Inside the Pearly Gates: What Will We Do in Heaven?
June 25, 2000
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“Some day you will read in the papers that D. L. Moody, of East Northfield, is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now. I shall have gone up higher, that is all; out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal—a body that death cannot touch; that sin cannot taint; a body fashioned like unto his glorious body. I was born of the flesh in 1837. I was born of the Spirit in 1856. That which is born of the flesh may die. That which is born of the Spirit will live forever.” During his many evangelistic campaigns in the late 1800s, D. L. Moody loved to quote the first two sentences as a way of shocking his audiences with the truth that death would not be the end of his life but only the beginning.
His words came true on Friday, December 22, 1899. After decades of non-stop preaching, writing, speaking, evangelizing and traveling, his heart finally began to fail. With his family gathered round, he cried out, “Earth recedes; heaven opens before me.” His family thought that perhaps he was dreaming. Then he spoke to one of his sons: “No, this is no dream, Will. It is beautiful. It is like a trance. If this is death, it is sweet. There is no valley here. God is calling me, and I must go.” Then it seemed as if he saw heaven opened before his eyes. “This is my triumph, this is my coronation day! I have been looking forward to it for years.” His face lit up. “Dwight, Irene—I see the children’s faces.” He was speaking of the two grandchildren who had died the previous year.
A few minutes later he took his last breath. Thus did D. L. Moody enter heaven. The man who had taken America in one hand and Great Britain in the other and brought both of them to God died as he had lived, full of faith and ready to meet the Lord (From The Life of D. L. Moody by William Moody).
Where is Heaven?
When the Bible indicates a location for heaven, we are always told that it is “up.” Jesus came “down” from heaven to the earth and one day the New Jerusalem will come “down” out of heaven (Revelation 21:2). Some people have suggested that heaven can be located in the present physical universe and a few have even searched to find it beyond the North Star. But all attempts to locate heaven in this manner are futile. Heaven is a real place but it is on God’s map, not on the astronomer’s charts.
Children have no trouble believing in heaven even though their ideas are sometimes a bit mixed up. Eight-year-old Eric described heaven this way: “It is a place where there is a lot of money lying around. You could just pick it up, play with it, and buy things. I think I am going to buy a basketball and I am going to play basketball with my great-great grandmother.” Scott said, “Heaven is up in the sky, and you could look down at circuses for free if you want to, except you have to ask God for permission first.” Seven-year-old David declared that heaven is “kind of big and they sit around playing harps. I don’t know how to play a harp, but I suppose I should learn how to play that dumb thing pretty soon.” Tommy, age seven, spoke for many adults when he said, “I know what heaven is, but I don’t want to go there. I want to go to North Carolina instead.”
Many of us would say the same thing. We know heaven is real but we’d rather go to North Carolina (or Florida or Hawaii) first. Heaven can wait as far as we’re concerned. But that attitude, common though it may be, reflects a complete reversal of the biblical picture. This earth is passing away. It is here today and gone tomorrow. Heaven (which seems almost like a fairy tale to us) is the true reality and it is “the heart’s true home.”
The book of Revelation tells us more about heaven than any other book in the Bible. Most of us probably know about the lovely picture of heaven in Revelation 21-22, but there is another, much briefer picture of heaven found in Revelation 7:9-17. In only eight verses the Apostle John pulls back the curtain and gives us a tantalizing glimpse of our eternal home. What will heaven be like? What will we do there? What will we experience? When we look at this passage, we discover three facts that help us answer those questions.
I. We will be part of a vast community of multicultural praise. 9-12
“After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: ‘Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!’” (Revelation 7:9-12).
This passage gives us a great deal of helpful information about heaven. First, note the number of the redeemed. There is a vast crowd before the throne, so huge that it is beyond human calculation. Second, note the variety of the redeemed. There are saints from every nation, tribe, people and language group. Third, note the posture of the redeemed. They are before the throne of God, standing like an army before its Commander in Chief. Fourth, note the appearance of the redeemed. They wear white robes, a symbol of purity, and they hold palm branches, a sign of victory. Fifth, note the song of the redeemed. They sing about salvation that comes from God and from the Lamb. What a picture this is. The saints are redeemed and rejoicing. As Tony Campolo says, if you want to get ready for heaven, go to choir practice!
I think the Apostle John was struck by the immense size of the throng. What do we learn by pondering that unnumbered multitude? Certainly it teaches us that God will not be defeated. There will be no empty thrones in heaven. God will not be satisfied with a handful in heaven while the devil gets the majority. What kind of salvation would that be? Many will be saved. Many from every nation! God has a quota and the quota will be met. This ought to teach us something about the power of the gospel, about the greatness of God’s heart, and the universality of the church. In this scene we have the end to all sectarianism, the end to all pessimism, and the end to evangelistic discouragement. It’s easy for us to say “Us four and no more” as if somehow sinners are so evil they can’t be saved nowadays. Away with all such poor-meism and unbelief! I realize that as we look around at the cultural decline, it’s tempting to conclude that the bad guys are winning. They aren’t. God keeps score in his own way. And even when it looks like he’s losing, he’s not. He only appears to be trailing. But in the end, God wins. And he wins big. He “covers the spread” and then some. There will be more people in heaven than we have dreamed possible because our God is greater than our limited imagination.
