Alfred E. Bouter
A Man is Seated on the Throne in Heaven, While God Dwells on Earth
Our Lord Jesus Christ was the only Man on earth for Whom Heaven could be opened to express its approval. As the Christ, God’s Anointed One, He was the Father’s delight, providing Him with true satisfaction and joy, no-one else could ever do.1 He was God’s chosen One, always is and will be. Yet, despite this blessed fact, He was rejected on earth, in this world (Jn. 1:5, 10-11; Mt. 11:20-24; 12:14), just as foretold in Isaiah 53 and described in other Scriptures (Jn. 1:10-11). Quite early in the Gospel of Luke, we are told that this Man was to be received into heaven (Lk. 9:51), but on earth He found no rest. He fulfilled all that the prophets had said that He would do and what would happen to Him with respect to His first coming. Christ suffered, died, was buried, but He rose from among the dead, was glorified (Lk. 24:26), and ascended to heaven where He was duly received (Acts 3:21), “saluted by God” (Heb. 5:10), and “crowned with glory and honour” (2:9). In the glory of His Person He set down on the throne of God (Mk. 16:20; Heb. 1:3). How great He is!
The Heavens Opened for Christ
God’s Word describes four occasions of opened heavens, always linked to Christ:
The Father has given all things into the Son’s hands (Jn. 3:35), for He is the very Centre and the Object of heaven. He was, and is, the “Lord of glory” (1 Co. 2:8) in whom all the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell (Col. 1:19). Now He is “the Lord of the glory” (Jas. 2:1, lit. transl.) in Whom dwells the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form (Col. 2:9). A Man in heaven, He is the image of God (2 Co. 4:4) in whose face “we all” may contemplate the glory of the invisible God (2 Co. 3:18; cf. 1 Ti. 6:16; 1:17). These are key-characteristics of Christianity: a Man in heaven and God the Holy Spirit dwelling on earth in the believers.
Attraction to the Beloved Causes a Transformation in Us
This wonderful Person has a tremendous appeal, as He attracts us in ways that we have no other desires than to be drawn to Him, occupied with Him, and filled with Him. This transforming power is described as follows: “We all, looking on the glory of the Lord, with unveiled face, are transformed according to the same image from glory to glory, even as by [the] Lord [the] Spirit” (2 Co. 3:18 JND). “But what things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ... that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phi. 3:7-11 NKJV). These verses describe Paul’s desire and exercise, which should characterize all believers as his followers (1 Co. 11:1), under Christ’s transforming influence (2 Co. 3:18). Described in Acts 7, this process of moral and spiritual transformation has been wonderfully demonstrated in Stephen, Paul’s forerunner. The Lord enabled the apostle to teach these things doctrinally, and Paul became the model and example for all Christians. The measure in which we, through grace, enjoy the present glories of the Lord, is the measure in which we will be suited to display something of His moral excellency. Christ’s moral glories2 are displayed in believers who follow Him in obedience to God, who learn much of Christ following Him as He walked on earth (Phi. 2:5-8; cf. 1 Jn. 2:5-6). We also learn from the examples3 of Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus, as followers of Christ (2:12-30), but He is our prime Model (Heb. 12:1-2; cf. Phi. 3:10-11). No matter how far we may have advanced on this path of obedience, we are still in this world, which is a wilderness to faith. On this journey we experience that, under God’s control, all things are made to work together for good, that is, to those who love God. We may rejoice in the glory of the Lord, in whom we see expressed what God’s counsel has in store for us, when we will reach the end of the wilderness journey (Rom. 8:28-30). Meanwhile, God already sees us as accepted “in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6). To Him be all praise!
