STUDIES IN ESCHATOLOGY No. 21
“Heaven, No. 2”
December 7, 2003
We said last time that, as with the prospect of eternal punishment, the description of eternal life provided in the Bible is neither very literal nor specific. It is a general picture of a life of wonderful fulfillment, the sinless enjoyment of life as life was intended to be, and, in particular, life lived in the very presence of the Triune God and basking in his glory. A specific example of this manner of the Bible’s description of the life to come is given us in the most complete picture of heaven provided anywhere in the Bible, viz. Revelation 21:1-22:6
Read: Rev. 21:1-22:6
Richard Baxter once wrote in regard to the prospect of life in heaven:
“One would think…[that] a man would…almost forget to eat and drink, and should care for nothing else…but how to get this treasure. And yet people…who profess to believe it as a fundamental article of their faith, do as little mind it, or labor for it, as if they had never heard of any such thing.” [Pract. Works, pb ed, 39-40]
We admit that this is true. We admit it, to our shame, that it is true of ourselves far too much of the time. But why is it true? Well, I think the reason is very largely that our view of heaven is too vague, our sight of it too dim. We are not as much as we ought to be and could be like those saints, mentioned in Hebrews 11, who viewed the heavenly country from afar and sought it all their lives long. They were looking for a better country because they had a good idea of what that country was like. Well, too often we are not like them. Our faith in heaven is weak because our spiritual sight of it is so dim.
Revelation 21 and 22 are designed to correct that problem. So, from this text, I want us to look at heaven and put some color, some luster, some brilliance into our sight of the world to come and, in this way, in William Cowper’s memorable lines, “to teach our faint desires to rise and bring all heaven before our eyes.”
But, we understand immediately as we read these chapters that they are characteristic of the Bible’s presentation of heaven. They are not and do not provide a travel agent’s brochure of the eternal city. John has here set out to overwhelm our imagination, not to give us a photograph of what we will see when we finally open our eyes on the heavenly country. We can appreciate the imagery of John’s rapturous vision without having to suppose that heaven is actually a cube, fifteen hundred miles in length, breadth, and width, with walls two hundred feet thick, each gate a single pearl, with twelve foundations made of precious stones, the city constructed of pure gold, yet transparent as crystal. Tell me what precisely that would look like if you can! John’s point is to bankrupt our imagination and he succeeds admirably. He wants us to think of heaven as a place beyond our imagination, beyond all human powers of description, for its wonder, beauty, and glory.
But the image-laden description he does give us here is straightforward enough in its intention and its main points, and it is those intentions and main points that I want to set before you to whet your appetite for that coming day when you will find yourself in heaven and begin to live the life that they live who, by God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice, go to heaven to live forever.
I. The first thing that we are told and promised here about heaven is that in it all of the ravages of our life on earth, all the shortcoming, the sorrows, the wrongs, the disappointments of this life will be made up and there will be no more of such things.
Every tear shall be wiped away as we read in 21:4 and there will be no more death, mourning, crying, or pain. We talked last time about the presence of some kinds of sorrow in heaven, as the Bible itself suggests, but a statement like this is powerful evidence of how completely everything that diminishes and spoils life here will be removed from heaven. In v. 8 we learn that all the people who would spoil this new life will be banned from it. In 22:3 we read of the leaves of the tree that will be for the “healing of the nations” and, in the next verse, of their being no longer any curse. In other words, one way to envision heaven, one way to imagine what life there will be like is simply to remove from view anything and everything that darkens or spoils life in this world. Now, collect your thoughts and imagine life without the curse, without the sorrows that prevail because of the curse, life without sin and without death.
As so many of our spiritual ancestors, many of us in this sanctuary have been Christians long enough and seriously enough to have discovered long ago that the sanctification which we so much seek and long for and hope for, seems, at least to us, further and further from us the longer we live in this sin-poisoned world. We are, though many of us are still quite young as the world counts age, growing very weary of living always at the nod and beck of sin ourselves and having always to cope with the consequences of sin, our own and that of others.
William Law, the Anglican mystic, admitted frankly that he would rather be hanged and his body thrown into a swamp, than that anyone else be allowed to see what went on in his heart. Surely we often feel the same. We find ourselves deeply ashamed of our lives. How often, for example, have we stepped away from a conversation mortified by what came out of our mouths or for what we never said out of cowardice or stupidity or hardness of heart or indifference to others. We have wished sometimes that the Lord would cut out our tongue if we cannot use it to better effect. How often we have been sickened and demoralized by our self-righteousness or our laziness or our impurity or our lack of sympathy and love, or our indifference to God and others. How often we have shuddered in deep embarrassment when reading one of those many texts in Holy Scripture that teach us to live worthy of the grace that we have received.
