The saints of early times were not looking for death; the Lord's coming was their hope. It was when the Church became united with the world, and lost sight of her heavenly calling and hope, that death came to be regarded as the only terminus of the Christian's earthly course. And soon after, the theory of a general judgment at the consummation of all things gained ground, as that which is to finally determine the destiny of the righteous and the wicked. We need hardly say, that there is not a vestige of Scripture for such a doctrine; nay more, the whole testimony of Scripture is emphatically against it. We are not told that a believer must die. On the contrary, we are assured that "We shall not all sleep" (1 Cor. 15:51). There will be those who, like Enoch and Elijah, will "go without dying." There will be a people on earth "who are alive and remain" unto the coming of the Lord (1 Thess. 4:17). The Apostles, and believers of early days, regarded themselves as being of that number. In speaking of the dead in Christ, who will be raised, and of the living who will be changed at the advent of the Lord, they reckoned themselves among the latter.
[Note: The Christian's Hope—In I Thess. 4:17, the Apostle ranges himself with those who are alive and remain, while in 2 Cor. 5:8, though expressing his full hope to be resurrected or changed—clothed upon with his house from heaven—yet owns his willingness to be "absent from the body and at home with the Lord"—that is in the unclothed, intermediate state, between death and resurrection. So that while the Christian rightly instructed will not say "I must die," he does not deny that he may "fall asleep" before the Lord comes.]
The language is "We shall be changed" (1 Cor. 15:52): "We which are alive and remain" (1 Thess. 4:15). The only exception to this was the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord gave a special revelation that he would "put off" his tabernacle (2 Pet. 1:14); in other words, that he would die. Death is not therefore the proper hope of the Christian; it is translation or resurrection. Not a general resurrection "at the last day" as Martha believed (John 11:24), and as thousands still believe, who have a fuller revelation than she possessed, but "an out-resurrection," a resurrection from among the dead, as the word chosen to describe it by the Spirit implies. See Acts 26:24[?] and 1 Peter 1:4, where it is used of Christ's own resurrection; and Acts 4:2 and Philippians 3:11, where it is applied to the resurrection of believers only. No believer is warranted in saying that he will not die. This would be going beyond the words of Scripture. The disciples fell into this error regarding the words of the Lord Jesus spoken after He had risen from the dead, to John. "Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, he shall not die, but if I will that he tarry till I come" (John 21:23). John doubtless did die, or "fell asleep," as thousands have since. Yet death is not the Christian's proper hope. It is to be changed and caught up to meet the Lord at the moment of His personal return. Strange as it may appear, these two events are by some interpreted as being the same, and texts that speak of the Lord's return are often applied to the Christian's death. But this is a grave mistake.
The Lord's Coming is not Death
Death never means the Lord's coming. It is in many respects a contrast to it. When a believer dies, or "falls asleep" (Acts 7:60; 1 Cor. 15:18; 1 Thess. 4:15), the Lord does not come again and receive him. He departs to be with Christ (Phil. 1:23), he "puts off" his tabernacle (2 Pet. 1:14), he is "absent from the body" (2 Cor. 5:8), he is "unclothed" (2 Cor. 5:4). When the Lord Jesus comes, He will "change our vile body," and fashion it like unto "his glorious body" (Phil. 3:21). At death, the body goes to "corruption" (1 Cor. 15:54); at resurrection it is raised in incorruption, and "death is swallowed up of victory." At death, the saints are parted amid tears. When Jesus comes, they will be gathered together in unspeakable joy.
Those who have Fallen Asleep
We do not for a moment doubt that dear ones who have fallen asleep are perfectly happy in the presence of their Lord. It has not been the will of God to give us many details of the experiences and employments of those who have been called away from us here to be with Him there, but the glimpses that we do get are sufficient to assure us that they have lost nothing, but have gained a great deal by their absence from the body and their removal from a world of sin and woe. The parting may have been bitter, but it was not without hope that we laid them in the tomb. As we sing—
"Saint after saint has gone: has lived and loved and died,
And as they left us one by one, we laid them side by side;
We laid them down to sleep, but not in hope forlorn,
We laid them but to ripen there, till that fair glorious morn."
