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February 5, 2012

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who fall asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”  1 Thessalonians 4:13

The subject before us is full of joy for every Christian, and today I want to bring a word of hope and comfort.  First, for all who have lost a loved one in Christ, you experience grief, sorrow and loss.  There is a word of hope and comfort for you today.

I want to speak to all who’ve gone through the experience of losing a child, and every woman who’s had the experience of a miscarriage.  A life was formed in you, but you never saw his or her face.  You believe human life begins at conception, so you often wonder about that life.  What came of that little life?  I have a word of hope and comfort for you today.

Then I have been thinking again about the awful holocaust of abortion that has cast such a dark shadow over our entire land.  Nearly 50 million lives have been snuffed out through abortion since 1973, well over a million in our country each year.  More than one in five of all pregnancies end in abortion.[1]  What comes of these millions who were given life, but never saw the light of this world?

What can we say to the mothers and fathers, who look back on a choice that they made, and now they look back on it with regret?  Many live with a sense of guilt that remains.  There is a word of comfort and hope for you and with the help of God I want to bring it today.

What happens when a Christian dies

The message is called “The Gathering.”  I have taken the title from the New Testament, where Paul speaks of “…the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him” (2 Thessalonians 2:1).

Christ is going to gather all His people, when He comes in glory, and take us home.  Jesus said, “I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself that where I am, you may be also” (John 14:3).

Christ will “gather his wheat into the barn” (Matthew 3:12).  Later he says, “They will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds” (24:30-31).

In the Old Testament, Christ is already gathering His people: “Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age… and was gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:8).  I love that word gathered as a description of what happens when a Christian dies.  God gathered him together with those who were already safe through Christ.

Not just Abraham, but “Isaac breathed his last, and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days” (Genesis 35:29).  And when Jacob was about to die, he said to his family, “I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers…” (49:29).

Here is a wonderful statement of what happens when a Christian dies: God gathers you with the people who belong to Him.  The gathering has already begun, but one day it will be complete.  We read about that day in 1 Thessalonians 4, and I invite you to open your Bible there today…

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who fall asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”  1 Thessalonians 4:13

These words are spoken directly to Christians who have lost believing loved ones.  Paul is not saying that Christians don’t grieve.  Of course we grieve when we lose a loved one.  But our grieving is not hopeless.  It’s different because we have a living hope in Jesus Christ.

Christian grieving comes in three parts:  1. We look back with thankfulness because of what God has given, 2. We look around with sadness because of what God has taken away, and 3. We look forward with hope because of what God has promised.  It’s different from the grieving of others, because they cannot look forward with hope.

What Has God Promised?

“We believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” 1 Thessalonians 4:14

Your believing loved ones who have died will be with Jesus when He comes!  Then Paul speaks about to the believers who remain, “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).

The whole point of this wonderful passage is to comfort Christians who have lost believing loved ones.  Here’s the comfort: You will see them again.  Jesus will bring your believing loved ones with Him.  On that day, your first joy will be seeing Jesus, and your next joy will be seeing your loved ones in Christ.

So he says to grieving Christians, “Encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18).  What a marvelous day of reunion this is going to be when Christ gathers His people!

It’s very clear that Christians who knew each other on earth will know and enjoy each other in heaven.  That’s the whole point of the passage.  What’s your comfort in the death of a loved one?  You’ll see them again.

After thirty years in ministry, I have observed that many Christians seem to be confused over this.  I’ve been thinking about why, and want to offer three suggestions…

Reason for confusion…

Many Christians have not thought deeply about the resurrection

They have a vague belief, generally, about the afterlife.  They believe in surviving death in a shadowy world of spirits.  But they are not clear about the resurrection, which is the very cornerstone of the Christian faith.  So, they feel that whatever good there is in heaven, it must be less than the solid joys of life in this material world.

Heaven seems like a half-life to them, a shadowy compensation for those who became too old or died too young, and did not have the strength to continue in the world, where the real action is.

