What Is Heaven?

Seventh in a YAFI (You Asked For It) Series,
Delivered July 18, 1999 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates

Sermon Text:
Philippians 3:17-21
17 Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those
who live according to the pattern we gave you.
18 For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears,
many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.
19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in
their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.
20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there,
the Lord Jesus Christ,
21 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.

Some of you may have seen the cartoon on the Op-Ed page of Friday’s Baltimore Sun. It shows what appears to be a man in a hospital bed conversing with his doctor. The doctor says, “Here is your new patient’s bill of rights. You will receive top of the line care, promptly and effectively, delivered in a compassionate and sensitive manner, at no cost to you or anyone else.” To which the patient replies, “Great, what’s the catch?” The doctor says, “You died. This is heaven.”

Pollsters tell us that at no other time in American history do more Americans believe in the existence of heaven. You all want to know what it is about. You want to know what is heaven is like. You have even requested a sermon on it. Down deep inside of all of us I think, there is this great desire to believe that there is such a thing as heaven.

Listen to this 1994 interview with Marlo Thomas as she tells about the death of her dad, Danny Thomas. She says, “When I got on a plane to go to my father’s funeral, I was alone. Phil stayed behind to do a memorial program on my father on The Donahue Show. It was a mistake for me to be alone. I cried the whole way. Phil and I were both raised Catholic, but we’re not so much involved with the church anymore. He is kind of a devil’s advocate. But I called him from that plane that day. I was as fragile as an egg. I said, ‘Answer me truthfully. Is there a heaven?’ And my darling husband, I’m not sure what he believes anymore said, ‘Yes, yes, there is a heaven.’ The need to hear that there is a heaven, and that the person you love is there is very strong.” She is on to something, isn’t she? It is probably a feeling shared by the Kennedy family this morning as well.

We all want to go to heaven. We all expect to go to heaven, don’t we? Well, listen to this interview with that great theologian Sophia Loren, from earlier this year. She writes, “I ‘m not a practicing Christian, but I pray. I read the Bible. It is the most beautiful book ever written. I should to go to heaven; otherwise, it is not nice. I have not done anything wrong. My conscious is very clear. My soul is as white as those orchids over there; and I should go straight, straight to heaven.”

How can you be so sure Sophia? Strangely with all of our interest in compulsiveness about heaven, the Bible is rather reticent in terms of giving us many of the details. Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “The Bible tells us very little about the temperature of hell, or the furniture of heaven.”

I believe there are two reasons for that. Number one, there is just no way that human language can capture the majesty and the grandeur of heaven. Secondly, I think the Bible doesn’t give us many of the details because if it did, you and I would quickly make an idol out of heaven.

The Bible does tell us though, everything you and I need to know. I would invite you to turn to a text in Scripture this morning that gives you and me great insight into the very heart and the essence of what heaven is really all about. Turn with me to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the third chapter; and let’s take a look this morning at verses 17-21. This is the Word of God. Paul writes to those early Christians in Philippi:

Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their God is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on early things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior 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.

Join me as we pray. Father as my words are true to your Word, may they be taken to heart. But as my words should stray from your Word, may they be quickly forgotten. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We all want to know what heaven is like, don’t we? We want to know all about it. We want to know: Are there going to be crab cakes there? Is there going to be Mozart?

Like the two guys who were dying to know if there would be baseball in heaven. They made a pact with each other. The first one to die, he would try to come back and communicate to the other person whether or not there was baseball in heaven. Well, one of them dies; and sure enough the remaining friend one night hears a familiar voice, “Jim! It’s Fred! I’ve come back to tell you whether or not there is baseball in heaven. I have some good news and some bad news for you. The good news, there is baseball in heaven. The bad news, you are the starting pitcher tomorrow night.”

What is heaven like? Probably a better place to begin is to ask ourselves the question, “Will we be ready for what heaven is like?” In the third chapter of Philippians, Paul has spent a lot of time talking with those early Christians about what eternal life in Christ is like. In verses 17-19 of our text, he hones in on the fact that the reality of heaven ought to impact the way you and I live in the world as Christians. In fact, he urges those early Philippian Christians to model their lives after him, and after other Christians who are living godly lives.

Then he warns the Philippians, ‘Don’t model your life after some Christians inside the church, who call themselves Christians,’ but who in reality Paul says, ‘are enemies of the cross.’ These are men and women within the church but they are enemies of the cross; not because they deny the existence of heaven; but because they have been perpetrating a myth. The myth that there are other ways to heaven other than through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Friends, let us be clear here this morning. There is no other way to heaven than through Jesus Christ and his once and for all sufficient, perfect, sacrificial death on the cross. Not Ron Scates, not the Presbyterian Church, but Jesus says, ‘I am the way. I am the road. No one comes to the Father, but by me.’

