Some time ago I heard Pat Boone share his early childhood definition of heaven. It suddenly occurred to him while he was sitting (or was it squirming?) in church, agonizing through one of the pastor’s typically long and boring sermons. Heaven, Pat reasoned, was going to be just like church—one thousand years—ten thousand years—forever. It was almost too much to handle. To Pat, such a state of affairs seemed more like purgatory than perfection.
Most Christians are assured that this childhood conception of eternity with God falls considerably short of the biblical description of heaven. In the words of the contemporary song, “Heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace. …” If it is such a wonderful place, I wonder why we do not spend more time talking about it. Dr. Wilber Smith, in his excellent article on “Heaven” in the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, marvels at the fact that Christian scholars have given much more attention to hell than to heaven.20 I think I can understand why. Besides. the fact that Jesus talked more of hell than heaven, hell and divine judgment are easier to identify with. All about us we see the ugly consequences of sin. We see suffering and anguish because of the evil in the hearts of men. There is enough “hell” on earth at present, so that we need only think of eternal torment in terms of greater degrees.
Heaven, on the other hand, seems almost inconceivable. As a young child I can remember attempting to comprehend time without end … infinity. Now I realize that heaven is even beyond that which I failed to fathom as a child, for heaven is the end of time; in heaven there is no time at all. The human authors of the Bible who have attempted to describe the beauties of heaven give evidence of their frustration at striving to depict an existence in a dimension beyond the grasp of mere mortals:
… but just as it is written, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, And which have not entered the heart of man, All that God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows—was caught up into Paradise, and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).
As one has said, giving a description of heaven in human words is more difficult than an eskimo going to Hawaii, and then on his return trying to describe a pineapple to his people.
For a number of years the discussion of what happens after death has been restricted to a rather small group. Now things are changing. There is an increasing interest in reincarnation, especially among those who consider themselves intellectual. In recent years there has been much discussion of life-after-life phenomenon as described by those who have died and been resuscitated. Hell, of course, is still a forbidden subject.
Heaven is an important subject for Christians, not only because it is a pleasant topic to investigate, but because it is so vital to our faith. The fear of hell and eternal torment may be a strong incentive for salvation (cf. John 16:8, 11), but it is not the basis for our hope and faith. In the Bible heaven is the ground of our faith and hope.
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).
The concept of some kind of eternal bliss is universal, but the biblical heaven is vastly different from merely human hopes, which range from a kind of intellectual world of mere thoughts to grossly pagan expectations of unrestricted sensual pleasures.
The word “heaven” is probably not the best term to use for the eternal bliss that will be experienced by the true believer in Jesus Christ. The Hebrew word for heaven, shamayim, and its Greek counterpart, ouranos, are both used in three different ways. The first “heaven” is the air, or atmosphere, immediately above the earth. It is the heaven, for example, in which the birds fly (cf. Genesis 1:20). The second “heaven” is the celestial realm in which the sun, moon, and stars are found (cf. Genesis 1:14). The third use of “heaven” applies to the abode of God (cf. Isaiah 63:15), far above the atmosphere or celestial heavens.
Technically, none of these three meanings of heaven refer precisely to the “heaven” of which Christians speak and sing. When you and I speak of “heaven,” we mean the eternal bliss which all true Christians will enjoy. I do not include in this use of the word heaven the rapture of the church, the tribulation, nor the Millennium, all of which precede it. By the term heaven, I am referring to that state of everlasting blessing which is described in the last two chapters of the book of Revelation. While many evangelical Christians differ over the details of some of the preliminary events, none of which I am aware deny that, in the end, we will live forever in the blessed presence of our Lord, in the company of the elect angels and the saints.21 Heaven, in this limited sense, will be defined by describing several of its many features.
(1) We do not go to heaven so much as it comes to us.
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:2).
Unless I force myself to stop and think about it, I most often think of heaven only as the place somewhere very far away, beyond the most distant galaxy, to which we go when we die. Now the heaven in which God dwells is, I believe, far away, beyond the stars, but the heaven where we shall live with God for eternity does not seem to be far away at all. Instead, it is the renewed heavens and earth of which the scriptures often speak:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:10-13, cf. Revelation 21:1).
In John 14:1-3, our Lord spoke of returning to His Father, where He would “prepare a place” for us (cf. also 16:5-7). We naturally tend to think that “going to heaven” (as we often express it) means our going far away to that place which our Lord is preparing; but it is more accurate to think of heaven as coming to us, for the New Jerusalem will come to the (new) earth, according to the scriptures. In this sense, heaven is more earthly than we sometimes think.22
(2) Heaven should be thought of more in terms of a person than a place.