But what an absolute revelation it will be finally and suddenly to find ourselves free of sin and entirely holy in heart, in attitude, in speech, and in behavior – holy as God himself is holy; Christlike in our character. What a deliverance and an astonishment and delight and thrill and what a subject for a thousand millennia of the most satisfying conversations that will be!
And what of sin’s consequences? What, for example of death and the separations that death imposes. I know from my own experience how the death of loved ones has profoundly changed my life and diminished it in different ways. Think of some of the people we have lost as a congregation and how much we would have profited these years if we still had had them. Or think of all the people that you could not know in this world, but whom, had you known, your life would have been wonderfully richer. Some of you have lost children, I know, and some of you mothers scarcely live a day without wondering what that child would be like were he or she to have lived. Think of other people you have loved and lost or simply whom you cannot be with. Think of life when every person who can enrich, and delight you, who can deepen your own character and excite your love and gratitude will be a part of your life and will love you as you love them.
I never knew my grandfather. I was two years of age when he died. I am looking forward to knowing him. A well-known Presbyterian evangelist in the Midwest in the first third of the 20th century, he was great man and a faithful minister of Christ, though he had, by all reports, some rough edges. He was more likable than my grandmother, by almost everyone’s report, but he had some features of his personality and character that were less appealing. But, of course, when I meet and get to know my grandfather, he will be everything a man ought to be. That is the only way I will ever know him.
Think of all the people in church history that you will delight to know that, being born when you were born and living where you lived, you could not know. I think of major figures, like Augustine and Jerome from the early church. Augustine is such a theological and religious titan and yet, at the same time, such an attractive and kindly figure. I’ve always had a special feeling for him. What will life be like when I number among my friends Augustine and he thinks of me as one of his friends? Jerome was a great Christian but he was also a pill. He wore people out. He bore grudges and had a thin skin and a hyper-critical disposition. But, of course, I’ll never know Jerome that way. When I meet him he’ll tell me about his life and his writings and he’ll blush and condemn himself for his unkind speech. But Christian history is fuller still of minor characters. One of the most attractive minor characters of patristic church history, the first centuries after Pentecost, is the young woman, whose name we do not know, who was Augustine’s mistress when he was still an unbeliever, who probably was a Christian before he was, who was the mother of his son, and who quietly left the scene when Augustine, broken-hearted but alas led by a false theology of marriage and of the ministry, felt it necessary to disown this woman and to live the rest of his life a single man. She returned to Africa from Italy where they had been living, vowing never to marry again. What will that be like, to know them both!
I am eager to meet Johannes Maccovius, a 17th century Reformed theologian, a Pole who taught in Holland during the years of the Synod of Dort. I’ve studied Maccovius somewhat and want to know if he was the man his friends extolled him as being or the weak Christian his enemies charged him with being. I want to know whether it was true that once Maccovius got drunk and, as a prank, some of his students sent him off on a donkey in the wrong direction, and he didn’t know that he wasn’t traveling homeward until he arrived in a town some miles in the opposite direction. William Ames, the strict Puritan, who was Maccovius’ colleague on the theological faculty at Franeker, suspected the story was true. Abraham Kuyper’s son, who wrote a long monograph on Maccovius, thought it was a slander perpetrated by Maccovius’ theological enemies.
I’m certainly looking forward to meeting my spiritual and ministerial mentor, Alexander Whyte, and to telling him all that his books and sermons have meant to me. I want to hear that living voice – will it retain the Scottish accent? – which I have, so far, only been able to hear in the words on the page.
But you get my point. You will have a list of acquaintances and loved ones and figures of interest from the past that is different from mine. But you see John’s great point and the Holy Spirit’s great point. We can and we ought to spend time imagining in how many wonderful ways heaven will make up all that is bad, all that falls short, all that limits our experience and knowledge in this world and this life. Bend your imagination to that task, as I have done in just the briefest way, and see if that does not whet your appetite. It should surely help you wonderfully to bear the burdens of this life to contemplate – and often – how soon and how completely they will be swallowed up and remembered no more.
II. The second thing we are told and promised here about heaven is that it will perfect and fulfill all that was wonderful about our lives in this world.
John accents the positive and spends much more of his time here than in describing how heaven will make up for what was wanting in our earthly life. And John’s point is that just as this world is full of glimpses of hell, the very things that so darken our view of life here, so it is full of foretastes and anticipations of heaven.
There is, after all, as the entire Bible teaches, a direct relationship between this world and the next. It will be a real human life that is lived in heaven and it will be in a new heavens and a new earth that that life is lived. We will live there as we live now, though with many differences to be sure. In other words, one way to think about what heaven will be like is to consider that it will be more of the same of the very best that this life has to offer.
