The Business of Heaven

Taken from Foundations: No.81 Autumn 2021

Paul Mallard (Pastor, Widcombe Baptist Church, Bath)

Introduction

Close to St. Mary’s church in the centre of Kidderminster stands the statue of Richard Baxter. Raised in 1875, it pays tribute to his most influential book. “In a stormy and divided age, he advocated unity and comprehension pointing the way to The Everlasting Rest.”[1]

Baxter’s literary output was prestigious, but it is book about heaven which has made the greatest impact on later generations. The Saint’s Everlasting Rest was published in 1650, though it was written four or five years earlier, when Baxter was just thirty years old. It was the product of pain:

Whilst I was in health I had not the least thought of writing books… but when I was weakened with great bleeding, and left solitary in my chamber at Sir John Cook’s, in Derbyshire, without any acquaintance but my servant about me, and was sentenced to death by the physicians, I began to contemplate more seriously on the Everlasting Rest which I apprehended myself to be just on the borders of.[2]

Baxter experienced depression because of the adverse circumstances of the English Civil War and the sad divisions between Christians: “Melancholy, born of a sick body and mind tinctures it more or less throughout, and particularly some of its most characteristic passages.”[3]

Baxter challenges us to live our lives in the light of eternity and it is difficult to read it without spiritual benefit:

There are few with any solemn feelings of religion who can read it unmoved; the fervour and passion of its heavenly feeling, blending with scenes of glory that it depicts, the pathos of its appeals, the ardour of its descriptions, the enraptured sweetness of some of its pictures, the affection, the force of its eloquence… all render it one of the most impressive treatises which have descended to us from the seventeenth century.[4]

It is certainly an emphasis which needs to be rediscovered in the twenty-first century, in which the concept of heaven is dismissed as an intoxicant designed to enslave the masses – “the opium of the people”.[5] The secular miasma that surrounds us today is chilling to any thoughts of heaven.

Even to one without religious commitment and theological convictions, it should be an unsettling thought that this world is attempting to chart its way through some of the most perilous waters of history, having now decided to ignore what was for nearly two millennia its fixed point of reference – its North Star. The certainty of judgement, the longing for heaven, the dread of hell: these are not prominent considerations in our modern discourse about important matters of life. But they once were.[6]

Liberal theology is dismissive:

The concept of a Christ who pre-existed as a heavenly being, and the corresponding concept of man’s own transition to a heavenly world of light, in which the self is destined to receive a celestial vesture, a spiritual body, are not merely inapprehensible by any rational process, they are totally meaningless.[7]

This “eclipse of heaven” is a mark of contemporary Christianity:

Though few churchmen explicitly repudiate belief in a future life, the virtual absence of references to it in modern hymns, prayers and popular apologetic indicates how little part it plays in the contemporary Christian consciousness.[8]

Even though the Bible says more about heaven than hell, William Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology contains 87 pages on hell and two on heaven.[9] Shedd is not atypical.

On the fringes of the evangelical world there is a fascination with post-death experiences and accounts of heavenly visits. However, we are right to be suspicious of such reports which lack Paul’s reticence when describing his visit to the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2-4).[10]

The aim of this paper is to explore what the Bible teaches about the nature of our heavenly life. Paul reminds us that “no eye has seen, and no ear has heard, and no human mind has conceived the things God has prepared for those who love him”, so we should approach with caution. However, Paul goes on to assure us that “these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit” (1 Cor 3:9-10).

We have a joyful duty to explore what God has revealed: “It has pleased our Father to open his counsel, and to let us know the very intent of his heart, to acquaint us with the eternal intent of his love.”[11] Leon Morris reminds us, “Men cannot raise themselves to heaven and penetrate divine mysteries… Jesus, however, really has been in heaven and he has brought heavenly realities to earth.”[12]

Contemplating the business of heaven is necessary for our spiritual health. Jonathan Edwards asserts:

It becomes us to spend this life only as a journey towards heaven… to which we should subordinate all other concerns of life. Why should we labour for or set our hearts on anything else, but that which is our proper end and true happiness?[13]

Number 22 of Edward’s personal resolutions, framed in his twenties, reads:

Resolved, to endeavour to obtain for myself as much happiness, in the other world, as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigour, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of.[14]

Here is a man who is serious about the business of heaven. As Baxter himself says, “There is nothing else worth setting our hearts on.”[15]

I. Conflicting Emphases

The older theologians, like Baxter and the Puritans and those influenced by their theology, such as Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon, emphasise the vision of God as the central attraction of heaven. This conception of the “beatific vision” as the highest good has pre-Reformation roots.[16] From earliest times people saw the hereafter in terms of God himself: our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him. This emphasis does not deny the resurrection of the body or the reality of the new creation, but it focuses on the vision of God and the fellowship which flows from this as the fundamental glory of heaven.

However, another emphasis has emerged. Within the stream of Dutch Calvinism which springs from Abraham Kuyper there has been a suspicion of the otherworldliness often associated with the “beatific vision”. Kuyper’s famous dictum, “There is not a square inch of our human existence of which Christ cannot say it is mine”[17], has given birth to a strong emphasis on the cultural mandate. Less attention is paid to the inner movements of the heart and more on our engagement with political, economic and cultural affairs; we need to shift our attention from heavenly to earthly concerns. The beatific vision no longer fits in with the broader framework of our lives – modernity is loath to accept that our ultimate goal lies outside of this world.

Herman Bavinck, for example, argues that we will carry our cultural achievements over into the next world and will engage in social and cultural endeavours of various kinds. A. A. Hoekema dismisses the idea that we will “…spend eternity somewhere off in space, wearing white robes, plucking harps, singing songs and flitting from cloud to cloud as we are doing it”.[18]

This newer emphasis has been popularised by N. T. Wright: Our hope should be focused on this world and its redemption. He dismisses the “blatant Platonism” of a hymn like “Abide with me”[19]: “Heaven’s morning breaks and earth’s vain shadows flee…” We need a complete re-orientation of our eschatology so that it is “this worldly” in its concerns. This will reshape our mission.

In his book “A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology”, J. Richard Middleton launches a polemic against any “otherworldly hope”: “Although there many New Testament texts that Christians often read as if they teach a heavenly destiny, the texts do not actually teach this.”[20] We must dismiss the idea that the “final destiny of the faithful is an unending worship service of perpetual praise in God’s immediate presence in another world”.[21]

There is much to be commended in this emphasis. The picture of heaven as a place of eternal disembodied hymn singing is an unhelpful caricature. We want, quite rightly, to affirm the goodness of the creation and the continuity between activities of this world and the next. The original cultural mandate lost by Adam and restored by Christ, becomes the focal point.

However, it seems to me that it is an over-reaction, which reduces heaven to human proportions. In his book “Grounded in Heaven: Recentring Christian Hope and Life in God”[22], Michael Allen presents a more nuanced and, I would argue, more biblically balanced view. He argues that the “this worldly” emphasis of Wright and Middleton “… minimizes or mocks the heavenly, the beatific, the liturgical, and especially anything they might deem Platonic”.[23]

Their emphasis has come to “tar and feather the classic tradition, accusing it of having lapsed into middle Platonic dualism”.[24] He goes on to argue that “[w]e need to be wary, therefore, of unwittingly falling into eschatological naturalism that speaks of God’s instrumentality (as a means to, or instigator of, an end) but fails to confess communion with God as our one true end (in whom alone any other things are to be enjoyed)”.[25] And again, “we must recognize that God is not only the cause but also the centre of the Christian hope”.[26]

In the final analysis, we do not need to make a choice between fulfilling the cultural mandate and seeing and knowing God. In the Garden of Eden Adam both tended the garden and walked with the Lord; there was no conflict between the two.