Our first inclination is to think of heaven primarily as a place, and, of course, this is true. Nevertheless, I believe that there is more to it than this. Heaven, most of all, is being in the presence of God.
… we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).
But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake (Philippians 1:23-24).
Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, … (Revelation 21:3).
Let me illustrate. Suppose that you were the wife of a prisoner of war, held captive for many years. You knew your husband was alive and hoped to see him soon. Finally, after many false hopes and setbacks, an agreement was negotiated with the enemy and the release of your husband was at hand. The United States government had made arrangements for you to meet your beloved in Hawaii, where you would be with him for two weeks before returning to this country. Now Hawaii is a very beautiful place, I am told, and I am sure that most of us would love to go there. But, for you, the place is very secondary to the person. If you were to meet your husband in the Sahara desert it would be no disappointment. While the place of heaven is beautiful, the Person should be our greatest joy.
In the light of this fact, heaven is probably not the place that an unbeliever would enjoy very much. How would you like to spend an eternity with a Person that you have despised and rejected, and now He is supreme? How would you like to be forever worshipping Him and spending time with those who adore Him? Hell is where the unbeliever wants to be, apart from God, and so it will be (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:9).
(3) Heaven is a God-like place.
I have been impressed with the number of descriptions of heaven which are also descriptions of God. This reinforces the previous stress laid upon heaven as a person, rather than as a place. Let me briefly survey some of these descriptions.
And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isaiah 6:3, cf. also John 17:24).
And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb (Revelation 21:23, cf. also Romans 8:18; Colossians 3:4; 1 Peter 1:7).
For thus says the high and exalted one Who lives forever, whose name is Holy, (Isaiah 57:15, cf. 6:3 above).
… and nothing unclean and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 21:27).
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shone forth (Psalm 50:2; cf. 8:1).
Your eyes will see the King in His beauty. They will behold a far-distant land (Isaiah 33:17).
And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God. Her brilliance was like a very costly stone, as a stone of crystal-clear jasper (Revelation 21:10-11).
Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen (1 Timothy 1:17, cf. Isaiah 9:6-7; Micah 5:2; John 8:58).
For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, "Death is swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:53-54).
… there shall no longer be any death … (Revelation 21:4).
Arise, shine; for your light has come, And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you … No longer will you have the sun for light by day, Nor for brightness will the moon give you light; But you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, And your God for your glory (Isaiah 60:1,19).
Again therefore Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).
And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb (Revelation 21:23).
As for God, His way is blameless, The word of the Lord is tried; He is a shield to all who take refuge in Him (Psalm 18:30, cf. Deuteronomy 32:4; 2 Samuel 22:31).
“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away, … For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:9-10, 12).
Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is (1 John 3:2).
The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love (1 John 4:8).
Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. … But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:8, 13).
“The Lord your God is in your midst, A victorious warrior. He will exult over you with joy, He will be quiet in His love, He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy” (Zephaniah 3:17, cf. Isaiah 62:4-5; 65:17-19).
And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude and as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty peals of thunder, saying, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:6-7).
(4) Heaven is a unique combination of some things very old and others entirely new.
I am reminded of the wedding tradition of having “something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.” Heaven is unique in that some things are new, while others are old. This newness is suggested by the many things which will not be in heaven. There will be no time, no sin (Revelation 21:27), suffering or sorrow (21:4), no curse (22:2), no sun, moon, or sea (21:1, 23). The old heaven and earth will have passed away, and Satan, his angels, and those who chose to follow him will have been cast from God’s presence (20:11-15). In heaven there will be a new creation, with the saints who will have new bodies and who have been fully perfected. There will be the singing of new songs (Revelation 5:9; 14:3).
Not everything, however, will be unfamiliar to us. Certainly we will recognize friends and loved ones, as well as the saints of old, of whom we have read and heard for years—men like Abraham, Moses and David. Then, too, there will be a return to that earthly paradise of Genesis 2 from which Adam and Eve were expelled, due to sin.
And he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. And on either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:1-2).
Those things which foreshadowed eternal blessings will be finally fulfilled in heaven. No temple, for example, will be needed, because God alone will be the object of our worship. Since we shall “see Him as He is” we will need no aid from buildings or symbols:
And I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its temple (Revelation 21:22).
(5) Heaven will be the place where we will be reunited with loved ones in the Lord, from whom we were separated by death.
