A sermon on Hebrews 11:1-7

             

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  For by it the people of old received their commendation.  By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.  By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”

As Christians, we know that faith is important. We are saved by God’s grace through faith. We repeat the slogan of the Reformation:  Grace alone, Faith alone, Scripture alone. We understand that we cannot please God without faith. Through faith, we are right with God and our entire lives are pleasing to him. But, using the word “faith” so often, we sometimes forget to stop and define the word “faith,” to understand what we mean when we use the word “faith.”

              Searching the Scriptures for a definition of faith, some Christians have settled upon Hebrews 11:1—“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the convictions of things not seen.” This verse is a good description of faith, but a good description is not a definition. For example, I could describe a golf ball as small, round, and with a hard surface. I could also describe a chicken egg as small, round, and with a hard surface. Those descriptions are accurate, but we had better not treat a golf ball like a chicken egg, or treat a chicken egg like a golf ball. In the same way, hoping for things and being convinced of unseen things describes faith, but not all hope and conviction is saving Christian faith.

              To some people, it does not matter what you believe, so long as you believe something. To those people, all religions are the same. Jews and Christians and Muslims all believe in a God, so they must all believe in the same God. Hindus and Buddhists also have faith, so their faith must be just as good. In fact, if someone chooses to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, that faith is equally valid as any other religion. Most people who begin with that vague description of faith end up believing in themselves. They trust their own minds to tell them what is true. They trust their own hearts to tell them what is important. They trust their own actions to earn rewards for them on earth and in heaven. This faith, they think, is good enough. As long as they have faith, they have everything they need.

              The same writer who told us that faith is assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things not seen proceeds to give us examples of faith. All these examples come from the Old Testament. The list of examples might remind us of Sunday School or Vacation Bible school, where we first learned about Noah and Abraham and other heroes who trusted God and served God and were pictures of how we should trust and serve God today. Looking at these heroes, we gain more understanding of faith. We gain more understanding of what it means to be saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone.

              But even these pictures can be misunderstood if we study them only for conviction and hope. We try to understand faith by seeing the faith of these heroes from ancient times. We try to understand faith by looking at Christians today. We try to understand faith by looking at ourselves and asking if we have faith. We might see faith and hear faith and feel faith. We see faith in the faithful things done by believers. Noah built an ark. Abraham traveled to Canaan and waited for his promised son to be born. We hear faith in the words people speak. When we study the creeds of the Church, we hear words of hope and conviction being spoken. We might find faith shaping our feelings, as we feel hope and conviction in our minds and in our hearts. But actions and words and feelings might still confuse us. We might continue to struggle, trying to identify genuine faith, trying to separate it from faith in the wrong god or faith in one’s own self.

              To define faith, instead of merely describing faith, we must remember that faith is a relationship between ourselves and God. Those who have faith trust God. We trust God’s promises. We trust that those promises have been fulfilled by Jesus Christ, God’s Son. We do not begin this relationship. God began this relationship in us. He sent his Spirit to us, so we would know and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. God grants us faith so we can be his people, his saints. He grants us faith so we can do the things that saints do as the people belonging to God.

              Consider the example of Abel. He was the son of Adam and Eve, but he had an older brother named Cain. We read in Genesis that Cain and Abel both offered sacrifices to God. God accepted the sacrifice of Abel but rejected the sacrifice of Cain. Genesis does not give us information about why God preferred Abel’s sacrifice. Many writers and preachers have said that Abel gave God the best of what he had, but Cain offered only a portion of what he had, not his best. This sounds sensible, but that answer is not complete. From the letter to the Hebrews, we learn that Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable to God because Abel offered his sacrifice through faith. His sacrifice, given through faith, made him righteous in the sight of God. Cain went through the proper motions, giving a sacrifice to God, but going through the motions is not good enough. Cain did not have faith, even though he was offering a sacrifice to God. His focus was not on the promises of God, the hope offered by God’s promises. His focus was on himself, on the actions he was performing. For that reason, his sacrifice was not accepted.

              From Genesis, we know the earthly results of that difference. Cain struck out in anger against his brother Abel and murdered Abel. This was the first murder in history and the first physical death of a human being. When God questioned Cain about Abel, Cain tried to hide his sin. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asked God. Of course, we are all responsible for the welfare of our brothers and sisters and neighbors. We should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Cain deserved judgment for his sin, but God marked Cain so that Cain would not be punished by the rest of his family. Abel, meanwhile, was dead. His body was left behind on earth; his soul waits in Paradise for the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting in a new and sinless world. Because Abel had faith, we have confidence of his citizenship in that new world.