If we did not know one another in heaven, life there would be less than it is here, and less than it was in the Garden of Eden.  Satan would have won, because something Adam lost would not have been restored.  That’s impossible!  The Christian hope is much more than the survival of the soul; it is the resurrection of the body.  We will know one other in heaven!

Jesus said, “Many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11).  Identifiable people will be there.  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will be there and they will be known.

When Moses and Elijah appeared at the transfiguration, they were known!

When the risen Lord Jesus appeared to His disciples, they knew who He was.  They recognized Him.  Christians who knew each other on earth will know and enjoy each other in heaven

Reason for confusion…

Many Christian have misunderstood or misapplied…

…what Jesus said about there being no marriage in heaven

“When they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”  Mark 12:25

That there is no marriage in heaven is quite clear.  But some Christians have taken this to mean that we would no longer be male and female, or that we would not longer enjoy relationships or that we would no longer have affection for each other.

If you were no longer male or female, you would no longer be you.  God created us male and female.  If we no longer had affection for each other, we would no longer be us.  That is part of how God has created us.

The Bible tells us God will gather a great multitude of redeemed people from every tribe and language and people and nation.  God will gather a people for Himself from every ethnicity on the face of the planet.  That great diversity He has given in creation will forever be reflected in the glory of His redemption.

All that makes us wonderfully different will remain.  But all that divides us will be overcome.  For example, languages divide us.  They keep us from communicating.  They were not given to us as blessings at creation,

but in judgment at the tower of Babel.

This was wonderfully overcome on the day of Pentecost, when a crowd from “every nation under heaven” was bewildered because each one heard the apostles speaking in his own language (Acts 2:6).  People were brought together as Christ is exalted.  That’s a foretaste of heaven!

God’s purpose is to redeem a community of people—real people with names and faces and dates of birth and addresses you could write on a postcard or an envelope—to bring them into the everlasting joy of His presence in heaven.

You will know yourself.  We will know each other.  We will know Christ, even as He now knows us.  And not only will we know each other, we will have joy in each other when Christ gathers us on that day.

Paul says that the believers in Thessalonica, who he loved and served on earth, would be his “joy and crown” in heaven, “What is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes – is it not you?” (1 Thessalonians 2:19). 

It’s quite clear from this that the special relationship forged between Paul and these believers on earth will continue in heaven.  He is saying “You have been my joy on earth” and “you will be my joy in heaven.”

Jonathan Edwards wrote…
“The special affection that the saints have in this world toward other saints, who are their friends, will in some respect remain in another world.” [2]

Christians who knew and loved each other on earth will know and love each other in heaven.

Reason for confusion…

Many Christians are perplexed by the unsolved problems…
…that plague the lives of believers in this world

This was really at the root of the question the Sadducees asked Jesus.  They didn’t believe in the resurrection.  They felt that it raised too many insoluble problems, so they gave Jesus an example…

“Suppose a woman’s husband dies, and then she marries again… suppose this happens again and again, and she ends up marrying seven different husbands who all die, and then she dies.  In the resurrection, when they rise, whose wife will she be?” (Mark 12:23).

You see what’s at the root of the question: How is God going to sort all this baggage out?  What about the disputes between Christians that could not be resolved in this life?  Paul goes one way, Barnabas goes another.  How will it be possible for all God’s people to be perfectly happy in heaven when at times, we have made each other quite miserable on earth?

Do you remember what Jesus said to the Sadducees?  He said, “You don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God.”  Here’s a phrase from Bishop Ryle that I have found helpful this week: He says that heaven will be a company of Christians in which there will be no squabbling or discord…

“Every man’s graces fully developed and every man’s besetting sins dropped off like beech leaves in spring.” [3]

When Christ appears, we shall be like Him (1 John 3:1).  In heaven you will be so amazed at how like Jesus you have become, and that joy will overflow as you discover that same likeness in others.

Brothers and sisters you found so difficult below will be a joy to you above.  I don’t think you will feel any need to plough over the past when the present and the future are so full of glory, and all of us are so different from how we are right now.  Christians who found each other difficult on earth, will be a blessing to each other in heaven.