Those who have died in Christ are merely asleep, and they will not be victims of the “second death” (cf. Revelation 20:6).
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).23
(6) While heaven is a place of rest, it is not an existence characterized by inactivity.
I think most of us tend to compare heaven to retirement. Heaven is not a hammock, strung up between two clouds. Part of the blessedness of the garden into which Adam and Eve were placed was that they had a work to occupy them (cf. Genesis 1:26, 28; 2:5). In heaven we will be profitably occupied as well:
And there shall no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His bond-servants shall serve Him; (Revelation 22:3).
While the Bible does not, to my knowledge, say this explicitly, I believe that one occupation in heaven will be that of learning. In 1 Corinthians 13:12 Paul said that while we now know only in part, then (in heaven) we shall know fully. I must certainly agree with Paul, but we are not necessarily told that we will know fully, quickly.24 Part of the joy of heaven for me will be sitting at the feet of our Lord, learning the correct interpretation of many passages which I do not understand, as well as the meaning of some passages I thought I did understand. Our Lord once said,
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away” (Matthew 24:35).
I can see why this would be so if His word provides the curriculum for our heavenly instruction.
With much more certainty I can say that one occupation we shall have in heaven is the worship and praise of our God. Jesus told the woman at the well,
“But an hour is coming and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” (John 4:23).
In heaven, the one activity most frequently depicted is that of worship:
And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy art Thou, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou didst create all things, and because of Thy will they existed, and were created” (Revelation 4:9-11, cf. also 5:8, 9, 11-14; 7:9-12; 11:16-18; 14:2,3; 15:2-3).
In addition to worshipping God in heaven, we will also reign with Him.
If we endure, we shall also reign with Him (2 Timothy 2:12).
“Then the sovereignty, the dominion, and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One; His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all the dominions will serve and obey Him” (Daniel 7:27).
“And the first appeared, saying, ‘Master, your mina has made ten minas more.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good slave, because you have been faithful in a very little thing, be in authority over ten cities”’ (Luke 19:16-17).
This “reigning” entails ruling over the nations:
“And he who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, To him I will give authority over the nations;”(Revelation 2:26; cf. 5:10; 20:6; 22:5).
Also involved will be the judging of angels:
Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts? Do you know that we shall judge angels? How much more, matters of this life? (1 Corinthians 6:2-3).
In a word, Pat Boone’s childhood conception of heaven was not as distorted as he might have thought. In large measure, heaven is the continuation of those things which Christians should be actively engaged in now: learning, worship and service.
One of the most common misconceptions about heaven in the Christian community is that heaven can be our present experience. Some genuine believers are convinced that, given enough faith, the Christian need not experience sickness or suffering. The Christian life, they say, can ideally be lived free from sin and from its adverse effects. While this thought has a great deal of appeal, it has no biblical basis. Suffering is an inseparable part of life. In fact, suffering not only precedes glory, it prepares us for it.
For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake … (Philippians 1:29).
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you (1 Peter 4:12-14; cf. Romans 5:1-5; 8:18-39; 2 Corinthians 6:4-10; Colossians 1:24; 2 Timothy 3:12).
The servant is not greater than his master, as our Lord has said. If it was necessary for Him to suffer before He reigns, so should we expect it to be for us.
For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, (1 Peter 2:21).
There is a particular error of which those of us who are pre-millennialists and pre-tribulationalists have been accused, with some justification.25 Some of us are so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good. We know that this world system cannot be reformed and that righteousness cannot reign among men whose hearts are wicked. But when we see the effects of sin about us and the world in turmoil and tragedy, there is the temptation to respond with glee rather than grief. We see such wickedness only as a sign of the nearness of the Lord’s imminent return. If we could, I suspect some of us would throw fuel on the fire to hasten the coming of our Lord.
Our Lord taught that we are to be salt and light in this world (Matthew 5:10-16). I do not believe that it is God’s will for the saints to be passive in the face of wickedness, injustice and human need. While it may indicate the nearness of our Lord’s return, it should also evoke from us the same sympathy and action which we can see in the life of our Lord. In days of darkness, we are to be children of light (Ephesians 5:7-14). This means that we must never be aloof to the world about us, even as the last days come upon us.
Just the reverse can be true of the Christian, and equally evil. In the previous instance, Christians were inactive in the present because of a preoccupation with the future. In the circumstance I now have in mind, Christians may have little or no desire for God’s heaven because they are too attached to the present world.