They are with Christ which is "[very] far better" (Phil. 1:23). They are "[at home] with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8). Far from earth's conflicts, toils, and sorrows, in that fair paradise with Christ, sharing the rest and the joy of that blessed place. But they have not come to the goal of their blessedness: they wait to be "clothed upon" with their "[habitation] which is from heaven" (2 Cor. 5:2); to put on that incorruptible body, which shall be given them on the morn of the first resurrection. They have gone to the upper waiting room, to wait with their waiting Lord, while we in this lower and outer court of service are waiting for Him here.
The Resurrection of the Dead in Christ
In immediate response to the "shout" of the descending Son of God, with "the voice of the Archangel and the trump of God," there will be a resurrection of all the dead in Christ. The first great act of Christ's future triumph will be in the realm of death. He will sweep the grave in one moment of the dust of all His saints. Blessed be God! He has already conquered there. He passed through death and the grave, and in passing through He wrought a victory which He is pledged to share with all His people. Meanwhile the bodies of many lie mouldering in the tomb. They have reached that condition described as "corruption." The grave has long closed its mouth upon them, and, to all appearance, saint and sinner share the common doom, "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Gen. 3:19). And thus the world reads it. It speaks of the grave as "man's last long home." Unbelievers lay their dead in the silent tomb with "no hope." The saint views death with a different eye. To faith, it is only a "falling asleep" (1 Cor. 15:18), and the grave is but a temporary resting-place till the morn of resurrection.
"O false ungrateful world, to call the grave,
'Man's last long home,'
'Tis but a lodging kept from day to day,
Till Christ shall come."
Faith knows that their ransomed spirits are with Christ; "far better" than in days of earthly life, when they tabernacled in a mortal body. Yet that "unclothed" state is not the final and perfect state of the believer. He waits to be "clothed upon with his [habitation] which is from heaven" (2 Cor. 5:2). And this he shall receive in the earliest moment of that coming day of Immanuel's power. "The dead in Christ shall rise first." The grave will yield its ancient charge. Death will be swallowed up of victory. "The trump of God," elsewhere called "the last trump" (1 Cor. 15:52) is a figure taken from the Roman camp, which had frequently to be awakened in the still hours of night. The first blast of the trump awakened the sleeping host: the second rallied them, and at "the last trump" the army marched. What a sight, when the myriads of God's redeemed awake from their sleep in silent grave and sea! What a rallying when they gather from every clime and country! What a triumphant march that will be when they ascend together, in one glorious throng, from earth to heaven! All in bodies of glory: all in the fair image of their Risen Lord. But let it be distinctly remembered that this is not a general resurrection. "Resurrection of the dead" (Heb. 6:2) is a fundamental truth of Christianity, and saint and sinner must share it, but not at the same time or after the same manner. The saved will be raised in the very earliest stage of their Lord's return when He descends into the air, to be glorified; the lost will be raised after His millennial reign, to be judged (See Rev. 20:4, 12). The resurrection of the dead in Christ is therefore after the same manner as Christ's own, it is a "resurrection [from (or from among)] the dead" (Phil. 3:11), elsewhere called "a resurrection.. of the just" (Acts 24:15), and a "resurrection of life" (John 5:29).
Thus clearly, will the Lord distinguish between "His own" and "the world" in that day, as He has aforetime done (John 13:1; 17:16), and would still have His people do (2 Cor. 6:14-17). And what a miracle of Almighty power and unerring discernment will that resurrection be! Not one saint awanting: not one sinner there! The vault may contain the dust of generations, who have died in sin, but there also lies the precious dust of one who "fell asleep through Jesus" (1 Thess. 4:17). In that resurrection morn, the saint alone will come forth from the tomb, in the beauty, and loveliness of his Lord, while "the rest of the dead" will lie undisturbed for at least a thousand years.
The Resurrection Body
The question has been asked "How are the dead raised, and with what body do they come?" (1 Cor. 15:35), and "science, falsely so-called," has stepped forward with the answer, that there can be no resurrection at all. Resurrection is beyond, yea quite opposed to man's reason: but to faith "the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple." Christ's own resurrection was a miracle and a mystery. The world was unable to account for it, and it forged a lie to deny it (Matt. 28:13). This also it may do with the resurrection of the saints.