Ray Ortlund puts it like this:

How big is your hope? Is the wingspan of your hope big enough to get you soaring? Is your hope big enough, imaginative enough, with wolves and lambs and lions thrown in for good measure? Hope on this grand scale – this is the gospel. It is big. It offers both the prospect of personal intimacy with God forever and a renewed world of peace and righteousness. It is not just one or the other. God has a plan for you and for this whole world. The Lord Jesus Christ died for this, and he will not be denied.[27]

In the next section we will investigate the location of the heavenly life. In the two sections which follow we will explore the nature and the activities of this life. We will then examine what the Bible sees as the primary business of heaven – the enjoyment of God. The final section will deal with the practical and pastoral implications of our study.

II. The Location of Heaven

The Hebrew word shamayim and the Greek ouranos are both used in three fundamental ways.[28]

  1. The “atmospheric heaven” refers to the sky or blanket of air which surrounds the earth (Deut 28:12; Ps 147:8 Isa 55:9-11; Job 38:29).
  2. The “celestial heavens” are the sphere in which the sun, moon and stars appear (Gen 1:14; Ps 19:1-6; Isa 39:12).
  3. The “heaven of heavens” is the dwelling place of God. It is his habitation (Isa 57:15; 63:15; Matt 5:16), where his throne is located (Matt 5:34) and to where our prayers are directed (Matt 6:9). Jesus descended from heaven and returned there in his resurrected body (Luke 9:51; John 6:33-51; Acts 1:11; Eph 4:7-16; 1 Cor 2:9).[29] It is the present abode of the disembodied saints who have died in Christ (Heb 12:23).

In the future, God’s throne room will descend to earth and heaven and earth will be united in a new creation (Rev 21:1-4). Our eternal destiny is located here. Without minimising the gravity of sin, we should emphasise its continuity with the present creation. Revelation 21:1-4 is not describing creatio ex nihilo but re-creation and restoration – it is this current universe, but radically and splendidly different.

Edward Thurneysen describes it like this:

The world into which we shall enter in the Parousia of Christ is therefore not another world; it is this world, this heaven, this earth; both, however, passed away and renewed. It is these forests, these fields, these cities, these streets, these people, that will be the scene of redemption. At the present they are battlefields, full of the strife and sorrow of the not yet accomplished consummation; then they will be fields of victory, fields of harvest, where out of seed that was sown with tears the everlasting sheaves will be reaped and brought home.[30]

Berkouwer commends his statement: “Better the extreme concreteness of Thurneysen than the dualistic spiritualization of the expectation, which is foreign to the works of God and wraps the future in impenetrable darkness.”[31]

The next world is not a strange and futuristic fantasy, but a wonderfully recognisable home. R. L. Dabney puts it like this:

This conclusion gives us a noble view of the immutability of God’s purposes of grace and the glory of his victory over sin and Satan. The planet was fashioned to be man’s heritage; and a part of it, at least, adorned with the beauties of a paradise, for his home. Satan sought to mar the divine plan, by the seduction of our first parents. For long ages he seemed to triumph and has filled his usurped dominion with crime and misery. But this insolent invasion is not destined to obscure the Almighty’s beneficent design… Messiah will come and re-establish his throne in the midst of his scarred and ravaged realm; he will cleanse away every stain of sin and death, and make the earth bloom forever with more than its pristine splendour; so that the very plan which was initiated when “the morning stars sang together and the sons of the morning shouted for joy”, will stand to everlasting ages.[32]

And listen to John Piper:

What happens to our bodies and what happens to the creation go together. And what happens to our bodies is not annihilation but redemption… Our bodies will be redeemed, restored, made new, not thrown away. And then so it will be with the heavenlies and the earth.[33]

In what way will this new creation be different from the present creation?

1. Heaven and Earth Will Be United

In Revelation 21:2-3, John describes the descent of the new Jerusalem: Earth becomes the place where God has his kingly throne; the new creation becomes the temple where God dwells (Rev 21:22-23).

In Eden, Adam walked with God in the cool of the day. Sin led to banishment from God’s presence (Gen 3:8, 23-24). The harmony of heaven and earth were destroyed. In the new creation this separation comes to an end. Christ, the last Adam, reigns on this earth uniting everything under his rule:

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross (Col 1:19-20).

And again,

With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfilment – to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ (Eph 1:8-10).

The work of Christ is not just to save a few individuals, but to redeem the entire cosmos![34]

The Bible teaches that the future is not an immaterial “paradise” but a new heaven and a new earth. In Revelation 21, we do not see human beings being taken out of this world into heaven, but rather heaven coming down and cleansing, renewing and perfecting this material world.[35]

2. The Curse Will Be Removed

The second great difference is the absence of the curse: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4; 22:3). Everything that currently mars God’s good creation is banished forever. There is no more pain, disease or sickness. Believers may have come out of great tribulation but,

Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,
nor any scorching heat
(Rev 7:16).

In his earthly ministry Jesus stood toe-to-toe with disease, the disruption of the created order and death itself. In each case he prevailed and conquered. This was intended to be a temporary foretaste of the perfections of the eternal state, with the removal of all pain – physical, emotional, relational and spiritual – forever:

And doubtless there is not such a thing as grief and sorrow known there. Nor is there such a thing as a pale face, a languid body, feeble joints, unable infancy, decrepit age, peccant humours, dolorous sickness, griping fears, consuming cares nor whatsoever deserves the name of evil. Indeed, a gale of groans and sighs, a steam of tears accompanied us to the very gates, and there bid us farewell forever.[36]

Richard Bauckman makes the point that it is not simply the return to Eden, but a completion of the unfinished work of God: “Salvation is both restorative (repairing the damage done by sin) and progressive (moving the work of creation on to its completion).”[37]

III. The Nature of the Heavenly Life

The heavenly life is marked out by several characteristics:

1. It is a Bodily Life

In the popular imagination, heaven is of a non-corporeal, dream-like existence:

Our redeemed spirits can live in a spiritual realm like heaven. Therefore, the life we know now as spiritual reality will continue in heaven, but we shall not need or desire the things associated with our present physical bodies, simply because we shall not possess bodies in heaven.[38]

Such a view owes more to Platonic philosophy that biblical revelation. Plato vilified the body as the prison cell which entombed the mind. Liberation involved escaping from the tomb. This is why the intelligentsia of Athens sneered when Paul preached the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 17:32).

The biblical view is very different. According to Genesis 2:7, man is a combination of the physical (“the dust of the ground”) and the non-physical (“the breath of life”). These two components are diverse in origin but form one organic unit without disharmony or conflict. We are indisputably material beings. There is nothing despicable or sinful or degrading about matter or the body.

Death occurs when the unity of the body and soul/spirit is temporarily disrupted. The intermediate state involves the ongoing conscious existence of the soul/spirit while the body “sleeps”, awaiting resurrection (1 Thess 3:13; 4:14,16). In 2 Corinthians 5:1-7 Paul speaks of the frailty of the human body or “earthly tent” (5:1,4). His longing is not to escape from the body, but to be clothed with his new body (5:4). Being unclothed or bodiless is not natural and Paul shrinks from it.