“And others are the ones on whom seed was sown among the thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, and the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:18-19).
When I was growing up my greatest desire was to be old enough to have my driver’s license and to drive legally. (I had driven on my parent’s property for several years, but I could not drive on the highway.) Whenever I heard someone preach about the return of our Lord I was uneasy, because I feared that He would come before I was able to drive. The humor in all this is that just this past week my family and I arrived back in Dallas after driving nearly 6,000 miles, and that drive was not heaven. Nothing on this earth is worth heaven’s wait.
A final abuse of the doctrine of heaven might seem shocking to you, but I am compelled to mention it. Believe it or not, a number of Christians are tempted by the thought of suicide in times of severe trial. And when you stop to think of it, it makes sense, in a twisted sort of way. If heaven is really all that great and there is no suffering or sin or sorrow, why not hasten things up? Why not bypass all of life’s trials and woes?
I have participated in only one funeral of a Christian who committed suicide. This young man had his Bible opened to Revelation 21 which, after he read its wonderful words, he pulled the trigger of a revolver and ended his earthly life. While I did not give the funeral message for that fellow, I can tell you what I would have said. First, suicide is clearly sin. Secondly, while suicide is sin it is not an unpardonable sin, as some say. In other words, those Christians who take their lives will go to heaven. And finally, suicide is a greater temptation for the Christian than anyone else. While the unbeliever knows his life is miserable, he has no confidence as to what lies beyond the grave. The Christian, on the other hand, is assured of the bliss of eternity with the Lord. Then why not, he reasons at a moment of despair, go right now?
The reason is simple. It is the Lord Who alone has the right to give life and to take it. It is the Lord Who has ordained suffering as a part of life. And it is the Lord Who has ordered our life and numbered our days. To take our own life is to deny the goodness and sovereignty of God. It is placing our will above His. Suicide is sin, my Christian friend, and while God will forgive you for it, you have denied that God has provided you with a way of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13), and you have denied yourself the blessing of experiencing the “peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11).
Future events are always foretold in order to bring about changes in our present actions. Because of this we must conclude by considering what changes the doctrine of heaven was intended to bring about, by the grace of God, and the enablement of the Holy Spirit.
First and foremost, heaven constitutes an offer which all men are urged to accept:
Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying. “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify these things for the churches, I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star.” And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost (Revelation 22:14-17).
The greatest disservice which anyone can do to another is to leave the impression that the joys of heaven are assured for all men. In each of the last three chapters of Revelation, the fate of the true believer and the unbeliever is contrasted. Those who have chosen to reject Jesus Christ as God’s only provision of righteousness, of forgiveness for sins, and of entrance into heaven, will not spend eternity with God. I urge you, dear reader, do not put this message down without searching your own heart. Have you come to see yourself as a sinner, deserving of God’s wrath (cf. Romans 3:10-18)? Have you acknowledged Jesus Christ to be the sinless Son of God, Who died in your place, bore your sins, and offers you His righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)? You may have the assurance of spending eternity with God if you but receive, by faith, the gift of salvation through His Son.
Assuming that you have trusted in the saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that your entrance to God’s heaven has been thereby obtained, there are a number of implications and obligations that you have to enhance your eternal blessings:
Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you (2 Peter 1:10-11).
To begin with, we must become fully convinced of the fact that heaven is no incidental element of Bible teaching. It is the basis of our faith and the ground of our hope:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. … All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth (Hebrews 11:1,13).
This being the case, we would do well to fix our hope upon the heavenly city which is being prepared for us. We ought to continually meditate upon our future hope and, as our Lord taught us, pray for its arrival:
“Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. …’” (Matthew 6:9-10a).
In addition to this, we should prepare for heaven. Let me suggest several ways that preparation may be made for heaven. First, we may make investments on earth which will wait for us in heaven:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal” (Matthew 6:19-20).
Money, the Bible teaches us, is a stewardship. We may, of course, squander it upon ourselves, or we may invest it for the kingdom of God. We may invest, for example, in evangelism and missions, and we will discover those in heaven who have been won by means of our giving:
“And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).
Giving of our money does not exempt us from the investment of our time and God-given abilities to win our neighbor to Christ. One of the joys of heaven will be reaping the reward of seeing those in whom we have an investment of time and tears, knowing that they thank God for our labor of love:
For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? For you are our glory and joy (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).
