The interview was drawing to an end. The BBC reporter leaned over and asked; "when you almost died, did you visit heaven?" When I said no she responded by saying. "That's a shame, you would have made a fortune on the New York Times bestseller list!" I wrote about my near death experience a couple of years ago, but although I had some amazing experiences, I was not able to add anything to the ever-increasing catalogue of heavenly tourist guides! And thus my hopes of fame and fortune were dashed...
Why do we need these kind of speculative books at all? The Lord has told us in his word something of what heaven will be like. We do not really need any more. This weeks passage from Revelation, chapter seven, is a wonderful summary.
Heaven is a place that is inhabited by God's people. It is bizarre for Jehovah's Witnesses and others to take the 144,000 literally. Apparently most Jehovah's Witnesses are not going to make it to their version of heaven - not unless they have done enough 'witnessing'. And it looks like most Jews won't either, if again you take the 144,000 literally. But that is not what this passage is teaching. The 12 tribes of Israel (note that the apostate Dan, associated by Jewish teachers with idolatry, is replaced with Manasseh) get 12,000 each. This is meant to symbolise completeness, wholeness and the fact that none of those who have been sealed by God will be lost.
Heaven is a place that is filled with a great number of people. There is a "great multitude that no one can count from every nation, tribe, people and language". This is no small vision. Note that it is a vision that is already being fulfilled. Last Sunday I worshipped in a church where twenty languages were spoken – people of every race, tribe and language. It is so encouraging to see. And the saved are not a tiny minority – they are a vast number. We need to remember that when it seems, like John, as though we are faced with overwhelming odds and we are just so small.
Heaven is a place filled with worship – v.11-12. For anyone who has grown up with the image of heaven being a place where you sit on a cloud playing a harp, this image is actually quite depressing. The white robes and the palm branches are symbolic of our cleanness, forgiveness and praise. They are not a description of our heavenly wardrobe!
An old minister was visiting a charismatic church near his home where the band were leading the congregation in singing "I will sing of your love forever"... As they repeated the chorus for the umpteenth time he leaned over and in a stage whisper said to his wife "I didn't know that we were taking this literally!" The notion of heaven as an eternal church service is one that doesn't really fill us with rapture. But have you ever noticed that sometimes when we are gathered in worship it seems to go on for in an eternity, and yet at other times when it does go on for a long time it seems as though it is but a moment? What is the difference between these two times of worship? The short service that seems like an eternity, and the long service that seems but a moment? The answer is straightforward – the presence of God. Last Sunday evening in my own congregation we had one of those sadly all too rare moments, when you wish the service would never stop and when the praise was so spectacular, and the sense of the Lord's presence so acute, that, as one lady said as she left the church, "now, I'm ready to go to heaven"! This is what heaven is like. Such a sense of the presence of God, that joy and worship are natural, and boredom and dullness impossible.
Heaven is a place for those who have suffered and been cleansed. They have come out of the great tribulation. This is usually seen as a particular period of suffering for the Church. They are the martyrs for Christ. The fact is that this world is full of sorrow and suffering and not only are Christians not immune from that, we sometimes have it increasingly. But Christians whether they have been through great or lesser tribulations have the consolation of knowing that we will be going to heaven. Not because we are martyred and suffer. It's not our blood. It's the blood of the Lamb. The phrase just signifies that the death of Christ was a sacrifice for sins and is as such effective in cleansing his people.
Heaven is a place where there is no more suffering - v.15-17 are a beautiful picture of what heaven is like. We have the ultimate job satisfaction serving God. We are sheltered. We will never experience the vagaries of climate change. We will never hunger or thirst – in any sense. Christ completely fulfills all our desires. The Good Shepherd leads us to springs of living waters and every tear is wiped from our eyes. This is not wishful thinking. This is the reality that Jesus died to bring about. In this life we experience a little of hell and as Christians we experience a little of heaven. But even the very best that we experience is only a foretaste.
I was once walking along the beach in Brora in the Scottish Highlands. It was a gorgeous moonlit evening and as I looked out at the moon reflecting of the calm waters, I as a young Christian said to my older companion "this is why I don't want to go to heaven". He smiled and said, "David, this is only a foretaste. This will be in heaven a million times magnified." We live in what CS Lewis calls the Shadowlands. The real Narnia is through the door of death. That's why we don't need these silly exploitative and speculative books – it should be enough for us to know that heaven is where the Lamb is on the Throne and where the Lamb takes away all causes for sorrow. Let it Be!