My dad died from a very unusual and rare disease called Shy Drager syndrome. It’s sort of a combination of Lou Gehrig’s, MS, and Parkinson’s disease. And so the last few years of his life, you watched him deteriorate and lose mobility, be in a wheelchair, and then into a bed.
My dad came to Christ in his fifties and was, had a thorough relationship with Jesus. But as he was ending the end of his life, you know, when you have a son who is a pastor, you expect him to know some things.
And so I’m sitting next to his bed and it’s a time where he is really getting less and less and less mobile and he can’t get up and he just confides in me, he says, “I’m afraid to die.” And he said, “I know I have a relationship with God, I know my sins are forgiven, but when I think about heaven, it’s just a blank. It’s just odd. It’s just different. It’s just, I don’t get it. And all that unknown, that sort of vague sense of, you go somewhere and, you know, I get Jesus is going to be there and the alternative is not good. But I’m afraid.”
And I remember realizing his son, who is a pastor, couldn’t say, “Oh, Dad, no, this is what heaven is like and this is specifically what will happen and this is what you’ll experience,” and like I probably could on a number of other issues. Because I realized I had never studied heaven.
In fact, I realized that in seminary we didn’t study heaven much. And I gave my dad a book and I’ll tell you a little bit later about the impact that that book, in terms of his life and his heart.
But as we start this study about heaven, I can tell you, in advance, it’s not what you think. In fact, let me ask you this, just a little inventory before we get going. How often do you think about heaven? Have you thought about heaven yet today? This week, how many times did you think, “Oh yeah, heaven, heaven, future.”
If I asked you, what are the three main things that happen in heaven, I mean, other than maybe some singing, what would it be? If you met a little boy that’s ten, eleven years old with Leukemia and was going to die, and he looked you in the eyes and said, “Will you explain to me exactly what heaven is like and what it’s going to be like? Because I really want to be there.” What would you say to him?
And what I can tell you is, for most of us, we don’t know. I mean, archeologists have studied every culture in the world and here is what I can tell you about every culture in all mankind, there’s an absolute conviction of an afterlife.
And whether it’s painting on caves thousands of years ago or whether it’s tombs with treasures or whether it’s some story, in almost every culture about when people are good, after they die, some good things happen to them. And people that are evil, some terrible things happen to them. All across the board, God says, “Eternity has been planted in the heart of mankind.”
And so what we’re going to do is we’re going to study, “What’s heaven like?” Not what books say, not what movies say, not what we’ve heard, not what we might unconsciously think, but what does God say heaven is like? Are you ready?
Why study heaven? I want to give you three compelling reasons. Reason number one is our misconceptions are crippling us. We have some false thinking, some misconceptions about heaven. For example, we have a misconception, we think we can’t know much about heaven. It’s mysterious, it’s all just about, you know, floating clouds.
And people will quote a verse in I Corinthians 2 that says, “Eye hasn’t seen or ear heard or entered into the heart of man all the good that God has stored up for those who love Him.” And they say, “See, you can’t know what’s going to happen.” And the name of that song, “I Can Only Imagine.”
Now let me tell you for sure, you can only imagine because it’s way beyond what we could comprehend. But the very next verse in context says, “But we have the mind of Christ.” And actually the Bible is very clear about what heaven is but I will tell you, it’s different than most of us think it is.
Another misconception is that it’s an other-worldliness, it’s these disembodied spirits floating around, playing harps in eternity, earning our wings. There are angels. Every movie, you know, you can never see people’s feet, there’s always the fog machines going on and there’s floating clouds and people are in white and it’s ethereal.
And I don’t know about you but part of that sounds attractive for a half hour or maybe forty-five minutes or, I think worship pastors are going to love it. But if heaven, misconception number three, is one very, very, very long church service, it might be really boring.
I actually have read in a book where a pastor, a Bible believing pastor, actually confided in another pastor, “You know what? If it’s just one really long church service, I want to be with Jesus and I want my sins forgiven but I’m not sure I just want to actually go to heaven.”