This picture of a vast multitude also teaches us that in the end every geographic barrier that separates us will be swept away. Every prejudice will be gone. Every bit of human strife will be left behind and partisan bickering will simply be forgotten. What a good day that will be when all God’s children will meet together around the throne.
But note that we keep our individuality in heaven. John saw the redeemed gathered into nations, tribes, language groups, and clans. Just as Jesus retained the marks of his earthly suffering after his resurrection, even so we will retain our personal and group identities. The saints are all redeemed but they are not homogenized. What language will we speak in heaven? Answer: All of them. In heaven we will hear English, Spanish, Urdu, Portuguese, French, Italian, Russian, Swahili, Hausa, Finnish, Yiddish, Hindi, Guarani, Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, to name just a few. Although I can’t prove this, I believe each person will speak what whatever language(s) they knew on earth and the rest of us will understand everything that is said. That is, I may hear someone speaking Arabic and I will know it is Arabic and I will understand it even though right now I can’t speak Arabic at all. In heaven I believe we will understand all the languages we hear, just as the early believers did on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-13.
And if you think about it, this scene answers the oft-repeated question: Will we know our loved ones in heaven? The answer is yes. If in heaven I am still joined to my nation, my tribe, my own people, and if I still speak my own language, how can it be that I will be a stranger to my own loved ones? Such a thought is impossible. Those relationships on earth that were sanctified by saving grace will continue for all eternity, becoming deeper and more precious as the ages roll on. Consider an aged couple that has walked together for 55 years, facing all the joys and trials of life hand in hand. Will they say a fond farewell to this life, only to become strangers in the next? It is inconceivable, impossible, and against the words of our text. It cannot be true. Those I love in this life I will love more deeply in the next. And that love will be returned in a purer form in heaven because it is not mixed with base desires and earthly weakness.
What a glorious picture of heaven this is. There is heavenly harmony, a symphony of praise. Every day is a holiday (literally a “holy day”) in heaven.
II. We will be on the other side of suffering forever. 13-14
“Then one of the elders asked me, ‘These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?’ I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’” (Revelation 7:13-14).
Pause for a moment over that phrase: “the great tribulation.” I am aware that its most immediate application lies in those terrible end time events just preceding the coming of Christ to the earth when the seals are opened, the trumpets blown, and the bowls of judgment poured out on the earth. But in a larger sense those words apply to all believers. This world is sometimes called a “vale of tears,” and so it is. Every person in heaven will have a story. One was persecuted, one was sick, one was forgotten, one was abandoned, one was mistreated, one was bereaved of lost children, one lived through a divorce, and another suffered physically for many years. Every saint comes out of a different kind of “great tribulation” but all come to heaven by way of the cross. Where once on earth there was a dark cloud of suffering, it is now replaced by the bright light of heaven. The road was steep, the journey hard, and the waters of death cold and deep, but all God’s sheep one by one made it safely to the other side. And not one of them blames God—Salvation is their only cry!
Who are these who populate heaven? Who comprises such a vast multitude? Not the rich, not the poor, not the black or the white or the Asian or the Hispanic. Not the men or the women, not the old or the young. There are distinctions in heaven but only one group: Those who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. This is the only entrance qualification for the City of God. Think about that picture for a moment. You begin with the soiled garments stained and ruined by sin. Plunge them into the blood of Christ. When they come out, they are not crimson but are instead as white as snow. From this we learn a great Bible truth. The road to heaven is paved with the blood of Christ. Only those who walk that road by faith in the crucified Lamb will ever enter the celestial city.
III. We will experience the life we could never find on the earth. 15-17
“Therefore, ‘they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center 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’” (Revelation 7:15-17).
Here is the final picture of heaven. The believers are seen gathered in the place of honor before the throne of God. There they serve him day and night. This is continual service yet because we are in heaven we never grow weary. The longer we serve him, the stronger we become. We mount up with wings as eagles, we run and are not weary, and we walk and do not faint. In this life we must rest sooner or later. Age and sickness come to us eventually and we cannot do what we would like. Even the strongest gives way eventually. But in heaven we will go from strength to strength and from joy to joy. We will serve him in his temple, which means that we will be in his immediate presence. There will be no “second-class” saints in that day. And over us he will spread the tent of his protection. Thus we will not hunger, will not thirst, and will never be sunburned again.
Why are the saints so happy in heaven? Think of their position. They stand before the throne, they serve God day and night, and they follow the Lamb wherever he goes. In this life we follow Jesus by faith but then face to face. Whatever we need, he will supply it. In heaven Psalm 23:1 will come true in a new and deeper way: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
The final word is this: No tears in heaven! We simply cannot imagine a world without tears. Today we live with heartbreak and sadness on every side. But soon all suffering will be gone forever. Someone asked if God will personally wipe our tears away. Yes, the God who loves us will himself wipe away our tears. One translation offers a wonderful twist on this image: “And God will make glad their eyes forever” (The Bible in Basic English).
