Joy's Eternal Increase: Edwards on the Beauty of Heaven
Desiring God 2003 National Conference
A God-Entranced Vision of All Things
The following is a lightly edited transcript of the audio.
To whatever degree we relish and rejoice in the beauty of God now, it is but a faint foretaste of the eternal feast we will enjoy in heaven in the age to come. Theologians and mystics often speak of this consummate experience of God’s glory as the beatific vision, by which is meant an intuitive, unmediated, and unprecedented apprehension of the beauty of God (see Matthew 5:8; Revelation 22:4).
Not everyone thinks it helpful to focus on the future. They’ve bought into the old adage that people who do are “so heavenly minded they’re of no earthly good.” On the contrary, I’m persuaded that we will never be of much use in this life until we’ve developed a healthy obsession with the next. Our only hope for satisfaction of soul and joy of heart in this life comes from looking intently at what we can’t see (see 2 Corinthians 4:16-18; Colossians 3:1-4). Therefore, we must take steps to cultivate and intensify in our souls an ache for the beauty of the age to come. “Labor to get a sense of the vanity of this world,” said Edwards, and “labor to be much acquainted with heaven” (“The True Christian’s Life a Journey Towards Heaven,” 17:445).
The consistent witness of Scripture is that we should make heaven and its beauty the object of our contemplative energy, not for the purpose of fueling theological speculation, but to equip us for life here and now. Evidently there is something about heaven that makes our anticipation of its experience profoundly life-changing. And the reason isn’t hard to discern. The essence of heaven is the vision of God and the eternal increase of joy in him. Heaven might well be summed up in the declaration: “They will see his face” (Revelation 22:4)!
Why Think About Heaven?
Before I delve into the nature of this beatific vision, consider the immediate and practical impact of the soul’s intense longing for it.
1) A contemplative focus on the beauty of heaven frees us from excessive dependence upon earthly wealth and comfort. If there awaits us an eternal inheritance of immeasurable glory, it is senseless to expend effort and energy here, sacrificing so much time and money, to obtain for so brief a time in corruptible form what we will enjoy forever in consummate perfection.
Look closely at the context of Paul’s words in Philippians 3:20-21. “Our citizenship,” says Paul, “is in heaven” (3:20). Knowing this enables the soul to escape the grip of “earthly things” (Philippians 3:19) and to “stand firm” (Philippians 4:1). Paul in no way denies or minimizes the reality of our earthly obligations. He reminds the Philippians that their bodies were in Philippi. Their names were enrolled as Roman citizens. They had voting rights. They owed their taxes to an earthly king. They were protected by the laws of a this-worldly state.
Yet their fundamental identity, the orientation of their souls, the affection of their hearts, and the focus of their minds was in heaven! Paul appeals to their patriotic pride, not in Philippi, but in the New Jerusalem, their real residence! Therefore be governed by its rules, its principles, its values. Paul is careful to insist that our citizenship “is” (present tense) in heaven, not “will be”. We are already citizens of a new state. We are resident aliens here on earth.
Peter contends that the ultimate purpose of the new birth (1 Peter 1:3-4) is our experience of a heavenly hope, an inheritance that is “imperishable,” by which he means incorruptible, not subject to decay or rust or mold or dissolution or disintegration. This heavenly inheritance is “undefiled” or pure, unmixed, untainted by sin or evil. Best of all, it is “unfading.” Not only will it never end, it will never diminish in its capacity to enthrall and fascinate and impart joy. It is “reserved in heaven” for us, kept safe, under guard, protected and insulated against all intrusion or violation. This hope is the grounds for your joy (verse 6) that sustains you in trial and suffering.
A few verses later he exhorts his readers to “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13). This is a commanded obsession. Fixate fully! Rivet your soul on the grace that you will receive when Christ returns. Tolerate no distractions. Entertain no diversions. Don’t let your mind be swayed. Devote every ounce of mental and spiritual and emotional energy to concentrating and contemplating on the grace that is to come. What grace is that? It is the grace of the heavenly inheritance described in verses 3-6!
The expectation of a “city that has foundations” energized Abraham’s heart to persevere in a foreign land. All the patriarchs are described as “seeking a [heavenly] homeland” (Hebrews 11:14). Their determination in the face of trial was fueled by their desire for a “better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). Edwards put it thusly:
“The enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams, but God is the ocean.”
