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Immediacy: What Will It Be Like in Heaven?

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From the Series: Heaven
April 19, 2015

“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”   (Luke 23:43)

Jesus said to the thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  What did that look like for him?  What was it like for the thief, who C. H. Spurgeon said had “breakfast with the devil and supper with the Savior”?  And what does the experience of a Christian believer look like immediately after death?  This is a profoundly personal question for all of us.

Earlier this year my wife Karen and I were in England for the funeral of her father.  Dad died at the age of 90.  He died as a believer.  He died in the Lord.  We miss him and our minds have gone to the question: What is he experiencing now?  What is he doing now?

Everyone who has lost a loved one asks these kinds of questions.  So, I want to offer four answers today, and then show how you can use these truths to draw strength in the challenges of your own journey.

 

Loved ones who have died in the Lord are:

With Christ

“Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

The great promise was that the thief would be with Christ.  And Jesus says it will be today: “Death will be for you and immediate translation into the joyful presence of the Father in heaven. You will be with me!”

Jesus died before the thief.  He committed his spirit into the hands of the Father, and when the thief died, he went immediately into the presence of Jesus.  After all that he’d been through, there was no post-traumatic stress for him in heaven, no wounds from the past, and no fears for the future, only complete healing in the presence of Jesus.

Now I want to suggest to you that the experience of the thief is a prototype for the death of every believer – to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord:

While we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6).
We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8).

When a believing loved one dies and you wonder: “Where is he now?  Where is she now?”  Your first answer should be: With Christ.  You will draw great hope from the clarity of this answer.  They are away from the body.  That is why we lay the body to rest.  And they are at home with the Lord.

 

Loved ones who have died in the Lord are:

Fully Conscious

“Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

Jesus said to the thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  He does not say, “When the day is done, you will go into a long period of unconsciousness that will last for more than 2000 years, and then, when I come in power and glory, I will waken you up and you will be with me in Paradise.”  The promise of Jesus is much better than that!  Today you will be with me in Paradise – immediate, conscious enjoyment of the presence of God!

Now, some have seized on the fact that the Bible sometimes describes death as sleep: “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51), and have suggested that the souls of believers go to sleep when they die.  Please remember that what sleeps is not the soul, but the body.  The body is laid to rest until the resurrection.  But the soul is very much alive in the presence of Jesus.

Some people latch onto the idea of soul sleep because it is easier to imagine unconsciousness than it is to imagine the life of a soul without a body.  But unconsciousness is not the promise of Jesus.  Enjoying his presence is. [1]  Paul said, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).  I get more when I die, not less.  My desire is to depart and to be with Christ, for that is far better (Phil. 1:23).

Think of all the blessings that are yours in Christ in this life: You have been born again.  You are justified by faith.  You have been reconciled to God and adopted into his family.  The Spirit of God lives within you and no circumstance can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus your Lord.  You are blessed in this life with every spiritual blessing in Christ!  There is no way in the world that unconsciousness is better than that!

What is better by far is that your faith will be turned to sight.   Your pain, grief, failure, violence, and persecution will be over, and you will no longer carry the cross.  You will sin no more, and with your spirit made perfect, you will consciously enjoy the presence of Jesus.

To be with Christ is better by far than all you have and can experience in Christ now.  It is better than anything you have ever known and it is better than anything you can know in this world.  It is better by far!

 

Loved ones who have died in the Lord are:

Actively Engaged

The reason it is hard for us to get our arms around this one is because everything we enjoy in this life is experienced through the body.  We enjoy running, but how do you do that without legs?  We enjoy listening to music, but how do you do that without ears?  We enjoy seeing the world, but how do you do that without eyes?

All that we do in this life is mediated through the body, and now the body of a person you love has been laid to rest.  We know from Scripture that they won’t get the resurrection body until Christ comes again.  So, what in the world can they possibly be doing right now?

Here’s what has helped me on this question.  God has given you life in this world through the union of a body and a soul.  He breathed the breath of life into your mortal body.  Death is the separating of the soul from the body, which is why death is such a fearful enemy.  It is the undoing of our nature, the tearing apart of what God has joined together.