Many things about heaven are a mystery but some things are clearly revealed. Here are three things that won’t happen in heaven: We will not grow weary, we will not suffer want, and we will not weep. In reading Revelation I am struck by how many of the truths about heaven are stated in the negative. Heaven will be the absence of so many things that trouble us on the earth. There will be…no tears…no death…no sorrow…no pain…no night…no defilement…no curse. Best of all, there will be no more goodbyes. This says it all for me. No more saying goodbye to a loved one as their body is lowered into the grave. No more seeing our children grow up and leave us for some distant place. No more saying farewell to dear friends. No more broken friendships and broken marriages. No more misunderstandings that grow into bitter disputes. All of that will be left far behind. C. S. Lewis liked to say that Christians never say goodbye. We simply say, See you later. And we will.
Bored in Heaven?!?!?!
As I was preparing this sermon, a friend with two young daughters reminded me of a question that children often ask. Won’t heaven be boring? After all, it sounds like one really long church service. Who wants go to church forever? Many adults have secretly wondered the same thing.
Here is my answer. What do the saints do in heaven? They stand, they sing, and they serve. They celebrate a great victory, they serve in God’s temple, they see God on his throne, and they follow the Lamb everywhere. On one level I am sure we will never grow bored doing that. After all, we will never come to the end of God. And we’ll never come to the end of the universe. And we will never run out of things to learn.
I find it helpful to think of it this way. In heaven all our gifts and talents will finally be used. Here on earth so many things hold us back. Sometimes circumstances keep us from doing what we know deep inside we could do if only someone would give us the chance. The expectations of others keep us hemmed in. The demands of daily life keep us from being all that we could be. Physical limitations hamper us. There are those among us who want to sing and love to sing but there is no one to listen. Others want to paint, to cook, to write, to design, and to lead. Think of your dreams and hopes and aspirations and ponder how few have been fully realized. In heaven you will have ample time to develop them all—and in ways that would startle you if you knew about it now. We will take all our gifts and talents and put them at the disposal of the Lord, and for all eternity we will find ourselves growing and learning and all the while celebrating the amazing grace of our Sovereign God. Seen from this standpoint death for the believer becomes the Great Adventure, the doorway to glory, the entrance to an unending journey beyond our wildest imagination. Next to heaven traveling to the stars pales by comparison.
Will you be there?
One question about heaven remains. Will you be there? Are you sure? Following a campaign speech a young man rushed up to Senator Everett Dirksen and said, “Senator, I wouldn’t vote for you if you were St. Peter!” Dirksen eyed the young man for a moment, then said: “Son, if I were St. Peter, you couldn’t vote for me, because you wouldn’t be in my district.” When you die, make sure you are in heaven’s district or else you will be left out for all eternity.
Many years ago radio evangelist Charles E. Fuller announced that he would speak the following Sunday on “Heaven.” During that week he received a letter from an old man who was very ill. Here is part of his letter: “Next Sunday you are to talk about ‘Heaven.’ I am interested in that land because I have held a clear title to a bit of property there for over 55 years. I did not buy it. It was given to me without money and without price. But the donor purchased it for me at a tremendous sacrifice. I am not holding it for speculation since the title is not transferable. It is not a vacant lot.”
“For more than half a century I have been sending material out of which the greatest architect and builder of the universe has been building a home for me, which will never need to be repaired because it will suit me perfectly and will never grow old. Termites can never undermine its foundation for it rests upon the Rock of Ages. Fire cannot destroy it. Floods cannot wash it away. No locks or bolts will ever be placed upon its doors, for no vicious person can ever enter that land where my dwelling stands, now almost completed and ready for me to enter and abide in peace eternally without fear of being ejected.”
“There is a valley of deep shadow between the place where I live in California and that to which I shall journey in a very short time. I cannot reach my home in the City of God without passing through the dark valley of shadows. But I am not afraid because the best friend that I ever had went through the same valley alone long, long ago and drove away all the gloom. He has stuck by me through thick and thin since we first became acquainted 55 years ago, and I hold his promise in printed form never to forsake, nor to leave me alone. He will be with me as I walk through the valley of the shadows, and I shall not lose my way when he is with me. I hope to hear your sermon on heaven next Sunday from my home, but I have no assurance that I shall be able to do so. My ticket to heaven has no date marked for the journey—no return coupon—and no permit for baggage. Yes, I am ready to go and may not be here while you are talking next Sunday, but I shall meet you there some day.”
Heaven is a real place, a wonderful place, and the saints will dwell there forever. You don’t have to live in fear or doubt about your eternal destination. An old gospel song declares, “When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.” What about you? Will you be there? Make haste to come to Jesus so that when your name is called in heaven, by God’s grace you can answer, “Yes, I am here.” Amen.