Thursday, July 28, 2005

Coming with the Saints

This will be my last installmenet on the subject of the present status of those who have died in the Lord. Grievers are usually curious about their loved ones. There is some comfort in a pastoral word about how our loved ones live in the presence of God around his throne. There is comfort in recognizing that we worship with the saints around that throne. When we sing "Holy, Holy, Holy" (the liturgical Sanctus) we join with the heavenly chorus that surrounds the throne. The church militant is one with the church triumphant.

While there is certainly comfort in these perspectives--and I relish them, meditate on them and enjoy them, this is not the ultimate hope of Christians. Even the saints around the throne are yet waiting for something more. The journey is not yet over. God has not yet redeemed the cosmos. Death has not yet been fully defeated. The dead have not yet been raised.

When Paul sought to comfort the Thessalonians over the death of some of the saints in the church there, he appealed not to their "intermediate" state (their present experience of the heavenly throne room) but to their resurrection at the second coming of Jesus. Just as we believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, so we believe that God will raise those who have fallen asleep as well.

Paul says this in an interesting way. In 1 Thessalonians 4:14 Paul claims that "God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him." Those who have died in the Lord will accompany Jesus at his parousia; the saints will come with him (1 Thess 3:13). They will share in the glory of that day, and their glory will be their resurrection as they receive glorified bodies. They will be like Jesus, the new human (Phil. 3:20; 1 Cor. 15:49). Those who are still alive will be changed (transformed) in the "twinkling of an eye" (1 Cor. 15:51).

The new creation will be complete as human beings live upon the new earth with new bodies. We will meet the Lord in the air, the earth will be refined by fire, and the "new Jerusalem" (the bride of Christ) will descend upon the earth united to her bridegroom. There, upon the renewed earth, God will dwell with his people as a husband dwells with his wife. Hope realized. Community restored. Everything new. Humanity together again. God and Humanity mutually indwelling each other. The journey completed, but only just beginning.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The First Resurrection

Revelation 20 is dangerous ground upon which to walk. To comment on it assumes so much. It assumes a particular way of reading the whole apocalyptic drama. It assumes a particular structure to the book. Consequently, there are many ambiguities, varied understandings and even some nasty polemical controversies associated with this text.

Nevertheless, I will venture into these choppy waters in order to make a very specific point based upon my understanding of this text. And I do so only to share a pastoral meditation that I find quite meaningful.

In Revelation 20:1-3, Satan is bound. Whatever that means, it means he is not destroyed but only limited. Simultaneously, in Revelation 20:4-6, the martyrdom saints (those beheaded) and others who have overcome (they did not worship the beast) reign with Christ on thrones. Those who overcome sit down with Christ on his thrones--it is a co-regency (cf. Rev. 3:21). They share in the glory of the kingdom of God. These thrones, as are all thrones in Revelation, participate in heavenly glory--they exist in the throne room of God, in the heavenly sanctuary, the heavenly dwelling place of God.

These saints ("souls") participate in the "first resurrection." This resurrection is described at the end of verse 4 as: "they came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years." I believe is this an affirmation, similar to the picture in Revelation 7 or Revelation 14:13, that those who have passed from earth to heaven, those who have died in the Lord actually come to life when they pass through the portals of death. When the saints of God die, they come to life. They enter the presence of God and reign with Christ on his throne. They are seated on thrones surrounding the throne of God himself. They share the heavenly glory of Christ himself.

The "rest of the dead" --apparently those who do not share in that glory--do not "come to life" until the judgment day when everyone experiences the "second resurrection" (or the resurrection from the dead where bodies are raised to meet God). I tend to think that the righteous dead, according to this text, life with Christ, but the unrighteous dead (the rest of the dead) are not conscious of their state until the "second resurrection" (that is, the general resurrection of the dead when all will be raised with bodies once again).

