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The Hope of Heaven: Heaven According to Paul (2 Corinthians 4:11-5:10, 12:1-10)

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Years ago, my wife Jeannette and I worked on an island a few miles from Seattle, Washington. This business served a salmon dinner, cooked over an open fire in an authentic Pacific Northwest Indian style. One day a couple of men capsized their speedboat and spent a few minutes in the cold waters of Puget Sound before being rescued. They were suffering from hypothermia and were brought on shore and placed beside the open fire to warm up. When one of the men regained consciousness, the first thing he saw was the fire in front of him. He concluded that he had died and had awakened in hell, and his cries of horror were sobering.

That was over 40 years ago. These days the subject of life after death (by various names) has become very popular. I looked at Amazon.com on the Internet and found that they listed 204 books on the subject. The first of the books listed was by P.M.H. Atwater and titled, The Big Book of Near Death Experiences: The Ultimate Guide to What Happens When We Die. Needless to say, I would challenge the book's claim to be the "ultimate guide to what happens when we die." The Bible is the ultimate authority in these matters. I suspect that Lazarus and Paul are the men whom we would want to ask about their after death experiences when we get to heaven.1

Since this message is about Paul's teaching on heaven, we'll be concentrating on his experiences with heaven in this lesson. Paul was saved as a result of a heavenly vision of the Lord Jesus.2 He then had a brush with death at Lystra as we read in Acts 14. It would appear that Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 refer to his experiences as a result of that "near death" stoning at Lystra. But as much as Paul had experienced of heaven, he is remarkably tight-lipped on the subject in his epistles. Only 2 Corinthians refers to this incident, and then only in sketchy terms.

I will begin this message by looking at Acts 14 and 2 Corinthians 12 to see what we can learn from Paul's experience, both by Luke's account and by Paul's. We will then consider several other texts in which Paul (sometimes obliquely) deals with heaven. We will then consider Paul's words about this life and the afterlife in 2 Corinthians 4 and 5 and conclude with a few words of application.

Stoned at Lystra

Acts 14:8-20

    8 In Lystra sat a man who could not use his feet, lame from birth, who had never walked. 9 This man was listening to Paul as he was speaking. When Paul stared intently at him and saw he had faith to be healed, 10 he said with a loud voice, "Stand upright on your feet." And the man leaped up and began walking. 11 So when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!" 12 They began to call Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 The priest of the temple of Zeus, located just outside the city, brought bulls and garlands to the city gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifices to them. 14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard about it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, 15 "Men, why are you doing these things? We too are men, with human natures just like you! We are proclaiming the good news to you, so that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to go their own ways, 17 yet he did not leave himself without a witness by doing good, by giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying you with food and your hearts with joy." 18 Even by saying these things, they scarcely persuaded the crowds not to offer sacrifice to them. 19 But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and after winning the crowds over, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, presuming him to be dead. 20 But after the disciples had surrounded him, he got up and went back into the city. On the next day he left with Barnabas for Derbe. 21 After they had proclaimed the good news in that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, to Iconium, and to Antioch. 22 They strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, "We must enter the kingdom of God through many persecutions." 23 When they had appointed elders for them in the various churches, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the protection of the Lord in whom they had believed (Acts 14:8-23).3

Paul and Barnabas are on their first missionary journey. From the island of Cyprus, they made their way to Asia Minor, preaching first at Perga, where John Mark forsook them and fled back to Jerusalem.4 One can only conjecture that the dangers were so great there that Mark could not deal with them. Paul and Barnabas then pressed on to Pisidian Antioch where they had an attentive audience, with a number of Jews and Gentiles coming to faith.5 Within a week, the unbelieving Jews had created such opposition that they were forced to leave the city and press on to Iconium.6 At Iconium, a good number of Jews and Gentiles came to faith, but the unbelieving Jews instigated such strong opposition that the apostles were in danger of being stoned, so they fled to Lycaonia and to the city of Lystra.7

While they were in Lystra, Paul saw a man sitting there who had been lame from birth. He noted that this man had faith to be healed, and so Paul loudly commanded the man to stand up and walk - and he did! The crowds saw and heard what happened and immediately concluded that Barnabas and Paul were gods who had come to visit them. They assumed that Barnabas was Zeus (the leading god) because he remained quiet (as they assumed that leading gods acted); Paul, being the more verbal apostle, was assumed to be Hermes, the spokesman for Zeus. There was a temple of Zeus just outside the city and a priest, who quickly brought the needed articles to offer sacrifices to Barnabas and Paul. When the apostles realized what was happening, they immediately began to seek to dissuade the crowd from worshipping them as gods, preaching instead about the One True God. With great difficulty, they were able to persuade the crowds not to worship them.