Christ’s Presence in Heaven – What it Means for Believers Here
What does Christ in heaven signify for the Christian on earth? In a sense, the answer is quite simple: everything! If Christ means everything to God, then He is everything for us as well (Col. 3:11b). Faith grasps that as our Beloved is in heaven, He desires to be reflected in our conduct. So it was with the disciples from the moment the Lord Jesus left them to ascend into heaven (Acts 1:9-11): when He was taken up, they gazed towards the heavens where their Master had gone, showing their attachment to Him. These believers are models as to what the Lord expects from us today. The eleven disciples and those with them, about 120 in total (Acts 1:15), were from then on heavenly citizens because their Lord was in heaven. Being on this earth that had cast out their Master, they were there – just as we are today – His ambassadors to render a faithful testimony of Him in and to this world, in whatever situation. To follow the Lord as true disciples, we must be attached to Him who is everything to us (Gal. 2:20). Looking at Him, devoted to Him, and sanctified by Him, we are as the Nazarite was, consecrated to the Lord (Num. 6). In other words, our eyes, hearts and lips, are to be filled with Him alone (cf. Ps. 45). When this is so, could we join a system in which He has been replaced by idols (1 Co. 10:14-22; 2 Co. 6:14-18; Rev.2:14, 20)? Or could we be associated with Judaism, that rejected, and still rejects, the true Messiah – be it directly or indirectly? Or with a system of those who call themselves Christians, but are so only in name? The same question confronts us with respect to a system set up by true Christians who do so with the best intentions: how could we join any system that infringes on the rights of our Master, or tamper with His authority, allow for self-will, humanistic thinking in methods of decision making, or in manmade church order? The reasons for separation from those found in such contexts are explained to us as follows:
Whether or not we will be faithful to these instructions depends on our “first love” for the Master. A single eye, a single heart not divided because of conflicting interests, but devoted to Him, was what marked the disciples who displayed such love in the early days of the Church. This still is a challenge to us today, to be true “overcomers.” One can mock or attack such believers, and this often happened to disciples who displayed such attachment and faithfulness to their heavenly Master. However, the living link they enjoy(ed) by faith with Christ in heaven cannot be taken away from them. From Him, their glorified Head, they receive everything (Col. 2:19; Eph. 4:7-16). All their springs are in Him (cf. Ps. 87:7).
Who was Sent from Heaven and Why?
“And there came suddenly a sound out of heaven as of a violent impetuous blowing, and filled all the house where they sat” (Acts 2:2). The apostle Peter explained these spectacular events, “This Jesus has God raised, whereof all we are witnesses. Having therefore been exalted by the right hand of God, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured out this which ye behold and hear” (Acts 2:32-33 JND). The doctrinal exposition of these things is found in Paul’s Epistles, in particular, as well as in various instructions the Lord Jesus gave His disciples in John 13-16. “Acts” describes the practical results of the coming and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. So this Book is also called “Acts4 of the Spirit,” though quite appropriately also “Acts of the glorified Lord in heaven” (cf. Mk. 16:20). The Lord Jesus is now in heaven as Lord – having all authority – and as Christ, the exalted Man, anointed by God (Acts 2:36). The Holy Spirit came from heaven to be God’s Witness on earth, heaven’s Ambassador. He is also the great Comforter who sustains Christ’s disciples on earth – coming along side, encouraging, teaching, and guiding them – while the Lord Himself is their Comforter in heaven.5 The Holy Spirit presents to us the glories of the Lord Jesus – past, present, and future. The Spirit is a divine Person, representing, on earth, a Man who is in heaven, and who is the eternal Son of God, to whom eternal praise is due. The Spirit of God unites us with the Lord Jesus in the glory, making us one with the glorified Son of man (Eph. 1-3), while He associates us with the Son of God as His companions (Heb. 1:9b). Thus we are linked with our Head in heaven with ties that cannot be broken (Col. 1-3). Besides this, as members of the family of God, we have fellowship with the Father and the Son (1 Jn. 1:3-4) and it is through the Spirit’s ministry that we enjoy this relationship. Through the Holy Spirit, we possess and enjoy the life of the glorified Lord in heaven (Col. 3:1-4). Furthermore, as members of God’s family, we also possess the life of the Son through whom the Father has been revealed, and as such, we have become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pe. 1:3). Apart from the Holy Spirit, we could not receive or enjoy any of these blessings and privileges. It is the Spirit of the exalted Christ (Acts 2:33, 36) who fills us – through faith on our part – with the moral beauties of the Lord Jesus, with His Person (Ps. 45).