Paul’s frankness about the undesirability of nakedness may have been conditioned by the romanticism associated with super-spirituality arising from over-realized eschatology in Corinth. Nonetheless, there is also a sober balance. While the general resurrection of the believer is a joyful prospect, death itself is viewed ambivalently. Paul’s words realistically reflect the tension.[39]

The ultimate Christian hope is the resurrection of the dead, not the immortality of the soul. The business of heaven requires a resurrection body. John Murray warns, “…whenever the focus of interest and emphasis becomes the immortality of the soul, then there is a grave deflection from the biblical doctrine of immortal life and bliss.” Glorification, he adds,

… is not the vague sentimentality and idealism so characteristic of those whose interest is merely in the immortality of the soul. Here we have the concreteness and realism of the Christian hope epitomized in the resurrection to life everlasting and signalized by the descent of Christ from heaven with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God.[40]

When Christ returns, he will bring all his saints with him (1 Thess 3:13; Jude 14). Their bodies will be raised from the ground and the bodies of living saints will be transformed and all God’s people will meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess 4:16-17). Although it is perfectly natural for believers to desire to depart and be with Christ at death (Phil 1:21-26), this is not their ultimate hope.

What will be the nature of the resurrected body? The best place to begin is with Christ. His resurrection is the pledge and guarantee of our own resurrection (John 14:19). It is also the foretaste of our resurrection. It is not just that he is alive; he is alive in a particular way. It was

not merely a great event upon the plane of history, but an act that breaks into history with the powers of another world. It is akin to the creation in the beginning; and the Gospel is the good news that God is creating a new world.[41]

His resurrected body had three characteristics: Firstly, it was a real body. The disciples were able to grasp his feet (Matt 28:9), to see him and to touch him (Luke 24:36-40). As a final confirmation he ate a piece of broiled fish (Luke 24:41-43).

Secondly, it was the same body in which he had lived and died. There was a recognisable continuity between his earthly body and his risen body. This explains the significance of the empty tomb (John 20:2-7). The body had not somehow dissipated or disappeared – it had risen. To confirm this, he showed them his scars (Luke 14:39) and invited them to touch his wounds (John 20:24-28).

Finally, it was a transformed body. It was not like the body of Lazarus, who rose only to die again. He did not simply come back from the dead – his new body had new properties and possibilities. He could suddenly appear (John 20:19,24) or disappear (Luke 24:36). In this body he was able to ascend to heaven (Acts1:9). His resurrection body is the template for the resurrection bodies of his people:

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Phil 3:20-21).

Paul emphasises this in 1 Corinthians 15: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (15:20). We would therefore expect that the three characteristics of Jesus’ resurrection body identified above will also mark out our resurrection bodies.

For believers there will inevitably be a radical discontinuity between our current experience and our future hope. Resurrection is more than the resuscitation of a dead corpse and the new creation will be purged by fire:

In its present fallen condition, this body cannot withstand the glory of the heavenly city; it must be glorified, as Christ’s body was, in order to participate in the age to come. Flesh and blood in its present, fallen condition cannot endure the joys of Zion… We cannot imagine the glory of our future existence, but we can look to Christ as our forerunner.[42]

Paul describes the nature of the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15:39-41. Without denying the continuity between our current bodies and our resurrection body, Paul shows the radical discontinuity between the two by making a series of contrasts:

The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body (15:42b-44).

Firstly, our present bodies are marked by corruption – they are “perishable”. Because of the curse we carry the seeds of decay and death within us from the moment of conception. The resurrection body is incorruptible. It will never again be touched by decay, disease or death.

Secondly, our current bodies are “dishonourable”. They are marked by sin and unrighteousness. They fail to come close to God’s glory. But the new body will be marked by glory and partakes of the divine nature (John 17:24; 2 Pet 1:4).

Thirdly, the present body is marked by “weakness”. In all our activities we are aware of our human frailty and limitations. Like Paul we know that we have the treasure of the gospel in earthen vessels (2 Cor 4:7). The resurrection body is characterised by “power”. All decay and frustration are gone forever.

Finally, the “natural body” (soma psychikon) will be replaced with the “spiritual body” (soma pneumatikon). On the surface this may appear to suggest that the resurrection body will be incorporeal, composed of “spirit” rather than “flesh”. However, this would be to misunderstand Paul’s meaning. Paul has already used the terms “natural” and “spiritual” in 1 Corinthians 2:14-15:

The psychikos person belongs to the present age and is susceptible to temptation. The pneumatikos person here is not a non-material being, but one who is guided by the Holy Spirit. The future resurrection body will also be animated and empowered by the Spirit. Christ’s resurrection body was directed by the Spirit (2 Cor 3:17). The same will be true of our resurrection bodies. As a result of this they will be no longer vulnerable to temptation.[43]

This transformation is necessary if man is to experience and enjoy the full expression of the future life. This is because “…flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor 15:50). To continue into God’s holy and glorious kingdom in our present weak bodies would be horrendous. This change is therefore necessary and will be experienced by all believers (1 Cor 15:51-54).

In summary:

Resurrection is not the mere resuscitation of a corpse, returning to the same state as before. It is a far greater in kind. So “we look for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come”. No wonder the early church prayed standing and facing the east, the direction from which Christ was to return, in eager anticipation.[44]

2. It is a Morally Perfect Life

If the resurrected body is free from the physical and psychological limitations of its current experience, it is also free from the power and the presence of sin. Justified believers still face the daily battle with indwelling sin in this life (Gal 5:17). The acts of the flesh manifest themselves in our lives and in our churches (Gal 5:19-21), causing the most acute pain and sorrow. We feel deeply the waywardness of our hearts and are often worn down by the daily battle with sin.

One of the great joys of heaven is the perfection of our moral nature so that not only will we never sin again, but we will find it impossible to sin. The church will be glorious without spot and wrinkle (Eph 5:27), clothed in fine linen (Rev 19:8) and delivered from the bondage of sin (Rom 8:21).

The freedom of heaven, then, is the freedom from sin: not that the believer just happens to be free from sin, but that he is so constituted or reconstituted that he cannot sin. He does not want to sin, and he does not want to want to sin.[45]

Jonathan Edwards puts it like this:

Even the very best of men, are, on earth, imperfect. But it is not so in heaven. There shall be no pollution or deformity or offensive defect of any kind, seen in any person or thing; but everyone shall be perfectly pure, and perfectly lovely in heaven.[46]

And Edward Donnelly expresses it this way:

Never again will we break God’s commandments. Never again will we fail our Saviour or cause pain to anyone. Never again will we have to beg for forgiveness. God has predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom 8:29)[47].

The last phrase reminds us that the ultimate purpose of God is not just the removal of sin, but also our transformation into the likeness of Christ. To be human is to be made in the image of God. It underpins all that is distinctively human. The image has been damaged but not destroyed by the fall. Jesus alone is the full and perfect image and likeness of God. Sanctification is the process by which God restores the marred image in man after the likeness of Christ, who is the mirror of our true humanity (Rom 8:29; Eph 4:23,24; 2 Cor 3:18). He is the firstfruits of his people who are joined to him by faith.