Unbelieving Jews from Pisidian Antioch arrived and turned the crowds (who once were prepared to worship Barnabas and Paul as gods) against the apostles. This is an amazing thing to me. As a rule, the Jews loathed Gentiles and were happy to condemn them and their pagan worship. But somehow (like the coalition which formed against Jesus?) they managed to overcome their strong differences and prejudices and to win the cooperation of the people of Lystra and were thus given the freedom to stone Paul, dragging his body out of the city where they left him for dead.8 It is difficult for me to believe that these Jews would have left Paul's body without convincing themselves that he was "good and dead," although Luke is content to leave us with a measure of ambiguity, telling us merely that they "supposed" him to be dead.9 As the disciples (those who had come to faith through Paul's preaching) stood around Paul's body, he got up and returned to the city, the very city where he had been stoned! The next day he and Barnabas moved on to the city of Derbe.

Observations

Several things are worthy of note in this text as it relates to our study of heaven. First, I am impressed with the brevity of Luke's account of Paul's stoning and resuscitation. The Book of Acts contains many miraculous events, and this certainly appears to be one such miracle. Even if Paul had only been rendered unconscious for a time, you would have thought that Luke would have made more of it than he did. Luke was content to describe this stoning in few words.

Second (and closely related to my first observation), I am impressed with the fact that Luke does not make any attempt to sensationalize this stoning. Many would have been tempted to sensationalize this incident, but Luke is very matter of fact about it (something like my veterinarian friend, Bob Barlow, now with the Lord, who once described his encounter on the inside of a cage truck, where he was attempting to give a 400-pound lion a shot). I would have been tempted to play up this matter, making it look more spectacular than Luke.

Third, I am amazed at Paul's courage. Things had already gotten so bad that John Mark had abandoned them at Perga. When Paul arose as his friends looked on, he was already on the outskirts of Lystra. How easy it would have been to just keep going to Derbe. But instead Paul returned to Lystra, where he had just been stoned, and spent the night. He did leave the next day for Derbe, but we should note that after they had gone on to preach in Derbe, they then retraced their steps as they returned, going back to Lystra once again!10 As they passed through these cities once again, they encouraged the believers by reminding them that it was "through many tribulations that they must enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:21). Paul was living proof of that. How his example of courage must have encouraged these saints.

Fourth, I take note of the fact that this stoning at Lystra took place during Paul's first missionary journey - early in Paul's apostolic ministry. Whatever happened in Lystra seems to have stuck with Paul for the rest of his ministry. If, indeed, Paul's experience here is that to which he refers in 2 Corinthians 12, one can see how death was not an enemy to Paul, but a friend, bringing him into the presence of God. After Acts 14, I can see how Paul could later write to the Philippians in such a way as to see death as better than life, for that meant he would be with the Lord.

Paul's Encounter with Heaven

2 Corinthians 12:1-10

    1 It is necessary to go on boasting. Though it is not profitable, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know that this man (whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows) 4 was caught up into paradise and heard things too sacred to be put into words, things that a person is not permitted to speak. 5 On behalf of such an individual I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except about my weaknesses. 6 For even if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I would be telling the truth, but I refrain from this so that no one may regard me beyond what he sees in me or what he hears from me, 7 even because of the extraordinary character of the revelations. Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me - so that I would not become arrogant. 8 I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. 9 But he said to me, "My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:1-10).

We need to understand Paul's words in these verses in the light of their context. Beginning in 1 Corinthians, Paul has been seeking to correct problems in the church. These problems included divisions,11 departure from the fundamentals of the gospel,12 fleshly immaturity,13 immorality,14 litigation with one another,15 participation in heathen worship (including eating meat offered to idols),16 misconduct at the Lord's Table and in the church meeting,17 and a denial of the resurrection of the dead.18 By the time we reach 2 Corinthians 11, it has become apparent that many of the problems in Corinth were the result of the teaching and example of those who were false teachers:

    12 And what I am doing I will continue to do, so that I may eliminate any opportunity for those who want a chance to be regarded as our equals in the things they boast about. 13 For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is not surprising his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will correspond to their actions (2 Corinthians 11:12-15, emphasis mine).