Stephen as a Model for the Believers – The Opened Heaven
In Stephen we are given an excellent example: a believer “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (6:5); in Barnabas (11:24) we have a model of a disciple “full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” Together they present to us, it may be suggested, God’s ideal for every disciple of the Lord Jesus. On the one hand, Stephen is known for his faith, and we should recognize that everything God gives us in this dispensation is realized and enjoyed by faith. Thus, he was full of faith or filled with faith, a permanent condition: other motives or aspirations had no place with him. He is also identified with the Holy Spirit, to the extent of being practically filled with the Spirit of Christ, entirely controlled (Eph. 5:18) and guided by Him (Jn. 16:13). In the one case the responsibility comes first, namely faith – even though all is of grace – and in the other, God acting in sovereignty is first. Both sides are presented in harmony with each other. The one aspect is not dominant over the other, or at the cost of the other, but in a divine balance. May this be found in our lives, to His glory! Through the Holy Spirit we are in living contact with heaven, and by faith, we receive the power to walk as disciples of the Lord Jesus, to represent Him, as we walk with Him.
In Ezekiel 1:1, the heavens were opened and the prophet saw “visions of God.” If the heavens would have been opened over this earth, it would be completely destroyed by the glory of God, because of the sin and rebellion on it. It was not until the coming of the Son of God in flesh that the heavens could be opened in grace, but only over Him. They were opened for His benefit in the first place, but also for His disciples, i.e. for all who desire to do God’s will (Mt. 12:50) as Christ’s followers, in true repentance and with confession of sins, doing His will.6 This change was further expressed and confirmed in baptism by which God’s rights were acknowledged, in marked contrast to the religious world where these rights were rejected. Today, the Object of heaven’s delight is no longer on earth, for Christ is now in heaven and seated on the throne of God’s majesty, according to God’s counsels. We are united with the Lord Jesus Christ in heaven, as members of His body. Christ is the sole Object of our delight and we honour Him with admiration and love, appreciating His manifold qualities as Head, Leader and Beloved. Disciples like Stephen, receive all instructions from Him, whom we are privileged to represent on earth, not only as His ambassadors, but also as soldiers. In what a wonderful and worthy manner Stephen carried out his task! He testified of the fact that the Son of man – rejected by his fellow Jews both during His humiliation while on earth and in His present glory in heaven – was standing at God’s right hand. What grace is this: He stood with all the power and authority that is associated with God’s right hand, ready to help His faithful disciple! At the same time, according to the riches of God’s patience and mercy, He was willing to return to His earthly people, whenever they would be ready for Him (see Mt. 23:39). Up to now, they have not wanted Him to be King over them (cf. Lk. 19:14), but in God’s time He will assert His royal rights over the Jews and the entire world, for blessing (Acts 3:21). It is an honour to the Master when something of Himself can be seen in His disciples, at least to some degree, as they represent Him (cf. Mt. 10:24-25a). How eminently this was the case with Stephen!
Stephen’s Transformation: Christ’s Moral Glory Reflected
Let us briefly review the points Luke described in Acts 7:55-57:
The Significance of Stephen’s Testimony
The opened heavens showed to the disciple on earth the glory of his Lord in heaven, the Object of his love and heart’s devotion. They also demonstrated the free access all Christians have, walking in the light. On the other hand, it was the last testimony of God’s grace to His earthly people, as a nation, since after the rejection of this testimony, the heavens will open no more, except for judgment (Rev. 19:11-21). In Acts 7, however, the heavens were opened to express delight in a disciple, Stephen, a real overcomer, whose name means “laurel” or “crown” ‒ a token of victory. Stephen also acted as a true prophet, God’s mouthpiece, making known His thoughts to His earthly people, for the purpose of trying to bring them back to God. He solemnly addressed them to lead them to repentance, if possible. Stephen showed them that it was really a matter of a choice between God and the idols, between Christ and the devil. The father of the nation, Abraham – “father of a multitude,” and also the father of all believers (Gal. 3) – had been drawn by the God of glory. Abram (“exalted father”) had been so attracted to Him, that he left an idolatrous system (Jos. 24). Abraham’s descendants, however, had made a wrong choice in rejecting God and His Messiah. Stephen spoke of the glory and the throne of God (7:2, 49) where he saw a Man (7:56), the exalted Christ Jesus, who meant everything to his heart and who possessed all authority, power and glory. Stephen was also a true Phinehas (see Num. 25) seeking to maintain God’s rights. Later, Paul would do the same (cf. 2 Co. 11:2-3; Col. 2). Stephen could not bear the thought that the glory of his Master would be replaced by a religious system in which everything centred around fallen and failing men, rather than around the glorified Man. Love is “jealous” or, to put it in different words, love cannot tolerate anything that replaces the Beloved, who is its One and All. Today, Satan is still very active in presenting alternatives or counterfeits to the people of God, things that in reality take the place of our Lord Jesus Christ. Satan has the “host of heaven” at his disposal (Acts 7:42), besides many things on earth, and with these, he seeks to draw the believer’s heart away from the true and only Centre of attraction. Are we, like Stephen, filled with the glory of the Lord Jesus? If so, the adversary will not have any chance to draw us into idol worship (1 Jn. 5:21) as he tries to introduce things beside Christ as objects for our love, affection or worship ‒ things that will ultimately replace Him. If we follow Stephen’s example, then the heavens will be opened for us, too!
