“The Four Last Things: Heaven (1)” October 2, 2011
We are in the middle of s sermon series called
The Four Last Things—Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven.
I’ve told you that the phase—The Four Last Things—
is a very old way of summarizing that branch of theology called eschatology—
the doctrine of last things.
What is going to happen at the end of my life as an individual?
What is going to happen at the end of the world? Of human history?
Those are not hypothetical questions. Very practical.
The way you answer them will determine the way you live every day.
We spent two Sundays on hell, and we’re going to spend two on heaven.
Both this Sunday and the next, going to read the most important passage
about heaven in the Bible—Revelation 21 and first six verses of 22.
It’s longer than our usual Bible reading, but it’s magnificent.
INTRO: What is heaven? The Children’s Catechism says:
“A glorious and happy place where the righteous live forever with the Lord.”
That’s a good answer, but it doesn’t tell us much.
And more importantly, it doesn’t move us and stir our imaginations.
It doesn’t get us thinking and planning for heaven.
That’s the challenge of heaven for Christians. The challenge is not believing in it.
Most people believe in heaven—even many non-Christians.
The challenge is believing in it so vividly, that it affects your life now.
I’d like to start our study of heaven with an imaginative exercise.
You’re going to have to engage with me on this, join in with your mind’s eye.
This afternoon you get a phone call from your rich uncle in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
Maybe you don’t have a rich uncle in Pascagoula—but just imagine you do.
He’s a life-long bachelor and you are his favorite niece or nephew.
Uncle says: I’ve been thinking.
I don’t want to wait till I die to give you what I have planned.
I want you to get it while I’m still alive so I can see you enjoy it.
I’ve got to make some financial arrangements and finish some things,
but in about a year—Let’s just put a date on it, let’s say October 1, 2012,
I’m going to give you about $5 million.
I wanted you to know ahead of time so it wouldn’t catch you off guard,
and you could start to make plans, so you would know this is coming.
You hang up the phone and tell your spouse—You aren’t going to believe this.
That was Uncle Joe from Pascagoula and he’s giving me $5 million in a year.
Now, here’s my question, would you think about that promise very often
over the course of the next year? Would it in any way color your view of life?
I’m sure there would be times when you didn’t think about it—
In the rush of the morning when you were getting the kids off to school.
In the middle of a very busy project at work.
But you would find yourself often thinking about it.
At odd times during the day. In your bed at night.
When your work was hard, you would think about it.
You might say to yourself, I’m quitting this job in a year.
Or you might say, I don’t mind the pressure at work as much any more because
my livelihood doesn’t depend on it. I actually enjoy my work more than ever.
When you got an unexpected expense that wrecked budget, it wouldn’t throw you.
You would say: I can’t afford that now but I’m not worried.
I’ll do what I have to do and know that in a year, everything taken care of.
When you saw people in financial need, you would start to think—
Won’t it be fun to help them without them even knowing.
I’ll have to figure out a way to do that.
When you looked at your children and thought about their future, you would be
thinking hard about how best to make this wealth a blessing and not a curse.
For that whole year you would feel rich, even though you weren’t—yet.
The promise of your inheritance would color your outlook on life.
I’m sure you can see where I am going with this—the promise of heaven.
In the Bible, heaven is the goal to which everything points.
Christ came into this world and suffered and died so we could go to heaven.
When he comes again in glory it will be to take us to heaven.
Living with Christ and communion with the Father and Holy Spirit in heaven
is the great object of our salvation.
Before he left, Jesus said,
“I go to prepare a place for you, so that where I am you may be also.”
Heaven is not an afterthought in the Bible. It’s the grand purpose and climax.
Without heaven, the whole meaning of life for Christians crumbles.
If there is no resurrection and heaven, the Bible says, we are to be pitied.
And it is God’s will that you live every day with the prospect of heaven.
That you often have happy thoughts and plans about what God has in store.
Because if you do, it will color your life now.
It will make you into a certain kind of person.
Hebrews 11, faith chapter, tells us that men and women of faith were looking for
the heavenly country, city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
That is how they conquered kingdoms, administered justice, shut lions mouths,
and that is how some faced jeers and flogging, were chained, stoned, put to death.
The promise of heaven, the vivid sanctified imagination animated them.
