We stood in the cemetery. My then-five-year-old daughter listened as I explained the resurrection – its reality and its glory. “But, Dad,” she interrupted, “how are they going to make sure they don’t hit their heads on the rocks when they get up?” Great question! We quickly segued to a discussion of the resurrection body (cf. John 20:26, 1 Corinthians 15:35-49) and of headstones.
Headstones bear witness to future generations of those who have lived in the past. For Christians, they testify that these bodies will rise when Jesus returns in glory. Sadly, recent generations have resorted to simple blocks of granite with basic information: names and dates. I suppose simplicity avoids excess. But isn’t there something profound about the messages engraved on headstones of previous generations? They bore artistry and quoted Scripture or other wise sayings that drew out something of the nature of the ones buried there.
Two weeks ago in New Concord, Ohio, at Margie Blackwood’s (see Brad Johnston’s Mother Margie post) burial, I saw my favorite headstone yet: the Blackwood family stone. It is pictured above. The name alone is inscribed. No other names. No dates. No Scripture references. No quotes. But it speaks volumes. The stone is rough cut on the top, back, left side, and parts of the front and right side. The Blackwood name emerges from the rock, along with the facade of a more typical headstone. Without words, the sculptor immediately sets Isaiah 51:1 before our eyes: “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.” First Corinthians 10:1 reminds us that: “the Rock was Christ.” The Blackwoods hereby remind their living family members of their spiritual roots. And the family testifies to everyone of their foundation and hope in Christ. Because he is raised, those cut from the same rock will also rise. Under the shadow of this rock, Roy and Margie Blackwood have their personalized stone. In harmony with Isaiah 51, it calls onlookers to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33).
We need rock solid resurrection theology now, just as in the past. Solid headstones can help toward that end. In the first century, confusion reigned in the Thessalonian church regarding the resurrection. They held at least two erroneous views. First, they were convinced that Jesus would return so quickly that they had stopped striving in sanctification and in some cases had quit their regular employment. Second, they were worried that those who had died before the second coming of Jesus had missed out on his promises of eternal blessing.
Paul addressed the first error in 1 Thessalonians 4. He exhorted them to strive for the holiness to which they had been called and to work with their hands. To those ends, he twice prayed that God would establish them and keep them blameless at the coming of Jesus. First Thessalonians 3:12-13 says: “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (cf. 5:23-24).
The fourth chapter of the same letter also addresses the second error: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).
The great news is that the Thessalonians “got it.” They believed that the dead would rise and that God would fulfill his promises to his people. It seems that they did strive for holiness in life, trusting that God would establish his people blameless at the coming of Jesus. How do we know? Well, their cemeteries still speak. Archaeologists have discovered headstones in Thessalonica from that era with this inscription: “Blameless.”
Cemeteries speak profoundly. They press us to keep seeking the kingdom of God as long as we live. They remind us that the Lord is coming. They may seem less than exciting right now, but think about what is coming! I want to be in a cemetery when Jesus returns. Chances are good that I’ll be in one with a headstone overhead. Even if I’m alive when Jesus returns, there is no place I would rather be than in a cemetery. Imagine what those standing in cemeteries will experience! “The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, so we will always be with the Lord.” And not one person will have a welt on his forehead!
All Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version. Special thanks to my sister for snapping the pictures.