We considered this same text last Lord’s Day morning and pointed out that its description of heaven, beautiful as it is, is almost entirely figurative. We can hardly even visualize the description that John provides us of the New Jerusalem. Nor can we answer from it many of the questions that naturally occur to us regarding what life will be like in heaven. What do we do there? What does it mean that we will reign with Christ? How will we relate to other people and to the Lord? There will be vast multitudes of people there, as we know; how will any one of us fit into the whole? The Bible furnishes little in the way of answers to such questions. But that does not mean that we cannot know certain things very definitely about heaven and the life of heaven. And it is to what we can know that we turn this morning. Clearly John expects the vision of heaven he has reported to us to make us want to go there more than anything. He has urged upon his readers loyalty to Jesus Christ even in the face of death. Why? Because heaven awaits, that’s why! So what are we told here that will, in William Cowper’s memorable line, “to teach our faint desires to rise and bring all heaven before our eyes”?
- The first thing that we are told and promised here about heaven is that in it all of the sorrows of our life on earth, all its disappointments, and all that is wrong in this life of ours will be absent. In heaven we will experience nothing that has darkened our life in this world.
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 darkens life here will be removed from heaven. In v. 8 we learn that the kind of people whose presence 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 imagine your life without anything that has saddened, disappointed, or angered you. Collect your thoughts and imagine life without the curse, without the sorrows that prevail because of the curse, life without sin, without sickness, and without death. Theologians call this the via negativa, the negative way to gain an understanding of something: to remove its opposite from your mental picture. Sometimes it is easier to grasp an idea this way. What is harmony, for example? Well, it is the absence of discord. Take away discord, take away argument, take away contention, take away disagreement and you have at least a good beginning of an idea of what harmony is. There is more to harmony than simply the absence of discord, but harmony is certainly the absence of discord and it is a good way to begin to grasp the idea.
You and I think this way and imagine this way more often than we may realize. I have many times in the last few weeks imagined how things would be had Bryonie not lost her babies: what we would be planning for the summer, when their baptism would be, Florence leaving for Minneapolis, the fun of all that anticipation. But, of course, all of that is gone. But it is not hard to imagine our lives without those deaths. It is, in fact, quite easy to imagine it.
Or think of this. As with so many of our spiritual ancestors who have left us a record of their thoughts, many of us in this sanctuary have been Christians long enough and seriously enough to have discovered long ago that the sanctification, the true goodness of thought and speech and action that we long for and hope for seems further and further from us the longer we live in this sin-poisoned world. We are growing very weary of living always at the nod and beck of sin and having always to cope with and clean-up the consequences of sin, our own and that of others.
You may remember me telling you more than once before that William Law, the Anglican mystic of the 18th century, 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. Well you and I often feel the same. We find ourselves still 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 mortified by 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, our indifference to God and others. We are sick to death of being so hard-hearted, so selfish, and so stupid so much of the time!
But now apply the via negativa to your concept of heaven. Just think of your life without its many lapses. Imagine never speaking out of turn, never acting in impurity or selfishness or anger. Why we would hardly recognize ourselves! What a deliverance and an astonishment and delight and thrill and immense relief it would be just to live the life we live here without that!
And think similarly about of sin’s consequences? What, for example of death and the separations that death imposes upon us. We live in a world of death because we live in a world of sin that stands under God’s judgment because of man’s sin. I know from my own experience how the death of loved ones has profoundly diminished my life in different ways. I know it has your life as well. Think of some of the people we have lost as a congregation and how much goodness and help and joy they took with them when they left us. Some of you have lost children, I know, and some of you mothers do not live a day in this world without wondering what that child would be like were he or she to have lived. You can apply the via negativa in this way also.
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 had, by all reports, some rough edges. He was more likable than my grandmother, by almost everyone’s report, but, like all of us, 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. How much richer my life would have been, I think, had I known my grandfather and been able to talk with him as I was growing up and as I became a minister, to talk with him about his own ministry and his own experiences of serving God. But earth took that from me. So I imagine life without the limitations imposed by death. I imagine a world where none of these losses is ever suffered and everybody I have ever wanted to know I know.
And there are so many other ways to apply the via negativa to our concept of heaven. I met at Presbytery this past week a man who I have known for virtually the entire time I have served in the Presbytery, a man who was a young ruling elder in one of our churches when I first met him. Sharp – he was a CPA – funny, interested: just the sort of man you love to be around. He now has Huntington’s disease. His symptoms are the standard ones: jerky, involuntary movements and a decline in mental abilities. It is degenerative so he knows it is going to get worse and lead at last to dementia. How unbearably sad to see him sitting there, a shadow of the man I knew him to be. Nothing like that ever in heaven! That is the via negativa. Take all the bad stuff out! Imagine your life without any of the bad stuff.
Bend your imagination to that task, as I have done in just this brief 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 those burdens will be swallowed up and remembered no more.
- The second thing we are told and promised here about heaven is that it will preserve and perfect all that was wonderful about our lives in this world.
John accents the positive and spends much more of his time here in a positive description of heaven and its 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. This way of conceiving of heaven is what theologians call the via positiva. Take the very best of life here, the happiest things, the purest things, the most satisfying things, and imagine a life that is chock full of all of that and much, much more and that alone.
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 heaven and a new earth that that life is lived. We will live there as we live now, though with many differences to be sure.
