Seven Letters to Seven Churches: John’s Vision of Heaven
I am very mindful that when we gather to worship on Easter Sunday morning many of you come with a fresh grief. Some of you have lost someone dear in the past, but the pain remains. I also know that others here today come with a sense of anticipated grief. A loved one is very ill, and the remaining time with the person may be short.
As Christian people we cannot say that we do not grieve because we do; however, we do not grieve as people without hope. Death is but a transition to the new and greater life beyond. We know that life itself is punctuated by death, but death is not the end. The cross was not the end for Jesus. It is because of our hope in the Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the resurrection that we celebrate today. A hymn words our hope this way: “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives, all fear is gone. Because I know he holds the future. And life is worth the living just because He lives.” We gather as Christian people today in order to acknowledge this key element, this central event, of the resurrection and to affirm our hope and faith in Christ Jesus.
A woman wrote the great evangelist Billy Graham a letter, asking, “Will my dog be in heaven?”
Billy Graham, with his usual wisdom, responded, “Madame, if that is what it takes to make you happy in heaven, your dog will be there.”
I could not think of a better answer. People have many questions and ideas about heaven. One of those questions has to do with their pets. I am not particularly attached to any dog, cat, or horse; but I know a stream is in heaven. I sure hope trout are in that stream. I suppose I will find out how to get bait when I arrive. Maybe I can just stand beside the stream and admire the trout.
Many authors have recently written books to try to help us understand heaven. Heaven Is for Real tells of a little boy’s astounding trip to heaven and back. Ninety Minutes in Heaven is a true story of death and life by Don Piper. Two others you may be familiar with are The Five People You Will Meet in Heaven by Mitch Alvin and Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin. Another is Rob Bell’s Love Wins, a very controversial book about heaven and hell and the fate of every person. Randy Alcorn’s book entitled Heaven invites the reader to visualize heaven by analyzing scriptural passages, and Hope Reynolds’ book Proof of Heaven deals with a neurosurgeon’s journey into the afterlife. The Divine Comedy, by Dante, has found renewed interest simply because it is about heaven.
I heard about a working middle-class couple that won a trip to an exotic seaside resort where they vacationed for a week at no expense to them. Every amenity was provided. After being at the resort about three days, the couple became bored and began discussing with each other how they missed their grandchildren, yard work, and friends.
What is heaven like? Is it just a place of great bliss? Is it a place where every need is met? Is it a place where we live in the lap of luxury like we have never before known? If that is the case, we would probably discover, like the couple, that that type of existence would be fairly boring. You may know Burl Ives and Woody Gutherie’s song about hobo heaven entitled “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Consider the words: “O the buzzing of the bees in the gumdrop trees/ Near the soda water fountain at the lemonade springs, /Where the bluebird sings /On the Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Is everything in heaven confection, all sugar? That might be heaven for those with diabetes in this life who long for something sweet in the next.
We all have our own ideas about heaven. For gardeners, heaven must include the opportunity to at least get their hands dirty. Maybe for craftsmen who love working with wood, it means running their hands across the smooth plank of walnut or maple and appreciating the grain. For those who like to prepare food, it includes cooking in a kitchen. I have it on pretty good authority that heaven will have banana pudding. Someone has to fix that dish.
When I think about my mother in heaven, a local restaurant having a row of rocking chairs outside on the porch comes to mind. You know the restaurant with a gift shop you must walk through in order to be seated at a dining table. Nothing would have been more like heaven for my mother than sitting in a chair and rocking babies. I am sure the folks at Cracker Barrel would appreciate that plug from me.
This Sunday we conclude our studies in the book of Revelation with John’s description of heaven. You may read the entire description of his vision in Chapter 21 and part of Chapter 22. Hear now a portion of God’s Word, taken from Revelation 21:1-6:
1Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.
This is the Word of God for the people of God.
When asked about the location of heaven, our first impulse is to point upward. We know a lot about the universe – how the earth rotates around the sun and how it spins on its own axis. We realize that if we point upward now, in exactly twelve hours we will be pointing downward. If we think of heaven as up, of hell as down, and of ourselves living somewhere betwixt and between, we basically are members of the Flat Earth Society. We know better than that.
For a description of heaven, we rely primarily on the information in Revelation 21-22. John is taken to a high place, he says, to view the new Jerusalem, described as the bride of Christ coming from heaven. Our prelude this morning was that beautiful song “The Holy City,” radiant with God’s glory. John describes the Holy City as a perfect cube because the Holy of Holies, a part in Solomon’s temple, was constructed that way. All of its dimensions – width, height, and length – were equal. Its walls, described as being 144 cubics thick, would be seventy-two yards thick. Why would John, who said he was given a golden measuring rod, use a number like that? We must take the numbers as symbolic of perfection. Twelve times twelve, which equals 144, means perfection times perfection. The city itself is described as being perfect. The passage in Revelation 21 says that the city measures 1200 stadia wide, 1200 stadia long, and 1200 stadia high. One stadia is 606 feet. Therefore the city is 1377 miles long, 1377 miles wide, and 1377 miles high – a perfect cube.
Those numbers are John’s way of saying, “This city is beyond our imagination. It is constructed in such a beautiful way that it is beyond anything we can imagine.” These symbols help us understand the magnitude of John’s vision. We also learn from John’s vision that the walls are made of jasper, and the streets are made of gold. Each of the twelve gates is a single carved pearl. Imagine a pearl large enough to serve as a gate into the new Jerusalem. We also learn that heaven has no temple, a place of mediation for God and His people, and no need for light. God Himself is with His people, and the Lamb is the light. This, of course, is where we get our ideas of streets of gold and pearly gates.
