Edited by Rev. John Adams, B.D.
By Rev. Thomas Whitelaw, D.D.
3. The Ideal Heaven.
That on leaving this earthly scene man enters on another and in the case of God's people a higher state of being, is one of the truths most surely believed among Christians" who are quite content to base their acceptance of it on the word and work of Jesus — on His word that '" he who believeth on the Son of God shall never see death, but is passed from death unto life "; and on His work, which has "'destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light."
In Ezekiel's vision that future life is represented as a city — as every Bible scholar knows, a favourite conception from the days of Abraham downwards. Of the Hebrew patriarchs it is said that they looked for a city which had foundations, whose Maker and Builder was God. David had the same conception when he sang, " There is a river the streams whereof make glad the city of God," — language which did not literally apply to Jerusalem. The Epistle to the Hebrews tells Christian people that God is not ashamed to be called their God, seeing He has provided for them a city. In the Apocalypse John describes that city in glowing language which, if figurative, nevertheless fills the mind with sublime conceptions of an organised society of which earthly cities are but feeble emblems — " The city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breadth thereof: with a wall great and high: with gates of pearl and streets of gold, and flowing through the midst of it a clear and crystal river." Beautiful imagery, intended to lift our conceptions of heaven to such a height that our hearts should be ravished thereby and set a-longing to behold its glory.
I have called it the ideal heaven, because in no other religious book in the world will a picture be found so enchanting. The old Egyptians and Babylonians had their ideas of the after-life. Buddhists and Mohammedans to-day have their notions of what lies beyond the veil. And worldly men generally, when they think about the future, if they ever think of it, set before their minds conceptions altogether different from those of Scripture. To Scripture we must turn if we would know the highest and best about the city of the Great King, of which, if we are Christ's, we are one day to be fully enfranchised citizens; and that highest and best may be summed up in the words of Ezekiel, "The name of the city from that day shall be. The Lord is there."
The ideas suggested by the fact that God will always be in the city are seven in number.
(1) Life. "With Thee, O Lord," sang David, " is the fountain of life "; and John writing of Jesus affirmed, " In Him was life "; while Christ speaking of Himself said, "I am the Life"'' — all three signifying that heaven is not a vast cemetery or city of the dead, but a city whose inhabitants are alive in the truest sense, partakers of a life flowing from an infinite and eternal Fountain. Ezekiel pictured this in his vision-city by making a river of holy waters flow from under the altar in its temple, and John in his vision does the same by making a river of the water of life proceed from the throne of God and of the Lamb.
Whether as disembodied or as embodied and glorified spirits, the inhabitants of heaven all live unto God, and with the life of God, in the fullest and most perfect exercise of all their functions, whether of spirit or of body or of both. Not only are there no graves and no funerals in heaven, — in this respect how different from earth, every city, town, and village of which has its kirkyard, nay, which itself is one vast cemetery, — "but there are no feeble, decaying, or dying ones in heaven, every inhabitant being conscious of a full pulse of life, "The inhabitant of that land shall not say, I am sick." " Because I live," says Christ, " ye shall live also."
(2) Light. " God is Light, and in Him is no darkness at all," says John; and again, writing of Jesus, "In Him was light, and the life was the light of men." David long before wrote, "In Thy light shall we see light "; so John tells us there is no night in the heavenly city, because God and the Lamb are the light thereof.
What darkness enwraps the minds even of good men on earth! Vast as man's powers of observation and reflection, of thought and reason are, and extensive as have been his attainments in knowledge, both at the best are limited and imperfect. Even of things man knows best he has but a dim understanding. Of the limitless ocean of truth he possesses but a partial apprehension. His explorations in science and philosophy have led him to valuable discoveries, but what he has attained is as nothing to what remains unknown. Even with regard to the mysteries of Providence in dealing with men and nations, with the Church and individual Christians, many unsolved problems lie before him here.
But in heaven the darkness will have disappeared — "whether entirely cannot be said, but to such an extent that man's desire for knowledge will be satisfied. Most Christians have seen in Christ's words to Peter, " What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter," a hint that the veil of darkness which now conceals much of truth will in the future world be removed, and that Paul's prophecy will come true, " Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face: now we know in part, then we shall know as even we are known."
(3) Love. The ideal heaven is not a prison in which each inmate lives apart from his neighbour in a separate cell, but a social community in which the members hold communion with each other, and cooperate in the business proper to their new state of existence. The familiar question, " Shall we know each other in heaven? " has always seemed to me unnecessary, as nothing surely can be farther from an ideal state of existence than that millions of intelligent spirits, whether disembodied or embodied, should be gathered together as a vast assemblage of units, incapable of conversing with, or even of recognising one another. All the pictures furnished by Scripture of our future abode contradict this notion. What kind of a city would it be were all its citizens blind and deaf and dumb, like Helen Keller, that remarkable lady? It is true that she, though destitute of sight, hearing, and speech, has attained to a marvellous degree of learning and culture; but she has lived in a community of seeing, hearing, and speaking people. Had it been otherwise, there is small reason to believe she would ever have been able to escape from her prison-house of silence and darkness. So I apprehend that heaven being a city, and much more being a home, will be a place where all its inmates both know and are known — ay 1 and dwell together in love, because He who dwells among them is Love, and none but those who love can abide in His presence.
There nothing will be seen of the discords that are witnessed here, the separations of rich and poor, of wise and unwise, of prince and peasant, of noble and commoner. No strifes will be there of man with man, of class with class, of nation with nation. No gathering of armies will be there; no tramp of soldiers along the golden streets. Wars will be forgotten. Hatred, envy, and jealousy, with every form of anger, wrath, and malice, will have fled away. Perfect peace will reign in every bosom. "There love shall hold an endless reign." Saint shall be united to saint in amity. And all shall be bound to Him whose name is Love.