I’ve talked to people when they’re young and we talk about the return of Christ or what would happen if you died? I’ve had people say, “I don’t want Jesus to come back until I get married. I haven’t even had sex yet!” Or I’ve talked to an elderly couple who were two or three years away from this big moment and they’re going to go to Hawaii, “I don’t want Jesus to come back because we haven’t even gone to Hawaii yet!” In other words, “We don’t know what heaven is like but it can’t be better than marriage, sex, or Hawaii.”
I mean, that’s kind of a limited view, don’t you think? Those misconceptions then lead to some predictable results. One, we have a very temporal perspective instead of an eternal perspective. There’s a reason why the church, the old word used to be “worldly,” we live for the now.
The first two millennia of the church, heaven was a central topic. Teaching was paramount about heaven and hell and judgment and clarity and what it would be like. And in the last hundred years, as I’ll share in a minute, there’s been very little teaching on heaven, let alone the new heaven and the new earth.
Second is since we don’t know what heaven is like, we don’t study it much, we don’t think about it much. I mean, when I meet people that have cancer, when I talk to people with debilitating diseases, when I go into Third World countries where situations are very, very difficult, they actually think a lot about heaven. Most of us don’t.
Heaven holds very little hope or peace or that longing for home. You know that sense that, for some of you that travel, travel, travel, travel and you’ve been on planes in different countries and, you know, you finally get home and you lay in your own bed for one night and you get up the next morning, you go, “It is so good to be home.” Multiply that infinitely, that’s what heaven is going to be like.
But most people, it doesn’t create any longing or any hope. I gave this book, probably the most definitive work in recent years, Heaven by Randy Alcorn. But he literally read a hundred and forty books, all written within the last two hundred years, on heaven, then studied all the Bible, and then compiled it and put it together and came to the conclusion, “I never heard any of this.” That’s the book I gave my dad.
He read it when he could, by himself, for a while and then he got where he really couldn’t sit up and read very well. His wife, that was a pretty thick book, she read it out loud to him. And I’ll never forget, it was a few months later and I came back and the days were getting really close and we knew he wouldn’t live long and my dad went through horrendous times as a young man in World War II and some other issues. And he was paralyzed, most of his life, by fear.
I don’t know if any of you had World War II dads but I would remember every night my dad would get up and he’d check all the locks in the house. Twenty minutes later, he’d get up and check all the locks in the house. And you’re thinking, “They were locked the last time.”
But he had been through so much, he lived with overwhelming fear. And I remember a nurse came in and, he had read this book on heaven and she was talking to him about what they might do and could they extend his life and resuscitation and he couldn’t move his legs now.
And he turned to her and said, “Lady, no matter what you do, don’t use any extreme means, don’t resuscitate me, don’t put any feeding tubes down me, here’s what I want you to know, it’s all written down, I’m going to heaven and it’s great.” When you understand what heaven really is, it changes how you live life now.
In fact, that’s why, the second reason we need to study it, are you ready for this? We’re commanded! I mean, this isn’t a suggestion. We’re commanded to think about heaven.
Colossians 3. Follow along as I read. “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ,” in other words, you’re a Christian. You have died with Him, you’ve been raised up with Him. “Keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”
Notice this command: “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.” Why? “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.”
A lot of the issues, a lot of the anxiety, a lot of the lack of peace that we as Christians have, a lot of the temptations that we struggle with, if we had a crystal clear picture of not this floating around in clouds and maybe playing some harps or some boring forever church service, which is completely different from what the Bible teaches, we would have a longing for heaven and it would allow us this eternal perspective to make wiser priority decisions now.
In fact, the final reason is not just the misconceptions and not simply it’s commanded, but our faulty view of heaven destines us to a wasted life on earth. Ooh, think of that. Now, if that’s true, that’s strong. A faulty view of heaven destines us to a wasted life on earth.
Open your Bibles if you will, gospel of John. Go ahead, just open right there in the middle. I want to give you a little context as you find it. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, right there in the middle of the New Testament.
Now, Jesus has come and selected twelve, one has betrayed Him by now. In John chapter 13 He has washed their feet, they have had the Lord’s Supper. This is His last night on the earth, He’s got eleven committed guys, about a hundred and twenty people that are semi-committed that when He is resurrected they’ll at least get on the team.