2) A contemplative focus on heaven enables us to respond appropriately to the injustices of this life. Essential to heavenly joy is witnessing the vindication of righteousness and the judgment of evil. Only from our anticipation of the new perspective of heaven, from which we, one day, will look back and evaluate what now seems senseless, can we be empowered to endure this world in all its ugliness and moral deformity.
“We will never be of much use in this life until we’ve developed a healthy obsession with the next.” Tweet
Apart from a contemplative fixation on the glories of heaven, you will always struggle to read the newspaper righteously! If you insist on taking the short view of things you will be forever frustrated, confused, and angry.
This principle is especially seen in Revelation 19:1-8 where we read of the perspective of those surrounding the heavenly throne of God. Their declaration of praise is in response to the judgment on Babylon described in Revelation 18. God is to be praised and all power and glory ascribed to him precisely because he has “judged the great harlot” (Revelation 19:2). Far from the outpouring of wrath and the destruction of his enemies being a blight on God’s character or a reason to question his love and kindness (as unbelievers so often suggest), they are the very reason for worship! God’s judgments against the unbelieving world system and its followers are “true and righteous” (see 15:3-4 and 16:5-7), for the harlot was corrupting (compare with 17:1-5; 18:3,7-9) the earth with her immorality, thereby meriting divine vengeance.
As if once were not enough, now a “second time” the cry of “Hallelujah!” is sounded (verses 3-4). This verdict is echoed (note their “Amen”, a formal expression of ratification and endorsement) by the 24 elders and 4 living creatures.
Again, a “great multitude” shouts forth its praise (verse 6). Surely this is the same group, whoever they may be, that began this worship service in verse 1. Only here their voice is even louder (like the “roar of many waters” and “mighty peals of thunder”), gradually increasing as they reflect more deeply on the reasons why God is worthy of praise (as stated in verse 2 and all of chapter 18).
3) A contemplative focus on heaven produces the fruit of endurance and perseverance now. The strength to endure present suffering is the fruit of meditating on future satisfaction! This is the clear message of several texts such as Matthew 5:11-12; Romans 8:17-18, 23, 25; Hebrews 13:13-14; and 1 Peter 1:3-8.
Romans 8:18 is Paul’s declaration that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” We do not lose heart because we contemplate the unseen things of the future and nourish our souls with the truth that whatever we endure on this earth is producing a glory far beyond all comparison! Christians are not asked to treat pain as though it were pleasure, or grief as though it were joy, but to bring all earthly adversity into comparison with heavenly glory and thereby be strengthened to endure. The exhortation in Hebrews 13:13-14 to willingly bear the reproach of Christ is grounded in the expectation of a “city which is to come,” namely, the heavenly New Jerusalem.
Nowhere is this principle better seen than in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. Gazing at the grandeur of heavenly glory transforms our value system. In the light of what is “eternal”, what we face now is only “momentary”. Suffering appears “prolonged” only in the absence of an eternal perspective. The “affliction” of this life is regarded as “light” when compared with the “weight” of that “glory” yet to come. It is “burdensome” only when we lose sight of our heavenly future. The key to success in suffering, as odd as that sounds, is in taking the long view. Only when juxtaposed with the endless ages of eternal bliss does suffering in this life become tolerable.
There is yet another contrast to be noted. In verse 18 Paul juxtaposes “transient” things “that are seen” with “eternal” things “that are unseen.” Note especially the connection between verse 18 and verse 16. Our "inner nature" is being renewed as we look or while we look at the unseen, eternal things of the age to come. If you don’t “look” you won’t change! The process of renewal only occurs as the believer looks to things as yet unseen. As we fix the gaze of our hearts on the glorious hope of the age to come, God progressively renews our inner being, notwithstanding the simultaneous decay of our outer frame! Inner renewal does not happen automatically or mechanically. Transformation happens only as or provided that we "look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen" (verse 18).
Paul is here describing in his own terms the battle for the mind of mankind. On what shall we set our sights (compare with Colossians 3:1-4)? To what shall we give our allegiance? On what shall we meditate and ponder and focus? At no time in history has this been a more relevant issue given recent statistics concerning television viewing habits in our country. The typical American teenager today watches 18,000 murders and 35,000 commercials before he/she graduates from high school! Someone has calculated that by the time one reaches the age of 65, he/she will have spent 10 years watching TV!
