Wait a minute. That can’t be right, can it?
If you’ve taught the Bible a few times, you’ve had one of these moments. The construction of a biblical sentence just doesn’t look right. More often than not, you find that your concern was unwarranted or could be explained. But for me, one of these moments changed everything.
I had only been pastoring for about five years. We were preaching through the book of Colossians, and it was the second week in the series when I read this in my study:
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love of that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. (Colossians 1:3–5)
I thought to myself, “No, no, this translation must be off. Paul wouldn’t ground his thanks in the hope laid up for the church in heaven, would he? He must mean to say that he thanks God for their love for all the saints, and their hope in heaven, because of their faith in Christ Jesus.” Nope. Paul wrote it just as both he and the Spirit of God intended. It changed my life. Paul was grounding their love and his thanksgiving in the Colossian church’s hope in heaven. Heaven was (and is) that foundational. That important.
I met with a young college student later that afternoon and asked if he ever really hoped in heaven. Later, I asked some other guys I was discipling, and a couple days after, some pastors I was meeting. For the next four days, I asked more than twelve Christians if they hoped in heaven. One of them said that he did hope in heaven from time to time; the rest said they hardly ever thought about it. They immediately recognized the problem without me even bringing it to their attention.
I began to see the massive blind spot in my preaching, discipling, evangelizing, counseling, and praying. I’m still learning not to miss it.
Our Common Hope
Fast forward four years, when my church graciously gave me and my family a sabbatical. I took the two and a half months to study the hope of heaven. Not heaven itself, but the Bible’s use of the hope of heaven.
Monday to Friday, I would pray and study from about nine in the morning until noon. The most important work I did was to read a handful of chapters from the New Testament every day. I’d circle every verse where I saw the author counseling the hope of heaven. No conclusions were made; I’d just circle the verse, and at the end, handwrite that verse in a journal.
When I finished, I found an astonishing 387 verses that used the hope of heaven the same way Paul did in Colossians. Out of 7,957 verses in the New Testament, almost 5 percent counsel the hope of heaven. For perspective, there are some 150–160 verses on hell, and some 30–40 verses about marriage. So, even if I’m half right, the hope of heaven is far more common than we might have thought.
Heaven for All of Life
Think of the Beatitudes. Most of them motivate present behavior in view of some future reward. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
Or think about Paul’s conclusion to the Corinthians. After all his teaching, exhorting, and correcting, he lands the plane on the final resurrection, and only then does he say, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). The future resurrection provided confidence for their work.
The models of faith in Hebrews 11 instruct us because they were “looking to the reward” (Hebrews 11:26). Peter counsels suffering Christians that they could rejoice because God was guarding their inheritance in heaven (1 Peter 1:4–5). James commended patience without grumbling by reminding his readers that the coming of their Lord was at hand (James 5:7–9). Then we have Revelation, which ends the entire canon of Scripture with those beautifully haunting words: “‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).
Saved in this Hope
None of these examples struck me more than when I came to Romans 8. I was basking in the sun of Naples, Florida, in February. It was in the upper 70s, and I was going to the beach later that afternoon. Heaven already seemed to be breaking in when I read,
We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. (Romans 8:22–24)
It was a similar moment to my time in Colossians 1. I circled the verses, but I couldn’t help lingering over the implications of those words. I had read that passage many times, but this was the first time I saw that the hope of our salvation looks not only back to the cross, but also forward to the day we will worship a resurrected Savior in resurrected bodies on a resurrected earth.
“The hope of our salvation looks not only back to the cross, but also forward.”
According to these verses, we evangelize by pointing people’s gaze to the restoration of all things as well to the cross. Yet few of us regularly preach, sing, pray, or evangelize about heaven.
Losing the North Star
Randy Alcorn, in his book Heaven, documents that John Calvin, Reinhold Niebuhr, William Shedd, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and Louis Berkhof said little about heaven even in some of their most monumental theological writings (8).
Alcorn shares a quote from A.J. Conyers that I’ve never gotten over:
Even to one without religious commitment and theological convictions, it should be an unsettling thought that this world is attempting to chart its way through some of the most perilous waters in history, having now decided to ignore what was for nearly two millennia its fixed point of reference — its North Star. The certainty of judgement [and] the longing for heaven. (9)
Lord, have mercy. If you are still in doubt, go and ask your fellow church members how much the hope of heaven informs their daily lives as Christians.
Matthew Westerholm studied the difference between songs used in American churches from 2000–2015 and those used from 1737–1960. His conclusion? “Among many similarities, one difference was striking: the topic of heaven, which once was frequently and richly sung about, has now all but disappeared.”
“We’ve been working so hard to make this world home, just as it is. But we are sojourners.”
Something so central to the New Testament’s counsel and the renewed imagination lives faintly in the consciences of many Christians. Perhaps this might explain why so many are so anxious: we’ve placed in the periphery something meant to be central. We’ve been working so hard to make this world home, just as it is. But we are sojourners. This isn’t home — at least not as it is right now. Not yet.
We’ll Be Home Soon
As we wait for our true home, beloved, call to mind the great treasure of heaven. Jesus says that the pure in heart shall see God (Matthew 5:8). We are told by John that “we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2) — not as he was but as he is. It will be the same Jesus that suffered and bled, but we will see him in the effulgence of his infinite glory.
Gone will be the veil that led him to hunger, thirst, suffer, and moan, while rejected by men. Present will be the Jesus who, through those sufferings, has triumphed and taken on a new body dripping with kingly power, beauty, and love. This is the Jesus awaiting us in the splendor of his kingdom. This is the Jesus to whom we say with all the saints of old, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:21). His presence will be our home — heaven on earth.
Brothers and sisters, regularly draw your attention to this heaven. Pray heaven. Preach heaven. Sing heaven. Counsel heaven. Make heaven so much a part of your local church’s culture that on the brightest day or the darkest night you can say together with confidence, “Jesus is coming, and he will make this right. Once and for all.” Drink it in: He’s coming, as sure as that sky that you look upon now. And when he comes, justice and everlasting joy will come with him.
Join me in prayerfully redirecting our lives and ministries to that great North Star. We’ll be home soon enough. Oh, the joy.