John sees in 21:2 the bride coming down out of heaven beautifully dressed for her husband. What does that mean? Well, often in the NT the sanctification of our lives, the renewing work of the Holy Spirit within us is described in this image of the church being prepared to be the Lord’s spotless bride on the great day. And John says that God will dwell with us there and we will be with him, which is all already true, of course and already the experience of God’s people in this world, but will be much more completely and profoundly true when we are in heaven. You know how moments of real holiness have deeply satisfied you in your life and times when you felt God’s presence delighted you more than anything else delights you!
What is more, all of the images of perfection and beauty that John uses in these two chapters in describing his vision of heaven are still today some of the most beautiful and precious things we know: gold, pearls, emeralds, the brilliant sunshine, clear running rivers, lovely leafy trees, and so on. In Rev. 21:26 he says that the glory and the honor of the nations will be brought into heaven: the best of this world, that is. Think of what you expect to see there and hear there: the paintings of Rembrandt, the music of Bach or Mendelssohn, the sculpture of Michaelangelo.
John is saying to us: think of those sights and sounds and moments and experiences over the course of your life when you were moved and thrilled and happy beyond words. In this world such moments may be few and far between, but their importance is in part that they were foretastes of what heaven will always be like.
Harry Blamires, in his fine book on heaven, wrote this which I wrote into my Bible and have remembered ever since I first read it years ago and which I have put to use many times in my own mind.
“It is in fragmentary glimpses that the joys of the kingdom are flashed before our faces on our earthly pilgrimage. We all have our stores of memories that keep their power to blind us with the dazzle of the wonder and beauty they revealed. When you first took a hand that is now cold in the grave – when you first looked into eyes that imprinted their gaze forever on your mind – when you first caught sight of that remote village nestling in the elbow of a valley, all white and green in the sun – when you first saw your wife with your baby in her arms – when a lyric of Byron’s first throbbed through your brain school days – when Toscanini revitalized the fabric of a Beethoven symphony – when Maria Callas released flooding waves of emotion upon a few syllables, ‘Alfin son tua,’ in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor: we all have our store of such particular memories. If we wanted a single adjective to characterize what was common to them all, we should say quite naturally, quite unaffectedly, ‘It was heavenly.’
We very often add those other words and say ‘It was heavenly while it lasted.’ This most natural of expressions carries immense implications. To say ‘It was heavenly’ of any experience is to imply that you have been briefly lifted above the humdrum level of experience proper to earthly life and given a glimpse, or rather a taste, of life at a level of wonder and delight which is proper to heaven.” [Knowing the Truth About Heaven and Hell, 126-127]
Well I have my own list of such foretastes of heaven that I have experienced in this world and, as I have thought about it, a list that grows longer as I live, I find it creates the same sort of deep pleasure in the prospect of more of this, as Blamires’ list did for him.
1. I never go too many days without thinking of several hours years ago, when I was a young man, when I was virtually carried up into the third heaven and made to see the glory of God and could scarcely contain myself for the joy of the Lord.
2. Then there was that lovely warm summer evening when I and two college friends unrolled our sleeping bags in the hayloft of a Swiss alpine barn, in a meadow above Zermatt, and slept below an open window framing the Matterhorn in all her evening glory.
3. Or there was that charmed afternoon when I first entered and explored Ton Bolland’s antiquarian theological bookshop on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam.
4. And, the afternoon spent talking with that wonderful Christian gentleman and scholar, Professor van der Linde, among the books that lined the walls of his home in Utrecht.
5. And what of that summer years ago in Colorado when I found myself head over heels in love all over again with my wife, and found myself as happy as only a man can be who is desperately in love after ten years of marriage.
6. Also there were those first visits to the King’s College chapel in Cambridge and to Mr. Tait’s home, Guessens, in Hertfordshire.
7. There were those Sunday nights in Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen, Scotland, with Gordon Ross at that mighty organ, and the great congregational singing in that old church – and, I should say, many such nights here at Faith Presbyterian since with Ron at the organ and a crowded sanctuary singing at full voice.
8. I think of the moment when a young mother became a believer in Christ in my office and I could literally see the light of life dawn in her eyes.
9. There was that moment during graduate studies at the University of Aberdeen when light dawned in my own mind touching a particular passage of God’s Word, which light has continued to illuminate the Bible for me ever since.
10. Or what of that home above the bakery in Recke, Germany, where we stayed for a weekend in 1984 and ate food that was as close to perfection as I have ever had the pleasure of eating.