Edwards himself spoke often of how contemplations of heaven sustained him in times of both physical and emotional trial. When depression set in following his departure from New York, he wrote this of heaven in his Diary for Wednesday, May 1:
“It is a comfort to think of that heavenly state where there is fullness of joy, where reigns heavenly, calm, and delightful love without alloy, where there are continually the dearest expressions of this love, where is the enjoyment of the persons loved without ever parting, where those persons who appear so lovely in this world, will really be inexpressibly more lovely, and full of love to us. And how sweetly will the mutual lovers join together, to sing the praises of God and the Lamb!” (Diary, 16:768)
4) Fourthly, a contemplative focus on heaven purifies the heart. Meditation on the unseen glories of heaven energizes the heart to say no to fleshly desires. This is the clear witness of Colossians 3:1-4; 1 John 3:2-3; and 2 Peter 3:11-13.
5) Edwards also argued that we should contemplate heaven for it is there that we see the essence of true religion. It is there that we learn the nature of genuine religious affections. The way to learn the true nature of anything, said Edwards, is to go where that thing is found in its highest and purest expression. To know true religion, therefore, we must look at it in its heavenly expression:
“If we can learn anything of the state of heaven from the Scripture, the love and joy that the saints have there, is exceeding great and vigorous; impressing the heart with the strongest and most lively sensation, of inexpressible sweetness, mightily moving, animating, and engaging them, making them like to a flame of fire. And if such love and joy be not affections, then the word ‘affection’ is of no use in language. Will any say, that the saints in heaven, in beholding the face of their Father, and the glory of their Redeemer, and contemplating his wonderful works, and particularly his laying down his life for them, have their hearts nothing moved and affected, by all which they behold or consider?” (Religious Affections, Yale: 2:114).
Heaven’s Irresistible Appeal
We’re now ready to concentrate on the nature of our heavenly experience and the beatific vision of God for which we long. This is what gives heaven its irresistible appeal and its contemporary impact.
Heaven is characterized by the increase of joy. Heaven is not simply about the reality or experience of joy, but its eternal increase. The blessedness of the beauty of heaven is progressive, incremental, and incessantly expansive.
The happiness of heaven is not like the steady, placid state of a mountain lake where barely a ripple disturbs the tranquility of its water. Heaven is more akin to the surging, swelling waves of the Mississippi at flood stage. With each passing day there is an increase in the level of water. And as the rain of revelation and insight and discovery continues to fall throughout the endless ages of eternity, so the water level of love and joy and happiness rises higher and higher, never to abate or to any degree diminish.
In the summer of 2002 the central region of Texas, just north of San Antonio, was hit by a devastating flood, a tragedy of almost incalculable proportions. My ears perked up one night when the television news anchor reported that the flood waters had finally receded. The river had crested the night before and people were now able to return to their homes (or at least what was left of them).
Although this was certainly good news for them, you will never hear anything of the sort in heaven, at least when it comes to the “river” of God’s “delights” (Psalm 36:8). The waters of divine knowledge in the age to come bring, not devastation, but delight. The heavenly river of revelation will never crest! The waters of our enjoyment will suffer no such limitations. “Recede” is a word absent from the heavenly dictionary.
Look with me at what Paul says in Ephesians 2:7. God made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” This text deserves our careful attention.
Making us alive in Christ and setting us free from the guilt and bondage of spiritual death was only the penultimate purpose of God. The ultimate motivation in God’s heart for saving lost souls was so that they might become, throughout all eternity, trophies on display for all to see the magnificence and the surpassing riches of God’s grace in kindness in Christ!
Paul’s language is carefully chosen. He employs the plural “ages” to accentuate the stunning reality that redeemed sinners will bear ceaseless witness to the mercy of God, both now and hereafter. Like waves incessantly crashing on the shore, one upon another, so the ages of eternity future will, in endless succession, echo the celebration of sinners saved by grace, all to the glory of God. There will not be in heaven a one-time momentary display of God’s goodness, but an everlasting, ever-increasing infusion and impartation of divine kindness that intensifies with every passing moment.
