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The Day of Resurrection

[There is an alternative version of this sermon, New life at the end, with less emphasis on the last day and more on personal resurrection.]

One day in the 1990s I saw a piece in the paper reporting that the Jehovah's Witnesses had given up their prophecy about the end of the world coming very soon, saying that the Biblical passage they had relied upon did not allow the calculation of such a date? Leaving aside for the moment the fact that newspapers very seldom report religious matters with the seriousness and accuracy that are expected in popular fields like business, sport, government or even the arts, and allowing that the paper might this time be accurate in its report, what is your attitude to such things? Do you see it, perhaps, as a little bit of nonsense? Or is the end towards which all things are moving, the Day of Resurrection, something to be taken seriously?

It just happens that day before I read that piece I had taken time to discuss their beliefs with two Jehovah's Witnesses after they had left me some of their literature. I had told them that their calculations were nonsense because they relied upon historical interpretations of the Bible that were factually untrue, so that they could not possibly have their dates right even if it were possible to make the kind of prophecies they believed. Apparently their leaders had not let them know that they too had concluded that what they were trying to do cannot be done. We know from external historical evidence when some things happened which they simply had wrong, but of course it is impossible to get anywhere with such arguments. And, we are told clearly in the New Testament not to try to guess the time:

So why are religious opinions about such things news even today? Is not all this sort of talk just the sort of speculation you expect from small way out groups, which only illustrates how far they are removed from reality? Is there any point at all in our talking about such things as the Second Coming of Christ, the Day of Judgement or the Day of Resurrection?

Early expectations

There is no doubt that many of the early believers in Christ expected him to return very soon. They had experience of the resurrection, many of them having met with Jesus after he had died and been raised from the dead. They had experienced in their own lives tremendous changes, which meant that they need no longer be afraid of evil in the world. They had confidence that Christ had overcome all evil and that nothing, even death, could stand in his way. After the early experience of the resurrection they expected him to appear again: indeed their common prayer and blessing of one another when parting was `Come, Lord Jesus!' -- Revelation 22:20-21 [cf 1 Corinthians 16:22-23]. Their expectations were so strong that some had, wrongly, stopped working to sit down and wait. Paul had to tell them that those who would not work should not eat. Expecting an early end to the world as we know it is one reason why they found it easier than we might to sell their belongings.

One of the things that worried them as the years went by was that some of their number had died and they had hoped to be alive when the Lord returned. It was necessary for Paul to re-assure them that the believers who had died would not lose out on a place in the Kingdom that Christ would establish: they would be raised from the dead and take their place before those who were still living [1 Thess 4:13-17; 1 Cor 15:52; compare Matt 24:30-31; Mark 13:26-27.] Assurance of the resurrection of the faithful was common pastoral theme:

They did not believe in the immortality of the soul, except perhaps in some vague sense of a kind of sleep. Hope for a new life depended upon the grace of God. It was a gift in which they had confidence because they had seen the power of God and his love at work in Christ. This new life to which they expected to be raised was not a mere continuation of the life they knew in the physical body [see 1 Cor 15:44] because they would be changed:
  The life they expected was not a mere continuity of the old life, but a renewed and perfected life shared with others who had been blessed by God. Their own individual hopes of life in the resurrection depended upon the acts of God, so that their salvation was tied up with the coming of the Kingdom, the establishment of the rule of God in which there would be great changes.

The possibility of people being raised to a new life was very much a matter of debate at the time of Christ. It was not generally known in Old Testament times, and appears only once in the Hebrew Scriptures as we know have them. It begins to appear as a major topic in the literature written just before and during the New Testament times [especially in 2 Esdras]. Some teachers like the pharisees said there would be a resurrection for people who died; others like the Sadducees disagreed. There were several occasions when they asked Jesus about it. The trick question in the Gospel reading for today was one such occasion.

The trick question about marriage and the resurrection

If a woman had had seven husbands in succession, who would be her husband in the life of the resurrection? It is a silly question, really, once you understand that the new life to which people are raised from the dead is not simply a continuation of this life. It is much the same as Paul was saying when he spoke of how people would be changed, and of how the spiritual body of the resurrection is different from the physical body of this earthly life.

