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Hope

What Exactly Is "Heaven"?

"Are you sure that you are going to go to heaven when you die?"  "Do you think that my dad is in heaven?"  "Do dogs go to heaven?" We sure hear questions like this a lot, but why aren't more people asking questions like, "What exactly is heaven, anyway?"  It's as if everyone has already made up their minds about what heaven is - about where it is and what they're going to find there - that they just make a huge assumption in the "what" department and focus instead on the "how".

Well, we know it's gold, right?  And that it's in space?  No, wait, there are supposed to be clouds, so it can't be in space.  And when we get there, we're going to have wings and harps...no, that's in the cartoons; it's probably nothing like that...right?

When I was younger, I had the brilliant notion that "heaven" is probably just whatever you want it to be.  And that seems to work out pretty well with most people's idea that you can get into heaven pretty much any way you want to.  You write the ticket and you design the destination!  For my part, I wanted my "heaven" to be an enormous castle filled with endless libraries of books.  I wanted all of my favorite authors to continue writing my favorite fiction series into eternity (ahem...NERD!).  The greatest eternal existence that I could imagine was that of a consumer of other people's work!  I don't think it's possible for me to be so glad about being so wrong!

So maybe it doesn't make much sense to imagine a place called "heaven" being exactly what I want it to be, and maybe it's not too smart to think that I can decide how and why I arrive at this place, but what should I think about "heaven"?  Is there some authoritative source of information somewhere on the subject?

Most people have some kind of idea that heaven has to do with God, but many never move beyond that aspect of the deal.  When we do something that our conscience tells us is wrong, we feel guilty - like God is not pleased - and we subsequently feel that these actions may jeopardize our chances of making it to heaven.  Alternately, when we do something that we feel good about - something that makes us proud of ourselves - we think that these actions may commend us in some way to God, and heaven looks a lot more like a sure bet.

Once again, the problem with all of these notions is that they all come from our own feelings.  And though most folks like to decide a great deal of things based on what just "feels right" to them, we also have this nagging doubt that says, "What if I'm wrong?"

So let's look beyond ourselves for a moment and ask what the Bible teaches about "heaven".  The Bible is a book that claims to come from God (2 Peter 1:21).  So if God has something to say about what "heaven" is and how a person goes about getting there, we'll probably find it in the Bible.

The first thing that we discover that might be kind of surprising is that the word "heaven" in the Bible literally just means "sky".  The Bible uses the Hebrew word 'shamayim' and the Greek word 'ouranos' exactly the same way that we use 'heavens' in the plural.  The Bible doesn't contain phrases like, "How can I get to heaven?" or "By doing these things, you can go to heaven."  In fact, it hardly ever talks about "heaven" as a place that people go at all (except for a couple of brief mentions of prophets who saw the earth from high above during some important visions, and one other example that I will cite below).

So where did this notion of "heaven" as our eternal home come from anyway?  We can find in the Bible promises of eternal life to those who believe in Jesus Christ (John 3:16), but then we also see that people who believe in Jesus die just like everyone else.  So, did they get their eternal life in some other state somewhere else, or was that promise put on hold until a later date, or what?  Paul gives the best explanation in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God,who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

This is most likely where the common notion of "heaven" comes from.  If our body dies ("is destroyed"), then we have a house not made with hands "eternal in the heavens".  It is important to understand that this is not talking about a literal house that we are going to inherit in the sky, however.  It is referring to the fact that the true life of the believer is inChrist, and that during the time between when this physical body dies and when it is raised again incorruptible by Jesus, we will be "at home with the Lord".

According to the Bible, eternal life is not about a place (and certianly not a place of our own imagining!).  Rather, it is about a person: Jesus.  How many people do you think there are that either expect or desire to go to "heaven" who don't care the first thing about Jesus Christ?  And if a person doesn't really care much about Jesus - can't be bothered to come to a worship service, ignores the Bible, and spurns His commands - then what makes you think that person will actually wantthe eternal life that He offers?  After all, the Biblical notion of eternal life is full of exactly those things: worship (Revelation 22:3), learning more about God (1 Corinthians 13:12), and eternal sinless obedience (Romans 6:17-22)!

So rather than thinking of "heaven" or the "afterlife" as being whatever we want it to be, the Bible paints for us a much less "us-centered" picture.  Eternal life is not made-to-order.  Eternal life isJesus Christ!  He is "the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25) and "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6)!  Don't settle for a future hope filled with anything less than the God who created everything.  Castles full of stories cannot compare to the presence of the Author of all stories - and the Inventor of pleasure itself.  Set you faith on Him, and put your hope in Him, and trust Him to bring you home to where He is, and let that be what excites you most: Him.

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength."

Tangled Not

There's a great scene at the beginning of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation where Clark Griswold hands his son a giant knotted ball of Christmas lights and says, "You work on that."  And that moment is so funny because one look at that ridiculous clot of lights is enough to tell anyone that there is no chance of ever getting that particular mess untangled. Our family used to pray for a woman whose life's story was very similar to that titanic knot.  The lady had so much going wrong for her that there we literally couldn't pray for her anything more specific than "God, please just fix that disaster!"  There was just nothing else that we could say!  In our limited minds, there seemed to be no way to unravel all of the difficulties that she had landed herself in.  If she was going to get out of all of that, God was just going to have to graciously step in and set it right.

