Heaven and Other Minutiae
What’s our preoccupation with heaven? Jesus seemed far more focused on the Father Himself than His heavenly abode. There’s more than a little truth in the pithy statement that says, “Don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.” So, we’ll turn the spotlight on Christendom’s favourite passage on heaven; you know, the passage in which Jesus never mentioned the subject.
We’ll then wrap things up by turning our attention on the first message Jesus didn’t preach. Just for the fun of it. (By now you’ve probably got a handle on my sense of humour. And you’ll know that my tongue was firmly in my cheek when choosing this post’s title.)
And we’ll squeeze in the time to answer a relevant question, too.
This is the sixth article in our series on Messy Dogma. Remember, we’re grappling afresh with the Message and Mission of Jesus. In this final of four parts, we’re tackling the Substance of Jesus’ Message. If you’re just joining us, you’ll probably find it helpful to start with the first article in the series, Year Zero: The World Jesus Invaded. You may also want to peruse the explanation and disclaimers to the series.
2092 words (c. 5 pages) = 30 minute read
Heaven and Other Minutiae
In our last article, we looked at how Jesus offended a good guy (Luke 18:18-30) and applauded a bad dude (Luke 19:1-10). And we overturned the perception that Jesus took a subtle swipe at the poor (John 12:1-8). Let’s shake a few more Bible passages to see what falls out.
The Day Jesus Didn’t Talk About Heaven (John 14:1-21)
A well-established (and glorious) truth is that Jesus’ first and foremost revelation of God’s nature was to pull back the curtain on the Father-heart of God. That is, God’s Fatherhood is the core motivation behind the Gospel of the Kingdom message. Jesus’ poignant statement that “no one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6) captures it succinctly.
However, too often, the substance of Jesus’ teachings is shifted to God in heaven, rather than His Fatherhood expressed now on earth. An example of this is actually found in the verses just prior to Jesus’ statement in John 14:6.
Most make the first five verses in John 14 a passage about heaven; it’s a text regularly heard at funerals. However, the entire chapter is a stunning revelation of God’s Fatherhood. In fact, Jesus mentions the Father fifteen times in twenty-one verses, while not making one single reference to heaven. Not one! Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” Notice He didn’t say, “No one gets to heaven except through Me.”
When He taught “in My Father’s house are many mansions” (v. 2) and “I go to prepare a place for you” (vv. 2, 3), Jesus referred not to heaven, but to the Father’s Presence available now. He was encouraging the terrified disciples that they would soon enjoy the same serenity He Himself was enjoying in the Father’s embrace despite the ordeal He faced. Waxing eloquent about heaven (i.e. you’re going to die) would hardly have mustered much encouragement in these frightened men.
Under Judaism, only one person could have direct audience with God; the high priest went before God on behalf of the nation once a year. There was only place for one man before God under the Old Covenant; Jesus was now ushering in a new covenant where there was “place” for everyone to come before the Father. Indeed, in the Father’s heart there “are many mansions”—there is place for all! He then continued to assure His disciples saying that He would not leave them as “orphans,” but He’d indwell them with His Spirit (vv. 16-18).
Jesus said, “At that day”—presumably after His ascension led to the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost—“you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (v. 20). Wow! Jesus promised them the same blessed assurance of intimacy and security in God’s fatherhood. Not after-death; now, in this life.
In other words, knowing His disciples weren’t going to die (or go to heaven any time soon), Jesus’ entire focus in this passage was on the Father not heaven. He was inviting His disciples into an intimate relationship with Father God made possible in this life through His sacrifice and the indwelling Spirit. Jesus was not theorising about heaven after they die.
Jesus’ message consistently focused on the “down here and right now;” He did not relegate the crux of His message to “up there” (abstract theory) and the “after life” (the other side). He built no elaborate after-life concept, and pressed His audience to a grounded, earthy application of His words.
The first message Jesus didn’t preach (Acts 2:37-40)
In Acts 2, we get the first public message after Jesus’ ascension. It’s a good passage to highlight here because it shows us how the disciples interpreted Jesus’ message.
After Peter told a crowd baffled by the happenings on the Day of Pentecost that they had crucified the promised Messiah (Acts 2:14-36), the convicted audience asked, “what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Peter’s first response, having learnt from Jesus, was: “Repent…” (Acts 2:38). And then he expanded on what he meant: “And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation’.” (Acts 2:40).
He wasn’t only calling them to confess their personal sin. He was calling them to defect, disconnect and revolt from the corrupt societal systems—religious, political, economic, and the like—of their day. Of course, this involves renouncing our personal transgressions, but it involves far more than this: it is a clarion call to an extensive and drastic overhaul of life and being, where we not only abandon our self-centred agendas, but we also reject every system that enriches and feeds our self-seeking appetites. Only by defecting from the systems of the world that pander to our self-interests (and then insidiously enslave us), can we truly entrust ourselves to our Father and His otherworldly Kingdom.
And notice, nowhere does Peter mention “going to heaven” or getting “saved from hell.” His ‘altar call,’ if you like, was in complete contrast to the evangelistic appeal we often hear today: ‘If you want to go to heaven, invite Jesus into your heart. Just repeat this prayer after me and you will be saved.’
Peter’s message of Christ exalted in authority and power, with references to king David (Acts 2:25-35), was loaded with a sense of urgency to establish His Kingdom in the here and now.
