For many Christians the prospect of being re-united with loved ones in the life to come is one of the greatest comforts in the face of bereavement.
Of course, this prospect ought not to overshadow that fellowship with our Lord which ought to be pre-eminent. After all, the Psalmist could pray, “Whom have I in heaven but thee?’ (Psa 73:25), and Paul’s great desire was to depart and ‘being with Christ’, Phil 1:23; 1 Thess 4:17. It is this being with the Lord which is emphasised in Scripture, rather than being with one another.
Nevertheless, the desire to see and know one another in the life to come is both natural and right, so long as this is subordinated to a desire to be with our Lord. Specific texts which are claimed to support this are rather thin on the ground, and may not bear all the weight sometimes given to them in this regard. These include 2 Sam 12:23; Isa 14:12; Eze 32:11; Lk 16:9, 19-31; 1 Thess 2:19f; 4:13-18. With regard to the last-mentioned passage, J.C. Ryle says:-
There would be no point in these words of consolation if they did not imply the mutual recognition of saints. The hope with which he cheers wearied Christians is the hope of meeting their beloved friends again. He does not merely say, “Sorrow not, for they are at rest—they are happy—they are free from pain and trouble—they are better off than they would be here below.” No! he goes a step further. He says, “God shall bring them with Christ, when he brings them back to the world. You are not parted for ever. You will meet again.”
More generally, writes Ryle:-
[These passages] all seem to point to only one conclusion. They all imply the same great truth, that saints in heaven shall know one another. They shall have the same body and the same character that they had on earth—a body perfected and transformed like Christ’s in his transfiguration, but still the same body—a character perfected and purified from all sin, but still the same character. But in the moment that we who are saved shall meet our several friends in heaven, we shall at once know them, and they will at once know us.
Ryle adds that there is something ‘unspeakable glorious’ in this prospect:-
Heaven will be no strange place to us when we get there. We shall not be oppressed by the cold, shy, chilly feeling that we know nothing of our companions. We shall feel at home. We shall see all of whom we have read in Scripture, and know them all, and mark the peculiar graces of each one. We shall look upon Noah, and remember his witness for God in ungodly times. We shall look on Abraham, and remember his faith; on Isaac, and remember his meekness; on Moses, and remember his patience; on David, and remember all his troubles. We shall sit down with Peter, and James, and John, and Paul, and remember all their toil when they laid the foundations of the Church. Blessed and glorious will that knowledge and communion be! If it is pleasant to know one or two saints, and meet them occasionally now, what will it be to know them all, and to dwell with them for ever!
And the same writer sees not only glory, but great comfort in this:-
It lights up the valley of the shadow of death. It strips the sick-bed and the grave of half their terrors. Our beloved friends who have fallen asleep in Christ are not lost, but only gone before. The children of the same God and partakers of the same grace can never be separated very long. They are sure to come together again when this world has passed away. Our pleasant communion with our kind Christian friends is only broken off for a small moment, and is soon to be eternally resumed. These eyes of ours shall once more look upon their faces, and these ears of ours shall once more hear them speak. Blessed and happy indeed will that meeting be!—better a thousand times than the parting! We parted in sorrow, and we shall meet in joy; we parted in stormy weather, and we shall meet in a calm harbour; we parted amidst pains and aches, and groans, and infirmities: we shall meet with glorious bodies, able to serve our Lord for ever without distraction. And, best of all, we shall meet never to be parted, never to shed one more tear, never to put on mourning, never to say good-bye and farewell again. Oh! it is a blessed thought, that saints will know one another in heaven!
We should not forget that our immediate existence after death is a disembodied existence which awaits the bodily resurrection. But there is no reason to suppose that even in a disembodied state we will not be able to recognise one another: the angels are spirits, and yet they surely know one another.
Although Matthew 22:23-33 does teach that there will be no marriage relationships in heaven, it does not teach the obliteration of all human relationships.
In truth, then, if there is any such thing as the communion of the saints, then however different it will be from our human relationships in this life, it will be more than, and not less than, the love and fellowship we have enjoyed here.
Based on William Hendriksen, The Bible on the Life Hereafter, 66-69; J.C. Ryle, Shall We Know One Another?