To emphasize both the extravagance and inexhaustible plenitude of God’s display of grace, Paul makes four points.
First, God is going to put on a continuing and perpetual public display of his “grace” toward us! Heaven is not one grand, momentary flash of excitement followed by an eternity of boredom. Heaven is not going to be an endless series of earthly re-runs! There will be a new episode of divine grace every day! A new revelation every moment of some heretofore unseen aspect of the unfathomable complexity of divine compassion. A new and fresh disclosure of an implication or consequence of God’s mercy, every day. A novel and stunning explanation of the meaning of what God has done for us, without end.
Second, it isn’t merely his grace, but the “wealth” or “riches” of his grace. God isn’t simply gracious: his grace is deep, wide, high, wealthy, plentiful, abounding, infinitely replenishing.
Third, as if mere grace weren’t enough, Paul refers to the “immeasurable” or “surpassing” riches of his grace! His grace cannot be quantified. His mercy exceeds calculation.
Finally, one particular aspect of God’s grace is going to be uniquely highlighted and experienced: his kindness! There is a deeply passionate and emotional dynamic in God’s gracious affection for us that entails tenderness and gentleness and longsuffering and joy and heartfelt compassion.
Will there ever be an end to this grace? Does it suffer from entropy? Will it ultimately evaporate? Is there a specified quantity to God’s kindness that will slowly diminish and someday run dry? The point of Paul’s effusive language is to emphasize that the grace of God in Christ is endlessly infinite, endlessly complex, endlessly deep, endlessly new, endlessly fresh, endlessly profound. God is infinite. Therefore, so too are his attributes. Throughout the ages to come, forever and ever, we will be the recipients each instant of an ever increasing and more stunning, more fascinating, and thus inescapably more enjoyable display of God’s grace than before.
“The essence of heaven is the vision of God and the eternal increase of joy in him.” Tweet
With that unending and ever-increasing display will come an unending and ever-increasing discovery on our part of more of the depths and greatness of God’s grace. We will learn and grasp and comprehend more of the height and depth and width and breadth of his saving love. We will see ever new and always fresh displays and manifestations of his kindness. The knowledge we gain when we enter heaven will forever grow and deepen and expand and intensify and multiply.
We will constantly be more amazed with God, more in love with God, and thus ever more relishing his presence and our relationship with him. Our experience of God will never reach it consummation. We will never finally arrive, as if upon reaching a peak we discover there is nothing beyond. Our experience of God will never become stale. It will deepen and develop, intensify and amplify, unfold and increase, broaden and balloon. Our relishing and rejoicing in God will sharpen and spread and extend and progress and mature and flower and blossom and widen and stretch and swell and snowball and inflate and lengthen and augment and advance and proliferate and accumulate and accelerate and multiply and heighten and reach a crescendo that will even then be only the beginning of an eternity of new and fresh insights into the majesty of who God is!
Will our knowledge increase in heaven as “time” passes? Consider the angels. They are perfect and sinless, yet their knowledge increases and their joy intensifies. They desire to look into the things of redemption (1 Peter 1:12) and rejoice when a sinner repents (Luke 15:7,10). Clearly, growth of insight and new grounds for joy characterize angelic experience in heaven. If this be true of them, why not of us?
There never will come a time in heaven when we will know all that can be known or see or feel or experience or enjoy all that can be enjoyed. We will never plumb the depths of gratification in God nor reach its end. Our satisfaction and delight and joy in him are subject to incessant increase. When it comes to heavenly euphoria, words such as termination and cessation and expiration and finality are utterly inappropriate and inapplicable.
One of the greatest misconceptions of heaven is that it is static, unchanging, and immutable, as if to say that all we get we get all at once, at the beginning. The idea many have is that we are transformed at its inception as much as we ever will be. No. But to think that the happiness of heaven is unchanging minimizes its glory.
If our ideas and thoughts of God increase in heaven, then so also must the joy and delight and fascination which those ideas and thoughts generate. We enter heaven with a finite number of ideas about God, with obvious limits on what we know of him. There is no indication that everything that can be known of God will be known all at once and forever. How could a finite being ever know all there is to know of an infinite being?
