Over the past five weeks we have explored some of the major Biblical teachings on Hell. It is my hope that you have gained a more accurate, clear understanding of the doctrine of Hell. Many of the ideas floating around in our world today are unscriptural and/or outright false, and therefore it is important for Christians to know what the Bible actually says about both Heaven and Hell.
We will now turn our attention to Heaven. Over the next month and a half we will examine the Scriptures to find out what they reveal about this amazing place. Though there is much less content in the Bible about the particulars of Heaven than there is about Hell, still much can be learned about it. I am looking forward to preaching on the glories of Heaven for a while… the prolonged teaching on Hell was a real downer!
Let us first establish that Heaven is a literal place. It is not some figurative or symbolic destination that doesn’t actually exist.On the contrary, Jesus told His disciples that, following His death, He would being going to Heaven where He’d make preparations for their arrival later on. He described it as His Father’s house - a place where there were many mansions or dwelling places for them to live as well. This is the clear and oft repeated teaching of Scripture - Heaven is a real, genuine location.
In the coming messages, we will seek to answer many of the same questions that we asked during our sermons on Hell. However, we will address them in a different order. In my opinion, the doctrine of Heaven is a bit more complex to present. Before we can answer basic questions such as “What is Heaven Like?” or “Where Is Heaven?” we must point out that there are different forms or manifestations of Heaven spoken about in the Bible. Each of these has unique variations that we will need to discuss.
Therefore, will will begin our study of Heaven by dealing with the three different “heavens” that are found in Scripture. Understanding and distinguishing them at the outset will help clarify and direct the additional messages that are to follow.
I. THE NATURAL HEAVENS
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. - 2 Corinthians 12:2
Then God said, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens.” - Genesis 1:20
16 God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also. 17 God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, - Genesis 1:16-17
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he tells of a man that was caught up to the “third heaven”. This expression has led to confusion in some cases, but can easily be explained. The word heaven has multiple meanings that do not always refer to the afterlife. We read in the story of creation that God created the birds and allowed them to fly throughout the expanse of heaven. He also created the sun, moon, and stars and placed them in the heavens to give light to the earth. Thus we can understand Paul’s statement in this way: the first heaven is the sky or atmosphere, the second heaven is outer space, and the third heaven is the dwelling place of God. When we read the Bible, we must remember that the word heaven is sometimes used to refer to the natural heavens of this universe - the sky and space.
II. THE PAST HEAVEN
22 Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. - Luke 16:22
8 Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, And He gave gifts to men.” 9 (Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? - Ephesians 4:8-9
18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, - 1 Peter 3:18-19
Jesus told the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus prior to His crucifixion. He spoke of a poor but godly man named Lazarus who was carried away to a place called Abraham’s Bosom. As we mentioned in last week’s sermon, Abraham’s Bosom is that half of Sheol (the grave) set aside for the righteous while Hades is reserved for the unrighteous. Peter wrote that following Jesus’ death He visited those who were in prison, which can be understood to mean in Sheol. Paul further explained that when Jesus ascended to Heaven sometime following His crucifixion he led a host of captives there with Him.
There are many interpretations of these and other related verses, but I believe the following to be most reasonable. Abraham’s Bosom is the past heaven, where are of the Old Testament saints who were faithful followers of God went when they died. After Jesus’ crucifixion, the Lord descended into Sheol where He spoke to and subsequently freed the righteous who were there. At some point soon thereafter, He led them to the present Heaven (Himself being the firstfruits) where they all now reside together. Thus, the place called Abraham’s Bosom is now vacant.
III. THE PRESENT HEAVEN
8 we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. - 2 Corinthians 5:8
21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. 23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better - Philippians 1:21-23
Paul - who lived a wrote after the earthly ministry of Jesus - made it clear that when a saved person dies, they immediately are ushered into the presence of the Lord. On more than one occasion, He personally reflected upon the wonderful thought of being with Jesus in Heaven. The present Heaven is where our Savior currently seats at the right hand of God, waiting for His triumphant return to the earth. It is a spiritual kingdom where the souls of the saved go immediately after they die. It is the place that we refer to and think about as Heaven today. Though it is not our final home, the present Heaven is a much more desirable and better place than this fallen world.
IV. THE FUTURE HEAVEN
But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. - 2 Peter 3:13
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, - Revelation 21:1-3
In the final chapters of the Bible, the apostle John describes a New Heaven and a New Earth. In his vision, he sees the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of the present Heaven to this New Earth. He explains that God Himself will come to dwell in this restored or recreated earth among His people. All of these events follow the millennial reign of Christ during which the Lord already established His kingdom on earth (see Revelation 20:1-6). Ultimately, the Bible describes a future Heaven on renewed earth where the redeemed will live in the presence of God forever.
As we progress through the remainder of our sermons on Heaven, we will deal primarily with the present and future heavens. Because we live after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension the past heaven, or Abraham’s Bosom, no longer has any meaningful application to our lives. But the present Heaven - the place where believers now go as soon as they die - and the future Heaven - where all believers will ultimately end up - are both very relevant to Christians today. It is important for us to have a good understanding of both.
The great singer and songwriter Jim Reeves once wrote “This world is not my home, I'm just a passing through”. While I love the sentiment and the hope it conveys, this lyric is not completely true. Yes, this fallen world as it currently exists under the curse is not our home, but one day the restored earth that has been freed from the curse will be. What a marvelous thought!
Next week we will begin talking about what Heaven is like. How does the Bible describe the present and future heavens? How are they the same and how are they different? What are some of the characteristics of Heaven that we as believers can look forward to?