I knew my dad would have been proud of me, as I raced through our town. Timing the traffic lights perfectly and squealing the tires around every turn bore frantic evidence to the desperation of my charge. Was it a matter of life and death, with each passing second ticking away someone’s life? Was it the extreme anxiety of a million dollars hanging in the balance that drove me to such reckless speeds? No, it was much more important than that. I was late for church.
Dad was a great man. One would search in vain to find many-if-any vices in this polio stricken Christian man. But under that nice smile and Anabaptist beard lurked the blinding speed of a Mario Andretti — dormant until Sunday morning rolled around. Then it was every man for himself!
It got to be a game with us four children to invent little delays just before our Sunday morning departure for church. “I forgot my Bible, dad. Can I run inside and get it?”
“Make it quick, son. We DON’T WANT TO BE LATE.”
Those were the words we all wanted to hear, as we giggled into the long brown station wagon. We didn’t care much about seat belts in those days and my brother and I got a lot of enjoyment out of sliding around on the seat as dad hurtled towards worship. My two sisters were less impressed than we were, but it wasn’t that bad. After a couple years their fingernail claw marks in the steel car door wore down to less than a quarter-inch deep.
Dad’s fear of being late to church came in handy at times. One day as we were going somewhere special (possibly for ice cream) and the miles were dragging by with all the enthusiasm of frozen molasses, I hollered “Dad, pretend we are late for church.” Reflex and momentary panic combined—Dad mashed the gas pedal to the floor and the horizon began to flash by in a blur. Until he caught on to our little trick… That only actually worked one time.
So here I was — forty years later — late for church and demonstrating the same genetic dash as my fathers. And I got to thinking about Dad who died five years ago. Was he enjoying cosmic worship after racing across the universe? Had he made it to heaven before the rest of us?
The Bible answers this question in Hebrews chapter eleven. While walking down the long hallway of faith and admiring the portraits of fellow believers on the wall, we come to verses 13 and 39.
“These all died in faith. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance” (v. 13). And “And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise…” (v. 29).
Two points are apparent in these verses. Each of these dear fellow believers were faithful, and they didn’t get something. In spite of their faith, they didn’t get a… promise. What promise?
The next verse blows me away. “God has provided something better for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.” Let’s unpack this. The “something better” refers to the eschatological gathering of God's people (Matt. 24:31). It is talking about the Second Coming of Jesus the Christ. And there is something even more revelatory in this verse. No one gets there first!
Sin was the awful birth of self into the universe. Along with sin, came competition, one-upmanship, and better-ness. Ever since, most of us are in competition with each other in one way or another. “Oh come on! Racing to church is a result of sin??!!” A result, yes — I’d say so.
(disclaimer) Now, I’m not saying that dear old dad was sinning by dashing to church. But he was demonstrating the competitive nature of a carnal character. I should know—I apparently have a big dose of it too.
That is what’s fascinating about Hebrews 11. Every child born into the world after Adam, comes in with a genetic legacy that says “How much can I get and how little do I have to give.” These natural servants of self automatically look out for number one. And God’s perfect cosmic answer to selfishness is that all believers are gathered into heaven at the same time. No one gets there first. Let’s sum up.
- All humans are born selfish. (Galatians 5:19-21; John 3:3; Romans 8:5-8).
- Competition is a signature of carnality. (I Corinthians 1:11-12; Romans 3:10; 1 Timothy 6:9).
- We all want to be first. (1 Cor. 9:25; Isaiah 56:11).
- Faithful believers who died are not in heaven yet (Acts 2:34; John 5:28; Acts 2:29; 2 Timothy 4:8; Daniel 12:2).
- They did not receive the “promise.” (Hebrews 11:13, 39).
- The promise is “being made perfect” ie. mortality putting on immortality. (Hebrews 11:39; 1 Corinthians 15:53).
- God settles the selfishness question by the universal gathering of His people all at the same time. (Hebrews 11:40; 1 Thess. 4:17).
“For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:15-18).
I hope these words are comforting to you. They are to me. I look forward to That Day when all believers —including Dad and I — are simultaneously caught up to that great finish line in the sky together. Race over!
I might even get an earlier start to church next Sabbath — and slow down.