Outposts of Heaven

March 29, 2019

I’m a citizen of the State of Michigan. I live here. I’m a citizen of the United States of America. I live here. But Paul claimed, “But our citizenship is in heaven…” (Philippians 3:20, ESV).

I obviously don’t live in heaven at the moment, although I want to be headed there. What does it mean for me to be a citizen of the New Jerusalem? Paul used this language in a section of ethical instruction – “join in imitating me…” (Philippians 3:17, ESV). This occurred in a context where for some “their god is their belly.” The context is dealing with ethical living. So why did Paul bring up the subject of “our citizenship is in heaven.”

It helps to understand something about the Roman world. Paul was writing to Philippi, a Roman colony. How would they have understood citizenship? What insights do we gain? C.B. Caird explained the background.

Paul was by birth a Roman citizen, and Philippi was a Roman colony, i.e., a city situated in one of the provinces, but with the full rights of Roman citizenship… Citizenship of Rome had first been extended to the whole of Italy, and then under the Empire, had been granted to cities in the provinces where veterans from the army were settled, and occasionally to individuals distinguished in public service. The purpose of this policy was that the colonies should be centres of Roman culture, law and influence through which eventually the provinces would become thoroughly Roman; and so successful was it that even in the course of the first century A.D. many of the most distinguished figures in Roman life were of provincial extraction. With this model in mind Paul depicts Christians as holders of the citizenship of heaven, established in the provinces of God’s empire as the means by which the whole might be brought within the influence of his reign.*

While we are on our way to that heavenly city, we are to spread the culture and influence of Jerusalem that is above. We are to live in this world like citizens of heaven. Our moral life should be showing what God and Christ are really like. We should be influencing people to join us in our journey to heaven, so that we are helping extend the borders of the kingdom. Christians are outposts of heaven.

*G.B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible, pp. 179-180

Temporary Residents

June 9, 2017

Peter begins his first letter by addressing it to “those temporarily residing abroad” (1 Peter 1:1, NET). He then goes on to mention the various provinces in which they are scattered. It is likely that many of these Christians had lived in these places all their lives. In what sense could they or we, for that matter, be temporary residents?

The Christian is an alien, a sojourner, or a temporary resident in that his true citizenship is in heaven. This affects the way we approach life, even though we might live in the same house all our earthly life, our values and affections will show that our destination of heaven is what is most important. If we think of ourselves as temporary residents, we will not loose sight of our goal. Our trust will not be in this world. The world in which we live is but a temporary place. The Christian must look beyond it for his true home.

The Epistle of Diognetus has an interesting section on the Christian being a sojourner. The letter is an uninspired, anonymous letter dating from the second century A.D. The writer is attempting to explain the differences of being a Christian instead of a pagan or a Jew. His thoughts make an excellent commentary on what it means to be a temporary resident:

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric life-style. This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious men, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do. But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. (5:1-9)*

Keeping our eyes on the goal is not always easy. There is much in the world to distract us. The Christian life must be life of watchfulness. Reminding ourselves that we are only temporary residents and sojourners in this world may help us to keep our eyes on the goal.

*Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, p. 541.

The Father’s House

March 17, 2017

It is a famous line: In my Father’s house there are many mansions. However, the King James Version’s word choice is misleading to modern English readers. We hear the word “mansion,” and we are thinking of a big, manor house. But that is not the meaning of the word in this text in 1611.

Looking at earlier English translations may help. Here is a list of early translations prior to the KJV with their publication date.

Wycliffe (1382-1395) dwellingis
Tyndale (1522) mansions
Coverdale (1535) dwellinges
Geneva (1557) dwelling places
Bishops’ Bible (1568) dwelling places

Tyndale obviously gave us the phrase mansions, but the earliest translation is of Wycliffe, and it is “dwellings” (if we update his spelling). And that rendering is followed by Coverdale, Geneva, and the Bishop’s Bible.

It is not that Tyndale or the King James translators were wrong in using mansions in this passage. It is a case of a word that has changed meanings over the years. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary provides the definition that readers in 1611 would have understood: “archaic:  a place where one remains or dwells.”