              We know less about Enoch than we know about Abel. His name appears in that line of ancestors that runs from Adam to Abraham and from Abraham down to Christ. We also know that unlike Abel, unlike most people, Enoch did not die. He walked with God, the book of Genesis reports, and then he was not. He left this world without dying, ascending into heaven as Elijah later ascended into heaven. Jesus also ascended into heaven, but only after dying and then rising again on the third day. Those three men had their bodies taken into heaven, while the rest of us leave our bodies buried on earth when our souls depart and go to Paradise. But we know the reason Enoch had this special blessing from God: Enoch had faith in God. Through faith, Enoch was found pleasing to God. The book of Hebrews reminds us that without faith, it is impossible to please God. We can do many good works, but if we do them while measuring ourselves for our own goodness, those good works do not count in God’s records. We see the good works of the saints and know that they have faith; God sees the faith in the hearts of his saints and calls them righteous. Therefore, because of their faith, he rewards their good works. Some people keep score. They want to tell God how many good deeds they have done for them. To those people, on Judgment Day, Jesus will say, “Go away; I never knew you.” But when he welcomes believers into his new creation, he will mention their good works, and those believers will say, “When did we do those good things?” They were not keeping score, because their faith was focused on Jesus and not on themselves. Their hope was in Jesus, not in themselves. Their conviction was in the promises of Jesus and the things Jesus did; their conviction was not about their own actions or words or feelings. We know the saints by their good works, but we know our place among the saints by our confidence in Jesus—not by the things we do for Jesus.

              Noah is famous for the things he did. Following the instructions of God, he built an ark. He began building that ark long before the first raindrops fell. He had a warning from God, and Noah also had the conviction that God’s warning was true, not an empty threat. He followed God’s instructions, building the ark, condemning the sinfulness of the world in which he lived, and providing a way to save the lives of those who believed in God. Only eight people were saved on that ark—Noah, his wife, their three sons, and the wives of those sons. God also sent to Noah representatives of all the animals of the earth so they could survive the flood and fill the earth. For a year, these eight people and all these animals lived on the ark. The earth was covered with water. Sinners drowned, and the results of their sinful lives were washed off the surface of the earth. Noah and his family landed in a new world, ready to start a new life. This new world was not without sin; Noah himself sinned in the new world. But the promises of God remained true. Noah, in his obedience, preserved life in the world and carried that life into a new world. Noah, by his faith, was considered worthy by God, worthy to survive the washing of the world and to begin again in the new world. We also, like Noah, will enter a new world, purified by fire rather than by water. We will enter that new world because, by faith, we have been found worthy. By faith, we have become heirs of righteousness. By faith, we have been claimed by God and promised eternal life in his new creation.

              By building the ark, Noah became a savior. He was a picture of Jesus Christ, the true Savior. Noah’s wooden ark saved lives and carried them into a new world. The wooden cross on which Jesus suffered and died saves our lives and carries us into a new world. Noah lived in a sinful world, but he saw that world washed clean of sin by the water of the flood. We also live in a sinful world, but our sins are washed away by the water of Holy Baptism. Through the gift of Baptism, we are guaranteed forgiveness and eternal life. We pass through the water of Baptism into a new world, being granted new life in Christ. Our faith is not in the water; water does not save us. Our faith is in the promises of Jesus and in the work Jesus did to keep those promises. Because we have faith in Jesus, we are saved through Baptism and made heirs of eternal life in a new world.

              Enoch walked with God. He pleased God by his life, but that holy life was only acceptable to God through faith. We also walk with God through faith. We confess our sins to God, knowing by faith that those sins are forgiven by the sacrifice of Jesus. Enoch left the world in a special way, not passing through death and the grave. But our Savior, Jesus Christ, passed through death and the grave, making that path through the valley of the shadow of death a highway we may travel. Walking with Jesus, we survive this sinful world. Walking with Jesus, we cross the valley of death and find our home with God in a new world. We will live with him forever in that new creation, being raised by Jesus so we can be his people forever.