These false teachers sought to enhance themselves and their teaching by claiming (or giving the appearance of) apostolic authority. In order to refute their false claims, Paul felt compelled to resort to things he felt were foolish, but necessary. The first "foolishness" Paul employed was his boasting with regard to his status as a Jew:

    18 Since many are boasting according to human standards, I too will boast. 19 For since you are so wise, you put up with fools gladly. 20 For you put up with it if someone makes slaves of you, if someone exploits you, if someone takes advantage of you, if someone behaves arrogantly toward you, if someone strikes you in the face. 21 (To my disgrace I must say that we were too weak for that!) But whatever anyone else dares to boast about (I am speaking foolishly), I also dare to boast about the same thing. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am talking like I am out of my mind!) I am even more so: with much greater labors, with far more imprisonments, with more severe beatings, facing death many times. 24 Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with a rod. Once I received a stoning. Three times I suffered shipwreck. A night and a day I spent adrift in the open sea. 26 I have been on journeys many times, in dangers from rivers, in dangers from robbers, in dangers from my own countrymen, in dangers from Gentiles, in dangers in the city, in dangers in the wilderness, in dangers at sea, in dangers from false brothers (2 Corinthians 11:18-26, emphasis mine).

It is apparent that these false apostles were Jewish and used their ethnic and religious heritage as part of their claim to authority. Paul then "boasts" in such a way as to show that he is more Jewish than they are. And if these folks considered themselves to have earned a hearing, Paul goes on to enumerate the many ways in which he had "earned his stripes" by suffering for the sake of the gospel he preached. If anyone had the right to be heard, it was Paul, not the Jewish false apostles (who obviously were much more accustomed to the good life).

The second area in which Paul felt compelled to boast was in regard to the vision he had received in his "near death" experience. This is the subject of 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. We know from the Scriptures that some false teachers appealed to "visions" or revelations that they allegedly received, visions not given to others, which thus appeared to set them apart as more spiritual and authoritative:

    Your prophets saw visions for you that were worthless lies. They failed to expose your sin so as to restore your fortunes. They saw oracles for you that were worthless lies (Lamentations 2:14).

    18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God (Colossians 2:18-19, ESV).

Reluctantly, Paul refers to his revelation of heaven in 2 Corinthians 12. He does so in a way that seeks to draw attention away from himself and in a way that is deliberately vague. He doesn't know, for example, if he was "in the body" or "out of the body" when he was caught up to Paradise.19 Paul's reticence to describe what he saw seems to stem from two factors. First, the things he saw were too incredible for words - they were inexpressible, so glorious that words could not describe them. It would be like trying to explain Einstein's theory of relativity to a baby. There were no words to describe what he saw. Secondly, Paul was not permitted to describe what he saw, even if he found the words to do so.20

In those times when Paul does speak of heaven, it is usually for one of two reasons. Paul sometimes spoke of heaven to correct misconceptions or false teaching on the subject:

    Now if Christ is being preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:12)

    1 Now regarding the arrival of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to be with him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to be easily shaken from your composure or disturbed by any kind of spirit or message or letter allegedly from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2).

A second reason why Paul spoke about heaven was to encourage those saints who were undergoing persecution for their faith:

    6 For it is right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels. 8 With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength, 10 when he comes to be glorified among his saints and admired on that day among all who have believed - and you did in fact believe our testimony (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).

Paul spoke (somewhat vaguely) about his "after death" or "near death" experience in 2 Corinthians to show that he could easily outrank the false apostles in terms of spectacular revelations received. From what Paul says of his experience, we might easily conclude that his vision of Paradise was granted at the time he was stoned and left for dead at Lystra. One does not know for certain whether Paul actually died at Lystra or not; we do know that those who stoned him meant to kill him and assumed that they had accomplished what they set out to do. If, indeed, the stoning at Lystra is the setting for Paul's vision of heaven, it would have come very early in his ministry, and it would explain why he could look forward to death as he did.21 No wonder Paul went right back into the city after he was revived and then returned to Lystra again after going to Derbe. And no wonder Paul once again visited Lystra on his second missionary journey. Having seen what awaits him in heaven, Paul does not cling to life on earth; he lives dangerously in the preaching of the gospel.

