Personal Recognition in Heaven
By Fred O. Blakely
Since eternal life with God in the world to come is the great promise of the gospel, and the principal hope of the church, the things pertaining to it should be of primary interest to the saints. We are commanded and exhorted to "seek those things which are above" (Col. 3:1; cf. Mt. 6:33), and our subject certainly represents one of them. Jesus spoke of "heavenly things" as of preeminent importance (Jn. 3:12), as they unquestionably are to those who are truly "risen with Him," and so are now, by faith, citizens of the heavenly realm. The more mature in the faith one becomes, the more his interest and affection center on heaven, where Christ, his Head and hope, "sitteth on the right hand of God," and whither he himself shall so shortly be gathered.
In this day of worldly-mindedness by the professing church, there is great need to stress this point. A casual, or no, interest in the glory yet to be revealed belies the profession of faith which is made. We are an eternity-bound people --and travelling fast-- and it is absurd in the extreme to evince no interest in what awaits us there. In this life, we are anxious and zealous to acquire all the information about a temporal place or situation with which we expect to be identified. How much more should our intense concern be kindled and maintained regarding eternal relationships into which we shall enter in the heavenly life!
Although the fact is revelative and condemnatory of the perversion denoted by the here-and-now emphasis of contempory religionists, it remains undeniable that the true church, as pictured in Scripture, is distinctively futuristic in its faith, hope, and life. Those whose names are "written in heaven" (Lk. 10:20) are basically a heavenly-minded folk. They live in hope of the salvation yet to be brought to them at the coming of Christ, with all that pertains to that salvation (I Pet. 1:5-6, 13).
These and other considerations combine to make the question of our subject (i.e., shall we recognize one another there?) not merely an idle inquiry, but one that naturally and inevitably confronts the minds and hearts of those who earnestly desire "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ," and "our gathering together unto Him" (II Th. 2:1). Hence, let us look to the evidences that support a clearly affirmative answer to the question, "Shall we know one another in heaven?"
The Witness of Reason
Before we consider that of revelation, it is well to note that the voice of reason itself bears strong witness on this subject. It would not seem that God, who Himself is eternal, would establish individual personality and personal relations among His new creation here and then blot them out in the eternal order. He being unchanging and unchangeable, it would appear that those who partake of His nature would themselves be so in their fundamental character as members of God's Son, the Head of the new creation.
Two Distinct Testimonies. The nature of the case thus supposed seems to be reflected as veritably the situation in the deep-seated aspirations of those who have been restored to God through Christ. The innate desire for continuity of the essential self and of the relationships of faith is as strong among them as that for eternal life itself. Indeed, it is difficult to make any sense of the term "eternal life," unless it includes the perpetuity of the person, however inconceivably enhanced in glory may be the coming state. Reasoning from effect to cause, it can, accordingly, be concluded that God has provided for complete gratification of the yearning by His children for endless existence in a state of glory, where they shall be wholly free from the encumbrances and sufferings of earth, and at perfect liberty to serve Him forever, to the fullest extent of their glorified capacities.
The continuance of the person in the eternal world is further attested by the relationship which departed saints bear to those who continue in the flesh. It appears to have been the universal experience that those dear ones who have outstripped us in the race for the heavenly prize continue to linger in our memories, growing even dearer as the years since their entrance into Paradise pile up one upon another. This experience, noted by discerning brethren through the centuries, appears to bespeak the continuance of the beloved ones in their necessary beings, confirming to us the words of the Lord Jesus, that "all live" unto God, though dead to the world (Lk. 20:38; cf. Rom. 14:8-9; I Pet. 4:6). It does not seem to accord with reason to suppose that such would be the case if the deceased were nonexistent in their conscious entities. Constant strengthening of the bond of attachment logically implies spiritual reciprocity of endearment, in some way, between those who ar e here and the ones who are there.
From these and other considerations, it is concluded that reason alone fosters the conviction that human personality, as we know it here, is continued in the world to come. Our hope of such continuity appears to be prompted by the present bearing upon our spirits of the substance of that hope's blessed realization in eternity.