With increased knowledge comes intensified love. As understanding grows, so too does affection and fascination. With each new insight comes more joy, which serves only to stoke the fires of celebration around the throne. All of this accelerates our growth in holiness. When the soul is filled with ever-increasing depths of knowledge, love, joy, and worship, the more it is conformed to the image of Christ. In other words, the more we like God the more like God we become!
New ideas, new revelation, new insights, new applications, together with new connections between one idea and another all lead to deeper appreciation for God and thus fuel the flames of worship. And just when you think you’re going to explode if you learn anything more or hear anything fresh or see anything new, God expands your heart and stretches your mind and broadens your emotions and extends every faculty to take in yet more and more and more, and so it goes forever and ever. Says Edwards:
“Therefore, their knowledge will increase to eternity; and if their knowledge, doubtless their holiness. For as they increase in the knowledge of God and of the works of God, the more they will see of his excellency; and the more they see of his excellency . . . the more will they love him; and the more they love God, the more delight and happiness . . . will they have in him.” (Edwards, The Miscellanies, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, [Yale University Press, 1994], 275-76)
The basis for knowing this to be true is the biblical reality of God’s inexhaustible plenitude.
We must never forget that even in heaven only God is immutable or unchanging. We are ever subject to greater transformation and improvement. But it is always a change from one stage of glory and knowledge and holiness to the next higher stage of glory and knowledge and holiness. It is one thing to be free of imperfection, but another to experience perfection perfectly. We will be perfect in heaven from the first moment we arrive in that we will be free from defect, free from sin, free from moral corruption and selfishness. But that perfection is finite, because we are finite. It is always subject to expansion. There is change, but always for the better!
Heaven is not simply the eradication of earthly sin and imperfection. To say that in heaven I will no longer hate God is not the same as loving him perfectly. My love can be free from corruption and selfishness without being as perfect and intense as is possible. To say that my love for God is absolutely perfect and cannot be improved upon implies that I know everything that can be known of him and that I know it in exhaustive detail. This is worse than absurd, it’s arrogant.
All aspects of our “perfection” in heaven admit of degrees precisely because we are and always will be finite. Whatever is finite has boundaries and boundaries, by definition, are capable of being exceeded and extended. Knowledge that is perfect and free from error is not necessarily comprehensive. Our happiness will be perfect in that it will be entirely free from trouble and trial and evil, but that perfection, as strange as it may sound, is always subject to improvement.
Now Counts Forever
To think that everyone in heaven is equally knowledgeable, equally holy, equally capable of enjoying God, is to argue that the progress we make now on earth is irrelevant to our heavenly state. But we are often exhorted to do things now precisely because it will build up and increase for us treasure in heaven. Not everyone responds to these commands in the same way or to the same degree or with the same measure of faithfulness. Thus people will enter heaven at differing degrees of holiness, love, and joy. All will be subject to increase and expansion based on the depth and measure of our development here on earth. What we do and know and achieve now, by God’s grace, will have eternal consequences.
Your capacity for happiness in heaven is shaped by the development and refinement and depth of your capacity on earth. What we do now is not discarded once we enter eternity. What we learn now is not erased in heaven. Nothing in Scripture leads us to believe that everyone will be instantaneously, equally, and exhaustively educated at the inauguration of our heavenly existence (as if to say that God will download in us at once all we could ever hope to know). What we experience in joy and understanding and insight now is not destroyed, but is the foundation on which all our eternal experience and growth is based.
If God’s desire is to be glorified, then it seems that he must do whatever is necessary that his glory may be seen and honored in ever increasing ways. Perhaps in heaven God will enlarge our intellectual capacity to know him and heighten the sensitivity of our affections to love him and transform every faculty of soul, spirit, and body to enjoy him to a degree never before attained or imagined. Our minds and wills and emotions and bodies and spirits will no longer be limited by the corruptions of the flesh or the boundaries of earth. Edwards put it this way:
“And without doubt, God can contrive matter so that there shall be other sort of proportions, that may be quite of a different kind, and may raise another sort of pleasure in the sense, and in a manner to us inconceivable, that shall be vastly more ravishing and exquisite. . . . Our animal spirits will also be capable of immensely more, fine and exquisite proportions in their motions than now they are, being so gross” (Miscellanies 182, 13:328).