I believe there is an important lesson to be learned here. If Paul the apostle was neither able nor permitted to give a detailed description of his after death experience, I would be very reluctant to accept any other person's account of an after life (or after death) experience as authoritative. No doubt they would interesting, but one would have to be wary of their accuracy or authority. From what I know of such accounts, most of them do not speak of hell or eternal judgment, and often the impression one is left with is very calming and peaceful, giving one a false hope of finding salvation after death. Such is not the teaching of Scripture:

    27 And just as people are appointed to die once, and then to face judgment, 28 so also, after Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many, to those who eagerly await him he will appear a second time, not to bear sin but to bring salvation (Hebrews 9:27-28).22

A Look at Some Other Key Texts

1 Corinthians 15

While there are a number of texts in Paul's writings which speak of the resurrection of the dead, or of the Lord's return, there are not that many texts which directly speak of heaven, and particularly regarding what it looks like. In 1 Corinthians 14, for example, Paul spends a great deal of time and energy defending the doctrine of the resurrection, due to the fact that some were denying this doctrine.23 While he does not seek to describe what heaven will be like in this text, he does set forth two important truths related to the resurrection as it relates to heaven. The first truth is that our Lord will hand over His reign to the Father once He (Jesus Christ) has subdued all of His enemies:

    25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be eliminated is death. 27 For he has put everything in subjection under his feet. But when it says "everything" has been put in subjection, it is clear that this does not include the one who put everything in subjection to him. 28 And when all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:25-28).

To be honest, I'm not sure of all of the implications of this statement, but I certainly do see a clear contrast in our Lord's attitude toward the Father's headship, as contrasted with Satan's response to the Father's authority:

    12 "How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! 13 You said in your heart, 'I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; 14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.' 15 But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit (Isaiah 14:12-15).

The second thing that I see in this chapter is Paul's emphasis on how different our heavenly bodies will be compared to our physical bodies:

    35 But someone will say, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?" 36 Fool! What you sow will not come to life unless it dies. 37 And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare seed - perhaps of wheat or something else. 38 But God gives it a body just as he planned, and to each of the seeds a body of its own. 39 All flesh is not the same: People have one flesh, animals have another, birds and fish another. 40 And there are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies. The glory of the heavenly body is one sort and the earthly another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon and another glory of the stars, for star differs from star in glory. 42 It is the same with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So also it is written, "The first man, Adam, became a living person"; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit (1 Corinthians 15:35-45).

Those who seek to emphasize the continuity between this life and the next must be careful not to overlook the contrasts, such as those mentioned by Paul in this text. So, too, our Lord has made it clear that relationships will not necessarily be the same in heaven as they were on earth. The earthly institution of marriage will not be continued, as such, in heaven.24 Heaven is not merely an extension of life here on earth; it is a whole new life, based on decisions and choices we have made while living on earth.

1 Corinthians 3:10-16; 2 Timothy 4:1-8

    10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master-builder I laid a foundation, but someone else builds on it. And each one must be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13 each builder's work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. 14 If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If someone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire. 16 Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? (1 Corinthians 3:10-16, emphasis mine)

    1 I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 Preach the message, be ready whether it is convenient or not, reprove, rebuke, exhort with complete patience and instruction. 3 For there will be a time when people will not tolerate sound teaching. Instead, following their own desires, they will accumulate teachers for themselves, because they have an insatiable curiosity to hear new things. 4 And they will turn away from hearing the truth, but on the other hand they will turn aside to myths. 5 You, however, be self-controlled in all things, endure hardship, do an evangelist's work, fulfill your ministry. 6 For I am already being poured out as an offering, and the time for me to depart is at hand. 7 I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith! 8 Finally the crown of righteousness is reserved for me. The Lord, the righteous Judge, will award it to me in that day - and not to me only, but also to all who have set their affection on his appearing (2 Timothy 4:1-8, emphasis mine).

These texts indicate that after their resurrection, the saints will stand before God, where their works will be judged. The issue and the outcome is not salvation, but rewards. Heaven will commence with the believer's judgment and the Lord's distribution of rewards for faithful service.

Romans 8:18-25

    18 For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us. 19 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility - not willingly but because of God who subjected it - in hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God's children. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 23 Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance (Romans 8:18-25).