And what better way to prepare for heaven than to occupy ourselves, even now, with those activities which we will do for all eternity, learning God’s Word and coming to know Him, worshipping Him and giving Him the praise He deserves and serving Him as we serve others:
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’” (Matthew 25:34-40).26
A rather startling thought occurred to me while I was contemplating the service which will occupy us in heaven. I believe that one of my spiritual gifts is teaching. Little wonder, then, that I believe preaching to be an important part of my ministry on earth. But can you imagine any gift more useless than that of teaching in heaven? Who will need me? My job will be obsolete, for then we will know fully, the Bible tells us. That informs me that while teaching is important for the present, it will not be needed in heaven. The same could be said, I think, for any other gift. Certainly we can agree that evangelists will be unnecessary in heaven. While our specific gifts and functions in the body of Christ are vitally important now, worship is something that will never become obsolete or unnecessary. All of this compels me to give more emphasis to those things which will never pass away—God and the worship of Him, God’s people, and God’s Word.
One of the things the doctrine of heaven should cause us to do is to re-evaluate our priorities. In Hebrews 11:13 we read that those who looked for a better country viewed themselves as “strangers and exiles” in this present life. Over and over in the New Testament we are called “strangers and exiles” (cf. 1 Peter 2:11). Our citizenship, Paul said, is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). We must, therefore, set our minds “on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2).
Finally, the doctrine of heaven should give us a whole new outlook on our present sufferings and afflictions. We must come to see that these afflictions are God’s way of preparing us for the glory that lies before us:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; (1 Peter 1:3-7).
In the light of eternal blessings, our present afflictions can be seen as minute and momentary:
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
Heaven would not be nearly so dear if our present life were one of complacent comfort. It is those who are afflicted who desire to find the rest which heaven offers:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:3-12).
When we go on vacation each summer, we can hardly wait to leave the heat of Dallas and go to the Pacific Northwest, where we have many friends and relatives. But after a couple of weeks of being cramped together without air conditioning and living out of a suitcase, there is a unanimous desire to “go home.” I hope that you are not so comfortable in this life that it seems like “home” to you. Those who suffer in this life are eager to find a better land, and have to give up little to obtain it. Those who are rich and comfortable prefer not to give up what they have. In this sense the poor are truly blessed, for they are those who desire the heaven which God offers (cf. Luke 6:20). This is no mere matter of riches and poverty, however, for it is those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and who suffer for it, who will see God’s kingdom (Matthew 5:3ff.).
Let us seek to be heavenly minded, to pursue the kingdom of God and to pray for its coming. Let us also seek to be faithful in the present, serving in society as salt and light, and striving to lead others to Him Who is Life and Peace and Blessing. And let us persevere in our trials, knowing that our faithfulness will be rewarded.
20 “The Biblical doctrine of heaven has never received, from a theological standpoint, the consideration that theologians have given to the doctrine of hell and eternal punishment. Shedd, for example, assigned two pages in his Dogmatic Theology to heaven, and eighty-seven pages to eternal punishment. Dr. Niebuhr in his quite exhaustive work, The Nature and Destiny of God, gives no consideration to the matter of heaven except for a regrettable statement, ‘It is unwise for Christians to claim any knowledge of the furniture of heaven.”’ W. M. Smith, “Heaven,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 111, p. 60.
21 I have chosen not to deal with matters such as the rapture because I feel that it is not a fundamental of the faith in the strictest sense of the word. Some Christians differ over its timing, while others question its existence. Personally I believe the rapture will precede the tribulation, but this is not crucial to the immediate task of considering the eternal state of the saints.
22 Just as the Jehovah’s Witnesses have tried to capitalize on the mistranslation of the word Sheol in order to undermine the doctrine of hell, so others have made much of the earthly side of heaven. Heaven, at least the New Jerusalem, does come to the earth, but it would be wrong to make too much of this one fact. I make mention of it so that our thinking will be biblical and so that we may not be caught off guard by the cultist.
23 I realize that this passage refers to the rapture of the saints and not the “eternal state” of heaven. Nevertheless, we know that those who are raptured will participate both in the Millennial Kingdom as well as the eternal state.
24 I admit it, I am on precarious ground in suggesting that our full knowledge will come about gradually. Let me say, however, that full knowledge and learning over a period of time are not necessarily inconsistent: “And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). In His deity, Jesus knew all things, while in His humanity, He learned over a period of time.
25 Remember that I have frequently said that the misapplication of a given doctrine is no proof that such a doctrine should itself be rejected. Any truth can be unbiblically applied. We may as easily do the wrong thing for the right reasons as we do the right thing for the wrong reasons.