What We Know About the Afterlife
Part I: The Living Hope

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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The hope of the resurrection is the birthright of every Christian - a precious treasure that should be foremost in their minds (John 14:1-3, I Peter 1:13, I John 3:2-3). As Peter wrote, Christians have been "born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away" (I Peter 1:3-4). This point is not lost to the apostle Paul, who clearly ties the hope of Christians to the resurrection of Jesus Christ in Romans 1 and I Corinthians 15.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ was a unique event whose consequences extend to eternity. As we read the Scriptures, it is important to notice that Jesus' resurrection was more than simply revivification -- more than simply being "restored to life" after having died. There are a number of events recorded in Scripture which, though covered by the term "resurrection" are nevertheless, markedly different from Jesus' resurrection. Being careful to understand this gives additional meaning to the resurrection of Christ.

In the Old Testament we read of three individuals who were brought back to life. These events involved Elijah or Elisha (I Kings 17:17-23, II Kings 4:18-37, 13:20-21). In addition to being acts of compassion, they indicated the blessing of God upon the ministries of these prophets and, in the final instance, the continued importance of their ministries for the Hebrews. Jesus raised Jairus' daughter (Matthew 9:18-26, Mark 5:21-24, 35-42, Luke 8:40-42, 49-56) and the widow of Nain's son from the dead (Luke 7:11-16). There very well may have been other instances in the ministry of Jesus not recorded in Scripture. In any case, each of these provided confirmation that Jesus ministered in the Name of the Most High God - the Creator - the Lord of life. In the book of Acts we read that God worked through Peter to bring Tabitha (Dorcas) back to life (9:36-42) and through Paul to restore life to Eutychus (20:9-12). These confirmed the blessing of God through Christ upon the ministry of His apostles.

As dramatic as these incidents are, two others deserve special attention. The first is the raising of Lazarus from the dead prior to Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on the first "Palm Sunday." It was part of Jesus' public offering of Himself as Messiah to Israel, establishing His identity as "the Christ," "the Anointed One" of God (John 11:1-45, 12:9-18). The entire incident is especially poignant given the close relationship of Jesus to Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha.

In passing we should notice the additional responsibility for faithfulness carried by those close to the Lord. Jesus did not tell these close friends about the important role Lazarus would play in the plan of God, nor were they protected from additional danger and emotional stress. Prior to Jesus' crucifixion, the authorities sought not only to put Jesus to death, but Lazarus as well. Like Job, those who knew Jesus personally were asked to trust in the sovereignty and compassion of God. Yet, the significance of God's plan is clear in retrospect. Lazarus was allowed to become sick and to die so that God's full anointing upon Jesus would be made known in a large public gathering near Jerusalem. Prior to this we see Jesus minister "along the way," as He encountered people with needs, or as those who had needs sought Him out. Now, Jesus deliberately waits until Lazarus is dead before going to where Lazarus is buried. Further, Jesus waits until Jewish custom said that Lazarus' spirit had departed the body, so that for the Jews gathered at the grave of Lazarus, there was no thought of any hope whatsoever; even from Jesus Himself, even with the knowledge of Jesus' ministry to Jairus' daughter and the widow of Nain's son (and perhaps others). The raising of Lazarus not only indicated Jesus' identity, it pointed ahead to Jesus' resurrection, something that no one but Jesus recognized at the time.

The other incident was the return to life of some of those faithful to God who had died prior to Jesus' crucifixion. Matthew tells us that at the moment of Jesus' death, many tombs were opened in the shaking of the earth that occurred at that time, and after the resurrection of Christ, these were also raised and appeared to many people in Jerusalem (Matthew 27:51-53). No doubt this was another mercy to Israel; providing confirmation to the chosen people that their Messiah had triumphed on their behalf, preparing for the preaching of the resurrection of Christ on the day of Pentecost (Romans 1:1-4, 10:21-11:5, 28-36). We would like to know much more about this intriguing incident - but this is all we are told.