Romans 8 is the climax of Paul's teaching on sanctification in Romans 6-8. In chapter 6, Paul showed the necessity of sanctification. One dare not persist in sin after coming to faith in Jesus because when we were saved, we died in Christ to sin, and in Him we were raised to newness of life. It is inconsistent with the gospel to die to sin and yet continue to live in sin. Romans 7 makes it clear that we need more than mere desire to live the Christian life. That is because sin is more powerful than the flesh. Christians need divine enablement to give life to our bodies, which are dead with respect to righteousness. The solution is the saving work of Christ at Calvary and the power of the Holy Spirit, who indwells every believer (chapter 8). The same Spirit that raised the dead body of our Lord to life is the Spirit that indwells believers, allowing us to live as God requires.

    8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this person does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is your life because of righteousness. 11 Moreover if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies alive through his Spirit who lives in you (Romans 8:8-11).

Having said this, Paul wants to make it very clear that God did not promise Christians heaven on earth (Romans 8:18-25). Indeed, he is very clear in telling them that salvation almost certainly means suffering, with heaven and its blessings to follow after death and resurrection:

    21 After they had proclaimed the good news in that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, to Iconium, and to Antioch. 22 They strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, "We must enter the kingdom of God through many persecutions" (Acts 14:21-22; see also 1 Thessalonians 3:1-4; 2 Timothy 3:10-12).

Thus, Paul reminds Christians that the effects of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden will continue until Christ comes and Satan and sin are forever removed.

Paul speaks of our future complete and glorious deliverance from sin and a fallen world as "the revealing of the sons of God" (verse 19), "our adoption as sons" (verse 23) and "the redemption of our body" (verse 23). The significant contribution of Romans 8 to our understanding of heaven is Paul's emphasis on the earthly dimensions of heaven. Here, he speaks of all creation as having been corrupted and subjected to slavery and futility. That condition remains until the coming of Christ and His kingdom. The solution to this condition is the transformation of man into righteous men and women who reign (over creation) with Christ. Thus, all creation benefits from the transformation of saved sinners into sinless servants of God who rule with Christ over His kingdom. Heaven has its earthly dimensions. This is consistent with what we read in the final chapters of the Book of Revelation,25 where we seem to return to something reminiscent of a restored Garden of Eden.

2 Thessalonians 1:6-10

    6 For it is right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels. 8 With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength, 10 when he comes to be glorified among his saints and admired on that day among all who have believed - and you did in fact believe our testimony (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).

Paul has already made it very clear that the Thessalonians had suffered at the hands of their fellow countrymen:

    For you became imitators, brothers and sisters, of God's churches in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, because you too suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they in fact did from the Jews (1 Thessalonians 2:14).

    For in fact when we were with you, we were telling you in advance that we would suffer affliction, and so it has happened, as you well know (1 Thessalonians 3:4).

When we come to the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians, Paul speaks of both heaven and hell. He comforts and encourages the Thessalonians by informing them that when Jesus returns, it is for a two-fold purpose. He will come to reward the righteous who have faithfully persevered in their faith, and He will punish those who have rejected Christ and have persecuted His saints. The righteous will spend eternity delighting in His glorious presence, while the wicked will spend eternity apart from His presence and agonizing in the torment of His wrath.

2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10

    7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8 We are experiencing trouble on every side, but are not crushed; we are perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are knocked down, but not destroyed, 10 always carrying around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our body. 11 For we who are alive are constantly being handed over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal body. 12 As a result, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. 13 But since we have the same spirit of faith as that shown in what has been written, "I believed; therefore I spoke," we also believe, therefore we also speak. 14 We do so because we know that the one who raised up Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 For all these things are for your sake, so that the grace that is including more and more people may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God. 16 Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison 18 because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. 1 For we know that if our earthly house, the tent we live in, is dismantled, we have a building from God, a house not built by human hands, that is eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this earthly house we groan, because we desire to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed, after we have put on our heavenly house, we will not be found naked. 4 For we groan while we are in this tent, since we are weighed down, because we do not want to be unclothed, but clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now the one who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave us the Spirit as a down payment. 6 Therefore we are always full of courage, and we know that as long as we are alive here on earth we are absent from the Lord - 7 for we live by faith, not by sight. 8 Thus we are full of courage and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So then whether we are alive or away, we make it our ambition to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be paid back according to what he has done while in the body, whether good or evil (2 Corinthians 4:7-5:10).