And He has one final night to talk to a group of people and the God of the universe, who made all that there is, who has taken on human flesh, lived a perfect life, He’s going to die for the sins of all people of all time, three days later He’s going to rise from the dead, and He’s preparing these eleven guys, mostly blue collar workers, to transform the world. What’s He going to tell them? What’s He going to tell them?
He knows they’re going to be rejected, He knows that every single one of them, save one, will be martyred for the message and the mission. And the one that isn’t martyred ends up on a rock writing the book of Revelation. He realizes they’re going to have to have courage and be sustained through the most difficult times.
They’re going to live in a world where there is persecution in Rome, where there is immorality like the world has never known, where there’s a different god on every corner. And so this is what He says to them, chapter 14. “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house there are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place,” a specific place, “for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you,” notice, here’s the key, “I will come again, I will receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.”
What He understood was a crystal clear view, not of floating around, not of playing harps, not of some ethereal experience, but a crystal clear view of what heaven is like, and that new heaven on a new earth with real relationships and specifically what it’s like, would sustain them through the most difficult time in all of human history. And they persevered because they were waiting and living for, Hebrews says, “A city” that God was building. But they actually had this sense of the future that was clear and tangible and real and attractive.
Can I just, a quick one? How many people have heard a sermon on heaven before? Wow. Three, four hands. Now think of that. Well, first of all, the Father of Lies wants us to get sucked into a world system that he is behind. So you know he’s behind this.
Second, somewhere along the line, and it happens, study church history, you have centuries that bleed this way and they focus on a few things and to the neglect of this. And then the pendulum swings back a couple centuries and you see this.
What I have here is nearly every pastor in America, these are classic theology books. Every pastor that teaches like I teach has these. Here is a six volume by Schaeffer, six volumes, see all these volumes in red? There are two pages on the new heaven and the new earth. This is Berkhof, classic, Systematic Theology, seven hundred and thirty-seven pages, there’s one page on the new heaven, the new earth.
This is called, this is Baxter’s Explore the Book, that’s a thick book, there’s about four pages near the end. Hodge has three volumes, he has three pages on the new heaven and the new earth. And Ryrie who was one of my professors, who talks very clearly about all the End Times and Tribulation and mid and post and all the issues, you get to the new heaven and the new earth and it’s not included.
We haven’t taught people in seminaries about the new heaven and the new earth and what heaven is really like, so pastors haven’t taught it to the people and so most people… Why in the world does the church so gravitate toward “now” is all that matters? I gotta get it now. I deserve a break today. Right now is the only thing that counts. Why do our priorities get so skewed? Why is temptation so hard to resist?
I’m going to suggest that unlike the early apostles, and unlike the first two millennia of the Church, we really have no idea what heaven is really like.
So let’s dig in. A theology of heaven, do a little research together. The word “heaven,” if you’re just opening your Bible and you read the word “heaven,” there are three different ways that it’s used.
Sometimes the word “heaven” literally means just the atmosphere or the sky. Okay? I mean, it’s the heaven. Sometimes the word “in heaven” is used as the stars and the galaxies. The third use of “heaven” is the “abode of God.” In other words, it’s where God is. It’s where God hangs out. It’s a specific place.
If you open up to the book of Revelation and you read chapter 4 and chapter 5 and it has the throne and the elders and literally what theologians call that, the “intermediate heaven.” We’ll talk about that in a minute. But that’s where God is, the abode of God, heaven.
So just to get our terms straight, we’re going to talk about the third phrase. Notice, I just did a little topical study for you, The Promise of Heaven, and this would be a lot of fun for you. Take fifteen or twenty minutes each morning and just look up these verses. Heaven seems to be very important to God, even though we don’t know much about it.
Let me just go through. According to the Scripture, here’s some promises related to heaven. It’s a real, tangible place, John 14. The Father is there, Matthew 6. Remember? “Our Father who art in heaven.” Jesus is at His right hand, Hebrews 9. Believing loved ones are there, Hebrews 12. Our names are recorded there, Luke 10. We have an inheritance, next week we’re going to talk about that.
