1 Peter 1:4 says that we who belong to Christ have an inheritance that is incorruptible and undefiled, and that does not fade away, reserved for us in heaven. What is this precious inheritance?
1 Corinthians 2:9 says, Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love him.” Colossians 3:1-4 says, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.…When Christ…appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”
What God has prepared for us is beyond our ability to conceive; yet he commands us to think about heaven so that we will find strength to live now in the light of eternity.
The incomprehensible gift that God has prepared for those who love him is himself, as it is written in the Torah (Numbers 18:20): “Then the LORD said to Aaron, You shall have no inheritance in their land…I am your portion and your inheritance among the children of Israel.”
Taking up the theme, the psalmist wrote: “Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.…God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25-26).
Since heaven is beyond the capacity of human language to describe, the prophets resorted to symbolic language. The symbols appeal to our emotions and point to truths that cannot be expressed in propositional terms.
The biblical description of heavenly streets paved with gold arouses our awe. Heaven is a place of purity, majesty and fulfillment. If gold, which is so scarce on earth, is so plentiful in this portrayal of heaven that the streets are paved with it, how could there be any scarcity there of what we truly need?
Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43b). The word paradise in Greek is from the Pharsee tongue. It means, “A walled garden.” The reference is to Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden. The rabbis referred to heaven as Gan Eden, not because they thought the blessed dead would actually return to that particular place on the Euphrates River, but because Gan Eden symbolized man as he was created to be, living in simple dependence on God, walking with Him.
Jesus told about a poor man named Lazarus who, after he died, went to “Abraham’s bosom.” Not that Abraham literally welcomes people to their eternal reward, but in symbolic terms we learn that a poor beggar who trusts in God is as dear to Him as the great patriarch Abraham.”
Even the term “heaven” itself is a symbol.The Hebrew shamayim means the sky. In talking about God in heaven we express the fact that he is above and beyond the sphere of earthly things. In actuality, God is not contained within the boundaries of the created order at all. We talk about going to heaven, where Jesus is seated at the right hand of God. But where is God’s right hand? When we say Yeshua ascended into heaven, we do not mean that his body is located somewhere in the sky. We mean that he is beyond the limits of space and time. God’s right hand is wherever God chooses to reveal himself. So when we talk about going to heaven, or going to be with the Lord, we are not talking about changing locations. There is no place in the physical universe where we would be any closer to God. He is everywhere; yet many live separated and alienated from him. When we talk about being with the Lord in heaven, we mean that we will consciously experience him to the fullest degree.
Another description of heaven is chayei olam, eternal life. Eternal life would be no blessing if it were infinite in duration but not in potential. Perhaps a better translation of eternal life is life without limits. We will never fathom our Creator. The angels, who are on an unimaginably higher level than we, are merely at the point of being able to exclaim, “Holy, holy, holy,” as they worship and cover their faces (Isaiah 6:2,3). Even they cannot gaze at God. It would be more than they could handle.
We mortals can say the words, “holy, holy, holy,” but we obviously do not understand what they mean because we have not fallen prostrate on our faces. When we have enjoyed heaven long enough to grow to the level of the angels, we will not yet have begun our appreciation of God’s majesty!
The Talmud (Pirke Avot 1:3) teaches, “Do not be like servants who attend to the master in order to obtain a reward, but…like servants…who seek no reward, and let the fear of heaven be upon you.”
Is it mercenary to serve the Lord in hope of a reward in heaven? Not if we understand what the Bible teaches about rewards. The Apostle Paul used a figure of speech about running in order to obtain the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24,25). But the prize that he sought and that we seek is the knowledge of God, as he plainly wrote in Philippians 3:8-10: “But indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ.…that I may know Him.…And again, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (I Corinthians 13:12).
When our bodies die, we believers will immediately receive a new consciousness of the Lord around us. Without physical senses, our consciousness will focus on Him, of whom we will gain a new awareness. For those who invested their lives in seeking the Lord, the loss of the body will be overshadowed by the blissful consciousness of Him in whom we live and move and have our being. For those who lived only for material things, all that ever interested them will be stripped away, and the experience will be agony.
To believers Paul wrote “that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6b). Yet God did not create us to be spirits, but human beings. God formed Adam out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul. And so we affirm the teaching of the resurrection of the dead, which is called in Hebrew t’chiyat meitim. God, who once breathed life into us, will bring us back to life, body and soul, to enjoy him forever in the olam haba (world to come).
Two prophetic passages in Tanach (the Hebrew Scriptures) form the basis of the resurrection hope of classical Judaism.
Isaiah wrote (26:19), “Your dead shall live; together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; for your dew is like the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead.”
Daniel wrote (12:2-3): “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament. And those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever.”