But angels are souls or spirits without bodies – ministering spirits (Hebrews 1:14).  Jesus said “a spirit does not have flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39).  Wayne Grudem explains: “Angels are created, spiritual beings, with moral judgment and high intelligence, but without physical bodies.” [2]  So we have, in the Bible, created beings that are spirits or souls without bodies, and we are told a great deal about their activity.

The activity of angels, who are ministering spirits, gives us a model, a pattern, for thinking about the life and experience of our believing loved ones who are now with the Lord.  We have precedent for this in the words of Jesus, who says that in at least one regard, we will be like the angels in the resurrection (Mark 12:25).

Let me give you some examples of what angels can do, as souls or spirits without bodies, that will point us to the kinds of things that our believing loved ones can do, right now in the presence of Jesus, while they are waiting for the resurrection.

 

Angels see, and so do believers in heaven

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 18:10).

Angels see the face of God.  They are spirits.  They do not have eyeballs or retinas, but they see the face of God.  And the same is true for your believing loved ones.  Faith has been turned to sight for them.  They will have eyes in the resurrection, but right now they see, just as angels (who do not have bodies), can see.

 

Angels speak, and so do believers in heaven

Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14).

Angels are spirits.  They do not have vocal chords.  They don’t have bodies, but they are able to communicate the praise of God.  And the same is true for your believing loved ones.  They will have vocal chords in the resurrection, but right now they speak just like the angels.

 

Angels rejoice, and so do believers in heaven

“There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)

There is nothing in Scripture to suggest that believers who are with the Lord are somehow watching the details of our lives down here.  But Jesus says that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.  “If there is joy in heaven, why would believers who have gone there not share in it?” [3]  Especially parents or grandparents who prayed for children or grandchildren for 10, 20, 30 years and died before they saw them come to faith.

Angels worship, and so do believers in heaven

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne… the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:11-12).

Weak is the effort of my heart and cold my warmest thought.

But when I see thee as thou art, I’ll praise thee as I ought. [4]

 

Angels inquire, and so do believers in heaven

Even angels long to look into these things (1 Peter 1:12, author’s paraphrase).

Angels are highly intelligent, and their minds are constantly engaged in trying to fathom the wonders and the glories of God.  You don’t need a body to do that.

In Revelation 6, John sees souls in the presence of Jesus.  They were made visible to John in the vision just as the angels were made visible to the shepherds on the night that Jesus was born.  John sees these souls in heaven, a particular group of believers who had been killed – they were martyrs – and they’re actively engaged asking questions: “How long, O Lord?”

There are some things that, like the angels, these souls in heaven do not yet know.  God has more for them that is yet to be revealed – when Christ comes.  And they are looking forward to it, just as we are.  But until then, they are actively engaged.

Ligon Duncan tells the story of a funeral for a man by the name of Douglas Macmillan that really resonated with me.  Douglas Macmillan was a giant of a man.  He was a farmer, a shepherd in the north of Scotland.  He had huge hands, a booming voice, and relentless energy.  If you think of a WWF wrestler, you’ve got the idea.

Macmillan became a pastor, and I recall hearing him preach when I was in my early 20s.

I remember feeling pinned to the wall when he was speaking, with the sheer force of his energy.  His booming voice filled the auditorium, and I remember wondering if the whole platform might collapse as this enormous man pounded across it with such intensity.

When Macmillan died, his colleague who took the funeral said this: “It is hard for us to contemplate this big, loving, energetic man, dead and immobilized, without energy, vigor, life, force and activity.”  Then he said, “But rest assured, Douglas is more alive, more vigorous, more energetic, more active in the presence of Jesus than he has ever been before.” [5]

The soul goes ahead of the body, and the body waits for its redemption at the coming of Christ (Rom. 8:23).  But, for the believer, the soul is made perfect at death (Heb. 12:23).

In this life, the soul lives through the body, but the body places limits on the soul, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mat. 26:41).  The will of a believer’s spirit outruns the capacity of his or her flesh.  As long as you are in this mortal body, you never become what you long to be.  There are always limits attached to our sanctification in this life.

But believers in the presence of Jesus serve him day and night (Rev. 7:15).  There is no tiredness, no jadedness, no sluggishness, and not even the hint of a single sin in sight!  Your loved one is more alive, more joyful, more energetic, and more active in the presence of Jesus than he or she has ever been before!