The book of Genesis tells us the story of paradise lost, and the book of Revelation tells us the story of paradise restored. The tree of life is present in both books. In fact, multiple trees of life line the stream I mentioned. We find this symbolism occurring previously in Ezekiel Chapter 47:12: “Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.” The trees themselves, always covered with fruit, symbolize God’s provision. The leaves have medicinal value for everything we could ever need. These vivid descriptions are also part of John’s vision.
What is heaven like? I saw a cartoon that depicted a fellow sitting on a cloud in heaven playing a harp. The caption read, “I wish I had thought to bring a magazine.” The implication is that just sitting on a cloud and playing a harp will not feel much like heaven to us.
What is eternal life? Is it just more and more life? Thinking of it as more of the same is not very good news. Eternal life has an eternal quality; it is life that is qualitatively different from the life we know. That eternal life begins when we accept Christ. We do not have to wait until we die to start experiencing life with this eternal quality. It is not just more and more life; it is life that is different. How that life continues beyond death is one of the great mysteries of living the Christian life. Nicholas Thomas Wright, an Anglican bishop and leading New Testament scholar, says that heaven is really God’s control room where He exercises His sovereignty.
Consider the words to the contemporary song “I Can Only Imagine,” by the group Mercy Me. This song raises the question of what heaven is like. The imagination depicted in the words is important.
Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel? Will I dance for you, Jesus, or in awe of you be still? Will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall? Will I sing hallelujah? Will I be able to speak at all? I can only imagine.
One point of emphasis that I want to make above all others on this Easter Sunday is that our thoughts about heaven depend on the way that we encounter God in this life, on the way we communicate with God through prayer.
I invite you to turn with me to Hebrews Chapter 12:1-2:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, suffered its shame, and sat down at the right hand at the throne of God.”
What is this passage describing? Think of the Olympic Games and the event of the marathon. The writer of Hebrews says that the Christian life resembles a long, grueling race. As we enter the stadium and run toward the finish line, we notice the stands filled to capacity with what the writer calls “a cloud of witnesses.” This cloud cheers us on, encouraging us to run with perseverance. You can imagine how those cheers boost a person who has run almost twenty-six miles. Even the last runner to finish appreciates the shouts of the many encouragers.
Heaven is about relationships with people who love us very much – people who have gone on before us and eagerly await our arrival. When I think about my own experience here in this life, I sometimes wonder, Can the people in heaven see what is happening down here? Of course, Scripture tells us that heaven will have no suffering, no sorrow, no mourning. Maybe those in heaven do not know everything that occurs here. Maybe they just see it from a different perspective, from the perspective of eternity; and it does not make them sad at all. They know how temporary, how transient, life on earth is. When I think about heaven and the people I love there – my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, my mom and dad, and our son – I envision them looking over the balcony and encouraging me. I take great comfort in remembering that heaven is primarily about relationships with those who love us and with those whom we love. Those relationships span this world and the next. In that sense, heaven may be much closer than we think.
Todd Jones, a friend of mine who loves to play golf, describes heaven as walking up the eighteenth fairway at the Augusta National Golf Course on the final day of the Masters. Azaleas and dogwoods are in bloom, the sky is blue, the grass is green, and a gentle breeze is blowing. As the leader of the tournament, you hear a massive gallery cheering for you to finish the course.
Right before his death I was talking with my dad about how knowing the people we love when we get to heaven is going to work.
I asked, “Dad, are you looking forward to heaven?”
He answered, “Yes, I am. I’m going to see your mother.”
My dad had two wonderful wives. After Mama’s death, he married Ruth, an excellent decision on his part.
I quizzed, “What do you plan to do when Ruth gets there?”
He replied, “Now, don’t you complicate this for me!”
I know that Dad loved both my mother and Ruth. I also know they both loved him. God has worked out an answer.
Heaven will be a place where we will know the people who love us and have an opportunity to be with them. I do not know exactly how that will work, but I am sure looking forward to that family reunion. Our Father in heaven who loves us very much eagerly awaits our arrival. It will be a wonderful opportunity to be in the presence of our heavenly Father who loves us deeply.
God actually speaks to John in our text for today.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them. ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ no more mourning or crying or pain. All of those things will pass away, and all things will be made new.”
That information refers to relationship. I can only imagine that we will see golden streets and pearly gates. We may experience no tears, no death, no mourning, no crying, and no pain; but what is more important than being with God? Perhaps you know these words to a song: “I serve a living Savior. He’s in the world today. I know that he is living, Whatever men may say. You ask me how I know he lives. He lives within my heart.”
On this Easter Sunday so many of us have lives that are still tinged with grief or lives deeply marked by recent grief. Though we live in a world of many tears and much mourning and pain, we have hope based on the Lord Jesus Christ. Through his life, Jesus taught us how to live. Through his death, Jesus broke the vicious cycle of sin and death. Through the power of his resurrection, Jesus gave us the great hope of life eternal, the hope of heaven.
Have you acknowledged Christ Jesus as your Savior? That journey begins when you accept him and invite him to be the Lord of your life. When you do that you will discover, rather gradually, that life will begin to take on an eternal quality. If you have never made the decision to accept Christ Jesus today or perhaps want to rededicate your life, we invite you to respond.Kirk H. Neely © March 2013