That’s how is should be with us. Revelation 21 helps us imagine heaven.
The prospect of heaven, a vivid longing and imagination of heaven will make you
1. patient, 2. joyful, and 3. unafraid.
Let’s look at each.
MP#1 The prospect of heaven will make you patient.
Because heaven will make up for all the disappointments of life in this world.
All the ravages of our life on earth, all the shortcomings, all the sorrows,
all the wrongs, all the disappointments will be made up for and set right.
And there will be no more such things.
Verse 4 says that in heaven every tear will be wiped away.
Does that mean there will be no tears at all in heaven, no sorrow of any kind?
I don’t think so. There will have to be some tears in heaven.
When we see Jesus, and see the scars in his hands and feet and side—
we will certainly remember our own sins and grieve the suffering we caused him.
Our hearts will be pure in heaven. And a person will a pure heart will certainly
weep with gratitude and grief at Christ’s suffering.
So what does this mean, that God will wipe away every tear?
Next line explains: “And there will be no more death, mourning, crying, or pain.”
Everything that spoils life here will be removed in heaven.
Verse 8 tells us that there are certain people who are banned from it.
The cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral,
those who practice magic arts, idolaters, and all liars.”
How often is life here spoiled by evil people, not ever again in heaven.
22:2 tells us that there is a tree of life with leaves for the healing of the nations.
All the sorrows and pain caused by the problems of nations healed!
And then there is a remarkable statement right after that in verse 3:
“No longer will there be any curse.”
One way to envision heaven is simply to remove everything that spoils life.
Imagine your life without any sorrows caused by the curse—no sin, no death.
I believe in sanctification. But the longer I am a Christian, the more regrets I have.
The more I’m demoralized at times by my self-righteousness, my laziness, my
impurity, my lack of sympathy for other people and lack of love for God.
I hate having to cope with the consequences of sin in my life and in lives of others.
I dread having to deal with the consequences of sin in the church.
It’s harder for me the longer I’m a pastor.
How will it be to suddenly find ourselves in a life where we are
completely free from sin, and holy in attitude, speech, and behavior?
Holy as God is holy. Holy like Jesus Christ.
What a thrill it will be to mingle with Christian friends and never again deal
with the poison of sin. How satisfying that will be.
No sin and no death either.
Think of the gaping holes death has left in your life.
Think of the people we have lost even in the short years of Christ Covenant
and how much our congregation would have benefited if we still had them.
I think of Woody Woods, Ben Hooks, Jeff Duke, Gloria Edwards, Paula Linholm—
they were all pillars in our body, and we are diminished without them.
And think of people you’ve never known because of death.
Mothers who have lost children always wonder what that child have been like
if he or she had lived—what blessings and joys would have brought to life.
I never really knew my grandfather on my mother’s side. Just vague recollections.
I wish I knew him because he was a Presbyterian minister.
I have some books that belonged to him, some commentaries. Every so often I’ll
find notes penciled in margins. I’ll read them and try to get a sense of the man.
He was a loved and respected pastor. Long pastorates in Hattiesburg and Atlanta.
My mother said he also had a temper. She can remember car rides as a child
when he would swing his fist over the back seat and try to hit them.
When I get to know him, there won’t be any of that.
If you spend time thinking about how heaven will make up and set right all the
disappointments of life—then you will become a more patient person.
Go back to your Uncle Joe from Pascagoula.
Doesn’t his promise enable you to be patient with your financial struggles?
Doesn’t just a few minutes of imagining October 1 next year calm you down?
Well so it is with heaven, looming over every sorrow, every disappointment,
every dream deferred, every unfulfilled longing.
It has the ability to overwhelm those things so that with patience you can say—
just a little bit longer and the Lord will make up for all this.
There’s an old English hymn that says:
“My trials may deepen, my comforts may flee;
I’m rich amid ruin with heaven and Thee!”
Is the prospect of heaven real in your heart?
To the degree it is, to that
degree you will be patient in trials.
MP#2 The prospect of heaven will make you joyful.
We’ve talked about the bad things of life caused by sin and the curse.
But by God’s grace, there are still good things in this life.
And John wants us to see that all the good things we enjoy,
are foretastes and anticipations of heaven.
The Bible teaches there is a direct relationship between this world and the next.