 

Loved ones who have died in the Lord are:

Eagerly Waiting

Remember, there is a big difference between heaven as it is now, and heaven as it will be when there is a new heaven and a new earth.

Believers who have died are with Christ.  They are fully conscious and actively engaged, but they don’t yet have the resurrection body.  They are not yet able to say, “In my flesh I see God.”  They don’t yet have the new earth.  They don’t yet have the whole family gathered.

There is a good / better / best pattern to the Christian life.  To be in Christ is good, really good.  When life in this world is at its worst, if you are in Christ, you are blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ.  To be with Christ is better by far than anything you have known or can know or will know in this world.  But even for those in heaven, the best is yet to be.

You see this very clearly in Revelation 6: “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (Rev. 6:9).  Here are souls of believers in the presence of Jesus and they are experiencing all the good that we have talked about.  Yet these believers are crying out to God, “How long?” (Rev. 6:10).

How long until the evils of this present world and the sufferings of God’s people are brought to an end?  How long until King Jesus returns in glory and we get to come with him?  How long until he puts all his enemies under his feet?  How long until there is a new heaven and a new earth that will be the home of righteousness?  They are told that they must wait.

Herman Bavinck, the great Dutch theologian (1854-1921), has a fascinating comment on the experience of believers in the presence of Jesus, “They have a past which they remember, a present in which they live, and a future which they are approaching.” [6]

In this last year we have grieved over the loss of those who have been slain for the Word of God, and for the witness they had borne.  Here we are told that there is a definite number, and it is known to God, of those who will lay down their lives for the sake of Christ.  And every time you hear of a brother or sister in Christ who is killed on account of being a Christian you should say in your sorrow, “The coming of Jesus just got nearer!”

One day the last martyr will be killed, and when that act of violence occurs, the Father will say to the Son, “That’s it!  Go wrap this up and bring my children home.”  Christ will come in glory.  Our loved ones who have gone ahead will be with him, and we will be forever with the Lord” (1 Thes. 4:17).

 

How to use these truths

1. Comfort

Use this truth to help you in your grieving over the loss of a loved one.  As often as you think of what you have lost, try to turn your mind to how much you have gained.
They would not wish to be back, and if you could see what they see, you would not wish them back either.  God’s calling to you is to press forward in a life of faith and obedience that will be more wholehearted than before, as you press towards the prize they already enjoy.

2. Courage

This world is increasingly hostile towards Christian believers, and I do not see anything in the Bible to suggest that this hostility will become less.

As the coming of Jesus gets nearer, the darkness gets darker, the light of the gospel shines brighter, and the middle ground of being neither committed to Jesus nor antagonistic to him, the ground on which you may stand today, gets cleared out completely.

So if you are one of these people who says, “I think faith is a good thing, but I am not personally committed to Jesus Christ,” you can expect to have less and less company on this ground.  In the end, nobody will be where you are right now.  It’s a lonely place.

I ask you to take courage and step out, take your stand with Jesus Christ.  Nail your colors to the mast.  Clear off the middle ground.  There is no place to stand there.  Confess him as Lord of your life.  Do what the thief on the cross did when almost everyone else was despising him: Turn to him.  Ask of him.  Trust in him.

If you are a believer in Jesus, live with courage this week.  Tell Christ today that you love him, that you will serve him, and that when it costs, you will view this as a share in his suffering (1 Pet. 4:13), and then, like Jesus, draw strength from the joy that is set before you.

Jesus said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8: 35).  And he also said, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).

 

[1] Wayne Grudem says, “The fact that souls of believers go immediately into God’s presence also means that the doctrine of soul sleep is incorrect.”  Systematic Theology, p. 819, Zondervan, 1994.

[2] Ibid., p. 397.

[3] Maurice Roberts, The Happiness, of Heaven, p. 67, Reformation Heritage, 2009.

[4] John Newton, from the hymn: How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds, 1774.

[5] Cited in Ligon Duncan, Fear Not!, p. 35, Christian Focus, 2008.

[6] Cited in William Hendriksen, The Bible on the Life Hereafter, p. 70, Baker, 1971.

 

© Colin S. Smith

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