How I found comfort in the resurrection

*Warning: this article describes a traumatic birth experience*

“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18)

Am I the only one confused by this saying of Jesus? Hades is commonly understood to refer to Hell, but why would its gates be fighting against the church? Does it mean that the church is seeking to break into Hell itself? If so, why?

The teaching ministry First Fruits of Zion explains that this text is in fact a reference to the saints’ future victory over death. They helpfully point out that the word ‘Hades’ is a translation of the Hebrew term ‘Sheol’ which refers to the afterlife. The gates of Sheol are defensive structures intended to prevent the dead from passing back to life.

However, Jesus promises that these gates will not be able to hold back his church on the great day of the resurrection. On that day, the gates of Hades will fling wide open as the saints return to life. In that great day of rejoicing and jubilation, the believers will rise anew in recreated bodies, physically embracing long lost loved ones with tearful shouts of joy.

The hope of the first century believers

The scene was one of heartbreak and sadness. Mary and Martha were surrounded by friends and relatives as they grieved the recent loss of their beloved brother Lazarus. They had requested that Jesus come urgently, but now it was too late.

If a modern-day pastor were in Jesus’ shoes, you might expect words of comfort centred around heaven and eternity, assuring Martha in the midst of her grief. But Jesus’ conversation with Martha was radically different in focus:

“Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’

Martha said to Him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’

Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.'”

(John 11:23-25)

This intimate conversation between Jesus and Martha reveals much about the first century Jewish understanding of the afterlife – an understanding which Jesus did not contradict. When facing the loss of her brother, Martha’s comfort and hope was not seeing him in heaven, but one day meeting him again physically here on earth in ‘the resurrection at the last day’.

This is not to say that there is no afterlife. The Bible records Jesus saying to the dying criminal hanging beside him on the cross, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) However, the afterlife was seen as only a temporary place for the dead while awaiting the resurrection.

One day the piercing sound of the trumpet of Jesus’ return will wake us up from the sleep of death.

Awaking from sleep

A helpful metaphor in understanding the difference between the afterlife and the resurrection is found in the biblical concept of death as “sleep” (e.g. 1 Kings 2:10; 11:43).

We even see this in the story of Martha’s brother Lazarus: “[Jesus] said to them, ‘Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.'” (John 11:11)

Like the afterlife, sleep is a state of rest where one is out of reach with the physical surroundings of earth. The afterlife, like sleep, is only temporary – until the time when we wake up. Just as the clanging sound of an alarm clock wakes us up, so one day the piercing sound of the trumpet of Jesus’ return will wake us up from the sleep of death.

The Jubilee trumpets

In the words of Daniel the prophet: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Dan. 12:2)

While sleep is a part of life, our real focus is what happens while we are awake. In the same way, first century Jews like Martha were not primarily focused on the sleep of the afterlife, but rather on the awakening to come at the great resurrection. This was their source of comfort; this was their future hope. A few years ago, my family and I discovered this truth for ourselves in a deeply personal way.

Gradually the light and comfort found in the resurrection began to wipe away my tears.

Finding comfort in the resurrection

“The Lord has annointed me … to proclaim liberty to the captives [of death] … to comfort all who mourn … to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning.” (Isaiah 63:1-3, author’s comment inserted)

A year and a half after the arrival of our twins, my wife was pregnant again. As we began to pray about this new addition to our family, we felt  the Lord give us a name for her: Joy. It was a beautiful name, and we were looking forward to meeting her, having received prophetic words about this little baby.

Very early in the pregnancy, my wife had a small bleed. The doctors re-assured us that it was nothing to worry about. But when they later checked her out properly, they could no longer find Joy’s heartbeat. We asked them to check and triple check, but the result remained the same: she was gone.

We were devastated and stunned. The hardest part for me personally was the sense that God had given us clear prophetic words about this little one, and now those words were falling to the ground unfulfilled. It was confusing, discouraging and disheartening.

In the days leading up to the miscarriage, I had just begun studying the topic of the resurrection. As I reflected on what had happened, gradually the light and comfort found in the resurrection began to wipe away my tears.

I began to ponder the many unfulfilled prophecies given to Israel and realised that, while these promises seem impossible to fulfil right now, God is faithful to his word and will fulfil them in the Messianic Age. I came to understand that these are not the only promises that will await fulfilment in the Messianic Age. God’s promises to us concerning our little baby Joy will also come to pass in that great day of restoration.

There is a day coming when my wife and I will physically encounter our baby Joy, and oh what joy it will be! Then the prophetic meaning of her name will be fulfilled as we embrace her with tears of joy.

There is coming a great Jubilee, in which God will comfort our mourning and replace our tears with shouts of joy. My prayer is that our personal story of loss and of the hope we found in the resurrection will comfort you in any grief you are experiencing.

Enoch Lavender is the director of Olive Tree Ministries and the author of The Jubilee: Discover the End Time Mystery.

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