              We walk with Jesus on earth. When we die, we will be like Abel, leaving our bodies behind on earth but waiting in Paradise for the resurrection to eternal life. Abel, the first murder victim, was not silent even on earth after he had been killed. God told Cain that his brother’s blood was crying out for justice. But Abel, having faith in God, became a picture of our Savior even as Noah in his obedience was a picture of our Savior. Jesus also was a victim of sin and evil. The blood of Jesus also cries to his Father. But while Abel’s blood cried out for justice, the blood of Jesus cries out for mercy. The blood of Jesus cries out for our forgiveness. The blood of Jesus marks us, not as murderers, but as saints. Washed clean in the blood of the Lamb, we are called righteous by God, made heirs of eternal life.

              Abel offered a sacrifice that was pleasing to God because he offered his sacrifice in faith. His sacrifice was a picture of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, the sacrifice that removes all our sins and makes us acceptable in the sight of God. We identify true faith, saving faith, when we see that it focuses on the sacrifice of Jesus and not on the things we do. Being cleansed by God’s grace through faith, we strive to imitate Jesus. Being made acceptable to God through the sacrifice of Jesus, we make every effort to live as God’s people. But our faith, our hope, our conviction, focuses always on Jesus and not on ourselves.

              By God’s grace, we are saved through faith. This faith brings us conviction that God’s promises are true and hope that we belong to God forever. This hope will not fail us, because God always keeps his promises. To our Savior Jesus Christ be thanks and praise and glory and honor, now and forever.     

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The Axial Age and Persia

The Persian Empire emerged suddenly during the Axial Age. It was unlike the older civilizations that had developed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China. Indo-Europeans migrated into the highlands of what today is called Iran over the centuries, establishing small kingdoms of Medes, Persians, Elamites, and others. Cyrus, a prince of Persia, was able to establish power over his neighbors around the beginning of the Axial Age. After conquering the wealthy kingdom of Lydia (in what today is called Turkey), he led his forces into Mesopotamia and lay siege to the mighty city Babylon. According to ancient historians, Cyrus had his army divert the water of the Euphrates River into mad-made lakes so they could capture the city of Babylon by marching down the dry riverbed under the walls of the city. The book of Daniel in the Bible confirms that the city fell suddenly to the Persians. They lay claim to the entire Babylonian Empire, although they had to fight numerous battles to consolidate their control over what Babylon had previously claimed.

Cyrus died on the battlefield. His son Cambyses was fighting to retain Egypt when, according to ancient historians, he heard that his younger brother had seized the throne back home. Saying, “That’s impossible—I had my brother killed before I came to Egypt,” Cambyses rushed to return home. In his hurry, he accidently cut his leg with his own sword and eventually died of gangrene. A distant relative named Darius denounced the false younger son of Cyrus and had him killed. (The Persian historians of his time appear reluctant to consider the possibility that the son was genuine and that Darius was lying. Thus, historians have an unsolvable puzzle regarding this event in Persian history.) Taking hold of the kingdom, Darius established its borders and its administrative policies. He attempted to add European Greece to his holdings in 490 BCE; his son Xerxes led a similar invasion ten years later. Greek victories over Persian invaders are vital episodes in Greek history, though the setbacks mattered less to the Persians.

The Persian Empire was divided into satrapies. The ruling satraps were Persian, but the rest of government was locally managed. So far as people paid their taxes and did not violate major Persian laws, the Persian authorities gave them local autonomy. Local languages, religions, customs, and practices were allowed and even encouraged. Earlier empires, including the Assyrians and Babylonians, maintained control of conquered lands by displacing populations (much as the United States did to American tribes and China still does to its citizens today). Persians even allowed people like the Jews to return home, rebuild their cities and temples, and honor their gods. To allow rapid communication through the empire (and rapid movement of the Persian army when needed), the Persian government built highways throughout the lands they controlled. These highways were used by travelers and merchants, beginning a network of trade that would soon link major civilizations of three continents. Government messengers would travel these highways, exchanging horses at each station along the way; this practice, revived in the United States, was known as the Pony Express. Advisors to the government were called Magi. Like the Cabinet of the United States presidency, magi were experts in a variety of areas, including science, history, social studies, religious texts, and law. Their influence as a class of advisors to kings and government officials would remain long after the Persian Empire had fallen to pieces.

The official religion of the Persian Empire was Zoroastrianism. Founded by a man known both as Zoroaster and Zarathustra, this religion has always taught that only one god exists and that all competing gods are liars and demons, not truly gods. Zoroastrianism acknowledges the existence of a secondary evil being who opposes the true god; people in the world must choose between supporting the good or the evil. Support for the good includes piety, unselfishness, care for neighbors, and care of the environment. Support for the evil includes ignorance about god, selfishness, abuse of other people, and destruction of the environment. Those who have supported the good find, at death, that they travel a broad avenue to Paradise; those who have supported the evil find that avenue narrow—in some cases, as narrow as the blade of a knife—and they risk falling off the avenue into unending fire. Because the world currently is balanced between good and evil, each human choice influences the outcome of the world. However, most Zoroastrians are convinced that, in the end, good will overcome evil.

