Family Reunion

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1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

INTRODUCTION: We are continuing in our series on Real Answers about Heaven, and today I want us to talk about family reunion. One of the most precious truths in the Bible is that in heaven we will be reunited with our loved ones in Christ, and therefore as believers we have hope. I know many of you here today have lost loved ones in the Lord, and I pray this message will be of great comfort to you as we meditate on these Scriptures together. (Read 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and pray.)

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After I graduated from college back in 1984, I moved from my family’s home in Massachusetts out to Los Angeles, California to pursue work as a recording engineer. I was feeling really homesick come Christmas time, so I planned a surprise visit back home. I booked my flight a couple days before Christmas and had a taxi drop me off a block away from home. It was snowing, and with great anticipation I walked down that old familiar street to my parent’s house. The back door was unlocked, so I just opened the door, walked right in and called out with a loud voice, “Hello!” My parents came running, and we had a wonderful family reunion right there in the hallway by the back door.

My parents’ house is where I lived for so many years with my family. Heaven is God’s house where he lives with his family. And the Bible teaches us this wonderful truth – that one day we will be reunited with our loved ones in heaven. And when we do it will be one big family reunion that goes on and on forever. So let’s see what the Bible tells us about family reunion in heaven.

I. We will be reunited when Christ returns.

First of all the Bible tells us when we will all be reunited. We will be reunited with our loved ones when Christ returns. Now, if you die before Christ returns, you will have a mini family reunion right then and there, because you will be reunited with those who died before you in the Lord. But the big family reunion when we will all be together will not take place until Christ returns. And the Bible gives us a very specific timeline. The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are still alive will be caught up with them. Now we’ve looked at this timeline before with reference to our new resurrection bodies, but I want us to take a look at it again, this time with reference to being reunited with our loved ones.

   A. The dead in Christ will rise first
      – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-16

So part one in the timeline – the dead in Christ will rise first. Look with me at 1 Thessalonians 4:13-16: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14 We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-16)

The Thessalonians were concerned about those believers who had already died with respect to the return of Christ. Christ’s return will be one of the most glorious events in the history of the world. It is the culmination of God’s plans for his people since the beginning of the world. The Thessalonians were excited about the prospect of Christ’s return, but they were also concerned about those who had already died in Christ. Would they miss out on it?

And Paul’s answer to them is no! Not only will they not miss out, they’re going to have a front row seat! Verse 14 says: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14)

Now we’ve learned that those who have died in Christ, or “fallen asleep in him” as Paul puts it here, are already with Christ. Every Old Testament and New Testament believer who has died is present with Christ in heaven right now. But how can they participate in Christ’s return to the physical earth without their physical bodies? That’s the issue Paul is addressing here.

And verse 16 gives us the answer: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16)

Not only will they have a front row seat, but they get to go first! Those who have already died in Christ will be resurrected from the dead and will get their new resurrection bodies before we who are still alive do. Those who have died in Christ will not miss out on Christ’s return, because the dead in Christ will rise first.

   B. Then we who are still alive will be caught up with them
      – 1 Thessalonians 4:17-18; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52

Then we who are still alive will be caught up with them. Look at verses 17-18 now: “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage each other with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17-18)

The dead in Christ will rise first, and then we who are still alive will be caught up with them. And that’s all before Jesus even gets back to the earth. We will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Notice the word “together” in verse 17. What a beautiful truth of Scripture! We will finally be together with those loved ones in Christ who died before us.

What about our new bodies? Won’t we need our new resurrection bodies to meet with Christ and our loved ones in the air? Yes, we will need our new resurrection bodies, too, and as we learned last time, we will receive them at the return of Christ. We read in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52)

When Christ returns the dead will rise first. Then we will rise with them. Our bodies will be changed, and we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the air. No one will miss out on Christ’s return! The dead and alive in Christ will all join together at the return of Christ, and so the great family reunion will begin in the air.

So that’s the first thing we learn about family reunion in heaven. We will be reunited when Christ returns.

II. We will join with the whole family of God

Secondly, we will join with the whole family of God. God’s family is bigger than your family; it’s bigger than my family; and so when we talk about family reunion, we are not just talking about our own family members who have died in the Lord. There will be all sorts of beings in heaven – people you know, people you never met in this life, Old Testament believers, New Testament believers, magnificent angels and perhaps other beings too. When the great family reunion takes place at Christ’s return, the Bible says we will join with the whole family of God.

   A. We will know and recognize each other
      – Matthew 8:11, 17:3; Luke 10:20; Philippians 3:21 (see Ecclesiastes 1:11)

People often ask if we will know and recognize each other. And the answer is most definitely “yes.” In fact the Bible tells us at least four things that assure us we will know and recognize each other in heaven.

First of all, there is the resurrection of the body. We will know and recognize each other because our bodies will be resurrected. Philippians 3:21 says that when Christ returns he “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” (Philippians 3:21) At certain times and for certain purposes Jesus kept his identity hidden from the disciples after the resurrection, but overall the disciples recognized Jesus in his new body, and so we will recognize each other, too.