The life that we live in the new heavens and new earth will be a real human life.
It will not be floating on clouds, playing harps. We will live then as we live now.
There will be certainly be profound differences that will amaze and delight us.
But it will be this world restored. It will be us, ourselves, made new.
Heaven will be all the goodness of life perfected and forever.
In 21:2 John sees Jerusalem as a bride coming down out of heaven,
beautifully dressed for her husband. We’ve all seen that.
Throughout the New Testament, the sanctification of our lives
and the work of the Holy Spirit within us is described with this image.
The church being prepared for heaven as the Lord’s spotless bride.
You know what it is like to get those moments of real communion with God.
Those rare times when you experience delight in holy things, closeness to God.
Those are just flashes of heaven.
John doesn’t stop there, throughout these two chapters he describes heaven
with the most costly and beautiful things—
gold, pearls, emeralds, sunshine, clear running water, leafy trees.
In other words, heaven is the most precious things of creation.
He describes heaven as a beautiful city and he says in verse 26 that the glory
and honor of the nations will be brought into that city. What does that mean?
It means that the very best of everything that mankind has produced
will somehow be brought into heaven.
The best music, the best art, the best science, and the best architecture,
the best sports, the best ideas—all that is truly wonderful and good—
will somehow be brought into heaven, and be part of the new creation.
John is telling us: If you want to catch a glimpse of heaven, think of those
experiences of your life when you were happy beyond words.
In this fallen world, those moments may be few and far between—
but they are important, because they are foretastes of what heaven be like always.
The Old Testament saints understood this. They understood the milk and honey
of the Promised Land were pointers to the heavenly country.
Anglican theologian Harry Blamires put it this way:
“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.”
Think of your own good memories. Times you were overwhelmed, even if just
for a moment with happiness and goodness. Those were heavenly moments.
Those were foretastes of heaven. I have my own list of foretastes to heaven.
The most beautiful picnic of my life, summer of 1997.
Allison, Adrienne, Eliza and I were in a meadow outside Aspen.
Before us some jagged, snow-covered peaks called the Maroon Bells.
Allison was expecting number three. She was 31, glowing with motherly beauty.
We laid on a blanket and gazed at the mountains. Our little girls picked flowers.
It was heavenly. I have a picture, and barely day goes by I don’t look at it.
Five years ago, when Christ Covenant gave us a trip to NYC for my 10th
anniversary as pastor, we went to Redeemer Presbyterian Church to hear
one of my favorite preachers, Dr. Tim Keller.
We sat on the second row and heard him open the Word of God to us.
It was heavenly. I tried to take a picture to remember the moment,
but Allison hissed at me to put the camera away. But still, it was heavenly.
I could tell others. And I know you have your own list. This is the point:
In all these heavenly moments of our lives here on earth there is a glimmer of a
greater life—the happiness, the beauty, the feasting. And then they are gone.
But in heaven, those moments will be life.
All the best life has ever been, is what heaven will be like always for believers.
Call to mind your heavenly moments
and then try imagine what Christ has planned for you.
If you believe in heaven, it will make you a joyful person.
Joy is not constant laugher and cheerfulness, it’s a deep well of assurance
in the goodness of God and the goodness of his future for you,
that keeps you green and fresh, even when all around you life is dry.
Think about it, if you know that all the goodness you have experienced
in life will be drawn together and perfected, how can you not be joyful?
MP#3 The prospect of heaven will make you unafraid.
The heart and soul of heaven will be perfect communion with God.
That expectation of happiness and communion with God will make you
unafraid, confident, even expectant in the hour of your death.
In John’s vision, our communion with God is repeated over and over—
“the dwelling of God is with men and he will live with them.”
“God himself will be with them.”
“God himself will wipe every tear from their eyes.”
Won’t that be overwhelming?
Christ wiping the tears from your cheeks with his scarred hands.
There is no sun or moon there to give light—why?
Because the glory of God is its light. The Lamb is its lamp.
There is no temple there—why?
Because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.
And John says that we will see his face, his name will be on our foreheads.
There is in this repeated theme the sense of welcome, of communion,
of coming home, of arriving at the place we’ve been looking for all our lives.
And there to welcome us, and bless us is the Lord himself.