(4) Purity. It is not merely that into that land there can enter nothing that defileth, for "God is of purer eyes than to look upon iniquity, and evil shall not dwell with Him," and none but " the pure in heart," said Christ, "shall see God." But the mere fact that the Lord is in the city will make it certain that all who see Him will be like Him, for they shall see Him as He is.
Have we ever tried to imagine what a city would be like from which sin in every form was banished? That would give us some idea of what heaven will be — a garden city in which there are no slums, no dens of infamy or haunts of vice, no retreats of poverty or cells of misery, along whose streets no drunkards reel, about whose walks no burglars prowl, within whose marts no lying or dishonest trading intrudes, in whose societies no shameless profligate is seen, but all is sobriety and truthfulness, honesty and uprightness, with nothing to offend either eye or ear, but everything to delight the senses and gratify the mind. How beautiful would our cities be were nothing seen within them but what is pure and honest, lovely and of good report! I am not one of those who despair of men ever seeing this: I believe there is a good time coming when holiness will be the dominant characteristic of this world as sin is now. But whether this vision shall ever be realised on earth or not, it will be in heaven: God's presence there will make that sure,
(5) Service. If the Lord is in the city. He is there to be worshipped — " His servants shall serve Him." If heaven is depicted as without a temple, that is because heaven is all a temple, in which the glorified serve God day and night. That it should be otherwise is not conceivable. They who see God as revealed in Jesus cannot fail to be overwhelmed with the vision; and as they meditate thereon — on the beauty of that face which was once marred more than any man's, on the glory of that character which then will shine in all its lustre, on the holiness of the spotless One, on the love which gave itself for them, on the power which had done great things for them — it will not be possible to keep from falling at His feet, casting their crowns before His throne and saying, "Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive the honour and the glory, the dominion and the power; for Thou hast redeemed us to Thyself by Thy precious blood, and made us kings and priests unto God, and we shall reign for ever and ever."
Nor will their service be, as it often is on earth, partial and imperfect at its best, occasional and intermittent at its longest, often reluctant and languid, but always joyful and willing, constant and perpetual, complete and perfect. The contrast between then and now will be such that if anything could mar the felicity of heaven, this might be expected to do it, the remembrance of how poor and feeble, heartless and reluctant our service often was on earth, when the least reflection on the worthiness of Him to whom it was paid, and the honour put upon us who were allowed to pay it, should have made it joyous and fervent and brimming over with zeal.
Of course, when I speak of service or worship as the employment of heaven, I do not mean merely singing praises, chanting hallelujahs, joining in the choral anthems of the celestial city, though that undoubtedly will form part of the occupation of the citizens. I include all kinds of work to which they may be appointed, for everything done in the name of the Lord Jesus and to the glory of God partakes of the nature of worship. What sorts of employment God's saints may be set to in the heavenly city none can tell. Clearly many of those services to which they are called here will be impossible there. There will be no poor to feed, sick to heal, sad to comfort, or ignorant to be taught. No businesses such as are carried on here. But God's universe will be there to explore, and God's works to admire, God's character to study, and perhaps realms of truth to meditate upon that are as yet unimagined. And in all these services God's saints will find enough to employ their faculties and occupy their time.
(6) Joy. " In Thy presence is fulness of joy," said David; and while it is true that God's people have many joys on earth, it cannot be said that their cups are always overflowing as they will be above.
Here the Christian believer has the joy of seeing God in Christ by the exercise of faith, — " Whom having not seen we love, in whom though now we see Him not, yet believing, we rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory' — there he shall see God in Christ face to face, and his heart shall rejoice.
Here the believer has the joy of forgiveness" — " Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, and rejoice in the hope of the glory of God." Yet this joy is not always either full or constant; there, however, it will be both copious and permanent.
Here the believer has the joy of holiness — in measure at least, though it is often dashed with a sense of failure, of backsliding and sin. There, whence all sin is banished, nothing will mar the happiness that springs from conformity to God's will. The Bible speaks of God Himself as blessed, or happy, and it is not conceivable that they who are God's children should be different. Christ said to His disciples at the table, His desire was that His joy might be fulfilled in them, and that great desire will be greatly fulfilled when they reach the land
(7) Safety. What was true of the Hebrew Church, " God is in the midst of her: she shall not be moved," and what is true to-day of the Christian Church, "Where two or three are met together in My name there am I in the midst," is likewise true of the Church in heaven. "I saw," writes John, " in the midst of the elders a Lamb standing." What that presence was to the Church militant it is in a higher sense and degree to the Church triumphant — a complete and perpetual protection. No adversary from without will ever assail it, for the last enemy, death, will have been destroyed, and all rule, authority, and power placed beneath the feet of Him who is the Lord of the city; so that the gates of it will not need to be shut either night or day. Even should the inconceivable occur and an adversary arise against it, it will be secure, for what Jehovah said about the old Jerusalem He practically says about the new — "I will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and the glory in the midst of her "; so that again "' the gates of hell shall not prevail against her." Nor will an enemy arise from within, through either right-hand or left-hand defection, since into that city there can enter nothing that defileth or worketh abomination or maketh a lie, but only they who are in the Lamb's book of life, and all its citizens are loyal servants of its King, whose presence amongst them is a guarantee at once of their fidelity and of everlasting peace and blessedness, saying to them as it does, "The King of Israel, even the Lord (Jehovah) is in the midst of thee: thou shalt not fear evil any more,'' and again, " The Lord thy God is in the midst of thee: a mighty One who will save: He will rejoice over thee with joy; He will rest in His love: He will joy over thee with singing." What all that will mean to the heavenly citizens, eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered the mind to conceive.