Secondly, the Bible tells us that our names are written in heaven. Jesus told his disciples in Luke 10:20: “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20) That means that your personal identity on earth will continue in heaven. Your name identifies who you are. You will have your body, and you will have your name, and therefore we will know and recognize each other in heaven.

Thirdly, Jesus said in Matthew 8:11: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 8:11) Here we have the specific example of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. They will be there physically in their resurrected bodies. Jesus says we will know and recognize them and join them in the feast.

And then fourthly we have the example of what took place on the Mount of Transfiguration. We read in Matthew 17:3: “Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.” (Matthew 17:3) The Mount of Transfiguration was a preview of Christ’s glorified body and the glories of heaven to come. Moses and Elijah appeared with Christ on the mountain. The disciples had never seen them before, and yet they recognized them immediately. I believe that means we too will know and recognize people in heaven whom we have never met.

Will we know and recognize each other in heaven? Absolutely! Our bodies will be resurrected, our names are written in heaven, we will recognize Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at the feast, and we will know and recognize believers that we have never even met.

The fact that we will know and recognize each other solves a problem that was raised by King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes 1:11 Solomon laments that: “There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.” (Ecclesiastes 1:11) How many of you remember your great-great-grandparents? Probably none of you, right? How many of us do you think will be remembered by our great-great-grandchildren? Probably none of us right? Solomon is lamenting the fact that after we die, we are soon forgotten. And Solomon’s point is that if no one is even going to remember you, then what’s the point of living? Where is the meaning of it all?

However, Solomon is only talking about how it works here under the sun, not in heaven. The window of time to be known and remembered here on earth is very small. And yes, most of us will be forgotten within a few generations. But the fact that we will know and recognize each other in heaven solves that problem. You will not be forgotten, ever, because we will know and recognize each other in heaven.

   B. We will be reunited with our family members
      – 2 Samuel 12:23; Zechariah 8:5; Matthew 22:30; Luke 18:16

And that means we truly will be reunited with our family members who have died in Christ. This is perhaps one of the greatest comforts that comes from knowing Christ – knowing that you will see your believing family members again. Brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters – we will all be reunited when Christ returns.

People often have questions about their family members in heaven. For example husbands and wives wonder if they will still be married to their spouse in heaven. And the answer is no, we will not still be married in heaven. Jesus said in Matthew 22:30: “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage.” (Matthew 22:30) We will still recognize each other, and we will know that we were married, but the Bible teaches us that marriage is a temporary part of this life pointing to a much greater reality in heaven – the joining together of God and his people at the wedding feast of the Lamb. I like what Robert Peterson says about this. He writes: “The New Testament teaches that the marriage covenant dissolves upon death (Rom. 7:1–2; 1 Cor. 7:39) .… [But] this does not mean our relationship with our spouse will be diminished. Rather, because of the absence of sin, we will know our spouse, friends, and loved ones better than we do now.” (Christopher W. Morgan, Heaven, Kindle location 443)

People also ask about children who died before they were old enough to know Christ. Will they be in heaven? I believe the Bible says yes. When King David lost his child, he was confident he would see his son again. He washed his face, changed his clothes, went to the temple to worship and then went back to his house to eat. He told his servants: “Now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Samuel 12:23) Jesus himself said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Luke 18:16)

People also wonder what age their children will be in heaven. And the answer is we really don’t know. Perhaps they will begin as children and get the opportunity to grow up in heaven that they never got in this life. Perhaps their new resurrection bodies will already be those of a full grown adult, fully mature in body and mind. We really don’t know, although the Bible does speak about there being children in heaven. For example, when God speaks about the New Jerusalem in Zechariah 8:5, he says: “The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.” (Zechariah 8:5) What a beautiful picture! There’s nothing quite so beautiful as the sight and sound of children playing together.

So how’s that all going to work out? Once again, we don’t know! But even though we don’t know all the particulars about children in heaven, we still have this great assurance from the Scriptures that our children who died before they were old enough to know Christ will be there in heaven with us.

And so this is a great comfort from Scripture. When we join with the whole family of God, we will be reunited with our family members who have died in Christ.

   C. We will all live in perfect harmony
      – Genesis 11:6-7; Colossians 3:10-11; Hebrews 12:22-23

And then one final note on this section: we will all live in perfect harmony. That’s important to remember, because we do not always look forward to family reunions in this life. Family reunion in heaven will not be like some of those stressful holiday dinners that you may have experienced here on earth, but we will all live in perfect harmony.

Hebrews 12 says this about heaven: “You have come to . . . the city of the living God. . . . to the spirits of righteous men made perfect.” (Hebrews 12:22–23) In heaven we will all be perfected and fully reconciled with each other. Billy Graham asks and answers the question: “Will we see people in Heaven we couldn’t get along with on earth? We’ll not only see them, but we’ll get along with them perfectly. In Heaven, the past will be forgiven; they will be perfect – and so will we!” (Billy Graham, The Heaven Answer Book, Kindle location 855)

There will be no more barriers between us and others. The Bible tells us that in Christ all the barriers are removed. We read in Colossians 3 that in Christ we “have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:10-11)

In Genesis 11 we read how the Lord confused the languages at the Tower of Babel. Heaven will be the undoing of Babel. Either we will all speak the same language, or we will understand all languages perfectly. Some have speculated that perhaps music will be the universal language in heaven. All I know is this: there will be no more barriers, and we will all live in perfect harmony.