Philip Edgcumbe Hughes puts it like this:

This process of transformation into the image of Christ is none other than the restoration of the image of God which was marred through the fall of man… Indeed, as Calvin explains, the design of the gospel is precisely this, that the image of God, which has been defaced by sin, may be repaired within us.[48]

John Howe emphasises the positive aspects of this transformation:

Now the soul will be equally disposed to every holy exercise that shall be suitable to its state… There will be no remaining blindness of mind, nor error of judgement… ’Tis culminated glory, glory, added to glory. ’Tis growing progressive glory, we are changed into the same image from glory to glory.[49]

When he returns and we see him we will be like him. A. J. Gossip refers to Principal Rainy’s ringing challenge at a communion service in Edinburgh:

Do you believe your faith? Do you believe this I am telling you? Do you believe that the day is coming, really coming, when you will stand before the throne of God, and the angels will whisper together and say, “How like Christ he is?” That is not easy to believe. And yet not to believe is blasphemy. For that, not less than that, is what Christ promises.[50]

3. It is a Social Life

A popular concept of heaven is of solitary communion between the soul and Christ. However, it is clear from Scripture that although the experience of heaven is intensely personal, it is not private. John sees a great crowd that no one can count gathered from all the nations (Rev 7:9). The emphasis is always on the Church, the Bride for which Christ died and for whom he is preparing an eternal home. There will be one flock (John 10:16; 17:21), and one church of the firstborn (Heb 12:22-23). We will meet the Lord together (1 Thess 4:17). For those who feel acutely the sting of bereavement and separation, there is the promise of reunion with those of our loved ones who have died in Christ – we are to comfort each other with this prospect (1 Thess 4:13-18).

One of the most popular images used to describe heaven is the feast or banquet (Matt 26:29-30; Luke 14:15; Rev 19:9). Most commentators explain this in metaphorical terms and deny the necessity of eating food in the new creation. This may be the case, but we should not be overly dogmatic. In his resurrection body Jesus ate a piece of fish (Luke 24:41) and prepared breakfast for his disciples (John 21:1-14). This suggests the possibility that one of the joys of heaven will be feasting with God’s people. Eating and drinking are not just functional. They are a source of great pleasure and an opportunity for corporate celebration.

One of the principal attractions of this eternal fellowship is that all division and disunity is ended. Disunity among Christians deeply grieved Baxter; the prospect of the cloudless love between all God’s people thrilled his heart:

O sweet, O happy day of the Rest of the Saints in glory! When, as there is one God, one Christ, one Spirit, so we shall have one judgement, one Heart, one Church, one Imployment for ever. [51]

Baxter looks forward to a time when “There is no discipline erected by state policy, nor any disordered popular rule: no government but that of Christ…”[52] This will be a time of social equality and corporate joy:

The poor man shall no more be tired with his incessant labours… no stooping of the servant to the master, or tenant to the landlord: no hunger, or cold, or nakedness… no parting of friends asunder, nor voice of lamentation heard in our dwellings… Then shall the ransomed of the Lord return and come to Sion with songs, and everlasting joy will be on their heads: they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.[53]

Will we know each other in heaven? Most theologians give a positive answer to this question. Christ’s disciples recognised him in the upper room (Luke 24:36-39) and on the shore (John 21:1-14). J. C. Ryle argues that there would be no comfort in the words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18 if we do not recognise each other in heaven.[54]

Listen to Baxter again:

Surely there shall no knowledge cease which now we have, but only that which implieth our imperfection; and what imperfection can this imply?... Nor is it only our old acquaintance, but all the saints of all the ages, whose faces in the flesh we never saw, whom we shall there both know and comfortably enjoy.[55]

How can we be happy when some of those we love will not be with us in heaven? It may be argued that in heaven we will not know of the existence of hell. However, this suggests an ignorance which the Bible does not teach. Jim Packer argues that because we will be transformed into the likeness of Christ, we will rejoice in the justice of God.

God will judge justly, and angels and saints and martyrs will praise him for it. So, it seems inescapable that we shall, with them, approve the judgment of persons – of rebels – whom we have known and loved.[56]

The martyrs cry out for justice (Rev 6:9-11). In heaven we will share their passion not for revenge but for the glory of God. Our salvation will be a cause of eternal gratitude:

They shall see the dreadful miseries of the damned, and consider that they deserved the same misery, and that it was sovereign grace and nothing else, which made them so much differ from the damned.[57]

Beyond this we can be sure that he will wipe away all our tears (Rev 21:4).

Will there be gender in heaven? Once again this is not a matter about which we can be dogmatic. We will be like the angels (Matt 22:30), but this does not necessarily mean that we will be genderless. John Frame argues that broad biblical principles lead in the direction of affirming the immutability of gender. Those who appear after death are similar in form to their earthly bodies (e.g., 1 Sam 28:11-15; Matt 17:1-3). Jesus’ resurrection body continued to be masculine. Sexuality is part of the image of God and is fundamental to our identity as human beings.[58]

Will there be marriage in heaven? Married couples are heirs together of life (1 Pet 3:7). However, although there may be gender in heaven, it is clear that the marriage bond will cease. Jesus affirmed this: “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matt 22:30). Like weeping and rejoicing, it is one of those things which is passing away (1 Cor 7:29-31). Because there is no marriage there will be no sexual intercourse. There is no need for procreation in heaven. God has always confined sexual intimacy to the marriage covenant. Once marriage ceases there is no context in which this would be needed or, indeed, appropriate.

John Frame expresses it like this:

Our earthly families will be transcended by the worldwide family of God. But doubtless the new creation is not a time of lesser intimacy, but of greater intimacy with God and with other members of his body… I don’t know what will replace sexual pleasure, but I know that our intimacy with God and one another will be something greater and better than anything we know and enjoy on this earth – as everything will be.[59]

IV. The Activities of our Heavenly Life

What will we do in heaven? What will be the actual business of heaven? Heaven is described as a place of rest and this is the image which is incorporated in the title of Baxter’s book. In this life we experience the crushing cares of responsibility, temptation and pain. The kind of frustration described in the book of Ecclesiastes is our common lot; life is often remorseless, exasperating and wearisome: “What more welcome news to men under public calamities, unpleasing employments, plunderings, losses, sad tidings – which is common case – than this of Rest?”[60] Christians are also engaged in vicious conflict, instigated by a relentless and malicious foe. The rest of heaven means that we know an end to such trials and troubles: “No flesh to crucify. No pain to face. No malice to fear.”[61]

More than that, we will share in God’s Sabbath of delight (Isa 58:13). Just as God delights in his Son and in his completed creation, we will eternally delight in Christ and in the glories of the new creation. However, we should not think of rest as inactivity. In the new creation the original creation mandate (Gen 1:28) is re-issued and resumed. In our resurrected bodies we will engage in physical, intellectual, creative and cultural pursuits:

Paradise is no mere seminary where Adam and Eve whiled away the hours in theological discussion. I’m sure they did that, and they did it with more relish than any of my students. But Eden offered scope for art, science and technology as well as theology. The same will doubtless be true in the world to come. [62]

Therefore, the eternal rest, “no more excludes all action and activity in the age to come than it does in the present dispensation”.[63] The rest is not the cessation of activities, but the experience of reaching a goal that is crucially important to us. The Promised Land was the typological place of rest for Israel (Heb 3:11,18). It was a place of satisfaction but also of joyful and fruitful labour. Wilbur Smith expresses it like this: “In heaven we will be permitted to finish those worthy tasks which we had dreamed to do while on earth but which neither time nor strength nor ability allowed us to achieve.”[64]

Heaven is not static. Perhaps we will develop new skills unknown to us in the present dispensation. These may include musical, artistic, technological or intellectual abilities which are as yet unrealised. The cultural mandate involves reigning over this new creation with Christ and discovering its secrets and its beauties. Our supreme joy is in God, but this does not exclude rejoicing in the glories of his creation and gladly employing his gifts to tame and serve it.