This is an image I understand as a father and grandfather. It is joyous to have all my children under one roof, in one house. (Although I must confess in this life, it is a little crowded and makes for difficulties in scheduling the bathroom.) The word picture which Jesus paints is one of being in the Father’s presence. As God’s children, he has room for us in his house.

When the RSV was released with its reading of “rooms” instead of “mansions,” some complained that the RSV had removed the glory from the Bible.* But the glory of a manor house for each of us was never in the text to begin with, it was only in a misreading of the text, a reading that was not intended by the King James translators to begin with. And unfortunately, it is a misreading that is captured in some of our hymns. Often, I’m unable to sing the line, “I want a gold one that is silver lined.” Besides being crassly materialistic, it misses Jesus’ point. Jesus is preparing a place for us to be eternally in the presence of God.

The translation of “rooms” or “dwelling places” instead of “mansions” does not remove the glory from the Bible. What could be more glorious than to have a place in the presence of God, a place in the Father’s house!

*Ronald F. Bridges and Luther A. Weigle, King James Bible Word Book (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 217. See this work for words that have changed meanings since 1611.

The Street of Gold

March 4, 2016

The proportions of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22 are beyond human scale. The city is a cube with its length, width, and height being 1,380 miles (12,000 stadia). Within thist description is the statement: “the street of the city was pure gold” (Revelation 21:21). Noting that street is singular, the question is raised: does the city have only one street? Several approaches to this question have been taken by interpreters of Revelation.

First, many view the singular noun generically or collectively: singular in form, but plural in meaning. As one commentator noted this collective sense could also be seen in Revelation 22:2 where you have a mention of “the tree of life” singular, and yet the locations of the tree would suggest a plural number of them. The fourth verse of “When We All Get to Heaven” reads: “we shall tread the streets of gold.” I’m not going to object to hymns that speak of “streets of gold.” Understanding the singular as a collective is a popular approach.

Second, the word translated street is plateia which means broad or wide. Some see this as a reference to the main street of the city. A description of the main street of the city does not rule out other streets. Several modern translations take this approach. “The main street of the city is pure gold…” (Revelation 21:21, NET). See also “The great street” (NIV), “the broad street” (HCSB), and “the main street” (NLT).

Third, some commentators think that plateia refers not to a street but to the main square of the city. Young’s Literal Translation may be hinting at this: “the broad-place of the city is pure gold.” This kind of meaning for plateia is seen in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Passages with this meaning are Genesis 19:2, Judges 19:17, 20, 2 Chronicles 32:6, Ezra 10:9, Nehemiah 8:16. Although the KJV will use street in all of these passages, most modern translations including the NKJV will speak of the square of the city.

Finally, Homer Hailey writes, “Probably the streets from each gate are joined together to make up one street. Since the vision is of a great symbol, whatever the view or explanation one may hold, we can accept the idea of unity; all portals admit and lead to Him who is the central figure.”1 In other words, he sees the singular street being a symbol of unity.

The vision of Revelation 21-22 is worth our pondering. But it doesn’t leave me worried about traffic jams in heaven if there is only one street. I suspect that what John describes is beyond describing in human language. The descriptions do not give me a blueprint but are there to spur my yearning. Faithfulness is worth it. This is the place of perfect fellowship, protection, provision, and joy!

1Homer Hailey, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary,(Baker Book House), pp. 416-417.

The One Who Came from Heaven

January 28, 2015

In 2004 at the age of six Alex Malarkey was in a horrible car accident. The accident left him paralyzed, and he was in a coma for two months with questions about whether he would survive. But when he awoke from his coma, he talked about having been to heaven. This became the basis for the book, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven. The book lists Alex and his father as co-authors, although I suspect that six year olds don’t really author books. The book became a New York Times Bestseller.

But the bestseller has become a recent scandal. Alex, now a teenager, has recanted the story. In fact, he has attempted for the past two years to get the publisher and booksellers to listen to him. This is what he wrote to the publisher, booksellers, and what he calls “the Marketers of Heaven Tourism.”

I did not die. I did not go to Heaven.

