Falling asleep through Jesus (see 1 Thess. 4: 14), blessed as it is, is not the Christian’s hope. Departing to be with Christ (see Phil. 1: 23) is to enter an imperfect state, from which state the believing dead will one day “hear his voice, and shall go forth … to resurrection of life” (John 5: 28, 29). This going forth in resurrection will include not just the Church, but the OT saints as well, for the Scripture is clear that these will “not be made perfect without us” (Heb. 11: 40). In death, the Christian’s spirit is “with Christ” (Phil. 1: 23), but his body is in the grave. He is “absent from the body and present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5: 8) and awaiting the redemption of the body (see Rom. 8: 23). In resurrection, spirit, soul, and body will be re-united, and it is in that state that the believer will enter glory (following the pattern of the Master). Since Christ now has a body of glory, when He comes for us, He will transform our bodies of humiliation into conformity to His (Phil. 3: 21).
Sadly, the distinct blessedness of these truths is being frittered away by the constant muddling of the portion of the believer who has fallen asleep with the Christian hope of 1 Thess. 4: 16, 17—when the dead in Christ shall be raised and caught up together with those alive at that moment, to meet the Lord in the air and be forever with Him. If we transfer the blessings that attach to the hope to our falling asleep in death, then we shall lose something of our “enduring constancy of hope” (1 Thess. 1: 3). To be with Christ is “very much better” (Phil. 1: 23) than being here, but it is not better than “the coming glory to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8: 18). It is, for example, not a Scriptural thought to talk of a departed saint as being in the Father’s house. What the Lord says in John 14 is that our going to His Father’s house is dependent on His coming again for us (v3)—a quite distinct matter from our departure in death to be with Christ. Again, to speak of the joy of a departed saint seeing the Lord in death is not really right. We shall see the Lord’s face, not in death, but when He is manifested, for then “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3: 2). Let us not go beyond Scripture and attach things to an imperfect state which really belong to perfection! It is a great comfort to know that the spirit of a departed believer is with the Lord, but if we make that everything, then the hope of resurrection and coming glory loses its force. In this connection, the modern trend for a thanksgiving service for a departed saint rather than a burial is regrettable. These are not identical thoughts, for the former need not consider the body at all, while in the latter, the future of the body is distinctly before all. There ought to be a sense at a funeral that not only is the spirit of the saint with Christ, but a moment is coming when the body will leave the grave and what is corruptible will put on incorruptibility, death having been “swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15: 54). Let us see to it then that we keep distinct in our minds what is imperfect (however blessed) and what is perfect.