Heaven

Highway-to-Heaven-780x520

What is heaven? Is it a place? Is it an idea? Is it “up there”? Or is it “out there”? Lots of people have lots of ideas about this place known as heaven. All religions speak of a place where “true believers” go to after death. Depending on what religion you are a part of, heaven may be full of angels, clouds, virgins, harps, saints, flowers, and rolling hills. What Christians know about heaven comes from the Bible. But that doesn’t stop them from coming up with sentimental visions of a place that bears little resemblance to Biblical reality.

There’s an old joke about heaven that goes something like this:

Once upon a time, a Christian man died and went up to heaven. Upon arriving at the Pearly Gates, he was ushered into his eternal destination. An angel came up to him and took him on a walking tour around heaven. He was very impressed with the streets of gold and marveled at all the magnificent mansions he passed by. On and on they walked and the man was wondering where his mansion was. The angel told him his home was located on the outskirts of town. As they walked out of town, the angel stopped just in front of a small cabin. Pointing to the very humble structure, he informed the man, “And here is your place.”

The man was taken aback. Why wasn’t his eternal home a palatial palace like all the buildings he passed by. The angel grinned and said, “The engineers did the best they could with all the stuff you sent up before you arrived.”

Of course, this is only a joke. Or is some of it actually true? Let’s put our sentiment aside for a while and consider what the Bible has to say about heaven.

2 Kings 2:9 – 12

As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them apart. (2 Kings 2:11-12 | NIV84)

This is an incident involving Elijah and Elisha. There is a lot of speculation as to precisely what happened to the great prophet Elijah, but one this is certain: he didn’t die. What happened to him? Elijah was a man, but he was a man who walked in the presence of God. That fact is demonstrated by the appearance of a “fiery chariot.” Elijah was transported bodily upward away from the surface of the earth. But where did the prophet go? Jesus gives us a clue:

No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man. (John 3:13a | NIV84)

According to Jesus, who should know, there is no way that Elijah went to the place He, Jesus, came from. So what did the Chronicler mean when he used the word “heaven”? In the Bible, the word “heaven” can describe any one of three places:

(1) God’s throne room. This is the “third heaven.” See 2 Corinthians 12:2, 3.

(2) The physical universe where the stars and planets and galaxies are. This is the “second heaven.”

(3) Earth’s atmosphere – the sky. This is the “first heaven.”

Elijah could not have gone bodily into the “third heaven,” as Jesus Himself indicated. It’s highly unlikely he was beamed up into the universe someplace since Elisha watched him ascend. Elijah, then, was taken up into our atmosphere, the so-called “first heaven.” Many Bible readers simply assume that at this point, the prophet was somehow made immoral and taken INTO heaven (the “third heaven”), the place where God resides. We know this didn’t happen because Jesus said it didn’t, and the Sons of the Prophets knew it didn’t, too. They knew that Elijah had simply been moved from one place to another.

“Look,” they said, “we your servants have fifty able men. Let them go and look for your master. Perhaps the Spirit of the Lord has picked him up and set him down on some mountain or in some valley.”“No,” Elisha replied, “do not send them.” (2 Kings 2:16 | NIV84)

Fifty men searched for days and couldn’t find Elijah, but that doesn’t mean he had vanished. In fact, Elijah was alive and still active long after the fiery chariot took him away. He actually wrote a letter to King Jehoram years after the events recorded here in 2 Kings 2:16. The text of the letter is found in 2 Chronicles 21:12 – 15, and begins like this:

Jehoram received a letter from Elijah the prophet, which said: “This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: ‘You have not walked in the ways of your father Jehoshaphat or of Asa king of Judah.’ (2 Chronicles 21:12 | NIV84)

Like a chess piece, the Lord simply plucked Elijah up and moved him to another location in Israel where he lived out the remainder of his years. The Lord graciously moved him out of the way and out of the limelight so that his successor, Elisha, could do the work to which he was called.

So the first thing we learn about heaven is that one must die to get there.

Matthew 6:19 – 21

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21 | NIV84)

Jesus is not telling us not to save for our retirement or not to acquire things during our lifetime on earth. For Him, as it should be for us, it was all about keeping life in the proper perspective. It’s fine to be prudent in our investments, but obsessing over them is wrong. It’s nice to have nice things if we can afford them, but to chase after material things at the expense of caring for our spiritual side creates a terrible imbalance. The most important aspect of our lives should be – yet seldom is – the spiritual aspect.

What did Jesus mean when He referred to “treasures in heaven?” Broadly speaking, Jesus is referring to things like holiness of character, obedience to God’s Word, service to God, and to our fellow man. In other words, spiritually speaking, we are preparing for our eternal life in heaven by living right (or righteously) while here on earth.

The life we live here in the flesh should be lived with an eye to our eternal life. Keeping a “heavenly perspective” will serve to keep our lives in balance.

Luke 10:10 – 20

I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:19-20 | NIV84)

Jesus had appointed 72 “missionaries” to go and preach His Gospel. They did this and more:

The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” (Luke 10:17 | NIV84)

They, of course, were thrilled with the work they had done in Christ’s Name, and our Lord shared their joy. Then however, He brought them back down to earth with another bit of perspective necessary for living life in balance. These missionaries, and Christians today, ought to rejoice primarily in God’s grace; namely, the fact of salvation by grace. Accomplishing any good work for God is cause to rejoice, but nothing compares to being saved by grace. We ought always to remember and rejoice over the simple fact that our names are written in heaven.

John 14:1 – 4

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”

This advice was given to some very troubled disciples, and they had good reasons to be troubled. Jesus had just told them that He would be leaving them soon. He told them that a traitor was in their midst. And Jesus told Peter that he would fail Him before all was said and done. What our Lord told His disciples, and what He is telling us through His Word, is His remedy for anxiety.