Respect for the environment includes maintaining the purity of the elements—earth, water, air, and fire. Various fire ceremonies are part of Zoroastrian practice. A person who dies cannot be buried (polluting the earth), burned (polluting air and fire), or thrown into the sea (polluting the water). Instead, their bodies are left on platforms to be consumed by birds of the air, nourishing nature and recycling the physical part of human existence while increasing the likelihood of a safe journey to Paradise.

Some historians identify Zarathustra as an Axial Age teacher; others say he lived centuries before the Axial Age. Darius appears to be the first Persian Emperor to endorse Zoroastrianism formally. If Zarathustra was not born until around the time of Cyrus, he may well have been influenced in his beliefs by Israelites relocated into his vicinity by the Assyrian Empire. If he lived much earlier, his ideas may have helped shape Hebrew belief, thus contributing to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings.

“Paradise” is a loan-word from the Hebrew language. So is “Satan”—Satan is the prosecuting attorney in a Persian court of law. (For Christians, Jesus is a defense attorney, an Advocate before the Father.)  The images of Paradise for the good and unending fire for the evil have been adopted from Zoroastrianism into Christian and Muslim thought. One branch of Christianity, called Manichaeism, deliberately blended Zoroastrian and Christian beliefs. Manichaeism was rejected by early Christians (including Augustine of Hippo, who in his earlier years had been a Manichee). It was seen as placing too much responsibility for human salvation and for the world’s future condition on human behavior and decisions, rather than trusting the promises of an Almighty God and the victory won by Christ on the cross. Modern Christian preachers who stress the beauty of heaven and the horrors of hell and who call upon their listeners to choose between them reflect Manichaean theology rather than that of the Bible. J.

What is yet to come?–part one

In the long-held traditions of the Church, the month of November is a time when Christians think about eschatology—the study of Last Things. Granted, many congregations in the contemporary world create their budgets for the coming year in November and, as a result, they use November to talk about stewardship and tithing. But the older tradition is to consider Last Things. From All Saints’ Day on the first of November to the Sunday of the Fulfillment near the end of the month, readings and hymns and sermons and prayers tend to focus the congregation’s attention on eschatology.

More than many topics, eschatology tends to produce a blurring of the Bible’s clear and literal teachings and its imagery about Last Things. Some Christians tend to consult the book of Revelation first about Last Things and to use its splendid imagery to interpret the more straight-forward passages in the Bible about Last Things. The result can be highly imaginative and creative, but at the same time it is rather inaccurate. Not that this is a catastrophe; any Christian who trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation will be saved. Some Christians are in store for a few surprises when the Last Day comes, but afterwards they will be able to laugh with Jesus and the other saints about any misunderstandings.

Eschatology divides easily into personal and cosmic Last Things. I will discuss cosmic eschatology in a later post and deal today with personal eschatology, based on what the Bible says.

Some of the clearest teaching about personal eschatology—and passages I have used in hospice situations—comes from the words of Christ on the cross, written in Luke 23. First Jesus prays for sinners: “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.” The prayer could apply narrowly to the soldiers who nailed him to the cross. However it broadly applies to all sinners, all of whom made the crucifixion necessary for salvation. God the Father answers the prayer of his Son: all those who trust in Christ are forgiven. Next, when a thief beside Jesus confesses his sin and prays, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus responds, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” As his own death approaches, Jesus prays, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

From this we learn that, at the moment of bodily death, the spirit departs to be in the hands of the Father, with Jesus in Paradise. Paradise is a spiritual waiting for the resurrection on the Last Day. It is not the final fulfillment of the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Paul writes about Paradise when he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” than life in this sinful world (Philippians 1:23). He also writes, “We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord… we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5:6-8). But Paradise is not the final goal of the Christian. “Not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (II Corinthians 5:4). Paul also stresses the vital importance of the resurrection of the body in I Corinthians 15.