The King’s call is an invitation to relationship with a loving Father, whose arms are open wide, and to embrace an entirely new way of living, thinking and breathing as a son and disciple (learner, student, apprentice) of His Kingdom Rule—cooperating now with His vision to bring heaven to earth.
From this example, it seems clear Peter followed in the footsteps of His Master:
Jesus did not press people to “get saved” from eternal damnation, or in order to get to heaven. His call to salvation was a call to be saved from the prevailing corrupt frame story in which they were entangled; a deliverance only possible through a restored relationship with Father God.
What’s the key point to ponder?
How much of church as we know it, is focused on a ‘gospel of salvation’ message, where an emphasis is placed on getting people to heaven (or to avoid hell), on securing decisions that relate to eternity, and very little true emphasis has been given to bringing salvation to the ‘hell’ many experience today? (Of course, a lot of Christendom is focused on a ‘gospel of me’ message, but that rather sad aberration is easier to dismiss.)
I think it’s telling that Jesus did not feel compelled to rush after the rich young ruler to warn him about the eternal consequences of his decision (Luke 18:18-30), nor did Jesus seem anxious to ensure that Zacchaeus had ‘properly crossed the line of faith’ (Luke 19:1-10). He simply (courageously) entrusted them to Father God.
What I mean to say is this: Do we labour under a false sense of pressure to urge those we help/serve/meet into making a massive, urgent, eternal decision regarding their post-mortem existence? Is it even reasonable (or ethical) to impress upon a person a subject so abstract as eternity when they’re going through a serious life-challenging situation? Does our fixation with an after-death consequence impede our in-situation usefulness?
Could our role be more about helping people to make godly choices in the tough situations they find themselves (decisions aligned to the Kingdom’s values, which will no doubt involve tough self-denying choices: reflection of their faulty worldview, remorse over selfishness, repentance for wrong attitudes, restitution for wrong actions, responsibility for future choices, etc.); trusting that in the process more of His light is awakened in them? (Okay, you needed a long breath for that sentence.)
I use the word “help” here by design, even though it may sound overly generic. My choice of word comes from the concept of the Holy Spirit as the Helper (Greek: parakletos). He comes alongside to guide, counsel, intercede, convict and correct. By using this word, and my explanation of what this involves in parenthesis in the above paragraph, I do mean to imply that ‘evangelising’ is a relational (incarnational) task, a labour of love, care and patience—not a shoot from the hip, notch-on-the-belt approach. A task where we’re not pressured to pressure others with threats of eternal consequence, but rather, our role is to demonstrate (and reveal) the beauty in Christ now; where the urgency of our task lies in loving and helping the person, not in coercing a sign-up-now decision.
It goes without saying that should we be asked to explain the hope we have, or should we be led to speak more forthrightly, we can and we should. God often does use the ‘hell on earth’ people suffer to awaken existential questions. But the question to ponder here relates to the nature of our task, the presentation of our message, and the outcomes we press for: that is, what are the expectations we shoulder, and were did we get them from? Christendom or Scripture?
Where we’re going next?
We’re going to expand on the concepts of ‘salvation’ and ‘righteousness’ next (in our first section on The Words We’ve Fudged), as they are both words whose meanings have become terribly truncated and distorted.
Should we feel guilty for the privileges we’ve enjoyed?
What happens when we realise we’ve been the beneficiary of a system that actually exploits and suppresses others? (And living in the relative affluence of the Western World, we do benefit from systems that do just this.) Do we begrudge our privileges and feel guilty? Fortunately, Paul spoke directly into the matter.
Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share. Storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
First, we’re to dodge the bullet of haughtiness.
The word “haughty” means, “to be arrogant, entitled, snooty and puffed-up;” a perfect description of the self-righteous. It’s so easy to allow our privilege—which we had nothing to do with—to become something we think we’re entitled to; something that makes us better than those without privilege.
Next, we’re to “trust … God, who gives richly all things to enjoy.”
This is a masterpiece of advice. Paul tells us to reaffirm our dependence in God, expressing gratitude to Him for whatever privileges we have, being sure to enjoy all He gives. There is no need to despise what we have, or to detest our privileged upbringing in a spirit of ingratitude and self-loathing.
Then we’re to be “rich in good works.”
And here’s the rub. We’re to use our advantages for the benefit of others; to serve our fellow man and improve our world. We’re to abandon the seducing path of self-enrichment and instead be “rich in good works.” Giving up our pursuit of pleasure and treasure, we’re to pursue God’s Kingdom come, His will on earth. Jesus made it clear: “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). In God’s eyes, privilege equals responsibility. So, the question becomes, “How do I use my privilege intentionally and extravagantly for the good of others and the betterment of the world?”
In so doing, we’re investing in God’s Kingdom: “Storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come.”
Using our privilege for the benefit of others is both an eternal investment and it serves to unlock God’s will, “as it is in heaven,” here on earth. Paul, in words similar to a statement Jesus made—“do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matthew 6:29)—exhorts us to invest in what truly matters.
The words Paul uses, “storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life,” are profoundly Kingdom. Clearly, it reveals that through our good works—responsibly using our privileges for a better world—we are investing in, even ushering in, “the time to come,” or the age to come. (And yes, we will look at the telling phrase, eternal life, in detail soon.)