Heaven – an introduction
or "The Kingdom Strikes Back"
Men everywhere believe in heaven. Cultures all over the world have belief in 'a life to come'.
And this really shouldn't surprise us. After all the Bible tells us that God "has put eternity into man’s heart," (Eccl.3:11).
And yet these beliefs all too often have little or no impact upon the way in which people live their lives. To all intents and purposes the future that most men and women hope to experience and enjoy is ignored. People simply assume that heaven is where they're bound even though they show no evidence at all of belonging to Jesus Christ.
It is probably true that many Christians today don't think about heaven very much either. And when we do are our thoughts any different from those of our non-
With present troubles and present needs pressing in upon us we find it all very easy to limit our understanding of Christianity. We can begin to think that Christianity is all about how we can live a successful life in the here and now! And we don't realise that the Bible's teaching on the subject of heaven is designed to help, encourage and strengthen us as believers to live holy, joy-
Heaven is huge subject. Even when we do start to think about it we can go wrong right at the outset by beginning in the wrong place and looking at things with the wrong perspective. Heaven is in fact too big a subject for our puny brains to handle on their own. But happily we are not left to our own devices: God has revealed truth to us in his Word if only we will listen.
Without God's help we are likely to think selfishly about heaven. Without God's help we are likely to focus on what heaven holds for us and even to imagine that heaven exists only, or primarily, for our benefit. Don't get me wrong: there is great benefit bound up for us in heaven but heaven is first and foremost about the glory of God and we will go hopelessly wrong if we build our convictions about heaven upon any other foundation. Indeed whatever God does is driven by a passion for his own glory. So It is with this theme of the glory of God that we will begin.
We read in the Book of Isaiah the prophet the statement of what is a general principle:
Is.48:11 "For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another."
The apostle Paul confirms this in his letter to the Romans:
Rom.11:36 "For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen."
God's Purpose in Creation – his Glory
The opening verse of the Bible tells us that "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Gen.1:1.
Now why did he do that?
Well, he didn't do this because he was bored, or lonely. He didn't do so because of some need in he felt in himself and neither did he do so under some external constraint for there was no-
Rather God decided to create in order that his own inherent glory might pour forth from him overflowing into the world that he made. Every part of his creation was to be filled with his glory and mankind in particular, made in his image, was to reflect this glory.
And in the beginning God was perfectly pleased with all that he had made and he declared that it was good. The heavens, the earth and all that filled them displayed the glory of the Great and Glorious Creator God.
Everything about the universe that God made was glorious and on the earth that he made the man and the woman whom he made in his image enjoyed unbroken fellowship with their Creator.
Let us turn for a moment to think in a little more detail about the heavens that God made. The Bible has much to teach us about them. The word heaven (heavens) is used to describe three separate though related entities:
Firstly, the heavens refer to the earth's atmosphere, that is, the skies where birds fly, where the rain clouds gather and from where snow and hail fall.
Secondly, the heavens are used to describe space, the expanse, the firmament: this is the region populated by the sun and moon and stars.
Both of these entities are physical and show forth the glories of God, speaking to us at the same time of our own smallness of our own limitations.
Thirdly, the word heaven is used in a more spiritual manner. And it is this third meaning that is of greatest interest to us. Now we read the expression "heaven itself" where the meaning concerns "the very dwelling place of God".
Is.63:15 "Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and beautiful habitation."
The Bible refers to this spiritual place in a number of different ways:
It is the "highest heaven" (2Chron.2:6); it is "the third heaven" (2Cor.12:2). It is the place to which Jesus ascended – the presence of God (Heb.9:24). It is paradise, it is God's home (Jn.14:1-
Jesus taught us to pray to the God who lives there as "Our Father in heaven"(Mt.6:9).
God is, of course, too great to be limited to any place even heaven itself but in speaking of heaven as God's dwelling place, his home, we are to think of heaven as being the place where God most clearly reveals himself, the place where we can see him as he really is. While God is everywhere heaven is where he expressly reveals his magnificence; it is where his perfections shine in unimaginable splendour and beauty. This heaven is the place, par excellence, of his glory! Heaven is so bound up with the very idea of God's glory that we even use the word "glory" to refer to heaven as a synonym.
This entire created order was designed to be the scene on which God displayed his glory. Everything reflected the excellences of God. The glory of God shone forth brightly. Everything was good, very good.
God's Glory Marred – sin
While the beginning was marvellous things did not stay that way and it wasn't long before Satan launched an attack against God's glory in the realms of the material creation. Adam and Eve, the divine image bearers, are duped and led in open rebellion against God himself. The glorious world he had made fell far short now of God's standard and it wasn't just the human race that was affected as the whole of creation was subjected to futility.
The sad story of this first devastating sin is found in Gen.3.
Then follow in swift succession the report of the first murder in Gen.4 as one son of Adam kills another son.
The spiral of sin turns rapidly downwards – by the time we get to chapter 6 we find:
Judgment is called for and the flood is firstly announced and then sent. A mere eight people of saved but no sooner is the flood over than sin breaks out all over again.
And so we could continue down through the centuries until our own day with its litany of child abuse scandals, political and economic corruption and indiscriminate terrorist attacks.
How God's glorious world has been defaced! How God's glory in the world has been diminished! Sunsets remain beautiful but are tinted by pollution. Beaches remain attractive but if you look closer you see the plastic bottles and rusty cans disfiguring them. Peaceful rivers wind through lovely countryside only to be spoiled by discarded car tyres and fly-
Yes, little flashes of beauty and wonder are still seen in God's world but it almost seems as though Satan has been successful in overturning the glory of God's world.