The Heavenly Vision and Paul’s Ministry
Stephen’s story is the introduction to the calling of Saul of Tarsus, his mission and ministry. As Saul, he had been great in his own eyes and “desired” – this is what his name means – by his fellow Jews. As Paul (“small” or “little”), he became little in his own eyes and therefore fit for the special tasks God gave him (Acts 13:9; 1 Co. 15:9; Eph. 3:8). The heavens are now the Centre from where matters regarding God’s testimony on earth are directed, whereas Jerusalem used to be that centre, as it will be again in the Millennium. The Holy Spirit descended from heaven to build, lead and support God’s Assembly; from heaven, the Lord Jesus assisted His faithful witness on earth. Three times Acts mentions the heavens as the starting point of the calling of this extraordinary servant, who became the minister of the heavenly dispensation (Eph. 3), the special ambassador of his heavenly Master (Phi. 3) and the witness of the glory (Col. 1-2) of the exalted Son of man in heaven (Heb. 2):
The heavenly character of Paul’s calling as linked with the manifestation of the heavenly glory of our Lord Jesus, in stark contrast to the Jewish system of those days. There is a similar contrast between God’s eternal purpose and professing Christendom that is characterized by what is of the earth and does not harmonize with the heavenly calling (Phi. 3:14) and the heavenly vision (Acts 26:19). With respect to this point, we may examine the passages in Revelation that speak of “they who dwell upon the earth” – an often repeated expression summarizing the religious, economic, political and social system of this world. This term includes the religious “Judeo-Christian” system, but such a system has nothing in common with the heavenly origin or destiny of the Church.8 When seen in connection with the kingdom of God, the greatest revelation of Christ’s glory on earth was compared to the sun shining in its power (Mt. 17:2). Yet this glory pales in comparison to the glorified and exalted Man in heaven, as united to His Church on earth – the company of His “called out” ones – whose glory is described as a light surpassing the glory of the midday sun. This blessed Person, in such glory and beauty, became the Centre of attraction to Paul, and the turning point in his life. Christ in heaven is the Originator of the calling of His servant Paul, while the personal and heavenly glory of the Lord Jesus Christ characterized his entire ministry (2 Co. 3:18; 4:4, 6). His glory is still the same today, for it has not changed or diminished. Do we live under the continuous and increasing impression of His all-surpassing glory, as Paul did? Comparing Galatians 1:15-16 with the above-mentioned passages in Acts, we see the wonderful result of the growing impression he had of these glories, “We see Jesus, crowned with glory and honour” (Heb. 2:9).
The Vessel Descending from and Ascending to Heaven – Peter’s Ministry Reflects Christ’s Moral Glory
The apostle Paul was called from heaven and then sent out by the glorified Lord in heaven, while the apostle Peter was appointed by the Lord Jesus on earth (Mk. 3:14-16; Jn. 20:21). Afterwards he received further instructions from heaven (cf. Mk. 16:20; Heb. 2:4) as recorded in Acts, although it was not easy for Peter to accept those instructions (10:14-17; 19f; 28; 11:2f). The Gospels record that Peter received a revelation from the Father about “the Son of the living God,” immediately followed by the Lord’s proclamation about His Assembly that He would build (Mt. 16:18). This was in connection with, and based on, the Lord Himself, who is the Source of life, as seen in His resurrection from among the dead (cf. Rom. 1:3-4). As Such, He is the true and solid foundation of the Assembly, the Church of the living God. In addition to this, the Lord Jesus showed Peter – who also had received the keys of the kingdom – the heavenly character of His Assembly. From the opened heavens Peter received instructions about the Church’s heavenly origin and destiny, two aspects suggested by the fact that the great sheet was let down from heaven and afterwards taken up into heaven (Acts 10:11; 11:5, 10). The four corners point to the universal character of the Assembly according to God’s counsel, whereas the four categories of animals illustrate what these believers had been in themselves, previous to their becoming part of God’s Assembly. Before their salvation, they had been enslaved in various forms of bondage, but they had been set free and “incorporated” into the Assembly of God.9 The Epistles provide the doctrinal explanation of these things, including our heavenly origin in Christ, according to God’s counsel and eternal purpose from before the foundation of the world. The Epistles give an exposition of our condition in the past, and of our future: the Church’s rapture into heaven, its blessed hope, and other details concerning our association with Christ in heaven: what wonderful riches of grace and glory we find in all these details! The way to enter into that great sheet – to become part of the Assembly of the living God – is through conversion (repentance, turning around) on our part (11:18) and through the gift of the Holy Spirit and of eternal life, on God’s side (vs. 16-18).
