23 November 2012

Understanding the idea of heaven

What and where is heaven? Who is allowed in?, How do we understand the term 'Kingdom of heaven'? We look at Matthew 13 where some parables of Jesus about the 'Kingdom of Heaven' clarify the meaning. It involves secrets, it grows, and it is immensely precious.

Umbrellas in Clifford's Tower, York
In an earlier post we considered other species related to our own and asked where we draw the line between human and non-human. In particular, if heaven is a place we go when we die (as many suppose), who and what will inhabit it? Will there be Neanderthals in heaven? Chimpanzees? Cats and dogs? Ants? Earthworms? Bacteria? Where do we draw the line? Do we draw a line at all?

The fundamental problem here is that we are misunderstanding the concept of heaven. In other words the view that heaven is a place is not really supported by the Bible.

Jesus clearly stated that the kingdom of heaven is among us now. Might it be that if we live in it now we'll find later that it is an eternal state, perhaps one that we do not expect? To help us understand the principles behind the idea of heaven, Jesus told a series of parables. Let's take a look at what those show us about the nature of heaven.

Parables of the kingdom - Heaven is a kingdom with secrets that not everybody knows (Matthew 13:10-11). His followers have been given these secrets because Jesus has brought a message about the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:16-18). Some people hear the message but don't understand it (Matthew 13:19). Some give up when there's trouble (Matthew 13:20-21). Some are just too busy with everyday worries and material things (Matthew 13:22). But some do understand the message and produce an increase (Matthew 13:23).

Although the original seed was good, an enemy has sown bad seeds in the same ground (Matthew 13:24-25, Matthew 13:28). The good and the bad will be separated later and heaven is like a farmer's barn where the harvest is kept safe after the bad has been removed (Matthew 13:30, Matthew 13:37-43).

Heaven is also something that starts small but grows until it is enormous (Matthew 13:31-32) and just a little of it goes a long way (Matthew 13:33). It's like buried treasure or a prize pearl, well worth finding and more valuable than everything I possess (Matthew 13:44-46). It's like a net containing good and bad fish that will then be separated. Only the good will be retained (Matthew 13:47-50)

So then, what is this kingdom? - The kingdom of heaven is not a particular place, rather it is the realm in which the King's commands are obeyed. It's a matter, not of geography, but of obedience. In a sense, the Father inhabits our obedience and our praise. He is present in our obedience. He is present when we worship in spirit and in truth. We are the stones of his living temple and he wants to inhabit us.

So revisiting our original question, will there be only humans in heaven? I think the answer is necessarily mysterious. Heaven is full of the Lord's glory and filled with his praises, so much is certain. It is also filled with everything that gives him glory - the trees, the stones, and yes,  people who glorify and praise him. So the simple answer is 'no', there will not be only humans in heaven. Every obedient created thing has a part to play.

So what does it mean to be obedient? What does it mean to glorify the Creator? Are you obedient and do you glorify him? If so, you are assured a place, you are a part of the kingdom of heaven. You will live in his presence for ever.

Questions:

  • What do you think it means to 'produce an increase'?  (Matthew 13:23)
  • Do you always obey the King? Sometimes? Never? Living in the kingdom is about obedience, are you in or out?
  • How much of your life are you willing to give up to secure the buried treasure, the very valuable pearl?
  • Is the separation of good and bad something you can leave until later? Or might it need to begin in your life right away? What if you put it off?

See also:

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