BUFF SCOTT, JR.
“Gathered To His People”
At the outset, let’s pose a question. Does the nucleus of a believer—his spirit—live on after physical death?
This being my final column on the subject, let’s start with Stephen who was stoned to death by the enemies of Jesus. “And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep” [Acts 7:59-60].
There are two entities in this passage I’d like you to notice. Stephen asked the Lord to receive his spirit. The second is that he “fell asleep.” The phrase “fell asleep” was a common expression among the Jewish people to signify physical death, especially the death of a righteous man.
However, this “sleep” is not attributable to the spirit, but to the body, because Stephen commended his spirit to the Lord while
his body was being stoned by a wicked mob of sectarian religionists. The term “fell asleep” is often used in the new covenant scriptures while “gathered to his people” was the dictum used by the Hebrew writers of the Old Scriptures. Therefore, “receive my spirit” and “gathered to his people“ are comparable utterings, which relate to the same theme.
“Gathered to his people” is a Hebrew expression while “receive my spirit” is a Greek phrase. Fell asleep” alluded to one’s physical death, as in the case of Steven. But “receive my spirit” referred to the essence
of a person departing his physical body for another abode. When a holy man ceases to live, his spirit—the real
person—becomes an inhabitant of another world and connects “with the spirits of just men made perfect.”
In my appraisal, to distort this apparent fact by substituting “breath” in the place of “spirit” is to rearrange heaven’s testimony and misarrange the Holy Spirit’s vocabulary. For if it is only
a righteous man’s “breath” that returns to God, it would be logical to inquire, “Is God a collector of breaths?”
To me, the idea is absurd and completed out of focal with the central meaning.
Another important factor is that “gathered to his people” and “fell asleep” are always used in conjunction with believers, never with unbelievers. For If the expressions include everyone’s “breath,” surely there would be examples of their being applied to the death of unbelievers. Not one example have I found! [If I’m wrong, I stand to be corrected.]
My point is that there is another “component” of a believer that separates from his body at the point of biological death and becomes an inhabitant or resident of a celestial domain—namely, his spirit. There is a beauty beyond the believer’s physical senses—an inner
beauty, his spirit.
God instructed Moses to climb Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, and view the Land of Canaan, “for there on the mountain you have climbed you will die and be gathered to your people.” By way of paraphrasing, we might construct the implication in this fashion, “For on the mountain you have climbed you will die and be gathered to your people who have gone on before you.”
It is certain that Moses’ bones were not “gathered to his people,” for no one knew—or knows—where God buried him.
I understand “gathered to your people” to mean that Moses’ spirit, the real
Moses, immediately following his biological demise, would be assembling in a celestial environment with all of the old saints whose earthly existence had already ended—Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and all the others.
“Breath” is not meant. We’re not speaking of Moses’ breath being gathered to his people, as some define “spirit.” What in the name of logic would a bunch of “breaths” do when gathered, share halitosis? And what would a “flock of breaths” look like, anyway? Instead, we are talking about the actual
man, for man’s spirit is the core
of his existence. Man’s spirit is “the vital principle by which the body is animated, the rational spirit, the power by which the human being feels, thinks, decides” [Thayer’s Greek Lexicon]
True, one of the renderings of “spirit” is “breath,” but never
when it involves the crux of man’s existence. When Jacob’s spirit was revived after he was told his son Joseph was alive, his breathing did not improve. Rather, his inner man
was infused with vitality (Gen. 45:23-28)
When Jacob was rapidly approaching death, he said, “I am about to be gathered to my people.”
Then the end of a great man’s life was finalized. “When Jacob had finished giving instructions to his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people” (Gen. 49:29-33)
. His breathing ceased and became non-existent, but his real
self, his spirit, was “gathered to his people” or united with “the spirits of righteous men made perfect” (Heb. 12:23)
. Jacob’s spirit became an inhabitant of another world, the spirit or celestial world, and was “joined to the spirits of just men made perfect.”
Even Abraham, the forerunner of Moses, an old man and full of years, breathed his last and was “gathered to his people.” “Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years. And he was gathered to his people” (Gen. 25:7-8)
Then will there be a resurrection of our physical selves? Of course!
On that occasion, our spirit will be reunited with our transformed body. Paul wrote, “The Lord Jesus Christ will transform our lowly
[physical] body to be like His glorious body” [Phil. 3:20]
. Our fleshly bodies will be changed. Paul noted in another place, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the
[eternal] kingdom of God” [I Cor. 15:50]
Some day, after this life’s tears and joys “have come home to roost,” you and I will be called upon to breathe our last—hopefully “at a good old age.” Will we “be gathered to our people,” as were Moses and others? May the Lord sharpen and prepare us for that glorious event, as we seek and accept His grace.
May all of your days be Happy Resurrection days!