One way to look at the argument of these verses is to track the relationship between death and life. In verses 7-15 of chapter 4, Paul shows how the "dying" of the apostles produces life in the Corinthians. Paul and Timothy26 are constantly being delivered over to death for the Lord's sake so that His life can be produced in them. Unlike 1 Corinthians 15 (where Paul speaks of literal death and resurrection), Paul speaks of death and life here in a metaphorical way. Paul and Timothy put themselves in harm's way, risking death for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of the Corinthians (in this particular circumstance). Their "dying" is what brings "life" to the Corinthians through the gospel and the quickening power of the Holy Spirit. Not only does Paul's "dying" bring life to the Corinthians; it also brings glory to God (4:15). So, death is not a dreaded foe to Paul, something to be avoided at all costs, but rather a necessary price to pay for the advancement of the gospel and the benefit of the Gentiles. If literal death does come to Paul, he is absolutely confident that the One who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise him to new life. Death produces life.

In 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10, Paul speaks of death and dying, not in the sense of martyrdom (as he did above), but in the sense of the normal aging and dying process of life. The same principle (death produces life) is applied, but in a different way. Those of us with a number of years behind us (and often with gray hair - or none - to prove it) can readily agree with Paul when he speaks of the gradual, but steady, decline of the physical body. The minute we are born we are on a path that will inevitably lead to our death. For some, it simply comes sooner than for others. But in spite of our "dying by degrees" in the normal aging process, Christians also experience life. As the outer man continues to perish, the inner man is being renewed (given life) day by day. This is not spoken of as maintaining a certain level of spirituality, but of actually growing and increasing in our walk with God.

Actually, the dying process of the body is a welcome thing because we will exchange these mortal bodies for new spiritual bodies which are vastly superior. Our present bodies are a tent, while our permanent spiritual bodies are a temple (so to speak). To be at home in this physical body is to be absent from the Lord; to be absent from this physical body (by death) is to be at home with the Lord. And so it is that just as Paul did not fear the death of martyrdom, neither did he fear the death of old age. Death produces life for the Christian. And thus death is not to be fearfully avoided by living in the safe zone; we can live dangerously for Christ, knowing that death brings life, both for those whom we serve (4:7-14) and for us when we die, whether as martyrs (4:14) or due to old age (4:16--5:10).

Philippians 1:19-26

    19 for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. 20 My confident hope is that I will in no way be ashamed but that with complete boldness, even now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether I live or die. 21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 Now if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean productive work for me, yet I don't know which I prefer: 23 I feel torn between the two, because I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far, 24 but it is more vital for your sake that I remain in the body. 25 And since I am sure of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for the sake of your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that what you can be proud of may increase because of me in Christ Jesus, when I come back to you (Philippians 1:19-26).

Hopefully, we will see that Paul's near (or after) death experience at Lystra (Acts 14:19-20) provided an occasion for God to give Paul a vision of heaven to come (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). I am convinced that this vision had a great impact on him, removing the fear of death and making him bold, even when faced with great danger. But I would not wish you to conclude that the entirety of Paul's boldness was due only to that vision. I believe that the more Paul understood the gospel and His God, the more confidence and boldness he gained from sound doctrine. That is why Paul was so intense in his defense of the doctrine of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. The Old Testament saints died without receiving the promises because they trusted in God and in His Word. They knew that it was a heavenly city they sought, not an earthly one.

The sum total of Paul's confidence (through his vision of heaven and his sound doctrine) is evident in his response to his circumstances as he writes to the Philippians. He was standing trial before Caesar, and the outcome was not known at that moment. It was possible that he would be freed, in which case he would continue to travel about and to minister to churches like the one in Philippi. It was also possible that he would be executed. Truth be known, Paul would have preferred death, for that would have immediately taken him into the Lord's presence. What could be better than that? But if God allowed him to remain alive, he would have more time to give up his life in service to others. The confidence we see in Paul is due to his own experiences (including his heavenly vision) and his knowledge of God's Word. Heaven is the certain outcome for those who have entrusted their eternal future to the hand of God by trusting in Jesus as the One who died in their place, bearing the penalty for their sins.