When we, like the disciples, feel anxious, according to Jesus we should: Continue in our belief in God and in Him. No matter what circumstances we find ourselves in or how bleak the outlook may be, our hearts should never be troubled and our faith shouldn’t waver. Think about these disciples. Their leader was going to be leaving shortly. Trust in God is a sure remedy for anxious feelings.

Furthermore, our Lord talked about the kind of life all believers may expect to enjoy. The future for followers of Jesus will be marked by a reunion (or a joining) with Jesus Christ. He will not forget those who belong to Him, and at the right time He will come back or take them to be with Him.

Jesus indicated to His disciples that there are “many rooms” in heaven. The idea is that there is an infinite number of “dwelling places” in heaven, each one specifically prepared by Jesus for individual believers. These “dwelling places,” or “mansions,” as some translations read, will be permanent; they will be our homes for all of eternity.

This aspect of heaven has both a future aspect but also a present aspect. In the midst of hurried and harried lives, we can think ahead to heaven and our heavenly home and that should calm our nerves and give us a sense serenity.

Acts 1:7 – 11

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:7, 8 NIV)

While it is a good idea to pause periodically to think about heaven, Christians do have work to do in the here-and-now. Jesus told His disciples that nobody knows the future; nobody knows what’s going to happen in the days ahead, only God the Father does and He usually doesn’t let us in on His plans. While the disciples, past and present, wait for their Lord to return, their job is a simple one: to be witnesses for Jesus Christ. We are to take Christ’s message of forgiveness of sins and salvation by grace to as many places as we can get to and share it with as many people as will listen.

We know that our Lord will return someday. While we wait we are to busy ourselves with fulfilling the Great Commission. We don’t have the luxury of standing around, looking wistfully into heaven waiting for the Lord to step out on a cloud and call us home. No man knows when that will happen.

Hebrews 12:18 – 25

So see to it that you obey him who is speaking to you. For if the people of Israel did not escape when they refused to listen to Moses, the earthly messenger, how terrible our danger if we refuse to listen to God who speaks to us from heaven! (Hebrews 12:25 TLB)

Thoughts of our heavenly reward and of our heavenly home are useful for encouraging us when we may be tempted to become discouraged. But heaven may also be used as part of an overall admonition. The writer to the Hebrews does this.

So take a new grip with your tired hands, stand firm on your shaky legs, and mark out a straight, smooth path for your feet so that those who follow you, though weak and lame, will not fall and hurt themselves but become strong. (Hebrews 12:12, 13 TLB)

Christians need to remain strong in their faith, especially in light of the facts of who God is, what He has done, and where He comes from. Previous generations dealt with God, for example, at Mount Sinai, which was all well and good for them at that time, but that’s in the past.

But you have come right up into Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to the gathering of countless happy angels; and to the church, composed of all those registered in heaven; and to God who is Judge of all; and to the spirits of the redeemed in heaven, already made perfect (Hebrews 12:22, 23 TLB)

No longer do believers deal with God, symbolically speaking, at Mount Sinai with all its attendant laws and regulations. That old order of things has passed away. Now we are able to approach God on Mount Zion, Jerusalem, where the Temple was built and Jesus crucified. From the hill of that city He ascended to heaven. The “city of the living God” on earth was a mere reflection of the heavenly Jerusalem, the place where saints who have been made perfect and angels dwell. It is also the place from where God judges.

Jesus is the reason why the old order has wasted away. The blood of Jesus, which provided atonement and forgiveness for sins, made this entrance into heaven possible.

So see to it that you obey him who is speaking to you. (Hebrews 12:25 TLB)

Considering, then, what Jesus’ shed blood has wrought, we Christians need to pay attention to what He says and do what He tells us to do. Our eternity in heaven depends upon it, in once sense.

When he spoke from Mount Sinai his voice shook the earth, but, “Next time,” he says, “I will not only shake the earth but the heavens too.” By this he means that he will sift out everything without solid foundations so that only unshakable things will be left. (Hebrews 12:26, 27 TLB)

When God spoke to previous generations of believers at Mount Sinai, the earth moved. But, as Haggai 2:6 says, the next time earth hears His voice, all creation will shake and a sifting – a sorting and reshuffling – of the universe will take place. God as Judge will review the material and spiritual worlds He Himself created, and His creation will either be destroyed or reformed. Anything that can be moved (“shaken”) will be destroyed. This refers to the things made for this present world order. But there are things that cannot be shaken, and these things will remain for all eternity; things like God, Christ, the Church, love and holiness.

It’s a powerful admonition to live right and live righteously. It’s also a powerful reason to not get too attached to the things of this world. They are so temporary in every sense of the word. It’s also a powerful reminder of something else. We are living in a “post-Christian” world where vast numbers of people live as though they have no soul. It would do us well to remember that when men and nations rage against God and seek to take His place on earth, God’s reaction is surprising:

The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them… (Psalm 2:4 NIV)

In God’s eyes, nothing is more ridiculous than a frail, puny man living in defiance of Him, His people, and His Word. William Arthur Tell wrote, There is a heaven to gain and hell to shun, and it is the Bible that tells us how to do just that. The Bible also tells us something else worth remembering. The Church of Jesus Christ, comprised of God’s saints from all generations, will emerge from the ashes of the old order intact, redeemed, and victorious. It may seem to you as though the Church in America today is weak or impotent and as carnal as can be. But we are not yet what we will be. In the end, as Jesus Himself indicated, the gates of shall not prevail against the true Church (Matthew 16:18).

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