As you imagine that, and long for it, then you will face the end with confidence.
And if you are unafraid of death, then you shouldn’t fear anything at all.
A person who really believes God’s promise of heaven cannot face the end
without anticipation and peace. Because he is going home.
She is going where she has always wanted to be.
And people who have truly pondered their death, faced it, meditated on it—
and wondered at heaven that follows it, will be unafraid.
I read a sermon series on heaven by Dr. Robert Rayburn.
We’ve used his sermons for our adult bible fellowship in the past.
He’s the pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington.
In one of his sermons, he recounts the death of his sister.
I have told many of you of the last moments of my sister, Bronwyn’s, life. She had been failing and everyone knew she was about to die of the cancer that had afflicted her for the last two years of her life. A few minutes from the end she began struggling to breathe. Her lungs were filling up with fluid as happens at that hour. She cried out a number of times “Help me; Help me; Help me;” and one could hear the fluid coming up in her lungs and see the color leave her face; though just before that her face and been hot and sweaty. Those who were there say that was a horrible moment.
Then her husband and her daughter helped her sit up straighter in bed to help her breathe – the gurgling dissipated somewhat. Her daughter said, “you wanted to help her somehow clear her throat.” I have thought that this drowning that is so characteristic of cancer deaths is, for a Christian, just like the immortal scene in Pilgrim’s Progress when Christian goes into the river and begins to drown and then is lifted up by Hopeful. Bronwyn’s head was turned toward Linnea, her daughter, and Linnea said to her, “This is your very own Pilgrim’s Progress – your crossing the river –.You get to do it first.” Then she told her that “You're going to see, Samantha and Papa.” [Samantha was her stillborn daughter and Papa was our father who had died some six years before.]
Bronwyn seemed to be trying to speak. Then Bronwyn said, in a clear voice, loud enough for anyone in the room to hear – though before for the last few days one had to have one’s ear at her mouth to hear anything she might try to say – “Everybody’s here. Jesus is here. Samantha is here. Paul, Mark, Joshua.” Linnea said, “Joshy is next to you.” She shook that off, as if to say she didn’t mean her son Joshua.
She kept saying “Hallelujah” and “Everybody’s here.” The sense of some in the room was that she was not speaking to those in the room but to those she had named who were before her eye. This period of her speaking lasted only a few minutes; the inflection in her voice, everything was different. She hadn’t been able to make herself understood all day. One woman who was at the bedside said, “She looked like a child.” Later someone added “and full of wonder” like a child who had just walked into a toy store. She also kept saying, “I need to hurry.”
The remarkable thing, the shocking thing to everyone was that she had wind to talk like that.
She wasn't even breathing that hard. A window of a few minutes, nothing more. As they laid her back on the bed, she did not return to the struggle to breathe, but took shorter gasps further apart until the breathing stopped completely. This was a process of only a few minutes. After she died some fluid came out of her mouth, indicating how completely her system had been flooded and how remarkable that she had been able to give full voice to speaking about what she was seeing.
Now I don’t claim to be able to interpret all of that for you in any way you are obliged to accept. But there is nothing in that wonderful experience at the end of my sister’s life that is not first and foremost in the Bible, the Word of God. Nobody will fear to step into the river who sees that wonderful crowd beckoning on the other side with Jesus himself in the midst of them. We all wish that we could see the other side when we must step out of this world. But, you see, we can! Faith can see it, can see heaven itself, can see the cloud of witnesses, can see the Lord Jesus with outstretched arms. Heaven is our future if we are in Christ, but it is also very much for our present. Heavenly-mindedness will do wonders for our earthly life. It will if we take heaven to heart and believe it, actively believe it, day by day.
Do you believe in heaven?
I know you do. But do you think on it? Do you image it?
Does the thought of it in the midst of life make you patient, joyful, unafraid?
This Sunday you’ve gotten a phone call—
not from your rich uncle, telling you about a little money.
But you’ve gotten a call from your heavenly Father, and from your elder brother,
a call from the Holy Spirit through John’s revelation saying—
In just a little while, very soon, things are even now being arranged.
Goodness, life, affirmation.
As you take Communion today, and as you drink the cup—
Remember the Lord’s words: I will not drink this cup again until I drink it
anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.
Let that promise move you and animate you.