Those who participate in the "first resurrection" will not participate in the "second death." The "first" and "second" imply a contrast with missing components. What is the "first" death and the "second" resurrection? I believe the first death is physical death. The souls enthroned with Christ experienced the first death but as participants in the "first resurrection" they will not experience the "second death." These "souls", however, await the newness of creation--the time when creation will be renewed, including their own bodies in a (second) resurrection. The "new heavens and new earth" will appear along with a "new Jerusalem." This newness is the (second) resurrection of the cosmos--a renewed creation with renewed, transformed bodies in which the saints participate.

Where are the saints who have died in the Lord? They have experienced the first resurrection. They came alive in their death. They live in the presence of God, reigning with Christ as they await the final consummation; as they await the renewed heaven and earth. They are not dead, but alive. But they are not yet complete, not yet all that God intends them to be....they wait for the new heavens and new earth just as those living upon the earth do. But though they died, they are yet alive.

If you are interested in a more detail presentation of this perspective, I suggest reading the excellent article by Don Garlington.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Waiting With Us

However we might describe the "intermediate" state (the mode of existence for those who have died in the Lord), their sharing our sense of "waiting" for the fullness of God's kingdom. Though they have passed from earth to the throne room of God through the portal of death, nevertheless they sense that their own journey is incomplete. They have not yet arrived at the final destination.

The "souls" under the altar in the heavenly temple had sacrificed their blood for the testimony of Jesus Christ (Rev. 6:9-11). Their blood had been poured out at the sacrificial altar. They live in the presence of God, dressed in their white robes (Rev. 6:11) and holding their harps (cf. Rev. 15:2) and palm branches (Rev. 7:9). They have moved from earth--with all its trials and pains--to a heavenly reality where they are protected by the Lamb.

Even though joy surrounds them in the presence of God and the Lamb, they nevertheless know that saints upon the earth still undergo travail. In the presence of God, they lament. They ask their questions, including: "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?"

The martyred saints recognize both the sovereignty (power) and the holiness (holy and true) of God (cf. Rev. 15:3-4). They appeal to both aspects as they lament the injustice upon the earth. The cosmos has not yet reached the fullness of God's kingdom. The saints before the throne share the lament of those who still live upon the earth. They both still cry out, "your kingdom come." They both still await the time when the will of God will done on earth as it is in heaven. The cosmos is not yet complete. The cosmic journey is not yet over. There is more to come. The martyred saints share our lament and continue it in the presence of God. They, too, yearn for the fullness of God's kingdom to manifest itself in a new heaven and new earth.

The divine response? "Wait." God has a "number" in mind. More witnesses must testify. God patiently reaches out to his world, not willing that any should perish. And God calls his saints to patiently wait for the finality to come (cf. Romans 8:25) and at the same time to bear witness to the reality of that coming kingdom through sacrificing their lives.

We, upon the earth, wait through the power of the Spirit who comforts and empowers us (cf. Romans 15:13). The saints around the throne wait as they are sustained by the presence of God and the Lamb. And we wait together. And we lament together. And we know the comfort and joy of God by his power...together.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Witnesses in the Presence of God

The sermon the church has called "Hebrews" is addressed to a struggling community of believers. Some have already given up the habit of assembling with the community, some are on drifting out of the community, some are regressing and others are discouraged. The preacher speaks a word of encouragement.

The sermon assumes an assembled group of believers. Its language envisions the assembly "drawing near" to God, or approaching his throne, or entering into his presence in the context of this assembly (cf. Hebrews 4:16; 7:25; 10:22). Believers enter the presence of God as a gathered people. Certainly this is not the only time they enter that presence--we can "draw near" to God anywhere, anytime--but the assembled church is a moment of such entry through the curtain into the Holy of Holies.

To encourage his struggling church, the preacher reminds them that there are many "witnesses" to the power of faith as past believers persevered through diverse trials (Hebrews 11:39; 12:1). The "roll call" of faith encourages present believers to persevere.