The bodies of the sleeping saints will be raised "incorruptible" (1 Cor. 15:52) that is, insubject to decay. Death shall never feed on them more. Their risen Lord, whose resurrection is the first-fruits and pledge of that of His people, has entered now on "an endless life" (see Heb. 7:16). They also will "die [no] more" (Luke 20:36). There will be no dismission of the ransomed spirit from its "heavenly," as there had been from the "earthly" house. It will be its fit companion. "Weakness" (1 Cor. 15:43) characterises the mortal body, soon bringing weariness and fatigue, even in the service of the Lord. The "willing" spirit (Matt. 26:41) often finds it a burden and a hindrance. The resurrection body will be a "spiritual" body: it will be characterised not by frailty but by "power" (1 Cor. 15:43-44), a meet companion for the ransomed spirit, enabling the risen saints to serve unweariedly and perfectly in the glorified state. It is for the "clothing upon" of this glorious body, that the saints now on earth in mortal bodies groan (Rom. 8:22).
There is much help on this part of the subject to be gathered from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. The young converts at Thessalonica had been taught to wait for the Son from heaven (Chap. 1:10), and there is pleasing evidence in the letter written to them by Paul, that their hope abounded. But some of their number had meanwhile "fallen asleep," and they sorrowed at their absence, thinking possibly they would miss the joys and triumphs to be shared by the living saints at the coming of the Lord. We need not wonder at this, for they had not the full revelation that we now have. Their sorrow was an occasion for the Lord giving to them and us, through Paul, additional light on the future of the dead in Christ. Instead of being behind in the honours of the coming morn, they are to be the very first to share it, "The dead in Christ shall rise first"—not one awanting. Not as they were laid down in the silent grave, but in bodies of resurrection power and beauty, fitted to bear the glory into which they are about to be introduced.
"No fevered brow is there,
No keen and throbbing pain,
No wasted cheek, where frequent tear,
Hath rolled and left its stain.
They shine in the light of God;
Christ's likeness stamps each brow,
The shadows of earth and death are past,
And they rise in glory now."
The question has been asked, "Will the saints recognize each other in that resurrection state?" In matters on which Scripture is silent, or has only informed us in part, it is unwise to speculate.
That the resurrection body will be entirely different from the present mortal body is abundantly proved, but there is nothing to show that it will lose its identity. Moses and Elias, who appeared with their transfigured Lord on the mount were instantly recognized by Peter, even though he had never seen them in mortal flesh. And in that scene of glory, Moses stands the representative of the dead saints who be raised, and Elias of the living saints who shall be changed. The apostle looked forward to the meeting with the saints of Thessalonica, as his hope, his joy, and his crown of rejoicing in the presence of the Lord at His coming (1 Thess. 2:19). And surely we may infer, he will be able to distinguish them from others in "the great congregation." There will be resurrection and re-union. Long-divided saints will gather with loved ones gone before; all in the perfect image of reflectors of His glory, and all admiring Christ in each other (2 Thess. 1:10).
There each others' faces seeing,
Bright with beauty all of grace;
We shall still the former being
In the new perfection trace.
The Living Saints Changed
Immediately after the dead in Christ have been raised, the living saints on earth will be changed. They do not "precede" (1 Thess. 4:16, R.V.) their brethren who have fallen asleep, for, as we have already seen, the resurrection of the dead in Christ, is the first in order, of the triumphs of that coming hour. Yet, the living will be in no-wise behind them. "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye...the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and "we shall be changed" (1 Cor. 15:42). There will be no interval between these two great acts of Divine power. The "moment" that witnesses the triumph of the Lord in the resurrection of His sleeping saints, will witness His power in the "change" of those who are alive in mortal flesh. Death shall never claim them as its prey. They shall "go without dying," yet not without being changed.
The first mention of this great event recorded in Scripture was spoken by the Lord to Martha of Bethany in the day of her sorrow, when her brother Lazarus lay in the tomb. Her hope of resurrection was that he would rise again at "the last day." This the Lord sought to dispel by presenting Himself as the "Resurrection and the Life," and then He added the ever-memorable words: "he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?" (John 11:25-26). In these words we have the bud of the promise, more fully disclosed in the Epistles, the "mystery" not made known to saints of former times, but revealed to Paul (1 Cor. 15:51): namely, that the saints who will be found alive at their Lord's return, shall not taste of death at all, but shall pass into the glory of their Lord "without dying."
