THE WONDER OF THE PRESENT HEAVENS
When people speak of ‘heaven’, they may have a wide range of thoughts in mind. Some may be influenced by people’s reported experiences, or cultural responses to grief or even, Hollywood’s ‘theology’ of the afterlife. Even among Jewish people there is no consensus on the actual existence or substance of ‘heaven. The Talmud speaks of ‘Olam Haba' (the world to come) with something akin to the Garden of Eden restored, while others say ‘heaven’ is more allegory than a real place.
As believers in Christ, the question is, “Can God’s Word give us some clarity on this topic, or are we free to believe what we like?” As you will see below, a careful study of the Bible reveals truth that is truly amazing, encouraging, and challenging.
So, let’s start at the beginning.
The Bible opens with the declaration, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1) We are very familiar with this verse and the following account of creation. We also understand a great deal about the earth, the sun and the moon. But, what about ‘the heavens’? Since 53 of the 66 books of the Bible speak of ‘heaven’ in almost 700 verses, this is an important topic. So, what are the heavens, what are they like, and how do they relate to us? These are some of the questions we will seek to address in this two-part series.
The OT Hebrew word used almost exclusively for “heaven” is shawmahyim. It comes from a root word meaning, 'to be lofty' and is translated as “heaven” or 'heavens' and even, 'the sky’. In several verses, shawmahyim is used for the realm where birds and clouds can be seen. Scientifically, we call this the earth’s atmosphere, and this is understood by theologians to be the first Heaven. In other texts, shawmahyim looks beyond the immediate sky to a higher realm, where the sun, moon and stars are located. This is often referred to as the celestial skies or second Heaven.
Certainly, on a starry night, we can not help but affirm with David, "The heavens declare The Glory Of God, the skies proclaim the work of His hands.” (Ps 19:1) As awe inspiring as the physical heavens are, the Bible speaks of yet another ‘heaven’. This is the most challenging of all as it is God’s unseen dwelling place, which Paul called the third Heaven.
Deut 10:14 (ESV) says, “Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the Heaven Of Heavens, the earth with all that is in it.” (Some versions say, ‘the Highest Heavens’). Deut 26:15 (NKJV), adds, “Look down from Your Holy Habitation, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel…” and Joshua 2:11 (NKJV) exclaims, “… the LORD your God, He is God in Heaven Above and on earth beneath.”
So, what can we know of the highest Heaven? What is it like? As with every great mystery of the divine, we can only know with certainty through God’s gracious revelation to us.
Isaiah declared that he saw God in this heaven. (Isa 6:1-5) “In the year that King Uzziah died, (about 740 BC) I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim…” (highest ranking angels) “ (3) And one cried to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!’ And in verse 5, “So I said: ‘Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, The Lord of hosts.’”
What an amazing SCENE!
Isaiah SAW the Lord seated on a high throne in a heavenly temple, surrounded by hosts of amazing angels declaring His holiness and glory. As a result, he became acutely aware of his own sin and inadequacy compared to God.
Ezekiel had a similar experience when,“the heavens were opened and he saw visions of God” (Ezek 1:1) He saw “living creatures,” unfamiliar to us, worshipping God. Then he adds: (Ezek 1:26-28 NASB)“Now above the expanse that was over their heads there was something resembling a throne, like sapphire in appearance; and on that which resembled a throne, high up, was a figure with the appearance of a man. Then I saw from the appearance of His waist and upward something like gleaming metal that looked like fire all around within it, and from the appearance of His waist and downward I saw something like fire; and there was a radiance around Him. Like the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face…”
You and I struggle to comprehend this scene!
Ezekiel certainly struggled to describe what he saw! He used words such as, “It resembled,” and, “it was like,” and like Isaiah, this experience caused him to bow with his face to the ground in worship!
Daniel affirmed, (Dan 7:9-10) “I watched till thrones were put in place, and the Ancient of Days was seated; His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head was like pure wool. His throne was a fiery flame, its wheels a burning fire; 10 … A thousand thousands ministered to Him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him.”
So, Daniel also saw One who sat on a 'fiery throne', The Ancient Of Days, while an innumerable number (10,000x10,000) ministered before Him in worship!
Other OT passages are similar to these.
So, the third Heaven, the dwelling place of God, must be a Glorious Amazing place.
The NT adds further detail. Of course, here the Greek word (ouranos) is used, again for both the physical and spiritual ‘heavens’.
Stephen, a martyr of the early Church, declared, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55-56)
Hebrews adds, “Christ has not entered the Holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into HEAVEN itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us,” (Heb 9:24) and in 10:12, “…this man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.”
This was Paul’s personal experience, but he couldn’t tell if it was just his spirit or his whole body that was, “caught up to the third Heaven” (the 'highest heaven', the abode of God). Nevertheless, he certainly knew where he was, describing it also as“Paradise”.
Later, the Apostle John wrote: (Rev 4:2-11), “I was in the Spirit; and behold a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne.(3) And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone (blood red) in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald.” He then describes, "lightnings, thunderings, and voices,” and, “living creatures” worshipping God, adding, “…they do not rest day or night, saying: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!”
That’s where Christ is today, interceding for us, as our Great High priest, before the FATHER’S throne!
Now, while the concept of more than one heaven is still part of Jewish teaching, it was Paul who introduced the term, “the third Heaven”.
2 Cor 12:2-4 records, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third Heaven…” (4) …he was caught up into Paradise.”
Now, all of these accounts came from different men in different places and different eras, yet they have several things in common:
They ALL STRUGGLED to find words to describe what they saw.
They all saw GOD SEATED on a GLORIOUS THRONE with fire and amazing colours and sounds and voices surrounding Him.
They all experienced HEAVEN as a place of unceasing WORSHIP with angels and “living creatures” giving glory to Him.
They were ALL IN AWE of God’s Glory and MAJESTY
All were AWARE of their own INADEQUACIES and sin in comparison to the HOLY GOD.
And JESUS was right there, at the right hand of God
Why do we need to know this?
This AMAZING place has GREAT SIGNIFICANCE to us as human beings.
This is God’s DWELLING PLACE.
This is where we address our PRAYERS: “Our Father IN Heaven.”
Heaven is the DESTINATION of the spirit, for all who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ, when our earthly life comes to an end. (2 Cor 5:1 & 8-9 and 1 Peter 1:3-4).
Some have called this the INTERMEDIATE or PRESENT HEAVEN since the Scriptures promise even more for us with NEW HEAVENS and a NEW EARTH in the future.
There is NO SUFFERING or CRYING or PAIN in the Intermediate Heaven, but something even more amazing is yet to follow!
We’ll look at that in the next Shofar as we explore the topic: “NEW HEAVENS and NEW EARTH”.
With the wonders of heaven awaiting those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ, the only question that remains is, “ARE YOU GOING TO BE THERE?”