Summary: Plain talk about the "intermediate state" (between death and resurrection) for people investigating the Christian faith.
Mother’s Day is an appropriate time to mention the fact that that no matter how prepared we think they are for parenthood, we’re never really ready. Somehow all the books, seminars and advice can’t prepare you for those dirty diaper blow outs, or those embarrassing grocery store tantrums, or teaching your teenager how to drive, or giving away your little girl on her wedding day. Yet parenthood is filled with deep joy and satisfaction that defies explanation as well. But neither the challenges nor the joys of parenting can truly be explained....you just have to experience it for yourself.
I suspect heaven is kind of like that too. Although the Bible tells us a lot about what life in the hereafter will be like, the reality is that we won’t truly understand all that until we actually experience it. But it’s funny all the things that have become added to people’s understanding of what heaven’s like. For instance, where did the idea of playing harps and having halos come from? According to a 1997 Time magazine poll, 43% of Americans believe that we will play harps in heaven, and 36% think we will have halos in heaven.1 Personally I’m more of a fender stratocaster kind of guy than a harp kind of guy, but that’s just a personal preference. Most likely the idea of harps and halos comes from medieval artwork about heaven. But harps and halos are never mentioned in the Bible.
Today we’re going to talk about what happens immediately after we die. What will happen in the first moments after we leave this life? That’s what we’re going to look at today. So take out your outline and you can turn to 1 Thessalonians 5:23.
I. What Part of Us Does God Want To Save?
Just to take a step back and review, when we started this series we talked about a few explanations our world has given us about what happens after we die. We talked about the idea of EXTINCTION, that when we die physically that’s it, we’re done, we no longer exist. We also talked about the Eastern idea of REINCARNATION, that after death we are reborn as another living being based on our karma. Finally, we mentioned DISEMBODIMENT, the Greek idea that the real "me" is my soul, which is imprisoned in my physical body, and that at death my soul--the real "me"--finally finds liberation by being free from my body.
Now I mention these three views again because many people confuse the Greek idea of disembodiment with the Christian view of life after death. It usually goes something like this: Our bodies are so polluted by sin that God sent Jesus to save our souls. So when our physical bodies die, if we’ve trusted in Jesus Christ our soul goes to heaven to be with God and live forever...end of story. I would suggest to you that that view has more to do with the Greek philosopher Plato than it has to do with the Bible or the Christian faith.What part of us does God want to save for heaven?
1 Thessalonians 5:23--May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (NIV).
This is what scholars call a "wish prayer," where the apostle Paul expresses his passionate desire for his Christian friends who live in the city of Thessalonica. Paul’s prayer is that God would "sanctify" the Thessalonian Christians, and "sanctify" is simply a fancy word for "making something holy."2 The idea is that every follower of Jesus Christ is involved in an ongoing process of "sanctification," of being made holy, as God renews our minds, transforms our habits, reshapes our emotions, and so forth. The goal of this process is for us to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ who wholeheartedly love God and love other people. In fact, that’s our discipleship goal for every member of this church, for God to use our congregation to help those who already know Jesus Christ to make progress in this process.But notice here that God is not just sanctifying our souls and ignoring our bodies. God is sanctifying Christians "through and through," entirely, all that makes us who we are, spirit, soul and body.
Now Christians differ as to whether humans beings are essentially composed of two parts--body and soul--or three parts--body, soul and spirit. I’m going to leave that debate for another time, so we’ll just assume here that human beings are essentially composed of at least two components--body and soul. This means that human beings in their essence are not souls imprisoned in physical bodies--as the Greek philosophy of Platonism suggests--but that both our physical nature and our non-physical nature make up who we are.Christian theologian Robert Saucy--one of my former teachers--says, "The body is not the whole person...nor is it the prison house of the soul...Instead the body or ‘the outer [self]’ is designed as a partner of the [soul] or ‘the inner [self]’...The body is the only avenue of expression for the inner person in the world of time and sense."3 Christian philosopher Stephen Davis from Claremont McKenna College agrees: "Human beings consist both of material bodies and immaterial souls...the body is not merely an adornment or drape for the soul...What the body does is provide the soul with a vehicle for action in the world and expression of intentions and desires; and the soul provides the body with animation and direction."4