The Universal and Local Aspects of the Church
The second part of Acts 11 explains the relationship between the Assembly in its universal or heavenly character, and the local assembly. The great sheet displays the former; the latter is presented in its “prototype,” the local assembly at Antioch: (1) its relationship with the universal Church and (2) its local expression in many testimonies on earth. It is equally important to realize that the doctrinal fundamentals, found in Scripture for those days, are still valid for us today. Every local assembly (1 Co. 1:2) needs to function according to God’s thoughts, in the framework of the truth of the universal or heavenly Assembly, as revealed to Peter, and expanded upon in the rest of the NT. The doctrinal exposition of these truths is primarily contained in Paul’s Epistles, but cannot be limited to them. May God help us to function according to His plan, in the locality where we live, to His glory and for the blessing of His own! United with Christ in glory and walking in the light of this union – both vertically and horizontally (see Eph. 4:1-16) – we can rightfully be called “Christians” (Acts 11:26) who, by God’s grace, may display something of His beauty and glories ... until He comes.
What does Heaven Mean to You?
Christians are a heavenly people, as seen above, confirmed by the following Scriptures that clearly demonstrate the links with heaven that all true believers may enjoy, according to God’s grace (Eph. 1-3):
Christianity emphasizes what is heavenly, yet is practiced on earth, as Christ is in heaven and the believers on earth are linked together and with Him, up there. Acts describes aspects of the heavenly calling and shows the believers as linked to the glorified Christ. This characterized Paul’s ministry, which is priestly in character, emphasizing what is for God. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ” (Eph. 1:3 JND).
AEB, Nov. 12, 2015.
1) Seven times the NT notes God’s delight in Christ (Mt. 3:17; 12:18; 17:5; Mk. 1:11; Lk. 3:22; Col. 1:19; 2 Pet. 1:17).
2) What was seen in Christ’s walk on earth, in perfection, is for the believers to display here and now (see e.g. Col. 3:12-17), not claiming perfection, but desiring to follow Him until He come.
3) Besides these examples, we also learn from spiritually mature believers, a principle taught in many Scriptures.
4) There is no definite article before Acts, for the Holy Spirit has selected only a certain number of them, just as with the Lord in the Gospels.
5) The Father sent another Comforter (paraklētos, Jn. 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7), i.e. “another One” of the same kind. The Holy Spirit would be with them on earth, while the Lord Jesus in heaven serves the believers as Comforter, or Advocate (paraklētos, 1 Jn. 2:1-2).
6) Repentance implies a radical change of mind and heart, resulting in a change of life. The Lord Jesus did not need repentance to do God’s will, for He had never committed any sin, and it was His food to do His will (Jn. 4:34).
7) Similarly, the Son of man is distinct from the Ancient of days, yet identified with Him (Dan. 7:9, 13; cf. God in Rev. 4 and the Lamb in ch. 5).
8) Notice that in Revelation, this term is used for the professing system that continues to exist after the Rapture. As believers, we should distinguish where God does: between what is of Him and for Him; things related to our exalted Lord Jesus Christ, and things that are not.
9) The four categories of “lost man” are as follows: (1) “the quadrupeds of the earth” are generally used for fallen mankind on earth; (2) “the wild beasts” are untameable, as the man in Mark 5:3; (3) “the creeping things” characterize man in his low moral state; (4) “the birds of heaven” indicate the proud and haughty, especially under Satan’s control. These are the four universal categories of Acts 11:6; their moral or spiritual meaning is suggested on the basis of many Scriptures; whereas the number four indicates that they represent mankind in general, whether Jews or Gentiles.