"One moment twinkling fair and bright,
And we caught upward through the air,
Shall shine in Thy transcendant light,
And even Thy heavenly image bear."
Death is no debt of nature to the Christian. For him death has been "destroyed" judicially at the Cross, and will be "abolished" at the coming of the Lord. But flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50). The mortal body, although now indwelt by the new life (2 Cor. 4:10), sanctified by the Holy Spirit's presence (1 Cor. 6:19), and fit to be presented for the service of the Lord (Rom. 12:1), is not fitted to bear the light of unveiled glory. It must either be "dissolved"—as it is in those who have fallen asleep, or "changed" as it will be in those who are "alive and remain" when the Lord descends. What the nature of this change will be, or how it will be wrought, we do not yet fully know, nor are we able now to fully comprehend.
But we do know this, that the change will be wrought in the "twinkling of an eye," that it will impart "immortality" to the living, and "incorruptibility" to the dead in Christ, so that death can never have them as its prey. They shall be made "like" unto their Lord (1 John 3:2). The body of their humiliation shall be changed "fashioned like unto his glorious body" (Phil. 3:21). The last trace of the fall shall be done away, and with the image of their Lord impressed upon them, the changed saints shall be "caught up together" with the sleepers who have been raised, to meet the Lord in the air, and to gather unto Him (2 Thess. 2:1) one glorious company, one unbroken circle; including, no doubt, the noble line of patriarchs, prophets, martyrs, and faithful witnesses of ages long gone by, as well as "the Church of the firstborn" (Heb. 12:23). Apart from us they could not be made perfect (Heb. 11:40), but then with us they shall surely share the out-resurrection, as part of the heavenly calling (Heb. 11:16). Verily, they will form a noble host. Not one sheep or lamb of the blood-bought flock amissing then! Not a trace of sin, or its ravages there! God has triumphed! Christ has won the victory! The saints are like and with their Lord. O wondrous moment! Glorious Victory!
"How shall I meet these eyes, mine on Himself I cast,
And own myself the Saviour's prize, mercy from first to last."
And as this will bring to the saints that "fulness of joy" (Ps. 16:11), which is to be theirs in the presence of the Lord, so it will be unto Him the day of His "exceeding joy" (Jude 24). To have His long-loved people, the purchase of His precious blood, for ever by His side, gathered from every clime and kingdom, all safe at last, guided by His hand to their eternal home, will be to Him the fulness of all His joy, part of that joy that was set before Him when He "endured the Cross" and despised the shame (Heb. 12:2). "He shall see of the travail of His soul and shall be satisfied" (Isa. 53:11). And in prospect of that coming triumph each saint can say—"I shall be satisfied when I awake with Thy likeness" (Ps. 17:15). Thus the glorified saints, in company with their Lord, pass into the place prepared, the home and the dwelling-place of love.
[Note: The "Mystery" truths of the New Testament have no place in the earlier Scriptures. They were part of the Divine counsels from "times eternal" (Rom.16:25, R.V.), but "kept in silence" until the appointed season for their revelation. For the word "mystery" signifies not a thing unintelligible, but what lies hidden and secret until made known by revelation of God (Bloomfield). That there were foreshadowing types of these "mysteries," such as that of Adam and Eve (see Gen. 2:21-24, with Eph. 5:31-32, is clear. For the Apostle expressly speaks in the Epistle "concerning Christ and the Church," using the figure of the first pair to illustrate this "great mystery." But the Adam and Eve type waited on the revelation of that mystery "which in other ages was not made known" (Eph. 3:5), for its elucidation as well as for its fulfilment. The charming story in Gen. 24, of the wooing and home-bringing of Rebekah, from the distant land, under the hand of Abraham's servant, as the bride of the typically dead and risen son, waiting in the father's home, and his going forth to meet and welcome her, read in the light of John 14:3; 1 Thess. 4:16-17, is too well-known as a type to need comment.]
From The Second Advent of the Lord Jesus, with Subsequent Events in Heaven and on Earth by John Ritchie. 3rd ed., enl. Kilmarnock, Scotland: John Ritchie, .
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