What will heaven be like? Its the kind of question we hear from curious four and six year olds, who are first contemplating that there might be something more and bigger than this life. What will heaven be like? It is the question of aging saints who confidently face death. What will heaven be like? It is also the question of those who are not sure what they believe, but are staring in the face of their own mortality. We might phrase it differently, but we all have questions about life after death, about what lies beyond the reality we can currently see and taste and touch. Is there something more? If there is, what is it like?
This question springs out of some of the deepest longings of our hearts. We want more. When we look around us at a world both beautiful and wonderful, our hearts can begin to ache for something more. C.S. Lewis, describing how, as an atheist, he came to faith, tells of sensing small joys in this life, but having a heart that longed for more. He began to wonder that if he longed for a joy that could not be satisfied in this world, then there must be something greater that was made to satisfy his heart.
What will heaven be like? When we look around at a world so broken and battered, our hearts can also begin to ache. This cannot be all there is. Life cannot simply be ‘nasty, brutish, and short.’ There must be something beyond this. A heaven, where there is finally joy and peace. Or at least a hell, where there will finally be justice, for we see so little of it in this world.
Perhaps this looks to many people like wishful thinking. To hope and dream seems nice, maybe even feels good, but is it true? What will heaven be like? How would we even know?
I am, admittedly, quite skeptical of the current trend of books and movies that claim to tell us what heaven will be like because of the near death experience of child or adult. I’m skeptical for a host of reasons, but mostly because we don’t need to die, go to heaven, and come back to know what it is like. What if I told you that God himself came down and showed us what heaven is like?
I invite you to turn with me in the Bible to Revelation, chapter 4. Revelation is the last book in the Bible. Revelation 4, beginning in verse 1. It is here where God gives the Apostle John a vision of heaven. But before we hear God’s word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me.
Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.
If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.
Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:
After this I looked and there in heaven a door stood open.
And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said,
“Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this.”
At once I was in the spirit,
and there in heaven stood a throne,
with one seated on the throne.
And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian
and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald.
Around the throne are twenty-four thrones
and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders,
dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads.
Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning,
and rumblings and peals of thunder,
and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches,
which are the seven spirits of God,
and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne,
are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind:
the first living creature like a lion,
the second living creature like an ox,
the third living creature with a face like a human face,
the fourth living creature like a flying eagle.
And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings,
are full of eyes all around and inside.
Day and night without ceasing they sing,
“Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.”
And whenever the four living creatures
give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne,
who lives forever and ever,
the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne
and worship the one who lives forever and ever;
they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,
“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed
and were created.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The scene has shifted. If you have been with us for most of our journey through Revelation this summer, we have spent the last couple months with our feet firmly on the ground. John was on the island of Patmos when he received a vision of Jesus. He was given letters to send to seven churches, each of which have specific latitudes and longitudes that we could chart on a map. We have been firmly in the realm of what can been seen and tasted and touched.
But now the scene shifts. John sees a door open in heaven and he is told by the angel of the Lord to come up and see. The Holy Spirit comes upon John and he sees a glimpse of heaven.
The heaven John sees is no less real than the island of Patmos or the cities of Ephesus and Philadelphia. It cannot be seen by the naked eye, but it is no less real. It is, as if, the curtain is being pulled back for a moment and John can see what is really happening behind the scenes of all the parts of his daily life and the life of the world.
The book we have been studying together has two different names in English. It is sometimes called the Apocalypse of John and sometimes the Revelation of John. Both Revelation and Apocalypse have the same image in mind. It is of a curtain or veil being pulled back so that you can finally see. In Revelation, something is revealed – something that was there, but unseen, is now seen. And apocalypse has the same image. In case you are curious, Apocalypse comes from a greek word and Revelation from a latin word that mean largely the same thing.
God is pulling back the curtain so that John can see with his eyes what has been true the whole time. He can see what had, before then, been hidden. And what does John see?
At once I was in the Spirit and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne.
He sees a throne. The entire scene of heaven centers on the throne of God. We see the one seated on the throne. We see what comes forth from the throne. And we see what surrounds the throne. But a the center of it all is the very throne of God. 12 times in this short vision, God’s throne is named.
If you are thinking ‘royal throne’, as in ‘the chair a king sits in,’ you are right on target. John sees a royal throne and that throne is occupied. The throne is a position of power and authority. It is the position of a ruler – a king. When a king is seated on his throne, he is working. It is there that he rules, where he pronounces judgement and forgiveness. It is there where he provides for his people. It is from the royal throne that a king works and John sees a vision of heaven and the throne is occupied and by God.
God’s throne is at the center of the vision of heaven and seated on the throne is one, John describes, who looks like jasper and carnelian. John cannot even truly describe what he sees. Everything is ‘like’ this or ‘like’ that. He cannot get a firm grasp on what he is seeing, because he is beholding the very presence of God. In reading up on jasper and carnelian, I learned that they are magnificent and beautiful jewels. Jasper is white like a diamond and carnelian red like a ruby. When John sees God seated on this throne, all he can describe is beauty and splendor and light shining everywhere.