This is indeed one of the most precious truths of Scripture – that in heaven we will join with the whole family of God. I think we can all agree with Richard Baxter when he writes: “I know that Christ is all in all; and that it is the presence of God that makes heaven to be heaven. But yet it much sweetens the thoughts of that place to me to remember that there are such a multitude of my most dear and precious friends in Christ.” (John MacArthur, The Glory of Heaven, p. 174-175)

In heaven we will join with the whole family of God. We will know and recognize each other. We will be reunited with our family members. We will all live in perfect harmony.

III. Christ will still be the main attraction!
   – 1 Thessalonians 4:17

We’ve looked at two points so far this morning. 1) We will be reunited when Christ returns. 2) We will join with the whole family of God. But as wonderful as those truths are, we must never forget point number three. 3) Christ will still be the main attraction in heaven! Yes, we will see our loved ones again. But more importantly, we will see Jesus.

We’ve spent a lot of time in 1 Thessalonians 4 this morning, because this chapter was written especially to comfort those who have lost loved ones in Christ. But as you may have noticed, even in 1 Thessalonians 4 the main focus is still on Christ. Paul says in verse 17 that we will go: “to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17) Yes, we will be with each other in heaven, and that is wonderful, and that is true. But the main hope of the believer is still not that we will be with each other, but that we will be with Jesus.

D.A. Carson writes about his desire to see his loved ones again: “Indeed, it’s right that I should think like that and contemplate renewed relationships with Mum and Dad and with other loved ones who have gone into glory ahead of me. But such expectation is wrong if it is at the expense of longing for God.” (D.A. Carson, Coming Home, Kindle location 858)

The fact that we will be reunited with our loved ones in Christ is indeed a beautiful and comforting truth of Scripture. But in our good and right desire to see our loved ones again, we must never lose sight of Christ. Even though we look forward to being reunited with our loved ones in heaven, Christ will still be the main attraction!

As Fanny Crosby wrote in one of her many beautiful hymns:

Oh, the dear ones in glory, how they beckon me to come,
And our parting at the river I recall;
To the sweet vales of Eden they will sing my welcome home;
But I long to meet my Savior first of all.

Through the gates to the city in a robe of spotless white,
He will lead me where no tears will ever fall;
In the glad song of ages I shall mingle with delight;
But I long to meet my Savior first of all.

CONCLUSION: The Bible teaches us that we will be reunited with our loved ones in Christ, and therefore as believers we have hope. We will be reunited when Christ returns. We will join with the whole family of God. And as wonderful as all that will be, Christ will still be the main attraction.

Let me share with you three applications in closing:

1) Reconcile with others now – don’t wait for heaven (Matthew 5:23-24)

First of all, reconcile with others now – don’t wait for heaven. Yes, we will all finally be reconciled in heaven, but don’t wait for heaven to be reconciled. Jesus said in Matthew 5:23-24: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24) If we are going to live with God’s family in heaven, we should reconcile our relationships now, while here on earth.

2) Grieve – but not like those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

Secondly, grieve – but not like those who have no hope. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

Martin Luther lost two daughters, an 8-month-old daughter named Elizabeth, and a thirteen-year-old daughter named Magdalena, whom Luther called his “Little Lena.” Luther told his friends at her death: “I am joyful in spirit, but sad according to the flesh … It’s strange to know that she is surely at peace and that she is well off there, very well off, and yet to grieve so much.” (Stephen Nichols, Heaven on Earth, pp. 106-107)

And so, yes, we grieve, but we do not grieve like those who have no hope. Mark Dever says: “I have this hope: I know someone who has gone into the grave and come back out.” (D.A. Carson, Coming Home, Kindle location 1186) And so as believers we have the wonderful hope of reunion with our loved ones in Christ.

3) Pray for your unsaved loved ones to come to Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:14)

And then, finally, pray for your unsaved loved ones to come to Christ. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:14: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14)

Only those who die in Christ will come with Christ. Those who never come to know Christ in this life will not take part in this beautiful family reunion at Christ’s return. And so we need to pray for our unsaved loved ones and encourage our family members to come to Christ. As Jonathan Edwards wrote in a letter to his family: “Let us all take care that we may meet there at last.” (Stephen Nichols, Heaven on Earth, p. 104)

Christ is coming back, and when he does we will be reunited with our loved ones who have died in Christ. We and they will never die or be separated ever again. As believers we look forward to a glorious, family reunion. It will be a lot like walking down an old familiar street, opening the back door which was left unlocked, walking into God’s house and calling out, “Hello!” And then the glory begins.

© Ray Fowler

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