That's also the way that many of us think about the country that we live in.  This place is a mess!  Not only do we have two completely terrible candidates running for the presidency at this moment in time, but the whole governmental system here in the United States is built whole-cloth out of man-centered and unbiblical ideas.  Human government exists to uphold and enforce God's Law, but in our land things that should be abominations are not even crimes.  In other cases, minor transgressions are punished far too harshly, and some major transgressions aren't given near enough penalty.  Instead of rewarding the right and punishing the evil (Romans 13:3-4), the state eschews its most important God-given role to instead to to be the savior of the people, providing care for widows and orphans, feeding the hungry with welfare, healing the sick with healthcare laws, and numerous other things that were never given to the state to take care of.  And because the state handles so many of these functions, the church - the entity that was given much of that responsibility - neglects them.

Like I said, it's a mess.  The knot is twisted up so bad, I don't even really know where to start praying.  How do you pull one strand without tightening the ball somewhere else?  In fact, it seems so bad that we may sometimes think that even God would have to do a lot of work to straighten it out!  And because we think this way, we pray really small prayers - like, "God, please let this conservative candidate win the election so that this one small area might possibly get a little bit better."

The reality is, though, that solving the problem is actually nothing to an infinite and all-powerful God!  Think about it like this: the solution to all of the world's problems - and by extension, our own nation's - is the Gospel.  What men really need is to know the Truth about who rules the universe and they need the salvation from their sin that the Gospel provides.  And for that Gospel to transform this world, what is really required is for God's people to be obedient to preach it to every creature under heaven (Mark 16:15).  So we need believers to do what they're supposed to do, but God is the One who gives the courage and the energy to do so (Philippians 2:13)!  In addition, as we plant the seed of the Word, God has to give the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6).  It is the outpouring of His Spirit - which He controls - that removes hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).

And since God is infinitely all-powerful, for Him to pour forth the kind of energy required to solve all of the world's problems with the Gospel would not be difficult in the slightest.  The sun doesn't have to work to shine like it does.  Instead, it takes work to hold back those glorious rays!  What that tells me is that God is not frustrated by the current state of our nation or even our individual lives - to bring it down to a more personal level.  He must have all of these things exactly where He wants them, because it would be a release to just let His glory transform the universe into His image.

And of course, that is exactly what He tells us in His Word.  He says, "we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Romans 5:3-5).  He also says that "The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of Yahweh; He turns it wherever He will" (Proverbs 21:1).  "He changes times and seasons; He removes kings and sets up kings" (Daniel 2:21).

God allows this giant knot to exist for His glory, but He can unravel it just by letting go and letting His power pour forth!  So when we pray for the situations that we are in, and when we pray for the nation and the world that we live in, be sure to remember that God doesn't have to work through these petty human-centered structures that we have set up.  Pray like Jesus taught us to pray: say, "Your Kingdom come; Your will be done!"  Don't settle for praying for anything less than that!  If you can't see how He could possibly do it, then don't worry!  That's just because we are all pathetically limited creatures!  But put your trust in His ability to make all things right rather than in some man to possibly, maybe, perhaps be able to make a little bitty change in what might be the right direction.

Hope for Sinners

Most Bible readers are very familiar with the many, many sins of the northern kingdom of Israel in the Old Testament.  That nation did not have a single godly king.  They were constantly whoring themselves to pagan idols and to the two golden calves of Jeroboam son of Nebat.  Their rulers consistently ignored the Word of Yahweh, delivered to them by such prophets as Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea, Jonah, and Nahum.  It was a despicable land full of rebellion, and yet God showed them mercy time and time again.

Now Hazael king of Syria oppressed Israel all the days of Jehoahaz.  But Yahweh was gracious to them and had compassion on them, and He turned toward them, because of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them, nor has He cast them from his presence until now. (2 Kings 13:22-23)

I had to highlight the above passage in my Bible this morning.  Upon reading it, I was struck with the profound magnitude of God's mercy and grace: that His patience would yet extend to this spiritually adulterous people because of a covenant made long before.

Not only that, but this passage is especially encouraging to me because I am a sinner.  Just as the northern kingdom of Israel provoked God's wrath time and time again, so have I done.  At times it seems to me that there can be no patience left with God toward my sin.  And then I read of how God put up with these Old Testament sinners for generations upon generations because of a covenant made with some men hundreds of years before, and I remember that there is a greater covenant of which I am a part.

This New Covenant is spoken of often in both Old and New Testaments, but for the purposes of this hope that I am exploring, I want to look at just one reference:

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. (John 6:37)

The covenant that God the Father has made concerning me and concerning all born again believers was not simply made with some mere human.  He covenanted with His own Son - His Image, His glory, and the exact imprint of His nature (Hebrews 1:3) - to save those whom He chose and predestined to save (Ephesians 1:4-5).  Our names were written in a book from before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8).  He has given us as a bride for His Son, and all those whom He has given will come to Him, and those who come to Him He will never cast out (John 6:37)!

And so here is hope: not in our own ability to walk perfectly before the Lord, but in His ability to keep us in spite of our sin and to present us blameless before the presence of His glory with great joy (Jude 24).  He extends patience and mercy and grace and blessing not because of goodness in us, but because of His decision to save us and His covenant to do so.  This is the only hope that I have - the only hope that anyone can have - that we belong to Him and that He will not let us be snatched out of His hand (John 10:28).