Christians proclaim faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Death is described as sleep from which we shall awaken. Some conclude that the soul will sleep in Paradise and will not experience the passage of time between the death of the body and the resurrection. It appears, though, that in death the body sleeps and not the soul. Revelation pictures saints in Paradise praying for the Church on earth (Rev. 6:9-11). Paul’s notion of “better” and “at home with the Lord” seems to indicate some awareness of being with the Lord, as do the words of Jesus: “You will be with me in Paradise.”

The Bible also hints of a spiritual waiting place for those without faith, those who will not have a home in the new creation. The Old Testament’s word “Sheol” appears, at least in some instances, to describe that waiting for judgment. Jesus borrows the Greek term “Hades” to describe the rich man waiting for the final judgment while the beggar Lazarus is at Abraham’s side (Luke 16:19-31).

But all are waiting to stand before the throne of Jesus and receive his Judgment. The announcement of Judgment will be a verdict, not a trial with evidence produced and weighed. The spirit’s presence in Paradise or in Hades already indicates the verdict for each spirit.

The saints who have departed this earth are not yet walking the streets of gold. They have not yet entered the pearly gates. Those belong to the new creation, not to Paradise. But the saints are with Jesus, in the hands of the Father, and that is a better place than this sin-polluted world.

And next comes the cosmic eschatology. J.

James, John, and two cups

Jesus and his disciples were on the road, going to Jerusalem. (You can read about it in Mark 10:32-45.) Jesus was leading the way, setting the pace, even though he knew what was going to happen in Jerusalem. Not only did he know; he even told his twelve apostles what would happen: “The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

James and John didn’t get the message. They came to Jesus with a request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” No parent would fall into that trap, and Jesus was not about to be tricked. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they responded.

Their eyes were on the glory. They knew that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised Rescuer who would establish the kingdom of God and defeat all his enemies. They wanted to be close to the action. They wanted a share of his kingdom and power and glory. They wanted to freeze out Peter and the other apostles by getting the chief places of honor beside the King himself.

Jesus first asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” When they affirmed that they could, Jesus told them that they would, but then he added, “To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

I used to wonder about the people who would claim those places of glory, at the right hand and the left hand of Jesus. In the history of the Church, who has earned such awesome authority? Would Paul the apostle be given such a place? What about Augustine of Hippo, or Martin Luther, or Billy Graham? Who deserves to be at the right hand of Jesus or his left hand when he claims his kingdom?

Then I learned when it was that Jesus claimed his kingdom. He is not waiting to claim it when he appears in glory; all authority in heaven and on earth has already been given to him. He did not claim the kingdom when he ascended into heaven, or even when he rose from the dead. The kingdom was his when he suffered and died on the cross in the place of sinners. The glory was his when he announced, “It is finished.” Easter and the Ascension and the Glorious Appearing are all results of the cross. Without the cross, we would have no joy in any of these things. Without the cross, we would be excluded from his kingdom, and Jesus does not want us to miss the party.

Who was at his right and his left when Jesus claimed his kingdom and his glory? Two thieves were there, each of them on a cross. At first they both mocked Jesus, but then one came to faith and confessed his faith. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom, Lord,” he prayed. Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” From these words, we know when Jesus received his kingdom and his glory.

James and John thought they wanted to be there with Jesus, but Jesus did not want them there. He went to the cross to spare them punishment. He went to the cross to rescue us all from punishment and guilt. He who knew no sin became sin for us so we could be the righteousness of God. The innocent one who should not have been punished accepted our punishment so we can be free. The Author of life gave himself into death so we can live forever.

Why did Jesus tell James and John that they would drink from his cup? Some scholars apply those words to the persecutions they faced as apostles. But the cup Jesus had in mind was the suffering of the cross. It was the cup he pictured as he prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, let this cup pass from me… but not my will; your will be done.”

Imagine a cup before the throne of God with your name written on it. Every time you sin, a drop of God’s wrath falls into that cup—a drop of poison you deserve for your sin. Every time you say something you know is untrue, another drop falls. Every time your mind wanders where it does not belong, into lust or envy or hatred, another drop falls. Every time you neglect an opportunity to help a person in need, another drop falls. How many drops have fallen into that cup? Is it overflowing yet with the wrath of God, wrath you have earned by all your sins?

Yet Jesus comes. He takes that cup that bears your name and is filled with your poison, and he drinks it dry. He did not want to drink it, but he accepted the poison to spare your life. He faced justice for you, because he knew you could not bear to face the justice you deserve.