But if we are never able to reach consummate perfection and complete knowledge of God, won’t we feel frustrated and disappointed and anxious? No. Because there will never be a time when we are denied what we desire. Happiness consists in part in the satisfaction of desire. In heaven, with each desire there is fulfillment. We will desire only what is good and righteous and honoring to God, and it would be hell if such desire were left unsatisfied. Each new desire is but a fitting prelude to the delight that comes with its satisfaction.
Frustration and disappointment and anxiety are the fruit of not attaining what your heart desires. But in heaven whatever we want we get. If we want more knowledge, we’ll learn. If we want more enjoyment, we get it. With each new desire comes a corresponding satisfaction. And with each new satisfaction, with each new discovery, yet unseen and unexperienced possibilities of enjoying and knowing God will emerge to which our hearts will reach in desire, which desire will in turn be fulfilled, which in turn will open up new vistas not yet attained, which when desired will then be fulfilled and satisfied, and on and on forever and ever.
Often people doubt the happiness of heaven to come because of their misery in this world. They find that divine providence seems to deprive them of happiness now. What reason, then, do they have for believing that they will have happiness later? This question fails to realize that God limits the happiness and pleasure we have now precisely so we might not become attached to this world or dependent upon it or fearful of leaving it (dying), as well as to stir in our hearts a longing and yearning and holy anticipation for what is yet to come.
That we will grow in happiness in heaven seems evident from the fact that the ideas and thoughts and insights into the nature and work of God will forever increase. We are mistaken to think that what we perceive to be beautiful now is the limit or boundary for what will be beautiful in heaven. With a new heavens and a new earth there will undoubtedly be new colors, new combinations, new hues, new depths of radiance, together with new faculties of mind, sense and spirit to apprehend new disclosures of God’s infinite splendor.
What We Won’t See There
Three texts in Revelation tell us who and what will be absent in heaven. In 21:4 we see that no tears of grief, no death or sorrow or pain will be present. In 21:8 we are assured that no one who is cowardly, lying, or unbelieving will be present, nor murderers, or anything abominable, immoral, or idolatrous. And, as if to sum up, we are told in 21:27 that nothing unclean will be allowed to enter.
“To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here.” –Edwards Tweet
Think of the implications of what is being said! When we get to heaven there will be, said Edwards, “nothing which shall offend the most delicate eye” (8:371). In other words, nothing that is abrasive, irritating, agitating, or hurtful. Nothing harmful, hateful, upsetting or unkind. Nothing, sad, bad, or mad. Nothing harsh, impatient, ungrateful or unworthy. Nothing weak, or sick, or broken or foolish. Nothing deformed, degenerate, depraved or disgusting.
Nothing polluted, pathetic, poor or putrid. Nothing dark, dismal, dismaying or degrading. Nothing blameworthy, blemished, blasphemous or blighted. Nothing faulty, faithless, frail or fading. Nothing grotesque or grievous, hideous or insidious. Nothing illicit or illegal, lascivious or lustful. Nothing marred or mutilated, misaligned or misinformed. Nothing nasty or naughty, offensive or odious. Nothing rancid or rude, soiled or spoiled. Nothing tawdry or tainted, tasteless or tempting. Nothing vile or vicious, wasteful or wanton!
What We Will See There
Wherever you turn your eyes you will see nothing but glory and grandeur and beauty and brightness and purity and perfection and splendor and satisfaction and sweetness and salvation and majesty and marvel and holiness and happiness.
We will see only and all that is adorable and affectionate, beautiful and bright, brilliant and bountiful, delightful and delicious, delectable and dazzling, elegant and exciting, fascinating and fruitful, glorious and grand, gracious and good, happy and holy, healthy and whole, joyful and jubilant, lovely and luscious, majestic and marvelous, opulent and overwhelming, radiant and resplendent, splendid and sublime, sweet and savoring, tender and tasteful, euphoric and unified!
Why will it be all these things? Because we will be looking at God (see Matthew 5:8; John 17:24; Hebrews 12:14; Revelation 22:4). This beatific vision will be utterly transparent. Now we “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13), obscured and blurry. But God will one day unveil himself in all his resplendent brilliance, glory, and clarity for us to behold.