Conclusion

I've been struck with several things as I've studied Paul's teachings on heaven. The first is that while Paul had ample opportunity to tell others what heaven is like, he opted not to do so. As noted earlier, that was because he was forbidden to speak of his unusual revelation in any detail, and words were inadequate to describe what he saw. Second, when Paul did speak of heaven, his most consistent emphasis was that heaven is the place where God is, and where men are privileged to enjoy His presence. To put it in its most concise form, heaven is to be "with Him." Third, hell is to be understood as the converse of this: Hell is to spend eternity away from God's glorious presence. Those who have trusted in Jesus and who desire to be in His presence are rewarded with an eternity in His presence. Those who have rejected Christ and who want nothing to do with Him will be doomed to spend eternity away from His presence, just as they have avoided Him in life.

Fourth, there are only two alternatives for where you will spend eternity. If you reject God's salvation in the person and work of Jesus Christ, then you are destined for hell:

    16 For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. 18 The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God (John 3:16-18, emphasis mine).

Fifth, when we present the gospel to lost sinners, we should be careful to tell them the truth, and that truth is that just as trusting in Jesus will bring the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of spending eternity in God's presence, so it will bring us tribulation in this life. We dare not distort the gospel in such a way that we promise sinners heaven on earth, with popularity and prosperity guaranteed. Trusting in Jesus for salvation will put us at enmity with the world:

    12 Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory, who is the Spirit of God, rests on you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or thief or criminal or as a troublemaker. 16 But if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear such a name (1 Peter 4:12-16).

Sixth, we need to think differently about those whom we will spend eternity with in heaven. All too much emphasis is made of being with our believing friends and loved ones in heaven, rather than on our being with God. Believing husbands will see their believing wives in heaven, but they will not relate to them in marriage as they have done on earth.27 Heaven is spending eternity in heaven in the presence of God; hell is spending eternity apart from God. That is the main thing. The fact that others we have loved on earth will be there is "icing on the cake," but it is not the essence of what heaven is about.

Seventh, Paul's teaching about heaven and hell has caught me off guard in terms of my motivation to preach the gospel to those who are lost. I must confess that my motivation has been primarily negative: I want to preach the gospel to lost sinners (especially my unsaved loved ones) because I don't want them to go to hell. That is a valid motivation, but Paul places a great deal of emphasis on the positive side of this coin. I should desire to preach the gospel to lost sinners so that many of them can enjoy the blessings of heaven in the presence of God. More than that, I should desire to proclaim the gospel to lost sinners so that God will be glorified by their salvation:

    For all these things are for your sake, so that the grace that is including more and more people may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God (2 Corinthians 4:15).

I must preach the gospel for the good of men and for the glory of God. To Him be the glory!

Copyright © 2010 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 7 in the series Hope and Change, God's Way, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on May 16, 2010. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.

1 This assumes, of course, that you have placed your trust in Jesus Christ for salvation.

2 See Acts 9:119a; 22:3-21; 26:4-18.

3 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

4 Acts 13:13.

5 Acts 13:14-43.

6 Acts 13:44-51.

7 Acts 14:8ff.

8 My impression is that the Gentiles of Derbe did not actually join in the casting of stones (stoning was the preferred Jewish method of executing), but were willing to allow the Jews to carry out this mission without interference. (Perhaps the Jews had portrayed the apostles as criminals who had escaped their grasp in Antioch.)

9 Acts 14:19.

10 Let us not overlook the fact that on Paul's second missionary journey, he once again passed through Derbe (first) and then Lystra, as he made his way north. It was at Lystra that Paul encountered Timothy and invited him to accompany him on his journey (Acts 16:1-5). Was Timothy a convert from Paul's first visit to Lystra? No wonder Paul referred to Timothy as his "son" (1 Timothy 1:18; 2 Timothy 2:21).

11 1 Corinthians 1:10ff.

12 1 Corinthians 1:18ff.

13 1 Corinthians 3:1ff.

14 1 Corinthians 5-6.

15 1 Corinthians 6:1-11.

16 1 Corinthians 8-10.

17 1 Corinthians 11-14.

18 1 Corinthians 15.

19 See 2 Corinthians 12:2-3.

20 2 Corinthians 12:4.

21 Philippians 1:19-24.

22 The rich man of Luke 16:19-31 was certainly not given a second chance.

23 1 Corinthians 15:12.

24 Matthew 22:29-33.

25 See Revelation 22:1-2; also note Romans 16:20.

26 1 Corinthians 1:1.

27 Matthew 22:29-30.

Related Topics: Heaven