Surrounding the throne is a rainbow. A rainbow is a symbol of peace, of mercy. Think of Noah. After the flood, God sets his bow in the sky and promises never to destroy the earth with a flood again. That rainbow was to be a reminder of God’s promise of peace. So surrounding the very throne of God is a rainbow, surrounding the very throne of God is the peace of God.
Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. These are signs of the power and presence of God. When God gathered the people on Mount Sinai after bringing them out of Egypt, Exodus 19 tells us that God descended on the mountain with flashes of lighting, rumblings and peals of thunder. God’s presence and power are here in heaven on the throne of God, just as it was on Mount Sinai.
In front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God, and in front of the throne is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.
God’s holy, purifying Spirit is there before the throne and around it is a sea of glass, beautiful beyond comparison.
So what does John see? He sees God seated in power in heaven. There is light and beauty and color and sound so wonderful that he can barely describe it. The presence of God is his holiness, majesty, mercy, and peace is so overwhelming we only get pictures and images.
This is the center – the throne of God with God himself seated on it. God is at the center of heaven, but he is not alone.
Encircling the throne are four living creatures, a hint back to the vision of Ezekiel, chapter 1. These four living creatures have been, I believe, not incorrectly identified with the four gospels, which point to Christ and proclaim the holiness of God. But they also represent the fullness of creation. Lion, Ox, Man, and Eagle – the best, wisest, strongest, and most powerful of God’s creation surrounds the throne and proclaims the praise of God. They sing, day and night without ceasing,
Holy, Holy, Holy,
The Lord God the Almighty
who was and is and is to come.
Creation cries out in praise to the one, true God. Creation takes the lead, in fact, in praising the creator in heaven. But the church is there too.
Around the throne are twenty-four thrones and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders. The twenty-four elders – twelve and twelve (twelve tribes of Israel and twelve apostles, old and new testaments, Jews and Gentiles) – the elders, representing the church, are seated on thrones in heaven.
While God on his throne rules over all things, in some sense, the church rules as well. But before we get any high and mighty ideas, listen to what happens,
And whenever the four living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders bow before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne,
The church is there before the throne of God and they bow and worship and cast their crowns – a sign of submission – before the throne of God.
And they join in the praise given by the four living creatures by saying, You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things and by your will they existed and were created.
This is the glimpse of heaven given to John. God in power on the throne. God’s holy presence surrounded by his promised peace. Indescribable light and beauty and sound. God surrounded by creation and the church praising his name day and night without ceasing.
The church glorifying the name of God and living in the joy of his presence.
This is what we were made for. Far more intense that fat cherubs playing harps or sitting on clouds all day. We were made to enter into the very presence of the God of the universe, to behold his glory and sing praise with all our heart to his name.
We were designed for life with God. When we long for a joy that cannot be satisfied in this world, our hearts bear witness that we made to be satisfied in the presence of God. When we ache for a world set right, a world set free, a world without pain or sorrow, our hearts bear witness that we were made to live in peace with God and each other.
We were made for this. As Augustine said, “Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” We were made for life with God.
Yet, God is holy. Three times the four living creatures sing, Holy, Holy, Holy. Day and night they sing, Holy, Holy, Holy. When the people gathered at Mount Sinai to stand in the presence of God – the God who descended on the mountain in flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder – they were told to cleanse themselves and to abstain from sin, because God was holy. God is pure and only the pure can enter into his presence.
We were made for this – joyous fellowship with God, living in his presence and praising his name. But we cannot enter into God’s presence. This has been our pain and our problem since the garden of Eden. After Adam and Eve sinned, the way was barred by a cherubim with a flaming sword flashing back and forth. We were kept, by our own sin, from entering into the presence of God.
We cannot enter God’s presence on our own. The flaming sword of God’s judgment on sin swings back and forth barring us from the presence of God. The holy God, who comes down in lighting and thunder, cannot be touched by sinful human beings. We cannot make a way into his presence. We cannot make ourselves clean or make up for our past mistakes. We cannot make a way into this heavenly vision of God.
Yet, a way has been made. Listen to the promise of God:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
A way has been made for us. We could not make it, but God himself has made the way. We were like people looking to go to a wedding, but had nothing to wear. All we had were barn clothes that smelled of manure. Then Jesus comes to us, and says, “Take my clothes, I will take yours.” Jesus took on our filth, our sin and clothed us with his holiness and righteousness. Jesus, the only one who could stand in the presence of God, stood outside so that we could enter God’s presence. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” so that we might never be forsaken. He saw the back of God so that we might see God’s face. He experienced God’s absence so that we might enter God’s presence.
This should make Christians bold in their worship here and now. If this is what we were made for, if the vision of John is the vision of the best life in the presence of God, and if this life in the presence of God has been secured through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, that should make us bold in our prayer and worship. When we receive what Christ has done our our behalf, we can draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings. We can taste the joy of heaven even now as we wait. When we sing and pray, we participate in this vision.
May our hearts cry out with the elders and the four living creatures in praise to the one who is seated on the throne. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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