This beatific vision of God will be utterly transcendent, and will in every conceivable way outstrip and exceed and transcend the glory and beauty and majesty of anything we have ever seen on this earth. Hence we will never grow weary or bored with looking at God.
This beatific vision of God will be utterly transforming. Moses saw the “back”, or hindquarters of God, if you will (see Exodus 33:19-23). This resulted in a glowing brilliance on his face that terrified the people, from which they turned away. The dazzling brilliance that transformed Moses’ face was too much for them to bear, yet this came from his beholding the backside of God, not his face! Our eternal destiny is to see him face to face. What will it be for us to bask in the radiant glory and refulgent beauty of His divine countenance!
What We Will Hear There
One of the greatest joys of heaven will be the exalted sound of perfected souls singing their joyful praises to God. “The best, most beautiful, and most perfect way that we have of expressing a sweet concord of mind to each other,” said Edwards, “is by music” (Miscellanies 188, 13:331). Thus in heaven, he continued, it is probable “that the glorified saints, after they have again received their bodies, will have ways of expressing the concord of their minds by some other emanations than sounds, of which we cannot conceive, that will be vastly more proportionate, harmonious and delightful than the nature of sounds is capable of; and the music they will make will be in a medium capable of modulations in an infinitely more nice, exact and fine proportion than our gross air, and with organs as much more adapted to such proportions” (Ibid.). In heaven, “there shall be no string out of tune to cause any jar in the harmony of that world, no unpleasant note to cause any discord” (8:371).
What We Will Do There
For one thing, we will no longer enjoy sin! For example, envy and covetousness and spite, all those things which fill our hearts when we see others exceeding us in prosperity, surpassing us in success, elevated beyond us in worldly affairs, will be forever absent from heaven.
Hardly anything will bring you more joy than to see other saints with greater rewards than you, experiencing greater glory than you, given greater authority than you! There will be no jealousy or pride to fuel your unhealthy competitiveness. There will be no greed to energize your race to get more than everyone else. You will then delight only in delighting in the delight of others. Their achievement will be your greatest joy. Their success will be your highest happiness. You will truly rejoice with those who rejoice. Envy comes from lack. But in heaven there is no lack. Whatever you need, you get. Whatever desires may arise, they are satisfied.
The fact that some are more holy and happier than others will not diminish the joy of the latter. There will be perfect humility and perfect resignation to God’s will in heaven, hence no resentment or bitterness. Also, those higher in holiness will, precisely because they are holy, be more humble. The essence of holiness is humility! The very vice that might incline them to look condescendingly on those lower than themselves is nowhere present. It is precisely because they are more holy that they are so very humble and thus incapable of arrogance and elitism.
They will not strut or boast or use their higher degrees of glory to humiliate or harm those lower. Those who know more of God will, because of that knowledge, think more lowly and humbly of themselves. They will be more aware of the grace that accounts for their holiness than those who know and experience less of God, hence, they will be more ready to serve and to yield and to go low and to defer.
Some people in heaven will be happier than others. But this is no reason for sadness or anger. In fact, it will serve only to make you happier to see that others are happier than you! Your happiness will increase when you see that the happiness of others has exceeded your own. Why? Because love dominates in heaven and love is rejoicing in the increase of the happiness of others. To love someone is to desire their greatest joy. As their joy increases, so too does yours in them. If their joy did not increase, neither would yours . We struggle with this because now on earth our thoughts and desires and motives are corrupted by sinful self-seeking, competitiveness, envy, jealousy, and resentment. Edwards again summed it up best:
“How soon do earthly lovers come to an end of their discoveries of each other’s beauty; how soon do they see all that is to be seen! . . . And how happy is that love, in which there is an eternal progress in all these things; wherein new beauties are continually discovered, and more and more loveliness, and in which we shall forever increase in beauty ourselves; where we shall be made capable of finding out and giving, and shall receive, more and more endearing expressions of love forever: our union will become more close, and communication more intimate.” (Miscellanies, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, [Yale University Press, 1994], 336-37)
We often hesitate to love others on earth for fear that they might not love us back, or that their professions of love will be insincere and feigned. But not in heaven:
“Heavenly lovers will have no doubt of the love of each other. They shall have no fear that their professions and testimonies of love are hypocritical; they shall be perfectly satisfied of the sincerity and strength of each other’s love, as much as if there were a window in all their breasts, that they could see other’s hearts. There shall be no such thing as flattery or dissimulation in heaven, but there perfect sincerity shall reign through all. Everyone will be perfectly sincere, having really all that love which they profess. All their expressions of love shall come from the bottom of their hearts ” (8:378).
