I don’t like to be the last one out. I’m not talking about rushing out of a burning building or exiting an occupied country after a war. I get antsy if I’m the last one in a movie theater (even if there is a bonus scene after the credits), or in a restaurant (even if the food is good). It bugs me when the store employees start sweeping up for the night or the lights go out at work (to save power) in the evening.
I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but perhaps there are others like me who feel the same way. However, there is a more significant sort of not wanting to be left behind. (This won’t be an eschatological discussion, though – there are plenty of others who have studied books of the Bible like Daniel and Revelation, and written up their conclusions.)
Have a look at this passage from 1 Thessalonians:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 NASB
We can imagine the early church, who expected Jesus’ return during their lifetime, coming up with the idea (through human logic) that only those who were still alive would be included in Jesus’ new kingdom. Instead, Paul makes it clear that followers of Jesus whose bodies have died before Jesus’ return actually get a head-start on those who are still living.
Centuries later, though, it’s still difficult to lose a friend, whether to accident, sickness, or just time. As of the time of this writing, a nice lady who was on the church’s list of shut-ins recently passed away, a bit short of her 99th birthday. Through my role on the visitation schedule, I had gotten to know her over the past couple of years, and looked forward to talking with her when we stopped by. As a result, her passing leaves a gap in my life, and she will be missed.
However, she had seen her husband and other loved ones pass on ahead of her, and she was ready to meet them again. I suspect that she felt a little like I do when I’m one of the last people in a building at closing time.
In fact, near the end of her physical life, this lady had said that she wasn’t sure why she was still on earth. Those of us who watched her influence on people around her didn’t have to think very hard about that question, though; it was clear that she was ministering to others, even at 98! God does not make mistakes.
For those of us who may wonder what God’s purpose is for us, this is a good reminder. We may not see how God uses us and makes an impact through us, but we must trust that He has a plan and a purpose for each of us. If you’re feeling discouraged, I think that it’s ok to ask God for a peek at His bigger picture. Sometimes, our faith may be challenged – and strengthened – when we don’t get the answers right away, but we can still talk with God about how we feel.
While I’m sure that many will be impacted by this friend’s absence, I’m not sad for her. As the passage above from 1 Thessalonians says, she will actually get a head-start on me, if Jesus returns while I’m still living here on earth.
So, do not grieve for those who are on their way to Heaven, to live forever with Jesus. It’s ok to feel sad and miss them (even Jesus did that – see John 11:33-36). Tell their stories, both to give a testimony to their good works (as well as God’s work in and through them), and to pass on their legacy to others. Carry on activities that they started, where you are called, and where it makes sense. But, don’t worry that they will be the “last ones out”!