If there is development, this suggests that we will experience time in heaven. Since our existence there will be physical it will also be temporal. A physical body demands a time-space existence. Times and seasons will exist, and one event will follow another (Rev 21:24-26; 22:2). There will therefore be opportunities to grow and develop and to see old projects completed and new projects begun.

When it comes to intellectual development, Jonathan Edwards is clear; after millions of years, the saints’ ideas

…shall be a million more in number than when they first entered into heaven, as is evident, because by supposition the number of such ages will be a million times more in number; therefore, their knowledge will increase to eternity.[65]

It is no great surprise that Edwards, the intellectual giant, thinks in terms of a growth in knowledge. We are justified in applying the principle to less cerebral aspects of our human nature:

Bearing the image of the heavenly, we shall explore, colonise, serve, keep and enhance our magnificent environment… It will challenge our intellects, fire our imaginations and stimulate our industry… With energy, dexterity and athleticism here undreamed of, we shall explore horizons beyond our wildest dreams.[66]

So, we will continue to work, but it will be a work which is free from toil and fatigue; work in which we take great delight and find satisfaction and fulfilment.[67] The original cultural mandate is finally realised:

With the curse of sin gone, the apocalypses past, surely human beings will become active stewards of the Lord in completing or extending the universe of things and ideas. The whole creation groans, said Paul, awaiting human redemption. Civilization is not old: it has barely begun.[68]

The ultimate calling of the church, Christ’s bride, is to reign with her royal husband for eternity (Rev 22:5). This is the fulfilment of the original creation mandate. In a creation which has been wholly redeemed and is wholly new, we will sit with Christ as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Jesus speaks of reigning over cities (Luke 19:17,19). If we endure, we will reign with him (2 Tim 2:12) and will even judge angels (1 Cor 6:2-3): “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Rom 8:17).

It is in this context that we should address the issue of rewards. There are no degrees in justification, as is clearly seen in Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-6). The dying thief entered into a full enjoyment of this inheritance (Luke 23:39-43). Eternal life is promised to all who believe, and this is unequivocal (John 3:16; Rom 2:7).

However, there seems to be no doubt that there will be rewards for believers. Some have questioned this on philosophical grounds. Immanuel Kant’s ethical theory argues that an act can only be considered moral if its motivation is the moral rectitude of the act itself without the incentive of a reward. But this is clearly contradicted by the plain teaching of the Bible which often motivates our good works by the promise of reward. This is one of the principal themes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:3-13; 6:1-18; c.f. Matt 10:41-42; 16:27; 19:29). The desires for treasure in heaven affects our hearts now:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:19-21).

Paul warns that our service must be conducted with the right materials:

If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved – even though only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:12-15).

A desire for rewards motivated his service:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2 Tim 4:7-8).

Jesus uses the promise of rewards to encourage his church to endure persecution and not be seduced by the enticements of the world or false doctrine (Rev 2:10, 26; 3:11, 21; 4:10; 5:9-10).

Some rewards are promised to all faithful believers:

“Truly I tell you”, Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – along with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30).

One of the greatest rewards enjoyed by all God’s people is what Tom Barnes calls “reputational transformation”:[69] “Someday it will be revealed who Christians truly are… the world will no longer look upon the saints as the scum of the world, those to be pitied or as a threat.”[70] The cry for vindication will be answered (Rev 6:9-11). This vindication is a motivation for faithfully following a Saviour who was despised and rejected by men. God vindicated his Son, and he will vindicate the saints.

However, there also appear to be degrees of reward, as is seen in the parables of the minas or pounds (Luke 19:12-15). How are we to understand this?

Every believer is promised a life which is full of happiness, joy and satisfaction. There is no sin in heaven, so there can be no envy or jealousy or covetousness. Members of Christ’s body will not feel cheated, inadequate or undervalued. The works for which the rewards are awarded are no indication of earned merit but are the effects of God’s gracious work in us (Phil 2:13).

Augustine explained it thus: “God crowns not our merits, but his own gifts. The reward is given not for our merits, but to the recompense of grace previously bestowed.”[71] The rewards are associated with our labours for the gospel. So, for those who are faithful shepherds of the flock Peter gives this encouragement: “…when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Pet 5:4).

We may distinguish extrinsic and intrinsic rewards: “A parent may offer a reward for practicing the piano (an extrinsic reward), while the intrinsic reward is learning to play the instrument.”[72]

The reward here is a good secondary motivation which supports the primary goal of pleasing our Saviour. Gratitude and hope combine to motivate sacrificial service. Heaven is defined as communion with Christ (1 Thess 4:17). The rewards may be understood in terms of closer communion with him – the difference in the rewards may lie not in external or objective circumstances, but in the subjective awareness and comprehension of these objective blessings.

V. The Consummation of our Heavenly Life

1. The Consuming Desire of the Heart

In the Bible the consummation of our heavenly delight is the vision of God and the worship which flows from this. God is not only the cause of our hope – he is its centre and heartbeat. Allen criticises those who teach that “…God’s sovereignty brings about that kingdom but then seemingly slides off stage-right upon its culmination”.[73] Human beings were created for God and the desire to see and know and enjoy him is deeply embedded in our human nature: “I was created to see thee, and not yet have I done that for which I was made.”[74]

Thirsting for God is a picture of intense desire (Ps 42:1; 63:1). Every other joy in heaven will be secondary and derived from this ultimate joy. The essence of eternal life is to know God (John 17:3), so we may postulate that our eternal joys will consist in an ever-deepening and growing experience of the eternal God. Indeed, it is the presence of God which makes heaven into heaven.

After the sin with the golden calf God promises that the people will still inherit the land but goes on to declare, “Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people, and I might destroy you on the way (Exod 33:3). The people respond with lamentation: “When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn, and no one put on any ornaments” (Exod 33:4).

What is the point of having the gifts without the giver? Without the Lord the land is an empty promise. Without God heaven is an empty promise. Paul longed to be with Christ, which is the essence of the intermediate state (Phil 1:21-26) and the driving force of his life (Phil 3:10-14). Peter expresses this as an inheritance which can never perish, spoil or fade (1 Pet 1:3-5). God is the inheritance of his people, just as they are his inheritance.[75] Peter Kreeft puts it like this:

Finding him is heaven. Seeking him is heaven’s door. Not finding him is hell, and not seeking him is the door to hell. The road to hell is not paved with good intentions, but with no intentions…[76]

Pascal expressed it thus: “The infinite abyss of the human soul can be filled only with an infinite object, in other words, with God himself.”[77]

And listen to Samuel Rutherford:

O my Lord Jesus Christ, if I could be in heaven without thee, it would be hell; and if I could be in hell, and have thee still it would be heaven to me, for thou art all the heaven that I want.[78]

Jonathan Edwards agrees:

God is the highest good of the reasonable creature, and the enjoyment of him is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied… Fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, children or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows. But the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but the scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but the streams, but God is the fountain. These are but the drops, but God is the ocean.[79]

2. The Beatific Vision

Roman Catholic theology refers to this as the “beatific vision”. Protestant theology has tended to avoid this phrase. However, it continues to see the vision of God as the biblical reference point for the experience of the saints in glory. Calvin, for example, gives no detailed discussion of the beatific vision in the Institutes, but in his Commentaries, he exegetes the nature of the face-to-face vision of God described in Scripture.