In this life it’s often hard to be happy when you hurt. In heaven, with new and glorified bodies, there will be no fatigue, pain, discomfort, chronic aches or itches. There will be only pure physical pleasure with no bodily obstacles to diminish our ability to see and feel and hear and touch and taste and smell the glories of paradise. Now, on earth, physical pleasure often competes with spiritual happiness, but in heaven they are one! The physical and emotional and intellectual pleasures of heaven will infinitely exceed the most ecstatic of physical and sensual pleasures on earth.
“Love dominates in heaven and love is rejoicing in the increase of the happiness of others.” Tweet
There will be no bodily lusts to pull you down, no physical fatigue to cloud your mind, no wicked impulses against which you must fight, no dullness of heart to hold you back, no lethargy of soul to slow you down, no weakness of will to keep you in bondage, no lack of energy to love someone else, no absence of passion to pursue what is holy.
Insofar as our bodies will be glorified in heaven and thus delivered of weakness and frailty and obscurity and our senses all heightened and magnified and their capacity to see, touch, feel, hear, and smell greatly increased and no longer hindered by disease or distraction, our experience will be indescribably joyful. “Every perceptive faculty shall be an inlet of delight” (Ibid., 350).
Again, in Miscellany 233: “[In heaven] the glorified spiritual bodies of the saints shall be filled with pleasures of the most exquisite kind that such refined bodies are capable of. . . . The sweetness and pleasure that shall be in the mind, shall put the spirits of the body into such a motion as shall cause a sweet sensation throughout the body, infinitely excelling any sensual pleasure here” (13:351).
But won’t our memories of earthly sin and failure diminish our joy and fill us with a deep and relentless sorrow? No. Because all the saints in heaven “will so perfectly see at the same time, how that ‘tis turned to the best, to the glory of God, or at least will so perfectly know that it is so; and particularly, they will have so much the more admiring and joyful sense of God’s grace in pardoning them, that the remembrance of their sins will rather be an indirect occasion of joy” (Miscellanies, 432; 13:482).
Finally, you need never live in fear that any heavenly joy will ever be lost or taken away! We struggle to enjoy life now from fear that it will soon end. We hesitate to savor what little happiness we have for fear that it may be taken away. We hold back and hedge our bets and restrain our souls, knowing that disaster may soon come, economic recession may begin, physical health may deteriorate, someone may die, or something unforeseen may surprise us and take it all away. But not in heaven! Never! The beauty and joy and glory and delight and satisfaction and purity will never ever end, but only increase and grow and expand and multiply!
Did Edwards go too far in his portrayal of heaven? Did he exceed the bounds of what is proper and called for in Scripture? God forbid. If anything, Edwards’ portrayal of the beauty of heaven was but a faint and distant echo of the reality that awaits us. It is, he said, and I agree, virtually impossible to exaggerate the joys of heaven. “There is scarce any thing that can be conceived or expressed about the degree of the happiness of the saints in heaven” (Miscellanies, 741). Permit me to close with this, taken from his first extant sermon on Isaiah 3:10.
“To pretend to describe the excellence, the greatness or duration of the happiness of heaven by the most artful composition of words would be to darken and cloud it, to talk of raptures and ecstasies, joy and singing, is but to set forth very low shadows of the reality, and all we can by our best rhetoric is really and truly, vastly below what is but the bare and naked truth, and if St. Paul who had seen them, thought it but in vain to endeavor to utter it, much less shall we pretend to do it, and the Scriptures have gone as high in the descriptions of it as we are able to keep pace with it in our imaginations and conception” (JG, 3:544).
Oh, that God might hasten the day when our relishing and rejoicing in him reach their consummate expression!
More Messages from Desiring God 2003 National Conference
Jonathan Edwards: The Life, the Man, and the Legacy (Iain Murray)
Sarah Edwards: Jonathan’s Home and Haven (Noël Piper)
The Glory of God and the Reviving of Religion (J.I. Packer)
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