One thing is certain, all of these "resurrections" were different in kind from the resurrection of Christ. While some of these individuals may have been "taken up" like Enoch or Elijah so that they didn't experience death again after their resurrection, most surely did experience death subsequent to being restored to life. Jesus, however, was not simply raised from the dead, He was glorified. The first part of Jesus' resurrection was like that of others - a revivification of His dead body - body and spirit joined once more into a living being. When Jesus took human flesh in what we call "the incarnation of Christ" (John 1:1-18, Philippians 2:5-11), He did so to enter a state that was intended to be permanent. Humanity was not, for Jesus, something He experienced for just a time, but something He chose for eternity. Our Savior is, in the words of Paul, "the man Christ Jesus" (I Timothy 2:5). Jesus was sinless, the "unblemished Lamb of God," but, nevertheless, a descendant of Adam, and thus a member of Adam's "race;" a race tainted by sin. He died not only "in place of" but "on behalf of" that race of which He was a part "according to the flesh" (Romans 1:3). When He rose from the dead, He arose as a human being. "See My hands and My feet, " said the risen Jesus, "that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have" (Luke 24:39, cf. John 20:19-20). It was when Thomas touched the body and wounds of the risen Christ that He became convinced of Jesus' identify and exclaimed, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28 in context). To further demonstrate His humanity, Jesus ate with His disciples (Acts 10:40-41, Luke 24:41-43).

As if this weren't enough good news, there is more! While there was every indication that the risen Christ was fully human (as opposed to being simply a spirit or a supernatural Being), there were also indications that Christ's body was more. In His resurrection, there is some reason to believe that Jesus passed through His grave-clothes, leaving them empty and sunken except for the face-cloth which had been neatly rolled and placed to one side (John 20:4-7). He was also able to appear and vanish whenever and wherever He wished, such as to the disciples behind closed doors (John 20:19). Except for Jesus' proof that He was not just a spirit, such appearances might be considered indications of His being only a spirit - or of His taking upon Himself capabilities reserved to Him in His Lordship (Luke 24:36-37). However, as brief as the resurrection accounts of Jesus are, we are blind if we do not notice in the resurrected Christ that which is indicative of, in the words of Peter, "an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away; reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (I Peter 1:4-5).

The glorification of the resurrected Christ is the beginning of the fulfillment of the words spoken from the throne Revelation 21:5, "Behold, I am making all things new." Therefore, Paul calls the resurrected Christ, "the first fruits of those who are asleep" (I Corinthians 15:20), "the beginning, the first-born from the dead" (Colossians 1:18). The glorification of Christ's body not only indicates that the work He accomplished at Calvary was complete for all time (Hebrews 9:25-26), it was, indeed, part of the beginning of the benefit of that work -- the new creation of which He and those who were His were a part and in which they would dwell in eternal fellowship.

It is through glorification that Jesus becomes "the new Adam" (I Corinthians 15:20-22). In Christ the old creation is not destroyed, it is enhanced and superseded; something that can be accomplished only on the basis of the work performed at Calvary.

It was the resurrected and glorified Christ who ascended into heaven to present Himself before the Father. He ascended as "Christ crucified," but this should not be understood as "Christ who is crucified" but "Christ who was crucified" - past tense. The resurrected, glorified Christ is the Christ who triumphed over the cross, completing the work God gave Him to do there. The author of Hebrews explains how the symbolism of the tabernacle was fulfilled by the risen Christ as Jesus presented Himself before God the Father - entering the very presence of the Father which the Holy of Holies represented (Hebrews 9:11ff.). Having thus presented Himself, the Father "seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 1:20), the "seating" indicating that Christ's work was complete and "right hand" indicating the highest place of honor. This is the place of Lordship over all creation.

We should not be misled by the description of the risen Christ in Revelation 1, which is a symbolic description in keeping with the nature of the apocalyptic literature of which the Revelation to John is a part. The first and most important truth communicated by this picture is the Lordship of Christ over His church and all creation, a Lordship that will be consummated at Jesus bodily return. Each part of this description has meaning. But that we are not to take this as literally what our eyes would see if we were to see Him now is clearly indicated by, among other things, the "sharp two-edged sword" coming out of His mouth! This symbolism indicates that Jesus only has to command to judge. So although we should take the truths communicated by this symbolism very seriously, this is not how we should visualize the resurrected Christ!

Instead, we should remember that upon Jesus' ascension into heaven two angels clearly stated that Jesus would return in the same manner in which He left - not a "spirit being" but the resurrected and glorified Christ - and until then - the "living Hope" of those who are His.

First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume VII, Part 6, June 1999.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as the copyright is included, this statement is included, and the article is not sold to the recipients.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.