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, a work we have already experienced, is described in this image of the church being prepared to meet the Lord as his bride on his wedding day. And John says that God will dwell with us there and we will be with him, which is already true of course and already the experience of God’s people in this world. But it will be much more completely and profoundly true when we are in heaven. In other words, we know something of salvation already. Heaven will be more, much more of that.
What is more, all 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. 21:24 and 26 he says that the glory and the honor of the nations will be brought into heaven and the splendor of the kings: the best of this world, that is. Think of what you expect to see there and hear there based on that prospect: the paintings of Rembrandt, the music of Bach or Mozart, or Mendelssohn, the sculpture of Michelangelo. Or perhaps not Mozart or Beethoven, perhaps that does not appeal to you. I remember a few years ago watching on PBS a retrospective program on the Beatles. And someone said that he remembered the day he first listened to the Sgt. Pepper’s album and thought how good it was to be alive to hear such music. Well, I cannot speak to his particular taste, but we all have our experiences of such beauty and their power to move and delight us and these are to help us think about heaven. Think of a heavenly evening in a celestial Piazza Navona, with the gorgeous fountains and the beautiful buildings, and there you sit in the midst of wonderful company, eating food so delicious you don’t want the meal to end, except for the fact that it must end so that you can get your gelato and walk with your friends through the beautiful streets of the city talking about the most fascinating things and breathing the pure air of God’s country.
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 one of the chief reasons we have such experiences is that they are foretastes of what heaven will always be like. Joy in this world is a message from God about the world to come.
Harry Blamires, the one time student and then colleague of C.S. Lewis, in his fine book on heaven, has a wonderful statement of this point. I have thought it one of the most profound and beautiful passages I have ever read.
“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 in 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; a list that grows longer as I live. And I find it creates the same sort of deep pleasure in the prospect of more of the same things, as Blamires’ list did for him.
- 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.
- 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.
- Or there was that charmed afternoon when I first entered and explored Ton Bolland’s antiquarian theological bookshop on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam.
- 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.
- 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.
- Also there were those first visits to the King’s College chapel in Cambridge and to Mr. Tait’s home, Guessens, in Hertfordshire.
- 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 Bechtel at the organ and a crowded sanctuary singing at full voice.
- 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.
- There was a dramatically sudden moment of illumination during graduate studies at the University of Aberdeen when light dawned in my mind touching a particular passage of God’s Word, which light has continued to illuminate the Bible for me ever since.
- 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 experience of eating, “So this is what cake is supposed to taste like!”
- Then, eleven years ago, when this 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!”
- And what of so many experiences with my children, and the literally immeasurable pleasure of seeing them fall in love, marry fine Christians, and make their way into their adulthood determined to follow the Lord.
And on and on my list goes; and yours, my brothers and sisters, would be like it, however different in its particulars. 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. Rise to look upon the life of heaven by means of the via positiva and see what you can see when your translate the very happiest moments of your life into a picture of life every day in the world to come. 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.
- 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, continues with it in vv. 22ff. when he speaks of the glory of God giving light to the city, and 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.
Are you conscious of the fact that it is only our Christian faith, only in Christianity that this prospect is set before human beings: the pure and perfect communion of the soul with the living God. It is only in the Christian gospel that salvation is understood finally to consist in the experience of a loving relationship between the individual human person and God himself. It is here that the magnificence of the Christian vision is displayed in all its wonder: God who lives forever in deeply loving and satisfying relationship himself – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – brings ordinary human beings up into that fellowship and communion and love with him. He gives himself utterly to us and we will give ourselves without qualification to him. God and I, God and you, God and us all; loving him and being loved by him with the love that God has had in himself: the Father for the Son; the Son for the Spirit; the Father for the Spirit; the Spirit for the Father and the Son. It is this radically personal knowledge of and friendship with God that is the ultimate destination of the person who is being saved. Think of what this means? Think of what it has meant to those who have had some experience of it in this world.
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 Peter, James, and John saw when they saw the Lord glorified on the top of the mountain in Galilee and their breath was taken away by the sight. We will see what Paul saw when he beheld the glory of God on the road to Damascus; a sight and a sound so transforming and enthralling that in a moment it transformed him from an enemy of Jesus Christ into someone who thought it his only passion in life to love and serve this God and Savior.
We will experience in sight and sense and the purest feeling 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, a divine presence that 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. I’m not sure he needs to worry about that. As we said last time, the absence of night in this description of heaven is a figure of speech. But take MacDonald’s point. 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.
A fear that something would catch your attention out of the corner of your eye and you would turn to find out what it is and you would miss some moment of what you would see looking into the face of Jesus Christ. Think of the women in the Gospels loving the Lord Jesus so much that they wet his feet with their tears or poured expensive perfume over his feet. They did what they could because they loved him so. And we know we are our truest selves when we feel that love for him – however weakly – in our own hearts. Now, to be honest, many of us struggle to want this as we know we should. The beatific vision doesn’t hold us in its thrall the way it has many 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. It will be heaven to be with him!
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! Wonder! That is what John is encouraging you to do. What will that life not be like? You can say a great deal about that. What will that life be like? You know a great deal about that as well. What will God and Christ be like; what will it be like to see them and know them and love them up very close and very personal? Ponder, wonder, and anticipate until your life’s motto has become that of the saintly Bonar family of Scotland:
“Denique Coelum”: Heaven at last!