Almost, but not quite!
Heaven itself has remained and still remains intact! Here is the one created place where sin has not managed to penetrate and spoil, from which Satan has been banished. Here is the one created place where God's glory is displayed in all its purity and transcendent beauty. Here is the joyful place where holy angels worship and serve Almighty God in all his majesty and splendour. And it is from this heaven that God's counter-
The story of the Bible is the record of the demonstration of God's glory to a fallen world. It is the record of a restoration of that glory in and through the work of Jesus Christ. The restoration indeed that far surpasses anything that Adam forfeited as he led the world away from God in his sinful rebellion. I wonder, do you know how Isaac Watts put it in his well-
Where He displays His healing power,
death and the curse are known no more;
in Him the tribes of Adam boast
more blessings than their father lost.
Flashes of Glory Keep Breaking In
God works for his own glory – he always has – this is his purpose and his passion.
We often miss this because we are so often content to look merely on the surface of things but even when things look so bleak even there flashes of God's glory break through. God was at work to restore and promote his glory long before his Son entered the world to complete the task.
In Genesis 3 as sin spoils God's glorious world and seems to have gained the upper hand we hear God's first promise to send a Mighty Deliverer who will crush the enemy's head. Adam and Eve must be put out of the Garden but even as they are they are graciously presented with a covering for their nakedness. God in making provision for their needs, provides us with a foretaste of the provision he will make for his people's need of a covering of righteousness.
In Genesis ch.4 with the sordid record of the first human fratricide of history, guilty Cain is nevertheless divinely marked as the LORD grants him a measure of protection.
The great wickedness of men at the time of Noah which provokes the judgment of the flood is nevertheless accompanied by the provision of a wonderful deliverance in the form of the Ark.
And so down through the centuries God's interventions continue – his glory flashing from heaven into the world in order to further his purposes.
Abraham is chosen, then Abraham's descendents are formed into a people – though we will that learn that God chooses people before time began. This people God chooses for his glory. He delivers Israel from slavery in Egypt for his own glory having raised up Pharaoh again for this very purpose.
He led Israel through the wilderness guiding them by the light of his glorious presence for his glory. He brought them safely into the Promised Land for the glory of his own name.
He restored the people from exile again for his own glory's sake.
Again and again his glory flashes into view as his ultimate deliverance draws ever closer. The glory is coming, the glory is coming and the glory comes as Jesus comes from heaven itself, in the fullness of time, at the right time, to accomplish God's purposes.
Jesus came from heaven and at his birth the heavens opened so that a multitude of the heavenly host can be seen and heard praising God. Do you remember what their theme was? I'm sure you do.
Lk.2:14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!"
Then as Jesus grew his entire life reflected the glory of God as the apostle John tells us:
Jn.1:14 "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."
As Jesus neared the time when he would be crucified he referred to his coming death as the hour in which the Son of Man would be glorified. And immediately prior to laying down his life in order to pay for the sins of his people as he prayed to the Father Jesus again referred to his death as being bound up with glory:
Jn.17:1 Jesus "lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you,"
Jesus then went on in prayer to summarise the perfect life that he had lived and the victories he had wrought over Satan with the following words:
Jn.17:4 "I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do."
After his atoning death Jesus would return to the glories of heaven to once again enjoy the glories he had previously enjoyed there. But he would not go alone! He would transmit that glory to his followers too. He wants his people to be with him where he is so that they might see his glory. And so he takes his people with him. Heaven, God's home, is a spacious place with plenty of living accommodation – Jesus not only prepared places for his people but he leads them there too!
One of the first would be the dying thief who heard those lovely encouraging words:
Lk.23:43 "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
Heaven, this wonderful place where God's glory is known and experienced in the most complete and perfect manner, is the immediate destination of the believer when he dies. Christians will often speak of a Christian friend who has died as having "gone to glory" meaning just this that they have gone to heaven.
There remains yet one more climactic invasion of God's glory from heaven into our sin-
1Cor.15:28 "When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all."
What is our take on Heaven?
How do we react to all this emphasis upon the glory of God? Are we thrilled at the thought of heaven as it relates to God or are our thoughts about heaven dominated by thoughts of our pleasures?
The muslim man's concept of heaven is of a place where there is an endless supply of virgins to satisfy his every whim -
If we focus upon the pleasures of heaven which we want to enjoy then we are likely to become escapists, folk who are trying hard to flee the hard realities of the world for some sort of pie in the sky. If such thoughts are dominant in our lives then heaven will have very little if any positive impact upon the way we live our lives.
Knowing however that there is a heaven where God's glory is perfectly secure will be and is an encouragement to our faith, an encouragement to keep on going when the battle gets tough. This heaven is not entirely confined to the unseen realm either. It is God's heaven full of God's glory and as we have already seen there are flashes of his glory demonstrated as he intervenes to restore glory to his world. Saving grace experienced in a person's life is, as Matthew Henry put it, glory begun, something of an advance instalment of what is to come.
Such glory is observed in some strange places too. It was wonderfully observed at Calvary as God was glorified by Jesus' death on the cross. It is observed beautifully as suffering Christians struggle on against the difficulties of the day. It should be observed in all the lives of all of us who are Christian believers.
We are encouraged to wait expectantly for "appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ," (Tit.2:13) and as we do so to live disciplined lives of joyful holiness. And while we wait we are to go on day after day looking to our Lord; in doing so we are being gradually but progressively transformed by his grace to resemble him. Made more and more like him more and more the glory of God will be reflected in the Christian's life. And all the glory will be ascribed to our God!