But there in that Philippian church, and in the church of Baltimore, there are those Christians who in reality are masquerading as Christians, who are enemies of the cross. ‘Oh, there are all kinds of ways other than Christ to get to heaven.’

Paul says, their destiny is not heaven but destruction. Their god is their gut. And Paul says they have fallen into what we might call the Jerry Springer Syndrome: They glory in their shame.

If there is a just criticism of some Christians that they are so heavenly-minded that they are not earthly good, then just the opposite is true for these folks. Their minds are totally focused on this world. They have forgotten, or they have lost that transcendent vision of a godly, Christ-centered life.

Now remember that Paul is writing to Christians here. He is not saying that the way you and I live determines whether we merit heaven. No, not at all. You and I are saved solely, totally by grace alone, through faith in Christ. But what I think Paul is saying here when he urges them to model their lives after him and after other godly Christians, is that the way you and I live our lives here on earth, has an impact on us as we make the transition into heaven.

Think about it. If you are going to spend eternity with a God that you do not passionately love right now; if you are going to spend eternity subject to a God who in this life, you continually refuse to surrender all of your life to; then at best heaven is going to be somewhat of a wearisome place, if not a miserable place. Our lives lived here on earth are to be lived in preparation for life in heaven. We are to seek out men and women of integrity, and authenticity, and compassion, and courage, and faithfulness; and then pattern our lives after them. Seeking to live in ways here and now that glorify God through eternity. So ask yourself a question. Who or what is your life modeled on?

Let’s get back to the original question. What is heaven? In verses 20 and 21 of our text, Paul gives us some great insights into what heaven is really all about. In verse 20, the first thing he tells us, he reminds us to check our spiritual passports as Christians. He says, ‘Our citizenship, is not in this world. Our true citizenship is in heaven.’ This earth is not our real home.

If you are a Christian, ask yourself this, ‘Am I a pioneer, or am I a homesteader?’ A pioneer is never settled. They are always moving on. They know that wherever they are is not their home. They are always heading toward a final destination. They are just passing through. But so many Christians have, in relationship to this world, become homesteaders. They have circled the wagons. They have sunk down roots. They invest themselves so much in this world, that they have almost totally forgotten where their true home is.

Where is your true home? It is not here. If you are a Christian, you are at best a resident alien. You are a sojourner. You and I need to remember that this world is not all there is.

In September when Anne and I are in Scotland, I don’t think we are going to be confused about Scotland being our home. At every turn we are going to be reminded that we are tourists. We are just passing through. We are just resident aliens there, and we will only be there for a short time.

Let me confess, I like this world. I am in no rush to get to heaven. I need to be reminded that I am a resident alien. I am a sojourner. I am just passing through. This is not my home.

Max Lucado tells a story about flying home to San Antonio one evening and as the wheels of the plane hit the runway, he said all through the plane you could hear the unfastening of seatbelts. As the voice came over the intercom saying, ‘Please remain seated with your seatbelt fastened until the plane comes to a complete stop,’ he said, no one was paying attention. People were already out of their seats, opening the overhead compartments, getting their stuff out. Why? Because they were home. Their final destination was not that plane. They wanted to get off of that plane, and get out, and get home with those they love. He said he didn’t see any of the stewardesses having to struggle to pull people out of their seats, with people going, ‘Wait a minute. I want to stay on the plane for a few more hours. The food is really good. These seats are so comfy, I want to stay.’ No. They were home. They wanted to get off of that plane.

Why then, as Christians, are we so clutching when it comes to this world? This is not our true home. By the way, if you are a Christian when you die, where do you go? You don’t go to heaven. When Jesus died He didn’t even go to heaven. He went to hell. He went to hell to close the gates of hell for all who place their trust in him. But if you are a believer, when you die you don’t go to heaven either. Where do you go?

When you and I die, we are not quite yet home then either. Remember when Jesus was nailed on the cross and the thief on his side trusted in him? Jesus looked at him and said, ‘Today you will be with me.’ Not in heaven, “in paradise”. Paradise is where you and I go when we die. Yes, we will be in the unveiled glorious presence of God. But we are not yet in heaven. We are not yet home.

Heaven is the fulfilled kingdom of God, and that does not come into being until Christ returns one day. So the next thing Paul wants you and me to know about heaven, is also in verse 20. He says that Christ one day will return, and take you and me home to heaven to be with him. If you don’t remember anything else about this sermon, remember this. This is the most important thing about heaven: that you and I will be with Christ.