I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth.1

The scandal has more to do with when did the publisher and booksellers know. Emails would seem to indicate that in the case of one bookseller, they knew and did nothing. They have subsequently agreed to pull the book, and the publisher has agreed to stop selling the book (although the book had a reprint in 2014 and is still on Amazon.com). I feel badly for Alex. He was a child and is still a minor.

But why bring up a scandal? Partly because it is in the news. Partly because stumbling blocks to faith exist, and we need to be prepared for them. Christian scandals are not new; they go back all the way to Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). We need to be reminded that our faith must be in Christ. People can disappoint.

I appreciate Alex’s statement: “They should read the Bible, which is enough.” I believe in heaven because of Jesus. He is the one with Old Testament prophecies pointing to him. The New Testament teaches that he had an existence prior to conception, that he came to us from heaven (John 1:1-14, John 3:13, Philippians 2:5-11). He is the one with witnesses to his resurrection and ascension, who were transformed and persecuted. I can have confidence about heaven, because Jesus is truly the one who came from heaven.

1“The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven” Recants Story, Rebukes Christian Retailers

The Reverse of the Curse

January 17, 2014

In many ways, Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 21-22 serve as the bookends to the Bible. The new Jerusalem of Revelation has Garden of Eden imagery. The earthly paradise of the Garden of Eden is found in Genesis 2-3. In both places the Tree of Life is found. The curse because of sin (Genesis 3) finds its reverse in the making of all things new in Revelation 21. I used the phrase, the reverse of the curse, in a recent lesson, and someone asked me what I meant by the curse.

When sin entered the world, God’s punishment involved a curse. The pain of woman’s childbearing was increased. Men too would experience pain laboring by the sweat of their brow and finding thistles and thorns (see Genesis 3:16-19). The greatest curse, of course, is death: “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19 ESV).

Paul reflects on the problems sin has caused.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:18–23, ESV)

Creation is personified in this passage, which is also common in the Old Testament. The important thing to note is the creation was subjected to futility, and this subjection to futility has led to a lot of groaning.

Humanity was intended to have dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26), and there is still a sense in which we do. We are stewards of God’s creation. Yet, the point of these passages seems to be this: because humanity rebelled against God, God made the creation “rebel” against humanity. We experience thistles, thorns, and weeds. We experience droughts, storms, and calamities. We can only ponder how different life in the Garden of Eden would have been. But the frustrations, calamities, and the decay of death are our present experiences of this curse.
Because of the death of Christ, God will some day make all things new: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4 ESV) In hope, we look forward to the reverse of the curse.

Imagining Heaven

April 27, 2013

Imagining heaven is not easy for us. I suspect trying to describe it to us is like describing New York City to an aborigine. You might say a skyscraper is like a giant hut one hundred huts high, but the reality of a skyscraper is still greater than the description.

Bill Clapper in an article entitled “Beyond Imagination” [Gospel Advocate (June 1997):15-16] pictures the difficulty this way. Picture going back to 1866 and visiting a wagon train going west just after the close of the Civil War. You attempt to explain jet airplanes that can carry hundreds of passengers from the east coast to the west coast in five or six hours. To this group huddled around a campfire, you describe electric lights, hot water coming from a faucet, automobiles, and television. Clapper writes: “We have told them about how we live, and it was beyond their imagination…I can only say that God has prepared a place for us so great that we cannot imagine the wonders of it—any more than people of 1866 could understand the wonders of our time.”

Joseph Bayly captures some of this dilemma in his book, The Last Things We Talk About. He shares a parable:

I accept [heaven’s] reality by faith, on the authority of Jesus Christ: “In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”

For that matter, if I were a twin in the womb, I doubt that I could prove the existence of earth to my mate. He would probably object that the idea of an earth beyond the womb was ridiculous, that the womb was the only earth we’d ever know.

If I tried to explain that earthlings live in a greatly expanded environment and breathe air, he would only be skeptical. After all, a fetus lives in water; who could imagine its being able to live in a universe of air? To him such a transition would seem impossible.

It would take birth to prove the earth’s existence to a fetus. A little pain, a dark tunnel, a gasp of air–and then the world outside! Green grass, laps, lakes, the ocean, horses (could a fetus imagine a horse?), rainbows, walking, running, surfing, ice-skating. With enough room that you don’t have to shove, and a universe beyond.

