In his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul challenges us to set our minds ‘on things above, not things on the earth’ (Colossians 3:1-4). The great motive for being truly heavenly-minded is that the believer is ‘raised with Christ’.
He has a new and everlasting life through faith in Jesus as his Saviour. Paul also reminds us that the risen Christ is even now in heaven, ‘sitting at the right hand of God’.
He is located there with our humanity, exalted as Lord and ‘head over all things to the church’ (Ephesians 1:22).
In thinking about Jesus’ heavenly glory, we can easily forget the fact that God the Father is there. Jesus is, after all, at the right hand of the Father. Indeed, it is the presence of the Father that defines Jesus’ glory (John 17:5).
You see this in Psalm 16:11 where David, in the language of prophecy, records Christ saying to the Father: ‘In your presence is fullness of joy: at your right hand are pleasures for evermore’.
The Father is the definition of glory, the source of joy for ever and ever.
The same thing is found in the Lord’s Prayer, which begins: ‘Our Father in heaven …’ (Matthew 6:9).
I dare say that when we pray these words, we are so focused on the person of the Father, as the one who hears prayer (Psalm 65:1-2), that we hardly think of where he is.
Our Father is ‘in heaven’. He is not portrayed as being elsewhere or everywhere. It is from somewhere called heaven that his omnipresence reaches out into every corner of his creation.
Heaven is a real place
When I was a boy attending a theologically liberal church, I was taught that heaven was a state of mind rather than a location. Any idea of a place with real resurrection bodies, walking on real ground, in a new earth under new heavens, was dismissed as fanciful.
Louis Berkhof says very little about heaven in his Systematic Theology but he is on target in saying that Scripture ‘clearly presents heaven as a place’. In fact, the Bible speaks of three distinct ‘heavens’.
The first is the sky above our heads, the atmosphere in which we live and breathe. In the Flood, we are told, ‘the windows of heaven were opened’ (Genesis 7:11). The psalmist says God ‘covers the heavens with clouds’ (Psalm 147:8), while Daniel speaks of ‘the dew of heaven’ (Daniel 4:5).
The second heaven is that of space and the heavenly bodies — the sun, moon and stars — the universe beyond the atmosphere. This is the ‘firmament’ of Genesis 1:14-17.
But the third heaven is where God dwells; it lies beyond our senses. It is explicitly called the ‘third heaven’ in 2 Corinthians 12:2, where Paul describes being ‘caught up’ in a unique experience of God’s favour.
Solomon prays repeatedly that the Lord would ‘hear in heaven your dwelling place’ (1 Kings 8:30,39,43,49), while Isaiah identifies God as ‘the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity’ (Isaiah 57:15).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus exhorts: ‘Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:16).
There are many similar references in the New Testament, which also makes mention of ‘the kingdom of heaven’, ‘bread from heaven’ and the emphatic expression ‘heaven itself’, which is also ‘God’s throne’ (Matthew 5:34; 12:50; 16:17; 18:10; Hebrews 9:24).
The third heaven is therefore a location, although it clearly exists on an altogether different plane from the heavens above us.
Heaven is for Christians
Scripture assures us that Christians ‘have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’ (2 Corinthians 5:1). This contrasts with ‘our earthly house, this tent’, our mortal body which is ‘destroyed’ by death.
Paul’s point is that we will have bodies in heaven — resurrection bodies. Heaven must therefore be a created place where saved sinners and unfallen angels will live in the presence of the glorious God and the exalted Christ.
Yet the immensity of God means that ‘heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain [him]’ (1 Kings 8:27). What a marvellous condescension to finite human beings it is, then, that the infinite God should manifest his glory in a place designed and adapted for everlasting human habitation — ‘a new heavens and a new earth’.
The earth and the first two heavens will be reconstituted in what is now the third heaven, that the new humanity in Christ may be gloriously consummated in a new creation where ‘righteousness dwells’ (2 Peter 3:13).
Heaven is where Jesus reigns
Heaven is where Christians will be for ever because the Lord Jesus Christ is there with his Father.
Firstly, Jesus is exalted in heaven to rule as sovereign over this world in the interests of his people. The Father’s acceptance of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice for sin guarantees his acceptance of those for whom Christ died and secures their salvation in time and eternity (Philippians 2:9-11; Ephesians 1:20-23; Hebrews 1:1-3; 1 Peter 3:22).
Secondly, Jesus is preparing a place in heaven for believers, that they may be with him for ever and behold his glory (John 14:2; 17:24; 2 Timothy 2:19).
Thirdly, he is nurturing in believers a living hope that focuses on the anticipation of their heavenly inheritance (1 Peter 1:3-5).
Fourthly, Jesus will come again to gather his people with him in the glory of heaven (John 14:3).
Jesus Christ, then, is the key that opens heaven for those who are saved by his grace. Indeed, it is only in and through his death as the only Mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5), that sinners are adopted as sons to God, and so come to know him as their heavenly Father (John 14:6; Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6).
There is no heaven and no Father-God for anyone apart from saving faith in Jesus Christ.
Heaven on earth
This has tremendous practical implications for the way we live day by day. With every passing day, ‘our salvation is nearer than when we first believed’ (Romans 13:11).
Setting ‘our minds on things above’ should be second nature for those who love the Lord. Our praying is to begin with ‘Our Father in heaven’, because our new life in Christ has its source and its goal in heaven.
In one of his parables, Christ tells us: ‘Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”’ (Matthew 25:34).
We are therefore called to live our lives on earth sub specie aeternitatis — that is, with reference to eternity and in the sight of our Father in heaven.
We are called to practise heavenly holiness: ‘Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect’ (Matthew 5:43-48).
Glory calls us to godliness, striving to live as those who are laying up treasure in heaven: ‘For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’(Matthew 6:19-23). Where is your heart? Is it set on heaven or rooted in this world?
Hand in hand with God
We are promised that as we follow the Lord, he will guide us in life and bring us to heaven. Paul tells Timothy how to persevere in a faithful life, especially when buffeted by sufferings for the faith.
He says: ‘For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to keep what I have committed to him until that Day’ (2 Timothy 1:12).
He does not cling to some hope of earthly relief or success, but anchors his confidence in the Day of Christ’s return and his consummation of the gospel of the kingdom. Heaven is the great goal, not some earthly glory.
In Psalm 73:23-24, Asaph agonises over the challenge of living for God in an evil world, where the wicked seem to enjoy successful lives and easy deaths.
He found the answer, of course, in terms of eternity — of sin, judgement and salvation. Accordingly, he praises the Lord as his Father in heaven and looks forward to the glory yet to be revealed:
Yet evermore I am with thee:
Thou holdest me by my right hand.
And thou, ev’n thou, my guide shalt be;
Thy counsel shall my way command;
And afterward in glory bright
Shalt thou receive me to thy sight.