Children Who Die in Infancy

One of the many perplexing questions often raised is the question of children who die in infancy.  What comes of them?  What will they be like?  What about all of these little lives that began in the womb, but did not come to birth?  I want to answer that question in two stages: First, for the children of believers and then with regard to others.

Assurance for the Christian parent

“I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”  2 Samuel 12:23

The place to begin with this deeply sensitive question is with the story of David’s son who died in infancy.  David pleaded with God to spare the life of the child, born to him and Bathsheba, but in the end, the child died.

When David says of the child who’d already died, “I shall go to him,” he clearly knew that his son was already safe in the presence of God, and that one day father and son would be reunited, “The little one has died.  He’s not going to come back to me, but one day I will go to him.”  That is the assurance for every Christian parent. [4]

What about the millions of children whose fathers and mothers were not Christian?  Can we have the same hope for them?  I believe that we can.

Assurance for every parent

“Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Mark 10:14

Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God belongs to people who come to Him with child-like faith, but that is not what Jesus is saying here.  He is talking about children and He says “to such belongs the kingdom of God.”

On another occasion, Jesus called a child to Him and He had the child stand in the middle of the disciples.  Jesus said many things related to children, and at the end he said, “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:14).

We need to be very careful.  Although infants and unborn children are not guilty of actual transgressions, we cannot call them “innocent.”  If you ever call a child “innocent” with respect to God, you introduce confusion.

We have to take seriously the teaching of the Bible that “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12).

Maurice Roberts says it well…

“Infants who die have not committed actual transgressions.  But they die because Adam’s sin is imputed to them.  Death cannot carry away the sinless or those to whom sin is not imputed.” 

All human beings, born and unborn, simply by being human, are caught up in Adam’s sin.

David said, “In sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5).  He didn’t mean his life was conceived through a sinful act.  That wasn’t the case.  He’s saying his life was the life of a sinner from conception.  “Innocent” is not a word that can ever be used of any descendant of Adam, born or unborn, in relation to our standing before God.

If you take the Bible seriously, you can’t say a child will arrive in heaven because they’re innocent.  Nor of course, could they possibly be there because of baptism.  How could a human rite make an eternal difference?  These things are not in the hands of men, but in the hands of God.

Children who die in infancy have never heard the Gospel.  They were not in a position to exercise faith.  So on what basis can we believe that children who die in infancy or before birth enjoy the life of heaven?

From the Westminster Confession

We don’t have any direct word of Scripture on this, but Christians through the ages have reflected on how the Bible applies to this question.  The words of the Westminster Confession, a great historic statement of biblical faith, are especially helpful here…

“Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth.  So also are all other elect persons, who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” [5]

Here’s what that means: The ordinary way God works in saving people is by calling people to faith and repentance through the Gospel.  But when it comes to infants, the unborn, or those who are “incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word,” God has His own way of bringing new life to them and making them one with Christ.

God is able to regenerate them and to save them by Christ and through the Spirit, and He can do this where and how and when He pleases.

When computer programmers create a wonderful program that ends up being used by some multi-national company, they create a “back door” by which they can enter into the program they’ve created.

God has a “back door” into the hearts of infants and those who cannot comprehend the word of God.   Do you remember when John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit?  Answer: While he was still in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15).

The Westminster Confession speaks about “elect infants.”  That raises the question: Are all the children who die in infancy elect?  Or is it only some who die in infancy who are elect?  The great preacher, Charles Spurgeon, believed that all who die in infancy are elect and will be saved…

 

“Let every mother and father here present know assuredly that it is well with the child if God hath taken it away from you in its infant days.” [6]

Spurgeon goes on to explain…

“We cannot argue an infant would be saved because of innocence: In Adam all died. On what ground, then, do we believe the child to be saved…?  It is saved because it is elect.  In the compass of election, in the Lamb’s book of life, we believe there shall be found written millions of souls who are only shown on earth, and then stretch their wings for heaven.” [7]

The great theologian, Charles Hodge, believed the same thing.  He says that we must take seriously the statement that “As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