T’chiyat meitim was a cardinal doctrine of the early rabbis. They taught that anyone who denied the resurrection had no share in olam haba. Yet in the Middle Ages, Jewish confidence in the doctrine of physical resurrection began to decline. Arthur Cohen wrote,
“For the most part, the Jewish medieval philosophic tradition squirms to uphold resurrection, since it is a rabbinic dogma. At the same time, contradicting as it does the whole core of Jewish philosophy that its doctrine be made pure, intellectually coherent, and non-mythological, the resurrection of the dead remains a doctrinal embarrassment.”
Liberal Judaism has not “squirmed to uphold” the doctrine of resurrection. It simply abandoned the idea entirely. At the turn of the century, the Central Conference of American Rabbis stated in the famous Pittsburgh Platform:
“We reject as ideas not rooted in Judaism the beliefs both in bodily resurrection and in Gehenna and Eden as abodes for everlasting punishment and reward.”
While modern Judaism has lost its grasp on the doctrine of resurrection, we messianic believers hold to this fundamental belief with all our hearts. For us, resurrection is not an abstract belief based on a couple of prophetic texts. It is not an element of religious philosophy. It is the historical fact that has changed our lives. The tomb in which Yeshua was buried is empty. The leaders of the Jewish and Roman establishments could oppose, but not silence the witnesses to His resurrection. And because He lives, we also shall live. “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). Yeshua said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.…” (John 11:25-26).
We will receive new bodies. We know that they will be different from our present bodies in certain respects. Most obviously, they no longer will be subject to death or decay. But the Apostle Paul used interesting language to describe the new body: “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body…The first man Adam became a living being. The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.…And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man” (1 Corinthians 15: 44-49).
I submit that the difference between our present bodies and our future bodies stems from the fact that our present bodies are tainted by our sinful nature. We are naturally self-centered, wrapped up in our own egos, and our bodies reinforce our sinful inclination. It takes all the strength we can muster to make the slightest progress in putting the Lord first and laying aside our egos. But the “spiritual” body will be inclined to worship and serve God. In turning our focus away from ourselves and toward the Lord, we will no longer be fighting our own inclinations. We will be set free.
An interesting comment in this regard comes from Mark 12:18-27. The key is in verse 25: “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” It is hard to imagine a change as great as that. Asked, “Which is more real to you, your wife or the Lord,” I would have to say honestly that my senses, my emotions and my entire nature combine to affirm that she is my wife. I don’t have to “believe in” her existence. My senses experience her. I know that God is with me, but only as my mind and my faith combine to remind me of a fact I must always be on guard not to forget. But in the resurrection, God will be sensibly present to me. I will no longer “believe in” him, because I will see him. I will be aware of my companions in heaven, but they will not be my focus. My focus will be on the Lord.
Some say that focusing on heaven will make us weak and keep us from living this life as we should. David Polish, former rabbi of the Beth Emet Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois, wrote: “The authentically Christian way of coping with the challenge of the world was to reject it and to take refuge in a society which, though not utterly removed from the world, was, at best, a tentative and impatient ‘pilgrim’ in it.”
Is belief in heaven escapism? Yeshua did not intend it to be. Rather than viewing heaven as a refuge to which we flee to escape this world, Yeshua taught us to pray, “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven “(Matthew 6:10). The Bible teaches a present tense aspect to heaven: We already have eternal life, because “this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.’ (John 17:3). Already our citizenship is in heaven. Heaven is not a refuge from this world. Heaven is the sphere of knowledge of and obedience to God. As citizens of heaven and pilgrims in this world, our task is to live the heavenly model in our earthly lives. We are not to retreat from earth, but to colonize it on behalf of heaven.
Heaven is not a place, or even a state of being, but a relationship with Yeshua. If we have that relationship, we can know that neither death nor life, nor things present, nor things to come…can ever separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39). But without that relationship, death will not correct the problem of alienation from God! This world is the only one in which we can repent of our sins and turn to God. When we die there is no possibility of repentance, only a direct confrontation with the One from whom we were either running away or whom we were seeking.
As we wait for heaven we must not despise our earthly lives. We can learn here what we cannot learn in heaven. In heaven we will encounter God directly. In earthly life we learn to know Him through his saving acts. Even the angels do not know what it is like to be redeemed. What God has done for us in this life will be the subject of endless songs of praise in eternity. Seeing God at work in our lives is a precious opportunity to know Him that cannot be replaced, even by the bliss of experiencing Him directly.
We believers are not called to flee from earth to heaven, but to claim earth on behalf of heaven. We can fulfill that task by living out two aspects of heavenly life here and now: In heaven God is central. In heaven people are equal with one another.
God’s view of the good life is the garden, but man’s view is the tower of Babel. It is foolish to spend our lives desperately trying to acquire what we already own. Jesus came to set us free to enjoy life, to set us free in life and in death. Only He provides joy and love to last and grow eternally.
Heaven is no country club in the sky,with silver tennis courts and golden swimming pools. Heaven is Yeshua ha-Mashiach. To know Him will be heaven in the world to come, and to know Him now is to live the heavenly life while we are still on earth.