Henry Durbanville in his book The Best Is Yet to Come, tells the story of a man who is a born-again believer. He was dying and he was scared to death. He was scared of the unknown. One night his doctor visited him at home, and the doctor was a Christian, and the doctor felt helpless to comfort this man. He did not know what to tell him to ease his mind. All of the sudden the doctor heard a scratching and a whining at the door. He opened the door and in bounded the doctor’s dog, who had accompanied him on that house-call. And then the doctor thought, ‘I now know what to say to this man.’ He went to the bedside and said, “My dog is here. I let him in. My dog has never been in your house before. He did not know what it was like in here at all. He just knew that I was here. And so he wanted to come. I can tell you that I am looking forward to heaven. Not because I know a lot about it. But because my Savior is there, and that is all that I need to know.” That is all that you and I really need to know.

But Paul tells us some more. He goes on in verse 21 to tell us that when Christ does return and take us home, in heaven you and I will be re-embodied. In paradise, our soul is with Christ. But, we were not made to be disembodied spirits. We are only whole and complete when body and soul are together. We are told that Christ will give us new glorious bodies. Resurrection bodies. We are told that those bodies will be like Christ’s glorious body.

After the resurrection what was Christ’s body like? It was real. It was corporal. But it was no longer susceptible to disease or death. Christ’s body was no longer governed by the laws of this universe. He could appear, disappear. You and I will be given glorious resurrection bodies like Christ. We will be like Christ; but without any delusions of deity. We will no longer be susceptible to disease, death, sin. Our weakness will be traded in for strength. Death for life. Humility for glory.

It raises some questions though, doesn’t it? What age will we be in heaven? Will I be 15, 25, 70? How will we identify each other? This is beyond human comprehension. This is part of the mystery of heaven. But suffice it to say that we know this: we will be with Christ, and we will be like Christ. And my friends, that is what makes heaven, heaven.

‘Yeah, but Ron, is there going to be shrimp, the Internet, and animals?’ Let me tell you this. If Christ appeared to you today and he said, ‘Look, I am going to let you design heaven the way you want it to be. I will give you six months. I’ll come back in six months, and whatever you come up with, that is what heaven is going to be.’ Wouldn’t that be great?

So you work hard for six months. You put everything into heaven that you want. Everything that you love. Everything that you think would make heaven, heaven. Six months later Christ comes back and he says to you, ‘Hey look, before you show me your plan, take a look at mine.’ I have no doubt that any of us, if we had that opportunity, would take ours and rip it up.

What is heaven? It is our one true home. It is our eternal destiny in Christ. It is being in Christ. It is being like Christ. It is a destiny that our lives here and now are preparing us for.

A woman was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The doctors told her that she had three months to live. She called her pastor and said, ‘Please come over. I want to put things in order.’ He came over, and they sat down and they planned her funeral. She tidied up all of the loose ends. He promised her that he would make sure that all of her wishes were carried out.

Everything was now in order, and he got up to leave. She stopped him before he walked out the door and she said, “I forgot. Two more things that are very important. When I am buried, I want to be buried with my favorite Bible in the casket with me.” The pastor said, “No problem.”

And then she said, “The second thing, is also very important. I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand.” The pastor was kind of stunned. He did not know what to say. And then she said, “All my life I have gone to so many church potluck suppers; and when the main course was over and they came to clear the table, inevitably someone would lean over and say to me, ‘Keep your fork.’ She said, “That was my favorite part of the meal. I knew there was something better coming. It might be a velvety chocolate cake, it might be a deep dish apple pie. I knew it would be wonderful, and that it would be of substance.”

And she said, “I want to be laid out in my casket at the viewing with a fork in my right hand, because I want people to come by and look and wonder, ‘What is with the fork?’ And then pastor, you will have the opportunity to tell them, “Keep your fork because the best is yet to come.”

And sure enough, she was laid out in the casket with her best dress, her favorite Bible, and a fork in her right hand. At the viewing people came by. The pastor overheard countless of them asking the question, ‘What’s with the fork?’ And then at the funeral he was able to preach, ‘Keep your fork. The best is yet to come.’

This afternoon when you sit down to lunch. This evening at dinnertime when you pick up that fork, may it be an oh so gentle reminder to you, that in Christ, with Christ, like Christ, the best is yet to come. That is what heaven is all about.

Join me as we pray:
Father we thank you that as we pass through this world as sojourners you are our companion, you are our pioneer and perfecter of our faith. We follow hopefully in your footsteps. Lord, give us a healthy appreciation of the beauty and wonder of this world. May we pour ourselves out, living for you; binding up the wounds of those who are hurting, ministering to the poor. But also may we be so fueled by the reality that this is not the last word. This is not our true home. We are here to do what we can. But our destiny is eternal life with you. Through Jesus Christ our Lord and him alone. Amen.