It is the presence of God which is the supreme attraction of the new creation. Here we will serve God day and night in his temple (Rev 7:15). The city is a perfect cube, reminiscent of the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple (Rev 21:16; 1 Kgs 6:20). Revelation contains more songs than any other New Testament book (Rev 4-5; 7:10; 11:16-18; 15:2-4). The river of life flows from the throne and satisfies God’s people (Rev 21:9; 22:1). The theophanies of Moses, Paul and John were a foretaste of the beatific vision. But they all recognised that their creatureliness and fallenness limited their perceptions (Exod 33:20; 1 Tim 6:16; John 1:18). In our perfected nature we will be able to delight in God as never before.

Baxter again:

The more perfect the sight is, the more delightful the beautiful object. The more the appetite, the sweeter the food. The more musical the ear, the more pleasant the melody. The more perfect the soul, the more joyous those joys.[80]

Jonathan Edwards describes it as an intellectual vision: “It is an intellectual view by which God is seen. God is a spiritual being, and he is beheld with the understanding.”[81] This does not mean that this will not involve our physical eyes:

And there will doubtless be appearances of a divine and inimitable glory and beauty in Christ’s glorified body, which it will indeed be a ravishing and blessed sight to see. The majesty that will appear in Christ’s body will express and show forth the spiritual greatness and majesty of the divine nature. The pureness and beauty of that light will express the perfection of divine holiness. Thus, it was that the three disciples beheld Christ at his transfiguration upon the mount. They beheld a wonderful and outward glory in Christ’s body, an inexpressible beauty in his countenance: but that outward glory and beauty delighted them principally as it was an expression or signification of the divine excellencies of his mind, as we may see by their manner of speaking of it. It was the sweet mixture of majesty and grace in his countenance that ravished them.

Our experience of God in heaven involves the apprehension of his boundless love. Baxter writes:

Thou shalt be eternally embraced in the arms of that love, which was from everlasting, and will extend to everlasting: of that love which brought the Son of God’s love from heaven to earth, from the earth to the cross, from the cross to the grave, from the grave to glory: that love which was weary, hungry, tempted, scorned, scourged, buffeted, spit upon, crucified, pierced; which did fast, pray, heal, weep, sweat, bleed and die – that love will eternally embrace thee.[82]

Jonathan Edwards speaks of the infinite progress of the vision of God from this life, through the intermediate state and reaching into eternity after the resurrection. This means that there will never be eternal boredom. The soul is like a vessel which God fills with an endless supply of his presence. We will discover more and more of the loveliness of God. God will eternally communicate more and more of himself.

This suggests that in heaven we continue the journey we began on earth. The difficulties of our earthly pilgrimage are over – we have reached home and entered into our rest. However, as we follow Christ and drink more deeply from the wells of salvation, we will find an ever-increasing delight in God:

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

3. Seeing Jesus

In heaven there is to be a much fuller vision of God, but will we see God himself in his essence? Bavinck argues that this is impossible, because it would lead to erasing the boundary between Creator and creature and the danger of the “deification of humanity”.[83] How can we see God “who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16)?

The Bible teaches God’s invisibility (Exod 33:20; John 1:18; 4:24; 1 John 4:12; 1 Tim 6:16; 1:17; Col 1:15). Yet it also promises that we will see him face-to-face (Matt 5:8; Rev 22:4). How do we understand this apparent contradiction? The answer is that we see Christ. Says Edwards:

The seeing of God in the glorified body of Christ is the most perfect way of seeing God with the bodily eyes that can be. It is seeing a real body that one of the persons of the Trinity has assumed to be his body and that he dwells in for ever as his own and in which the divine majesty and excellency appear as much as it is possible for it to appear in outward form and shape.[84]

In the shadow of the cross the Redeemer prays that his people might be with him forever and see his glory (John 17:24). We will see the glory of God in his face (2 Cor 4:6). “For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7:17). The Son is our Shepherd and he actively leads his people in heaven (Rev 14:4). He will continue to pastor us for eternity, as he leads his people to streams of living water.

We find the same emphasis in John Owen. Christ is the focus of our vision in heaven. This vision involves “full clear apprehensions which all the blessed ones have of the Glory of God in Christ, of the work and effects of his Wisdom and Grace towards mankind”.[85]

Perhaps the only appropriate way of describing this future hope is in song:

The Bride eyes not her garment,
But her dear Bridegroom’s face;
I will not gaze at glory
But on my King of grace;
Not at the crown He giveth
But on His pierced hand:
The Lamb is all the glory
Of Immanuel’s
land.[86]

VI. The Blessings of our Hope

One of the common criticisms of emphasising our hope and calling for “heavenly-mindedness” is that it destroys our concern for the present world. C. S. Lewis makes a helpful riposte:

If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world are just the ones that thought the most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set afoot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Think about Heaven and you’ll get the earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you’ll get neither.[87]

As we examine this we will return to Baxter’s masterpiece. This is probably the most comprehensive treatment of our subject that has ever been penned. His concern, which flows from the tribulations of his own life and the turbulence of the times in which he lived, is to apply this doctrine to the hearts of his hearers. It is fascinating to examine its influence on the church and there are some unexpected discoveries.[88]

After defining the rest and affirming its desirability, Baxter explains how we may best contemplate heaven and then applies this contemplation to practical godliness.

1. Enjoying the Rest Now

Baxter encourages us to begin by recognising how important the rest is and how much we should desire it. We are constantly “in motion” and feel our distance from God.[89] We must pursue God’s rest with persevering faith: “Christ brings the heart to heaven first, and then the person… He that had truly rather have the enjoyment of God in Christ, than anything in the world shall have it.”[90]

Baxter challenges us to examine our hearts to make sure we have a true hope. There is a danger that we may know that it exists but fail to enter into it.[91] Baxter helps us to focus on this heavenly hope. We must recognise that heaven is the only treasure worth seeking and we must labour to apprehend how near it is.[92] He has an extensive section in which he explains what he means by “heavenly contemplation”.[93] Such contemplation involves the powers of both the mind and the affections. We are to strain our minds to apprehend the nature of our rest, but we are then to feel the power of it in our affections.[94] Baxter also warns about the danger of mere intellectual apprehension:

I entreat every one of my brethren in ministry, that they search and watch against this temptation; this is but gathering the materials and not erecting the building itself; this is but gathering our manna from others and not eating and digesting it ourselves… you may describe the joys of heaven, and yet never come near it in your hearts.[95]

Such an exercise demands self-discipline, so we need a set time and place to mediate and to be constant in our observation.[96] Baxter suggests at least half an hour every day. In particular we can use our Sabbaths as steps to glory. We need to prepare our hearts by laying aside thoughts of work or the distractions of pleasure. Our meditation will lead to a number of affections: love, desire, hope, courage and joy. We must awaken these affections through meditation:

For the present purpose, you may look over any promise of eternal life in the Gospel; any description of the glory of the saints, or any article of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Some one sentence concerning those eternal joys may afford you matters for many years’ meditation.[97]

We must preach these truths to our souls:

First, explain to thyself the subject on which thou dost mediate, both the terms and the subject matter; study the difficulties till the doctrine is clear. Secondly, confirm thy faith in the belief of it, by the most clear, convincing Scripture-reasons. Thirdly, then apply it according to its nature and thy necessity.[98]

As we do this, we will be struck by the massive advantages that heavenly joys have over earthly ones, and this will loosen our love for worldly things.[99]

Baxter gives a summary of this process:

As thou makest conscience of praying daily, so do thou of acting of the graces of meditation: and more especially in the meditating on the joys of heaven. To this end set apart one hour or half an hour every day, wherein thou mayest lay aside all worldly thoughts; and with all possible seriousness and reverence, as if thou wert going to speak to God himself, or to have sight of Christ, or of that blessed place; so, do thou withdraw thyself into some secret place and set thyself wholly to the following work.[100]

2. The Blessings of Enjoying the Rest Now

a. comfort

“We shall rest from all perplexing doubts and fears… doubts will be weeded out and trouble the gracious soul no more.”[101] Contemplating heaven will bring us comfort in the furnace of affliction:

The frequent and believing views of glory are the most precious cordial in all afflictions: first to sustain our spirits, and make our sufferings far more easy; secondly, to stay us from repining and make us bear with patience and joy; and thirdly, to strengthen our resolutions, that we forsake not Christ for fear of trouble.[102]

We are like David who affirmed “I had fainted unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”[103]

b. courage

Contemplation of heaven is designed to give us courage and boldness in the face of opposition and persecution. Like Jesus, persecuted believers are to set their minds on the things that lie ahead of them (Heb 12:1-3). Jesus reminds those who are facing persecution that the blessings of heaven await those who persevere and overcome (Rev 2:7,11,17,29; 3:5,12,21). Paul teaches us that our present suffering is light and momentary compared to the eternal weight of glory God is preparing for us (2 Cor 4:17).

Now suppose both death and hell were utterly defeated. Suppose the fight was fixed. Suppose God took you on a crystal ball trip into your future and you saw with indubitable certainty that despite everything – your sin, your smallness, your stupidity… Would you not return fearless and singing? What can earth do to you if you are guaranteed heaven? To fear the worst earthly loss would be like a millionaire fearing the loss of a penny – less, a scratch on a penny.[104]

c. holiness

Baxter reminds us that thinking about our rest will motivate us to live a holy and heavenly life now:[105]

I require thee as thou hopest for a part of this glory, that thou tenderest thy allegiance to the God of heaven, as ever thou hopest for a part in this glory, that thou presently take thy heart to task; chide it for its wilful strangeness to God; turn thy thoughts from the pursuit of vanity; bend thy soul to study eternity; busy it about the life to come… drench thine affections in these rivers of pleasure, or rather, in the sea of consolation; and if thy backward soul begin to flag and thy loose thoughts fly abroad, call them back, hold them to their work… and keep close guard upon thy thoughts till they are accustomed to obey…[106]

As long as the heart is employed with thoughts of heaven there is less room for the devil to tempt us:

When thou hast had a fresh, delightful taste of heaven, thou wilt not be so easily persuaded from it; you cannot persuade a child to part with an apple while the taste of its sweetness is yet in his mouth.[107]

It is unmortified sin which often prevents us from thinking about heaven.[108] So, longing for this “heavenly life” will spur us on to put sin to death. It is an antidote to the love of money or an addiction to ungodly company or a factious and divisive spirit. As we contemplate the cost paid to purchase this rest, it will humble our “proud and lofty spirit” and challenge our wilful laziness and slothfulness of spirit.

John Owen writes in a similar vein, encouraging us to fill our thoughts with the glory of Christ:

For if our future blessedness shall consist in being where he is, and beholding of his glory, what better preparation can there be for it than in constant previous contemplation of that glory in the revelation that is made in the Gospel, unto this very end, that by a view of it we may be gradually transformed into the same glory.[109]

d. pastoral care

According to Baxter, contemplating heaven will equip us to minister comfort and encouragement to other pilgrims:

It is he that has his conversation in heaven, who is the profitable Christian to all about him: With him you may take sweet counsel and go up to the celestial house of God. When a man is in a strange country, far from home, how glad is he of the company of one of his own nation. How delightful is it to them to talk of their country, of their acquaintance, and the affairs of their home? With a heavenly Christian thou mayest have such a discourse, for he hath been there in the Spirit, and can tell thee of the glory and rest above.[110]

e. evangelism

In one section Baxter encourages us “to help others to this rest”.[111] If we have assurance of this rest, we should share our faith with those around us:

Why then do not all the children of this kingdom bestir themselves more to help others to the enjoyment of it? Alas! How little are poor souls about us beholden to the most of us!… get your hearts affected with the misery of your brethren’s souls; be compassionate towards them: yearn after their recovery to salvation.[112]

He goes on to analyse some of the reasons why we fail in this area – a lack of compassion, a fear of rejection and a failure to recognise the serious condition of those who miss the rest.

Conclusion

We need to remember that the decisions we take in this life have repercussions in eternity. Our experience here is transitory. In whatever colours we paint our hope, it will prove to be more intense than anything we have ever imagined. It will include the full enjoyment of all the wholesome earthly pleasures we currently enjoy, but the heart of heaven is the enjoyment of God’s presence. In Eden, Adam had perfect health and relationships, and a mandate to serve as God’s vice-regent on earth. Sin forfeited this; Christ re-gained it. He grants the saints more than Adam lost. But the greatest blessing of Eden was the proximity of Adam to his God. The most grievous loss for Adam was exclusion from God’s presence. This relationship is restored in Christ and fully realised in heaven. Whether we are gathering around the throne to join with the angels in the worship of God, or whether we are serving God as we explore and enjoy the new creation, it is the presence of God that makes heaven the place that it is.

In the light of this we must constantly contemplate the glories of our heavenly rest:

Moses before he died, went up Mount Nebo, to take a survey of the land of Canaan; so, the Christian doth ascend the Mount of Contemplation, and take a survey, by faith, of his Rest. As Daniel in his captivity did three times a day open his window to Jerusalem, though far out of sight, when he went to God, so may the believing soul, in this captivity of the flesh, look towards Jerusalem which is above; and as Paul to the Colossians, so may he be, with the glorified spirits, absent in the flesh, but present in spirit, joying in beholding their heavenly order.[113]

Paul Mallard is the pastor of Widcombe Baptist Church in Bath. Since being called to the pastoral ministry in 1982, he has also served as pastor at churches in Chippenham and Worcester.