11. Then, five years ago, when the congregation gave Florence and me the trip to Greece, and we were tooling along on our moped, exploring the by ways of Paros, one of the Greek islands, and I turned back to her and said, “This is fun!”
12. And what of so many experiences with my children, and the almost unbearable pleasure of seeing my eldest daughter’s joy in being married to a fine young Christian man whom she loves so deeply.
And on and on my list goes; and yours, my brothers and sisters, would be like it, but so different. But, and this is John’s point, with all of these “heavenly” moments in our lives, we have had to say that it was heavenly “while it lasted.” But in that world and life to come, those moments will not be any longer the mere anticipation of something else, they will be life itself.
All the best that life has ever been in this world for you is what heaven will like always for the children of God. John is telling you to count up your heavenly moments and then try to roll them up into one and think of what life will be like and what happiness must be like for people whose life is like that all the time and without fail.
III. The third thing we are told and promised about heaven is that the heart and soul of its glory and happiness and fulfillment and satisfaction will be the perfect communion of the saints with the Triune God.
This is the climax of John’s description of heaven in this most complete description of heaven provided in the Bible. He begins with it, when he says in 21:2-4 that now “the dwelling of God is with men and he will live with them,” and “God himself will be with them,” and, later, in vv. 22ff. when he speaks of the glory of God giving light to the city, and John finishes with the same thought in 22:4-5 when he says that we will see the face of the Lord and he will give us light.
We will see what Isaiah saw when he saw the Lord high and lifted up in the temple and we will see still more than he saw and what we see will not be hidden again from us as it was from Isaiah. We will see what Paul saw when, in a vision, he was carried up into the third heaven and saw what he was not permitted to tell.
We will see what the great poets and spiritual writers of the church have tried to capture as best they could when they spoke of what used to be called the “beatific vision,” the very sight of God, that life transforming, captivating, and enthralling sight of the glory of God. This is the sight for which our whole being was made and which will drink up, exhaust, and completely satisfy all our powers. We have a capacity to be awestruck but how rarely is that capacity really exploited. In heaven it will be to the fullest extent.
Dante, in the Paradiso, finally at the end of his journey, come up to the center of heaven, could only say
For in the presence of those radiant beams
One is so changed, that ‘tis impossible
To turn from it to any other sight – …
How powerless is speech – how weak, compared
To my conception, which itself is trifling
Beside the might vision that I saw!
And, of course, though we will not be able to see the divine persons, for they are eternally spirit – however much John says we will see their glory and know their presence in a direct way – we will see the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, the God-Man. George MacDonald, in one of his poems, worries about the fact that there will be no night in heaven, because, as he says, he loves the beauty of twilight. But he catches himself and goes on to say,
But the thought is very foolish;
If that face I did but see,
All else would be forgotten –
River, and twilight, and tree;
I should seek, I should care for nothing
Beholding his countenance;
And fear only to lose one glimmer
By one single sideway glance.
Now, to be honest, many of us struggle to long for this as we know we should. The beatific vision doesn’t hold us in its thrall the way it did generations of believers before us. Perhaps in the day of Hollywood special effects, we have become jaded to the very idea of having our breath taken away with the sight of something so impossibly grand and beautiful. But I have no hesitation in telling you that this is only further evidence of the dullness of our hearts. The more we understand reality, and certainly the more we understand salvation itself, the more the Lord himself will become the object of our soul’s hunger and thirst and expectation.
Rutherford, and a holier man has scarcely lived, used to worry that he delighted too much in the Lord’s gifts and in the joy of salvation and not enough in the Lord himself. “I fear,” he wrote, “that I make more of his love than of Himself.” It will be a good measure of your own holiness and spiritual sense when you begin to worry about such an error as that! And when you do and you find yourself preoccupied with the Lord Christ and with God in his glory, then heaven will appeal to you and you will long for it for nothing so much as for the sight it will give you of Him! As we sang last Lord’s Day night: “the bride will not eye her garments but her dear bridegroom’s face; we will not gaze at glory but on the King of Grace.”
Tonight, or on some night soon, go outside and look up at the night sky, lit by the stars. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once looked at the starry sky and saw the thousands upon thousands of pinpoints of light as peepholes in the great wall of heaven, little holes in the wall of the heavenly palace where Christ is now with his saints and angels. Look at the night sky whenever you can and think of what a scene and a life and a place that light is shining on and will shine when you take your place, with all the saints, in that great banquet hall. Ponder and wonder and pine! Wonder what that life will not be like – you can say a great deal about that; ponder what that life will be like – you know a great deal about that as well; and pine for the sight of God himself. Ponder, wonder and pine until your life’s motto has become that of the saintly Bonar family of Scotland:
Denique Coelum…. Heaven at last!