The climax of the homily takes his audience back to the "day of assembly" (Deut. 9:10; 10:4) at Mt. Sinai when Israel entered into covenant with God. There, at Mt. Sinai, Israel approached the divine presence in fear and awe. But the church, when it gathers--when it assembles, comes to a different mountain.

The church draws near (comes to) Mount Zion, the dwelling place of God. They come to the heavenly Jerusalem. They come to the festive assembly of angels. They come to the throne of God and to the one who sits at the right hand of God, Jesus. They come to the church of the first born ones whose names are written in heaven, that is, they come to the universal church gathered in the throne room of God. When the church gathers, it gathers in the presence of God, Jesus, the universal church and the heavenly host.

And....the church comes to (draws near) "to the spirits of righteous people made perfect." Who are these people? I don't think they are the angelic host since the word "righteous" is used by the preacher to describe human beings in Hebrews. I don't think they are resurrected (embodied) human beings since he refers to them as "spirits" (just like he does disembodied angelic beings in 1:14).

I believe he is referring to the "witnesses" --the righteous who are now perfected in the presence of God-- of Hebrews 11: Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab. Moreover, we could add the NT "witnesses" to that list: Peter, Paul, James, Lydia, Phoebe. And, we can add those whom we have known and loved, including my father, my wife, my son.

When the church gathers in the presence of God around the throne of God, we join not only the angelic host in the praise of God but we also join the "witnesses." We gather around the throne with our deceased loved ones. Together we praise God--the living and the dead (who nevertheless live). We gather around the same throne.

I feel most connected with my son, for example, when I am present with the saints as an assembly of worship. I stand with the saints on the earth to join the saints around the throne. Together--my son and I, along with all the rest--worship the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb. I sense his presence through my presence in the throne room of God. I visualize him sitting with me, eating with me at the table, and singing with me.

I don't regularly visit the "resting place" of my son, my wife or father. That is helpful for many people and I certainly would not want to any way denigrate the comfort that many draw from such visitations. But I conceive of worship with the assembled saints as that time when I most feel the presence of my beloved ones. I imagine --an imagination given power, reality and spiritual fervor by this text in Hebrews 12-- myself surrounded by the "witnesses" from my own family.

I don't want to miss the assembly of the saints because the assembled saints include Joshua, Sheila and my dad. It is where I "visit" them as the Spirit of God lifts me into the throne room of God where they are "before the throne" and through worship I am there with them.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Before the Throne

Humanity, in terms of its own resources, stands before death helpless and hopeless. It seems like our loved ones pass into nothingness as we are separated from their presence. But the death and resurrection of Jesus testify to a different reality that God will bring about in the new heaven and new earth--victory over the grave and embodied immortality. God provides the help and hope.

And yet as we lower our loved ones into the grave, death has its sting as we are cut off from their loving presence. Death stings us with their absence. Death, even with all the hope we can muster, stings us with doubt, curiosity and anxiety. This separation generates questions. Where did they go? What are they experiencing? Am I still connected with them in some way other than memories in the mind and yearnings in the heart?

I imagine the Christians of Asia Minor experienced similar anxieties and questions as they witnessed the martyrdom of friends and family in the late first century. The Revelation of Jesus Christ, at least in part, addresses these anxieties and questions as a way of encouraging the patient endurance of God's people in the midst of the trial that encompassed them (Rev. 3:10).

The trial entailed the seven-fold unsealing of a scroll, the announcement of a judgment the scroll contained, and the implementation of that judgment through the pouring out of the bowls of wrath (Rev. 4-16). John sees this drama unfold--it is the vision he is given as he is lifted up in the Spirit into the throne room of God (Rev. 4:2). In the throneroom, John sees the trial of the earth executed from divine throneroom.

Before the judgment of the seals is executed, the servants of God upon the earth are "sealed" (marked for protection). Though the earth experiences the testing of God, the people of God upon the earth (the church militant) is hedged by God's loving care (Rev. 7:1-8).