Despite our difficulties in imagining it, heaven is real. In some ways, more real than the world in which we live because it will be eternal, while this world is temporary. Paul reminds us of this: “We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18 NIV). Let us keep our eyes on the goal.

Glimpses of Heaven

May 13, 2011

The Book of Revelation is difficult reading. Yet, Revelation is also rewarding. Five major and contradictory approaches to Revelation can be found in the religious world. Such facts can boggle the mind, yet I think there are some simple guidelines for reading the book. Read Revelation for what it says about itself, rather than what others say about it. Read Revelation in light of the rest of scripture. Scripture is its own best interpreter. If all we get from Revelation is that Satan will be defeated and God wins, then we’ve understood the major lesson. Passages may puzzle us, but some things are crystal clear. Among the clear things is the fact that John gives us glimpses into heaven.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 7:9-17, ESV

Heaven is assured by the teaching and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Revelation, John gives evidence for heaven and glimpses of our future hope.

Heaven answers a deep longing. With C.S. Lewis we too cry, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”1 Christ conquered death, and so will the Christian. Paradise lost in the garden will be paradise regained in heaven.

Heaven gives purpose. The person who most fully believes in heaven will also be the one who most faithfully lives for the Lord in daily life.

1C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 120

Time and Eternity

December 28, 2010

The eternal God who created the universe also created time. There was neither day nor passing year until God spoke the universe into existence and separated the light from the darkness. The eternal God gave the sun, moon, and stars to mark the progress of the seasons. Humankind’s first calendar was the glorious march of sun, moon and stars across the sky—each obedient to its creator. Look beyond the clock and calendar even the magnificence of the skies to the One who made it all and give Him praise.

The eternal God should be “our dwelling place.” As we see how fleeting time is—how fleeting our time is, we ponder Him for whom a thousand years is like a day or a few hours of the night (Psalm 90). But for us even a long life is soon past. Yet in those fleeting moments we may live for God and decide eternity for ourselves. “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12, ESV).

Having had the opportunity to hear good news, we must not let the moment fly from us without a response. Our eternal destiny hangs in the balance.

For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 6:2, ESV).

And once begun, the faith must be lived. We dare not drift away from so great a salvation. We do not know when the last grain of sand will fall in the hour glass of our life.

But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end (Hebrews 3:13-14, ESV).

Though our life is but a mist—a fleeting moment (James 3:14), God can give meaning to our lives, and living for God can give us hope beyond the transitory and the temporary. Praise God for time and eternity!

Forever Life

March 3, 2010

“For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes… All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls…” These are biblical metaphors for the brevity of life. Our physical life is fragile. Death has no minimum age requirement, but this isn’t the entire story.

Two different eternities stretch out before us depending on our choices in life.

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. (Romans 2:6–8, ESV)

We must understand the “patience in well-doing” of the previous passage as pointing to faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-31). Jesus makes all the difference.

Jesus is also our reason for believing in life after death. We have several lines of evidence that converge: the Old Testament prophecies and the eyewitness testimony of the gospels. The alternate explanations – growth of legend, hallucinations, stolen body, wrong tomb, and Jesus merely swooning on the cross and not dying – fail to convince even many skeptics. As someone has observed, we need something the size and shape of the resurrection to explain the dramatic transformation of the disciples and the conversions of James and Paul.

So we have someone who can speak authoritatively about life after death – Jesus, the Risen One. We have two different eternities stretching out before us depending on our choice about Jesus.

Jesus used a number of images to describe hell – “outer darkness, unquenchable fire, weeping, and gnashing of teeth.” Whatever surface contradiction is contained in these words is resolved in human experience excluded from God. Even in the worst moments of this life, there are snatches of beauty and glimpses of goodness. To be excluded from God is truly death.

A marriage banquet of the Lamb, a glorious Jerusalem, and an exalted Garden of Eden with Trees of Life aplenty are the images of eternal life with God. Love, goodness, and beauty are God’s gifts and tokens of his presence. If two eternities stretch out before us, give me that which can truly be called forever life.