Open Up the Heavens (3): The Hopeful Orientation of the Apostles

“But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God...And he told them, ‘Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!’” - Acts 7:55-56 (NLT)

In the third post of this series we'll look at the writings of Peter, Paul, and John who all speak into the reality of the ascended Lord Jesus who now sits at the right hand of the Father. The apostles needed to encourage the Christians who were being persecuted and the churches that were growing and spreading throughout the Mediterranean region; and they knew that the most encouraging thing they could offer was a robust vision of a reigning, ruling Jesus who is holding everything together. In his letter to the Colossians the apostle Paul tells the believers:

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you shall share in all his glory (Colossians 3:1-4).

I love this passage. To me it is such a reminder to keep my focus and orientation on what is true reality. Though I can now see books and a bed and a desk around me, the realities of heaven are still more real than what my eyes, alone, can see. Paul is exhorting these believers to set their sights on true reality: Jesus is reigning right now in a real place called heaven. And one day, we will share in all his glory. That is a reality worth hoping for!

For the apostle Peter, he too was writing to comfort the Christians going through severe trials and suffering. I love the way Peter opens his first letter, “I am writing to God’s chosen people who are living as foreigners in the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (I Peter 1:1). Right off the bat Peter is making it clear that their current address is not where they find their true citizenship. A couple of verses later he writes:

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance – an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay…So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you have to endure trials for a little while (I Peter 1:3-4, 6).

Peter not only offers them great hope by speaking about their inheritance, but he further reminds them of Christ’s current position, “Now Christ has gone to heaven. He is seated in the place of honor next to God, and all the angels and authorities and powers accept his authority” (I Peter 3:22). Peter is making sure that, despite their trials and sufferings, Christ is in control! Although it may seem that Rome has ultimate authority, Peter is making sure their orientation is a heavenly one, not merely an earthly one based on what seems to be reality. Like Paul, Peter is reminding the believers of unseen realities.

You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy. The reward for trusting him will be the salvation of your souls…It is all so wonderful that even the angels are eagerly watching these things happen (I Peter 1:8-9, 12b).

I love it that Peter acknowledges their lack of being able to see these realities; and yet, he speaks of a joy that is inexpressible, so wonderful that “even the angels are eagerly watching these things happen.” I love that.

It is amazing to read Peter’s letters to the suffering church. His writings are so mature and pastoral compared to the portrait of Peter in the Gospels. Personally, I believe that during the forty days before Jesus ascended, Peter had one “Ah-hah” moment after another. I’m sure Jesus taught the eleven disciples as he did for the two followers on the road to Emmaus: “Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). I would have loved to have sat in on those conversations!

In addition to Paul and Peter, the apostle John offers us some of the most powerful images of heaven and the ascended Christ in all of Scripture. He also gives us insights into what the ascended Jesus is doing in heaven as well as the Holy Spirit’s role here on earth. In the fourth and fifth chapters of Revelation John gives us incredible windows into the worship of heaven. You get the sense that John is grasping for words to describe what he is seeing:

Then as I looked, I saw a door standing open in heaven…And instantly I was in the Spirit, and I saw a throne in heaven and someone sitting on it. The one sitting on the throne was as brilliant as gemstones—like jasper and carnelian. And the glow of an emerald circled his throne like a rainbow. Twenty-four thrones surrounded him, and twenty-four elders sat on them. They were all clothed in white and had gold crowns on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning and the rumble of thunder. And in front of the throne were seven torches with burning flames. This is the sevenfold Spirit of God. In front of the throne was a shiny sea of glass, sparkling like crystal (Revelation 4:1-6).

John goes on to describe the rest of the company of heaven and the Lamb and the songs of worship that are being sung forever and ever. It was quite an amazing and mysterious vision, most unlike anything we have yet encountered on earth. John’s Revelation was written about thirty years after Paul and Peter wrote their letters; however, his impact on its recipients would be very similar, to encourage the believers that, ultimately, God will prevail. He is on his throne and his followers are called to persevere and maintain their witness, spurred on by a grand vision of unseen realities and a secure and victorious future.

In John’s Gospel we receive further insights into the current “job descriptions” of our ascended Jesus in heaven and our Advocate here on earth, the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ long discourse with the disciples following his institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus offers some very comforting words and gives us clues to what he is doing right now in heaven:

Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am (John 14:1-3).

I think it is by no coincidence that, by faith, we believe that Jesus is in a real realm, the present heaven, and he is continuing his earthly skills and vocation as a carpenter by constructing a holy city for us! This is the type of passage that is a bit hard to truly imagine because we have so many barriers to thinking in literal, physical terms when it comes to Jesus’ present ministry and the nature of the present heaven.

Platonic philosophy has cast a long shadow on Western civilization, and has made it hard for us to really believe that spiritual realties have a physical nature about them. Platonic, Greek philosophy basically believed that the material, physical world was corrupt and the eternal, world of forms was good. Along with Hollywood portrayals of heaven and sentimentalized song lyrics, no wonder we tend to imagine spiritual realities as non-physical, formless, vaporous, and cloud-filled. Things that are material are too “earthy” and therefore couldn’t be a part of heavenly realities.

This is clearly not the biblical picture, however. I would challenge us to begin to think much more physically about heavenly realities. Right now, our ascended Lord Jesus is in a physical, though glorified body, most likely with tools in his hand, constructing a city…for us!
John also describes our Advocate here on earth. Though Jesus was telling the disciples that he is going to leave, he has to return to his Father, he will send a representative:

I am telling you these things now while I am still with you. But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you (John 14:25-26).

In the same manner that we believe, by faith, in a risen, ascended Lord Jesus, ministering and constructing and praying for us right now; we also believe in another unseen reality, the Holy Spirit. Jesus told the disciples that the “Advocate” would be his representative here on earth for us. He will never leave us; he will lead us into all truth; he will be with us; and he will live in us (John 14:16-17). Those are great promises and a great encouragement. The Holy Spirit is our source of wisdom and guidance as we live on earth as citizens of heaven.

In the next few posts we'll begin to reflect on the implications of the ascension and how they should shape and inform our worship. First we'll look at the book of Hebrews, understanding how Jesus is our true worship leader.


Popular Posts