But there is another group pictured in Revelation 7. This group is not upon the earth, but is in the throneroom of God. This "great multitude" stands "before the throne and in front of the Lamb" (Rev. 7:9). They are adorned in their white robes (cleansed purity) and hold palm branches (festive joy) in their hands.

Who are they? "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation" (Rev. 7:14). These are those who have passed through the trial--those who were martyred for the testimony of Jesus, those who overcame through their faithful obedience to the testimony of Jesus, those who followed the Lamb. These are those who have "died in the Lord" (Rev. 14:13). They have moved from earth to the throneroom. They are those who have come through the trial into the presence of God. They have passed through the doors to death by way of the gates of the heavenly throneroom.

They presently experience the reality of that throneroom. They stand before the one on the throne and serve him day and night. "Never again" will they hunger or thirst or experience trial. The Lamb is their shepherd and he provides all they will ever need. God has wiped away all their tears.

This picture encourages readers still upon the earth--readers who will yet experience the trial. The vision bears witness to the reality of their passage from earth to heaven. The vision encourages faithfulness and endurance as it assures the people of God of the journey through death (out of the tribulation) into the presence of God.

I believe it provides a glimpse into the experience of those who have died in the Lord. They presently serve God before his throne. The Lamb is with them before that throne. They share the reality (wherever, whatever that may be like) of the angelic hosts--they occupy the same space around the throne that the angels occupy.

This has a pastoral purpose. The text is not explicitly concerned to offer a particular understanding of or theorize about the "intermediate state." Rather, it has the pastoral function of assuring those upon the earth about the reality of post-death experiences in the presence of God. It promotes endurance and faithfulness. It comforts the people of God as they face death.

In the light of this text (and I know there are quibbles and alternative readings), I mediate often on the experience of my loved ones. I imaginatively and contemplatively join them around the throne of God. I am comforted by their experience, or, better, I am comforted by the divine faithfulness that not only fills me with Holy Spirit presence now but also shepherds my loved ones in his own presence contemporaneously. That presence here and there connects me with them. Divine presence is my link to them.

I know who they are. They are my father, my wife, my son. Where are they? They have moved from here to there, from this earthly existence into the throne room of God. And they swaying their festive palm branches in praise of the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb as they experience of the periochretic dance of divine love.

Yes, they are home. But they have not yet experienced all that God has in store for them or us.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Where are the Dead in Christ?

My apologies for my long absence. Life is busy at the moment, but I have few excuses other than my sloth. :-)

This month I am teaching at the Collegeside Church of Christ in Cookeville, TN on Wednesday evenings. I chose as my subject something that I have read, studied and reflected upon for many years. Topic: Where are the Dead in Christ?

On the one hand, I immediately grimace when I raise the question. I remember many polemical debates and sermons about the topic. I have no interest in polemics on this question. My concerns are pastoral, meditative and theological. So, as I share with you on this question, this is not a polemical but a pastor-theological context. I can only share my perspectives in the context of my own meditations and experiences.

The question is an important one for me. Ever since my wife died in 1980, I have thought about this question. I have rarely taught about it since I have often thought it too speculative to press. But it has consumed some prayer and meditation time in my life. And I have noticed that it is an important question in the minds of many grievers. They are not interested in polemics either, but they are curious--not so much in a "I have to know" kind of way, but in an anxious kind of way. What I mean is that agnosticism here has an unsettling effect upon the heart. It becomes, where it should or not, oppressive and debilitating at times.

And answers like "they are with Christ," are soothing but informationally and even affectively vacuous. It leaves the griever hanging, at least it did me and does with some who have shared their anxieties with me.

So, I will attempt to share in the next few days with you. Thoughts, and even experiences, that have comforted my heart. For it is peaceful for me to meditate now upon where my wife, my son, my father, my brother-in-law, my grandparents and my many aunts and uncles experience ongoing life. And part of that peace is that there are somethings (better, there is Someone) that I experience with them. We, even now--separated by death--share experiences and participate in the same reality.

More later....


John Mark