“Christ looked on them as ‘lambs of the flock for which, as the Good Shepherd, He laid down His life, and of whom He said that they shall never perish and no man could pluck them out of his hands.  Of such He tells us is the kingdom of heaven, as though heaven was, in great measure, composed of the souls of redeemed infants.”  [8]

Spurgeon makes the same point.  Noting, in the 19th century, how many children die in infancy across the world, he suggests that infant souls may “constitute the great majority” in heaven.  He adds…

“It is a sweet belief to my own mind that there will be more saved than lost, for in all things Christ is to have the pre-eminence, and why not in this?”  [9]

What will these children be like?  Will they still be children in heaven?  No, I don’t think so.  If someone lives over the age of a hundred, will they be a geriatric in heaven forever?  Surely not!  In the resurrection, every child of God will reach the full flower of their redeemed power and potential—everything God created that individual to be.

One of the delights of heaven for millions of mothers and fathers, who conceived a child whose life in this world was ended early, will be to see with joy what that boy or that girl has become.

Hope when you’ve had an abortion

What will it be like for those mothers or fathers who made a choice to end the life of an unborn child, and have now come to regret the choice that they made?

Let me give you an analogy: In the Old Testament there is the story of a man named Joseph.  His brothers did a great evil against him, by putting him in a pit and then leaving him to die.  It was a terrible thing to do, but God didn’t leave Joseph in the pit.  God delivered him from the pit and brought him to the palace of a king.

The day came when Joseph’s brothers, who had done this terrible thing, arrived at the palace.  They didn’t recognize Joseph at first, but he recognized them.  And when he told them who he was, their first reaction was to be afraid.  But Joseph said, “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves… God sent me before you…” (Genesis 45:5).

The evil these brothers did to Joseph was great, but the Redeemer who saved both Joseph and his brothers is greater.  Here they were, together in the palace—ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven and reconciled.

That’s how it will be for you and for your unborn son or daughter in the presence of Jesus, if you will turn to Jesus Christ and you are truly repentant.  God will wipe away every tear from your eyes.

The message today is a word of hope and comfort.  Here’s my closing question to you: Will you be among the people Christ will gather on the last day?  Christ is gathering His people even now.

One of the most moving scenes in the gospels is when Jesus weeps over Jerusalem.  He says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…. How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Luke 13:34).

What a picture: Christ is ready to gather people under the protection of His wings, but the people refuse to come… Don’t let it be said of you today, that you would not come.  Come to this Savior.  Love this Savior.  Follow this Savior.  Live as one of Christ’s people on earth, so that you may be among His people in heaven.

Tell God you know that He is speaking to you today.  Tell Him that you need Him to help you, to change you, to save you.  Turn from what displeases God.  Forsake everything that God calls sin.  You can’t hold on to it, if you are following Christ.  Ask God to cleanse your mind and give you a new heart that will love Him and cling to what is good.

Believe the promise of God that mercy is yours through the Lord Jesus Christ who died for you.  Trust Christ.  Receive this priceless gift that God offers to you in Christ, and then follow Him, walk with Him, love Him and serve Him, until the day when He gathers the whole family in heaven and on earth, and then you will be among them.

On that day Christ will stand in the presence of the Father with the whole gathered family, and say “Here am I and the children You have given me!”  He will present us to the Father without fault and with great joy!

 

[1] http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_induced_abortion.html
[2] Jonathan Edwards, “Works, Vol. 2,” p. 625, Banner of Truth, 1974
[3] J. C. Ryle, “Practical Religion,” p. 436, Sovereign Grace, 2001
[4] David’s words about his infant son are very different from his words at the death of his adult son, Absalom, who lived in rebellion.  When Absalom died, David wept over Absalom and said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you…” (2 Samuel 18:33). David knew where he was going.
[5] The Westminster Confession, 10.3
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds3.iv.xvii.ii.html
[6] C. H. Spurgeon, “Infant Salvation,” September 29th 1861
http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0411.htm
[7] Ibid.
[8] Cited in Maurice Roberts, “The Happiness of Heaven,” p. 53, Reform. Heritage, 2009
[9] C. H. Spurgeon, “Infant Salvation,” September 29th 1861

 

© Colin S. Smith

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