NOTES:

  1. Richard Baxter, The Saint’s Everlasting Rest. Abridged by John T. Wilkinson (Vancouver: Regent College Publications, 1962). back

  2. www.baxterianae.com/reliquiae.html, 1696, I.108. back

  3. Frederick J. Powicke, The Story and Significance of Rev. Richard Baxter’s “Saints’ Everlasting Rest”, 1920. back

  4. John Tulloch, English Puritanism and its Leaders (Wentworth Press, 2016), 331. back

  5. A. M. McKinnon, “Reading ‘Opium of the People’: Expression, Protest and the Dialectics of Religion”, Critical Sociology, vol 31, no. 1-2, 2005, 15-38. back

  6. A. J Conyers, The Eclipse of Heaven (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992), 21. back

  7. Giovanni Miegge, Gospel Myth in the Thought of Rudolf Bultmann (10, 94). back

  8. The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, Alan Richardson and John Bowden (eds.) (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press,1983), 146. back

  9. W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology (P&R, 1888), 882-883. back

  10. For a rebuttal of these experiences see John F. MacArthur, The Glory of Heaven (Fearn: Christian Focus, 1996), 13-51. back

  11. Richard Baxter, Practical Works XXII, Ulan Press, 2016, 26. back

  12. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 232-234. back

  13. Jonathan Edwards, Basic Writings (New York: New American Library, 1966), 142. back

  14. JonathanEdwards.com, http://www.jonathanedwards.com/text/Personal/resolution.htm back

  15. Baxter, The Saint’s Everlasting Rest, 121. back

  16. See Hans Boersma, Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in the Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018) and Michael Allen, Grounded in Heaven, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018). back

  17. “Sphere Sovereignty” in Abraham Kuyper, A Centennial Reader, James D. Bratt, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488. back

  18. A. A. Hoekema, The Bible and The Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 274. back

  19. N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: SPCK, 2011), 28. back

  20. Richard J. Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Ada: Baker Academic, 2014), 14. back

  21. Ibid., 23. back

  22. Michael Allen, Grounded in Heaven, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018). back

  23. Ibid., 4. back

  24. Ibid., 49. back

  25. Ibid., 23. back

  26. Ibid., 37. back

  27. Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., Preaching the Word: Isaiah: God Saves Sinners (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005), 445. back

  28. Wilbur Smith, The Biblical Doctrine of Heaven, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968), 27-76. back

  29. Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 123-142. back

  30. “Christus und seine Zukunft” (Zwischen den Zeiten, IX 1931), quoted in J. A. Schep, The Nature of the Resurrection Body (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 218-219. back

  31. G. C. Berkouwer, The Return of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 232. back

  32. Robert L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reprint Edition, 1972), 852. back

  33. John Piper, Future Grace (Sisters: Multnomah Press, 1995), 394-395. back

  34. Anthony Hoekema argues that the Old Testament prophecies that speak of a restored creation are referring to the eternal state, not an earthly millennium. Premillennialists point to these prophecies as justification for their prophetic scheme. Hoekema argues that they are correct when they say that such passages as Isaiah 2:1-4; 65:17-25 cannot be so spiritualised that they are made to refer to somewhere off in space with no connection with this world. They clearly contain symbolic features, but once we realise that the eternal realm involves the renewal of this earth, they can readily be applied to this rather than a temporary millennial reign. See A. A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Exeter: Paternoster, 1964), 201-212, 274-287. back

  35. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 32. back

  36. Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 39. back

  37. Richard Bauckman, “First Steps to a Theology of Nature”, Evangelical Quarterly 58.3 (1986), 240. back

  38. Arthur E. Travis, Where on Earth is Heaven? (Nashville: Boardman, 1974), 16. back

  39. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 263. back

  40. John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 180-181. back

  41. A. M. Ramsay, quoted in Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection, 31. back

  42. Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 916. back

  43. See J. A. Schep, The Nature of the Resurrection Body (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), chapter 6; Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of his Theology (Lutterworth, 1963), 537-551; Richard B. Gaffin Jr, The Centrality of the Resurrection: A Study in Pauline Soteriology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), 78-92. back

  44. Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 865. back

  45. Paul Helm, The Last Things (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1989), 92. back

  46. Jonathan Edwards, Heaven: A World of Love (Amityville: Calvary Press, 1999), 16. back

  47. Edward Donnelly, Heaven and Hell (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2001), 99. back

  48. Hughes, Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 119. back

  49. John Howe, The Blessedness of the Righteous Opened. Works, London, 1832, 213. back

  50. A. J. Gossip, From the Edge of the Crowd (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924), 12. back

  51. Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 7. back

  52. Ibid., 78. back

  53. Ibid., 80-81. back

  54. J. C. Ryle, Heaven (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2000), 34-35. back

  55. Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 66. back

  56. J. I. Packer, “Hell’s Enigma”, Christianity Today, April 2002, 84. back

  57. Jonathan Edwards, “The End of the Wicked Contemplated by the Righteous”, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol 2 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 207-212. back

  58. John Frame, in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), 232. back

  59. John Frame, Systematic Theology, (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2013), 1079. back

  60. Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 27. back

  61. Donald Macleod, A Faith to Live By (Fearn: Mentor, 2010), 309. back

  62. Ibid., 308. back

  63. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 4 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 727. back

  64. Smith, The Biblical Doctrine of Heaven, 195. back

  65. Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards vol.2, 618. back

  66. Macleod, A Faith to Live By, 308. back

  67. David Gregg, The Heaven-Life, (New York, 1895), 62ff. back

  68. Arthur O. Roberts, Exploring Heaven (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), 148. back

  69. Tom Barnes, Living in Hope of Future Glory (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2006), 211-224. back

  70. Ibid., 212. back

  71. Cited in John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol II, Book 5, Section 2. back

  72. Letham, Systematic Theology, 901. back

  73. Allen, Grounded in Heaven, 47. back

  74. Anselm, “Proslogion”, Basic Writings (Chicago: Open Court, 1962). back

  75. Deut 18:1-2; Ps 16:5; Eph 1:13-14; Heb 8:10. back

  76. Peter Kreeft, Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1980), 183. back

  77. Pascal, Blaise, Pensées (New York: Penguin Books, 1966), 74. back

  78. Samuel Rutherford, quoted in Charles H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, January 17 morning reading. back

  79. Jonathan Edwards, “The Christian Pilgrim”, quoted in Alister E. McGrath, A Brief History of Heaven (Malden: Blackwell, 2003), 115. back

  80. Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 14. back

  81. Edwards, Works of Jonathan Edwards, Sermon on Matthew 5:8. back

  82. Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 45. back

  83. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics vol 2, 190-191. back

  84. Jonathan Edwards, quoted by John Gerstner, Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 317. back

  85. John Owen, Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth), 347. back

  86. Anne Cousins, “The Sands of Time are Sinking”. back

  87. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 135. back

  88. For example, the Duke of Wellington, the victor of Waterloo, possessed a copy and it was known to be the last book he was reading a few days before his death. A. B. Grosart, Annotated List of the Writings of Richard Baxter (1668), 10. back

  89. Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 32. back

  90. Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 36. back

  91. Ibid., 90-93. back

  92. Ibid., 132-139. back

  93. Ibid., 140-180. back

  94. Ibid., 143. back

  95. Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 130. back

  96. Ibid., 146-152. back

  97. Ibid., 156. back

  98. Ibid., 163. back

  99. Ibid., 166-174. back

  100. Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 179. back

  101. Ibid., 75. back

  102. Ibid., 115. back

  103. Ibid., 116; Psalm 27:13. back

  104. Kreeft, Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing, 183. back

  105. Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 107-122. back

  106. Ibid., 107. back

  107. Ibid., 113. back

  108. Ibid., 123-131. back

  109. John Owen, Meditation on and Discourse on the Glory of Christ, Works vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth), 274. back

  110. Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 117. back

  111. Ibid., 97-106. back

  112. Ibid., 97. back

  113. Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 183. back


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