The Testimony of Regeneration
Reason has some assurance on this subject, but analogy based upon scriptural teaching and the saints' experience of its outworking in them has a "more sure word" of certification (cf. II Pet. 1:19). Particularly is this so of the doctrine of spiritual regeneration and its manifestation among men. As we have repeatedly pointed out through the years, the era of glory stands mirrored in that of grace, as grace was reflected by the dispensation of law. Hence, as we look to the teaching of the firstfruit regeneration -- concerning which that yet to come at the revelation of Christ is the full harvest -- and its experience by men, we see demonstrated the continuance of personal identity in the heavenly order.
The Present Experience. "If any man be in Christ," says Paul in the well-known text, "he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (II Cor. 5:17; cf. Gal. 6:15). That situation is the result of one's having been "born of water and of the Spirit" (cf. Jn. 3:5). He has passed from death in Adam to life in Christ, and so has been made "meet" to partake of "the inheritance of the saints in light," or has been constituted an heir of salvation through Christ (Col. 1:12; Heb. 1:14; I Jn. 3:14). This represents God's preparatory work on the individual to ready him for the consummate regeneration, to be experienced at the last day, when He shall have made "all things new" in the climactic regeneration (Rev. 21:5; cf. I Cor. 3:9; II Cor. 5:5; Eph. 2:10). So, we have in the reborn individual the beginning of the person to be completed in the glorified person.
Now, what is the situation in this firstfruit experience of the new and everlasting order, as respects the continuance of individuality? That regeneration leaves fully intact the essential elements of personal identity certainly cannot be questioned. It is quite true there is a radical difference in the renewed one, but it is not of such nature or extent as to obscure his identity with the unregenerate man. It is a difference marked by purification of heart and life and the transfer of basic interest and affection from temporal things to those of eternity. We surely recognize the saint as the person known in his alienation from God; his conversion has not obliterated his identity. So also, we conclude, in the diction of Paul, will it be in the resurrection. The glorified person will be the same, though vastly different from what he is now, even in a state of spiritual renewal.
Clear-cut Implications of Scripture
What is undeniably set forth on this subject by firstfruit regeneration is clearly implied by the repeated declarations of Scripture. Those who spoke of the heavenly state did so in language that cannot but be understood as indicating their expectation of continued personal identity there.
The Case of Paul's Translation. The case of Paul's temporary translation provides a classic example (II Cor. 12:1-4). He was "caught up to the third heaven," or "into paradise," where he had an unutterable experience. Yet, though for a time being in that order, he was still the man Paul. The buffeting "messenger of Satan" was given him, lest he should glory overmuch in the experience. Furthermore, so closely identified was he with the mortal person during that experience, that he could not tell whether he was in the body or out of it. This experience of the Apostle, unparalleled in all the biblical record, certainly evinces the continuity of which we treat.
"The man whose soul was flooded with the higher elements of being does not know whether he is "in the body' or "out of the body.' Thus, wherever or however he existed he constituted the man. "I knew a man in Christ.' That which had these wonderful revelations he regarded as the man. To the Apostle, the body was the costume of the man, which he put on at birth and took off at death. In fact, he regarded the body as his, but the soul as himself" (David Thomas).
The way in which Paul speaks of his hope of permanent entrance into the heavenly world is likewise denotative of his expectation in this connection. "The Lord," he asserted, "shall deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me unto His heavenly kingdom (II Tim. 4:18). It was he concerning whom the Lord was to do this, "and not another" (cf. Job 19:27). See Second Peter 1:10-11 for that Apostle's similar connection of the heavenly state with the identity of the saints still in the flesh.
When Paul addressed the church regarding God's purpose for it, he even more strongly proclaimed the eternal identity here contemplated. "And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly," he prayed for the Thessalonians, "and I pray God that your whole spirit and soul and body [that is all there is of a human being] be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. "Faithful is He that calleth you, who also will do it" (I Th. 5:23-24).
Scriptures Associated with Christ. A remark by the Lord Jesus, it will be recalled, has special bearing on this subject. It was made to the rebellious Jews in their rejection of Him. "There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out" (Lk. 13:28). Recognition in the world to come is here surely set forth, as well of awareness of one's own identity.