I mean, when you think about an inheritance, I mean, if your dad was a billionaire and he just told you, “I just want you to know, I’m leaving everything to you,” wouldn’t there be a little bit of excitement that when he’s gone there’s something coming your way?
God says you have an eternal inheritance. Those aren’t just kind of bubbly, biblical words. There’s something real that you get. Our citizenship is there, Philippians 3. Specific eternal rewards are given. It’s the best of earth, better. It’s very tangible. It’s very real.
There’s an old earth that’s fallen. We’re going to learn there’s a new earth. Sin, death, and sorrow are absent, Revelation 22. And then something that most of us don’t think about: Adventure, work, discovery, and ruler-ship await us when the new heaven comes down on this new earth that really will be heaven.
So I don’t know about you, that’s a pretty important list of things that are coming my way that I ought to know about. Those major issues and core themes in Scripture, the confusion comes when we lump how we think about heaven, “the abode of God,” and the intermediate heaven and the new heaven and the new earth. We tend to lump all those things together, they’ve never been separated and explained.
And so because it’s not clear, it provides very little real, tangible sense of, “This is what heaven is like.” So let me give you next heaven in historical context. And when I use the word “heaven,” don’t think just of this intermediate heaven where people go right now.
I want you to think of heaven as the abode of God. I want you to think of, the key with heaven, every time when you read “heaven,” it’s where God is. Where God is. And so there’s three major themes, historically, of heaven.
You have Eden, God has created a perfect world. And He takes mankind in this perfect world, He creates a garden, it’s pleasing to the eyes, there’s a perfect place, and God from heaven visits mankind.
In all likelihood, the pre-incarnate Christ, or what theologians call a theophany. And He walks with men and He talks with men and they have relationship and you have Adam and Eve in this perfect environment and they name animals and they are told to rule and multiply and have this amazing experience. And God created mankind in this perfect environment with the stipulation, “Don’t eat from this one tree.”
So God comes and visits mankind on an earth that’s perfect. There’s no hurricanes, there’s no tsunamis, there’s no earthquakes, it’s perfect.
Then we’ll move to chapter 3 and sin enters the world. Romans 8 says sin not only impacted the separation from man and God, but it impacted all of creation. Creation groans. And so now we have these dysfunctional things that happen in the creation as it’s groaning.
We have man is separated from God, and so now God sends His Son, He becomes fully God but he’s already God, fully man and He comes to live among us, to rescue us, lives a perfect life, dies upon a cross, pays for our sin so that we can have relationship.
The moment a person dies during this window of time between Genesis 3 and Revelation 20, you immediately go into the presence of God and it’s called “the intermediate heaven.”
You might jot in your notes, “Philippians chapter 1 verses 20 and 21.” Paul says, “I don’t know what to do.” He thinks he’s going to be executed. “If I die, I’ll be immediately with Christ, who is much better. But maybe I should stay to minister to you.”
You might jot down, “II Corinthians 5:6.” It says, “To be absent from the body is to be home with the Lord.” So there’s no soul sleep, there’s no delay. But when you die in the present, you’re immediately in the presence of God, but you don’t have a resurrected body. The resurrection comes later.
The future, what we have, beginning in chapters 21 and 22 is there is a new heaven and a new earth. And in resurrected bodies, we will live on this new heaven and this new earth.
And sometimes, if I told you that you have an old car but I’m going to give you a new car, and your old car is fifteen years old and it breaks down and it has problems. And I said, “But I’m going to give you a new car,” I don’t think you would say, “I have no idea what a car is.”
Now, what you know, it’s going to drive better, it’s going to be more comfortable, but it’s going to have a lot of the same characteristics as the old car. Here’s what I want you to see, the heaven that God has planned for you is very akin to the heaven that was when He came down and created a place where He wanted to be with men that He visited.
And in this old, perfect environment, God longed for relationship. But there was life, there was focus, there was beauty, there was work, there was a discovery, there was learning, there was naming, there was ruling, it was real life with real people on a real earth. God promises in the future heaven, literally, will come down and there will be actually heaven on earth, the New Jerusalem, and there is a new earth with none of the problems of the fallen earth.