Happily Ever After: Part Two
© 10.17.2015 By D. Eric Williams
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know (John 14:3-4)
Jesus continues to speak words of comfort and peace to his apostles as he prepares them for his death, resurrection and departure. He says and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself; that where I am, there you may be also.
We have already determined that the preparation Jesus speaks of concerns the conclusion of the old covenant era. As we have seen, this involved the presentation of his sacrificial blood in the Most Holy place in the heavenly realm. Paul's letter to the Hebrews reminds us that, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12). Moreover, Christ told his disciples that if, in fact, he was bringing the old era to its close then certainly he would come again for them.
Now, there are a variety of views concerning these words of Christ. Many believe he is speaking of his second coming when he says he will come again and receive his disciples to himself. However, the context suggests something else. It is more likely he refers to the death of his apostles and his "coming" to receive them into his presence. It is this very thing that Stephen experienced at his martyrs death. Jesus the Christ, was seated at the right hand of power yet rose from his throne to "come to" Stephen and receive him at his death. Thus, being full of the Holy Spirit, having looked stedfastly to the heaven, [Stephen] saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and he said, 'Lo, I see the heavens having been opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God' (Acts 7:55-56) and they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7:59).
We believe this is what Jesus was referring to when he told his disciples he would come again to receive them unto himself. Remember, this was a promise given to inspire confidence and peace in the disciples at that time not in the indeterminate future. A peaceful, confident state of mind would be more likely if the promise referred to something near at hand.
This leads us to reject the idea that there is a time of "sleep" believers endures between their death and reception into the presence of God. Sleep was the circumstance in the old covenant era when the souls of the dead were received into Sheol or Hades. It was a place of sleep and diminished awareness receiving all who died (Job 3:17-19, 17:16, Psalms 6:5, 13:3, 88:10-12, Isaiah 38:17-19). However, death and Hades have been destroyed in this new covenant age (Revelation 1:18, 20:14).2 Death is destroyed as we are immediately translated from this realm into the next at our demise; Hades in that we no longer experience "sleep" at death. Instead, as Paul says, behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed (1 Corinthians 15:51). Paul is not speaking of the rapture or some other "end time" event. Instead, he refers to the change of circumstance accomplished with the closure of the old covenant age and the beginning of the new. It is not entirely clear what Paul has in mind here but we do see that he is contrasting old covenant sleep with new covenant wakefulness and immediate reception into the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ at his "coming." Again, this is what Stephen experienced. He gazed into the heavens and saw Jesus stepping forward from his throne to receive him. He understood he would immediately be with Christ, forgoing the "sleep" characteristic of the old covenant age. The first century was a time of "already but not yet" and so believers who had died in the old dispensation awaited the full realization of the covenant before they enjoyed wakefulness. On the other hand, it seems that believers who died after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ were privileged to enjoy immediate translation into the presence of Jesus the Christ.1
According to John 14:4, the disciples should have known all of this. Jesus told them and where I go you know, and the way you know. In other words, this was part and parcel of Jesus teaching. Jesus is the summation of God's activity among men. All of the promises given to the forefathers found their fulfillment in Jesus the Christ. The disciples should have understood that union with the Messiah meant they were part of a new race of man and therefore living in a new reality.
However, the disciples were still thinking as mere Adamic men. As we will see in the next two verses they had yet to grasp the full import of Christ's life and work.