Of like nature and import is Jesus' declaration to Martha, as she was grieving the loss of her brother Lazarus at his death (Jn. 11:20-26). "Thy brother shall rise again," He asserted. Although the Lord intended to raise Lazarus then, His declaration to Martha had ultimate application to the last day, in which sense alone she understood it (v. 24). The point is, it is Lazarus who shall rise in the general resurrection, as it was on that memorable occasion, just as it will be "the queen of the south" and "the men of Nineveh" who shall then also "rise up" (Lk. 11:31-32). It is God's will, said Jesus, that "every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on Him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him [the one who so received the Son] up at the last day" (Jn. 6:40; cf. ch. 5:28-29).
The case of the transfiguration of Jesus, witnessed by Peter, James, and John, is very strong in its confirmation of our conclusion (Lk. 9:28-32). Moses and Elijah appear "in glory" with Jesus at His transfiguration. And the Apostles recognized them without instruction; the disciples also retained their own identities while thus witnessing this heavenly scene.
It was the same with the rich man, Lazarus, and Abraham (ch. 16:19-31). The rich man retained his identity in Hades, together with his memory of the situation in this world. He also recognized Abraham and Lazarus, in the blessed state, and even besought Abraham to send Lazarus to minister the truth to his unbelieving brethren, who remained in the flesh. This narrative, from the lips of Jesus Himself, virtually spells out the affirmative answer to our question regarding recognition. The escape device invented by those unwilling to accept all the doctrine involved in this incident, which makes a parable rather than a real occurrence out of it, is not deemed plausible enough to here deserve a reply.
Job's and David's Remarks. Even in the Patriarchal age, Job was aware of the continuity of personal identity. "After my skin, even this body, is destroyed," he declared, "then without my flesh shall I see God; whom I, even I, shall see on my side [or, for myself, marg.]" (Job 19:26-27, ASV). When the child illicitly begotten of Bathsheba died, David ceased his fasting and mourning, and voiced the same expectation of recognition beyond the grave (II Sam. 12:14-23). "I shall go to him," he exclaimed of the child, "but he shall not return to me" (v. 23).
The Analogy of Paul's Treatise
Paul's great treatise on the resurrection body, recorded in First Corinthians 15, throws much light on our subject. The illumination is diffused by his analogy between the common course and outcome of sown grain and that of human bodies planted in the grave, to be raised at Christ's coming (vv. 35-38).
The Identity Retained. "How are the dead raised up, and with what body do they come?" is the question posed. Although, in the case of wheat, it is not, as regards precise likeness, "that the body shall be," when the new body emerges from the ground as a stalk of wheat, it is recognizable as such, not being confused with other grain. The grain of wheat that was planted has been glorified by its resurrection, but it continues to be wheat as to its essential identity. "So also is the resurrection of the dead," concludes the Apostle. Although gloriously transformed in the resurrection into an incorruptible and powerful body befitting the eternal order, it is still the body of the person who was buried, and that individual, in his completely glorified state, will inhabit the body forever.
The Bearing of Christ's State
The present glorified state of "the Man Christ Jesus" serves as a pattern of what awaits us in the world to come (I Tim. 2:5). "We shall be like Him," when He appears, "for we shall see Him as He is" (I Jn. 3:2). To know the nature of His state now, as it relates to our subject, is, therefore, to be apprised of our future condition. Now, the Scriptures speak expressly to this subject, and with the utmost clarity. Perhaps none is more unmistakable than that of Hebrews 13:8: "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever." "I am He that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive forevermore," He said to John (Rev. 1:18). He who sits enthroned at the Father's right hand is fully identified with the One with whom John and the other Apostles walked and companied during "the days of His flesh" (Heb. 5:7).
Paul makes a special point of this circumstance in his Ephesian letter. "He that descended into the lower parts of the earth is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things," it is declared (Eph. 4:8-10). If by "the lower parts of the earth" is intended our Lord's descent into the grave (as is generally understood), the bearing of the text upon our subject is decisive. The exalted Jesus is, thus, categorically declared to the same as the buried One -- which is what Christ Himself asserts in the Revelation 1:18 text. On the basis of the other interpretation of "the lower parts of the earth," the effect is the same, as for that. If that term alludes to the enfleshment of Jesus, it is still proclaimed that He who ascended is identical to the one who tabernacled for awhile among men.
