it is a thoroughfare. It closes upon the twilight but opens upon the dawn. But we Christians have never understood this process we call “death.” And we have the tendency to fear that which we do not understand. The knowledge of going to Heaven and the paradise that is found there gives us hope, but the passage concerns us.
At the very moment of Jesus’ death on the cross some very odd things happened in Jerusalem. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. (Matt 27:51)
The faithful believers who had died and were buried, came to life. I have to ask the question, “They haven’t already gone to Heaven?” Even Jesus said to the dying thief, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (John 11:1) When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. Jesus, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” FOUR days and he wasn’t in Heaven?
One of the major differences between Protestant and Catholic understandings of the “last things” relates to the question of purgatory. Purgatory was an in between place, in between life and eternity. The Catholic’s view it more as an intermediate stage, in which those who have died in a state of grace are given an opportunity to purge themselves of the guilt of their sins before finally entering heaven. The Church developed a practice of praying for the dead.
1 Cor 15:29 Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?
Purgatory comes to us from a Jewish history. (1 Sam 28:8) So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and at night he and two men went to the woman. “Consult a spirit for me,” he said, “and bring up for me the one I name.” But the woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done.
He has cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land. Then the woman asked, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” “Bring up Samuel,” he said. When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out at the top of her voice and said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!” The king said to her, “Don’t be afraid. What do you see?” The woman said, “I see a spirit coming up out of the ground.” “What does he look like?” he asked. “An old man wearing a robe is coming up,” she said.
It was believed that all who died were held until the “great resurrection.”
(John 11:23) Jesus said to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “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. Do you believe this?”
(Jude 8) But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” Paul addresses a very real question that the Church has about those who have died. 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. What the Church is wanting to know, have things changed? We believe (the Church) 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. Therefore encourage each other with these words.
Paul finds himself battling with what has been taught to him in his Jewish tradition and what he feels confident in his soul. Paul when speaking of his own death says, (Phil 1:21-22) For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
While Paul’s theology seems to hint of a purgatory his heart was no where near that understanding.
John when writing Revelation even expresses the same feeling as Paul. (Rev 20:4) They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection.
When Jesus came, and especially following His resurrection, things radically changed. I believe that Paul uses the word “asleep” in our text today for a very important reason. He is trying to express a mystery that we do not completely understand. With God, time has no meaning. It has no confinement. Time is irrelevant. When we close our eyes in sleep at night, time is lost. What may only seem like five minutes has somehow become 8 hours.
One cannot be prayed in or out of what does not exist. The time of testing is over. No chance to repent of being bad. No opportunity to try to get it right.
No concern as to when the great resurrection will be, for time has no confinement. All that is important is that there will be a time when we will meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.