So there are some big differences:- there is no marriage (they neither marry nor are given in marriage); and there is no reproduction, no births and no deaths (they cannot die anymore). There are relationships, but they are different and it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for us to understand -- they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. The story is not really about marriage, but rather about the possibility of resurrection, but we might just note that when people who are parted from loved ones by death look forward to being re-united with them I believe that their hope is well founded; its just that in the spiritual bodies of the resurrection the kind of relationships we can have are different. The particular relationship of marriage belongs to the life of our material bodies, created as male and female, in which it is possible for two bodies to become one flesh. The bodies of the resurrection are different.

We should also note that what is promised is the possibility of resurrection, not a certainty for all. As Luke tells it, the resurrection is for those who are considered worthy of a place in that age. [Matthew and Mark do not include these words.] There are other places where he speaks similarly; the possibility of resurrection is not guaranteed but it is clearly understood as a gift of God: for example in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar at his gate,

Jesus taught that the `children of God' had a place with him; and incidently he believed that Old Testament characters like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob shared in the life of the resurrection although, of course they had not know him in his earthly ministry as the Messiah. Believing that Jesus is the Christ and that God raised him from the dead is sufficient for salvation (Romans 10:9) [Such faith is a sufficient condition for salvation. It may however be sufficient but not necessary. It would seem from what Jesus said to the Sadducees that others too who could have known nothing of his resurrection may be raised. That depends on God. It need not be our concern.]

The idea of sharing in the resurrection as children of God is present in some of the literature from the period just before the time of Jesus. For example in the Wisdom of Solomon [a late work named after the great king who lived many centuries earlier]:
 

So in the second century BC, brave men defied those who threatened to kill them, confident in being raised by God: For the people who followed Jesus, then, the prospect of being raised to a new life in which they would be changed and renewed, and in which they would share with him in his kingdom, was a very real prospect much on the minds of faithful people in those days. They looked forward to it; yet because of the tremendous changes it must bring in their lives and the changes the kingdom would bring in the whole world, they also looked forward with some fear. There was much excitement about such things, and much talk of how and when it would all happen.

That excitement and concern was the main reason for Paul writing two letters to the believers at Thessalonica. These are the earliest surviving letters of Paul written around the year 50 AD, and the earliest of the books in the New Testament. They reflect the excitement and struggles of the early years of the church.

Paul's warning about being alarmed

On the one hand Paul wanted them to be ready, continually watchful; on the other hand he did not want them to the overly excited and alarmed.

Someone had been telling them things that caused unnecessary alarm. Much of what follows is difficult for us to understand, partly because it refers to people and events which they knew of, but we do not. We do not know who he is referring to when he says People were probably reminded of the events from the time of Maccabees, which I quoted just now, when there was a shocking violation of the temple by an idol that the Greek-Persian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes had placed there when he tried to force the Jews into abandoning the worship of the one true God. When earthly tyrants appeared to have unfettered power they said: A century or two later they were learning that it might be similar in the Roman empire. Jesus also seemed to expect that the threat of being shown up in the light would bring out the powers of darkness. [See Matt ch 24; Mark ch 13; Luke 21:5-39]. But whatever temporary gains the powers of evil might be permitted while freedom of action still remained, the time would come when all would be subject to Christ. Paul believed, like the writer of the Book of Revelation, that as the time of Christ's final victory approaches there will be increased rebellion against God. There are implications in this for us today. We too look forward to a personal resurrection by the grace of God, and we should expect also to see changes in the world. The changes we hope for will not come without struggle, as the power of God breaks into human life; some things will change for the better, but we do not believe in inevitable progress. There is still evil in the world, and as evil is threatened the powers of evil become more desperate.
 

Resurrection was not only something to look forward to. It was also something to be experienced now, for those who are open to God already belong to him:

So Paul wants to encourage the faithful whom God has chosen as the first fruits of salvation [1 Thess 2:13]: The victory of Christ is being established in God's way and in his time. RCL Resources Index |

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