Other Relevant Texts. It is certain that such assertions concerning the identification of the glorified Lord with the humiliated One is abundantly evident in Scripture. "If I go and prepare a place for you," He promised the disciples, "I will come again, and receive you unto Myself; that where I am there ye may be also" (Jn. 14:3). Small consolation to them, or to us, would it be to have hope of being with a Stranger in eternity who had supplanted the Jesus whom we know, love, worship, and have tried throughout our livelong days to serve.
The message to the upward-gazing disciples by the "two men" in "white apparel," as the risen Christ was taken up into heaven, is of a piece with the other pronouncements touching the subject (Act 1:9-11). "Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?" they asked. They then followed with reiteration of the precious promise made earlier by the Lord Himself: "This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven" (v. 11). It will be "this same Jesus," or "this Jesus" (ASV) that went away who will come again "in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Mt. 24:30).
"This same Jesus shall come again in His own Person, clothed with a glorious body. This same Jesus, who came once to "put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself' will "appear the second time without sin unto salvation' (Heb. 9:26-28). He who came once in disgrace to be judged will come again in glory to judge. The same Jesus who has given you your charge will come again to call you to an account of how you have performed your trust. It will be He, "and not another' (Job 19:27) (Matthew Henry).
Implication of His Advocacy. A significant implication of the essential sameness of the glorified Christ with the One who dwelt upon the earth is bound up with His advocacy for the church before the face of God. In His high priestly capacity, Paul tells us, He can -- bless God! --be "touched with the feeling of our infirmities" (Heb. 4:15), simply because "in all things" He was "made like unto His brethren," and "suffered being tempted," and so understands their weaknesses and trials (ch. 2:15-18). The essentiality of this sympathy to our Lord's priestly function in heaven, born of firsthand experience with the situation confronting His brethren, virtually demonstrates our point.
Although now removed forever beyond these low grounds of infirmity, sin, and suffering, He still well recalls the misery which He Himself endured in the flesh (yet entirely without sin), and, in that remembrance, can have sympathetic compassion on those who are "out of the way" (cf. 5:2).
The State of Society There
Lest the unimaginable glory and bliss of heavenly society be diminished in the thinking of some by limited knowledge of the situation, we hasten to comment on the subject. Because of lingering infirmities and proneness to selfishness and sin in even the most pious of God's people here, the thought of our personalities being perpetuated in heaven might tend to degrade rather than enhance the prospects of the heavenly life. "We have hard enough time putting up with them now!" it might be callously ejaculated. "We had certainly hoped that we would be confronted with something altogether new and different in the world to come."
As respects those fleshly limitations, there most assuredly will be a radical change. "We shall be like Him," is the promise, and that ought to suffice the most exacting. Even now, by faith, we "are come" to "the spirits of just men made perfect" (Heb. 12:23). At the resurrection, we shall be ushered into the company of the saints of all ages, completely perfected -- spirit, soul, and body -- "children of God" and of "the resurrection" (Lk. 20:34-36).
It remains for us to experience the supernal harmony and bliss that shall obtain in the ages to come, as the trophies of God's redeeming grace mingle in His worship and service. Certainly, in our present vastly inferior state, we are incapable of conceiving its ineffable joy, in the most prodigious projections of imagination of which we are capable.
An Admonitory Consideration. In the light of the glorious prospects thus set before us by both reason and Scripture, an admonitory consideration respecting life in this world presents itself. It is that of the perpetuity of human personality in its bearing upon contemporary relations. The people with whom we associate now will confront us in eternity. They do not pass into nonexistence or nonentity at death. We shall recognize them -- those who are saved -- and have to do with them in heaven.
It is, accordingly, apparent that we have, here and now, commenced abiding associations, in our acquaintance with and relation to the brethren. How this staggering reality should sanctify and exalt proper attitudes and dealings here. Since we are all joint-heirs of salvation through Christ, we must learn to live and serve together as brethren, while we in unison anticipate the time when we shall, together, be forever "with the Lord" (I Th. 4:17).