Paul Echoed Jesus on the Resurrection of the Saints

Paul Echoed Jesus on the Resurrection of the Saints January 27, 2015

One of the best stories in the New Testament gospels is about Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead to mortal life again. Lazarus had two sister–Mary and Martha–and they all lived in Bethany, two miles from Jerusalem. They all must have been very close friends of Jesus because during Passion Week, Jesus stayed in Bethany and commuted back and forth between there and the temple in Jerusalem. Although we cannot know for sure, he may have slept each night at Lazarus’ house.

Jesus and his apostles had gone eastward, “across the Jordan [River] to the place where John [the Baptist] had been baptizing earlier, and he remained there” (John 10.40 NRSV). Then we read, “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha…. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it,… he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11.1, 3-4, 6). The two places were about twenty miles apart.

Lazarus died, and days later Jesus and his disciples arrived there in Bethany. Right away, Jesus had a conversation with Lazarus’ sister Martha. We read, “Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again’” (John 11.21-23). Jesus referred to the resurrection of the dead to immortal life that the Hebrew prophets taught in the Jewish Bible (e.g., Job 19.25-26; Isaiah 25.8; 26.19; Daniel 12.2, 13).

Martha then conveyed the same. For we read next, “Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world’” (John 11.24-27).

This conversation between Jesus and Martha suggests that they did not believe that dead people had ever lived in an afterlife during the intermediate state between life in this world and the resurrection. And I think this conversation indicates that they did not believe it about anyone else in the future. Thus, Jesus did not believe in the traditional view that Christians have trumpeted, that when believers die their souls that were always immortal go to heaven to enjoy conscious bliss until the resurrection.

Jesus indicates this in his teaching on the resurrection which corresponds to what the Apostle Paul teaches about it in 1 Thessalonians 4.14-17. When Paul therein says, “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord” (v. 15), he refers to some saying of Jesus that had become established in the church community’s oral tradition. I believe it is Jesus’ saying in John 11.25-26. So, when Paul says, “the Lord himself,… will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thes 4.16),this second independent clause echoes Jesus’ words, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11.25). And when Paul says, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thes 4.17), he echoes Jesus’ words, “and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11.26), meaning that those saints still living on the earth at the time of the resurrection will never die but, as Paul says, “will be caught up in the clouds.” So, when people “die” they will “live” until the resurrection.

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