But Jesus did not leave you without a cup. As in a comic movie (The Princess Bride, or The Court Jester), there are two cups, and only one is poisoned. Jesus exchanges cups with you, not to poison you but to preserve you. He has a second cup, a cup that belongs to him. It is the cup of salvation. It is the cup of the New Testament. It is the cup that is overflowing, not with wrath and poison, but with grace and forgiveness and new life.

James and John were rescued from their own pride. They asked for something that was not theirs. Jesus gave them something that was not theirs. He gave them his righteousness, along with his redemption through his own blood. He continues to distribute those blessings today. We will be with him forever in his kingdom, celebrating his victory, because of the cross where Jesus rescued and redeemed us. J.

Four heavens

A more accurate title for this post would be “four meanings for the word heaven,” but that struck me as unwieldy. As used in the Bible and among Christians, the word heaven has four distinct meanings, and when people confuse those meanings, their concept of heaven becomes muddled.

The first heaven is the sky—where the clouds are, where birds and airplanes fly. It could perhaps to considered equivalent to the Earth’s atmosphere, although sometimes it is said that the orbit of the moon marks the boundary between the first and second heaven.

The second heaven is the vastness of the universe beyond the Earth’s atmosphere or beyond the moon’s orbit. The sun and all the objects orbiting the sun are part of the second heaven, as are the other stars in our galaxy and whatever objects orbit around them. The second heaven also includes the other galaxies and everything they contain. Whatever physical objects exist outside of galaxies are likewise part of the second universe.

The book of Genesis starts with this sentence: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The two heavens—the immediate sky and the vastness of the universe—are included in that sentence.

The third heaven is the presence of God—a special presence, since God is present everywhere in the universe. Paul wrote of being caught up into the third heaven (II Corinthians 12:2). In Revelation, John saw a door in the sky (the first heaven) and, moving through that door, entered the third heaven (Revelation 4:1-2). When we speak of a believer who has died and now is in heaven, we are referring to the third heaven. Jesus mentioned the third heaven twice while on the cross. When a criminal being executed with Jesus said, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” Later, he prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Therefore, we can describe the third heaven as Paradise, the Father’s hands, being with Jesus, or—in the case of one of Jesus’ parables—in Abraham’s bosom.

The fourth heaven is a shortening of the expression “new heavens and a new earth.” This new creation is promised to Christians as a future reality. On the Day Jesus is seen in the sky, with all his angels and all the believers who have died, he will restore creation. Everything in creation will be new—it will be like the world Adam and Eve experienced before they sinned. Everything that was very good then will be very good again, and it will remain very good for all eternity.

Unbelievers mock Christians as if we believed that the presence of God—the third heaven—was somewhere in the sky—the first and second heavens. They describe Christians as picturing God as an old man with a long white beard sitting on a cloud. The third heaven cannot be found by traveling anywhere in the universe. Instead, one could think of it as another set of dimensions overlaying the familiar dimensions of height, width, and depth. (Time has dimensions too, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Christians sometimes mix together the third and fourth heavens in our minds and our conversations. The third heaven is an ongoing reality. God, his angels, and the saints who have died are in the third heaven now. The fourth heaven is a future reality. It is the new creation established by Jesus on a Day that has not yet occurred. The Bible says many more things about the fourth heaven than about the third heaven. Therefore, Christians sometimes make the mistake of describing the saints in Paradise as having the blessings of the new creation. They are guaranteed those blessings or they would not be in Paradise; but they are waiting for the new creation even as we are waiting.

Eternal life in the new creation is the ultimate Christian hope and God’s firm guarantee. Heaven will be like Paradise because we will always be in the presence of God and always experience his presence. Yet heaven will also be this planet—and the rest of creation—restored to perfection. As Adam and Eve had tasks in Eden, so we will have things to do for God and for one another. None of them will be burdensome or boring. Each of us probably will do the things we love doing most in this world—singing, gardening, woodcraft, or many other possibilities. Yet many vocations will have disappeared. We will not need legal professionals, health care professionals, military professionals, and the like, because the world will be perfect. Deadlines will no longer be a problem, because there will be no death. Nothing in all of creation will be harmful or dangerous. Best of all, we will be with the Lord forever.

We are looking forward to a new creation, the home of righteousness. Our faith includes the guarantee of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. When Jesus spoke of heaven, he did not say much about white robes or harps. Instead, he compared it to a wedding reception—a joyful party with food and drink, music and dancing, and people celebrating the glory of a loving relationship. This is our future, and no power in all creation can take it away from us, for Jesus has already paid the necessary price to make this new world our home. J.