Pastor John, you and I and a number of folks from Desiring God recently traveled to Orlando for The Gospel Coalition National Conference. Looking back on the trip, is there any overflow from our time there you want to share here with us now? And we should probably begin with the conference theme.
The theme of the conference was Coming Home: New Heaven and New Earth. I did about 12 things there. I was just blown away with how much there was to do. But God was so good to give grace as he always is. But one of the things I did was a little 7-minute video conversation with Scott Swain (from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando) and Randy Alcorn.
The question that was pitched to us was about popular misconceptions of heaven. And, of course, Randy is the global expert. He wrote the big, excellent book on heaven. So we began to talk about that and both Randy and Scott called attention to the popular notion that the final destiny of believers is to be with God in a realm of the sky beyond space and time where we go when we die. And both of them, of course, wanted to stress that, yes, we certainly do go to be with Christ immediately after we die. In 2 Corinthians 5:8, Paul says, “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Again, he says in Philippians 1:23, “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
They both say, “Yes, yes, amen. We will be with Christ immediately when we die.” The first thing Randy wanted to qualify in that conception, however, was time —the idea that we will be beyond time or that time will be no more. He said that old song that I guess my generation sang once upon a time that time will be no more. He said that is not right. He said there are a lot of indications that in heaven, in the new heavens, in the new earth, there will be time. And I suppose the best example would be that Jesus Christ has a body. He took his bodily incarnate self back to heaven and it is just mind-boggling to me to think that the second person of the Trinity has a body forever and ever. But a body means space and time. And so that was the first qualification Randy wanted to give: Immediately after we die, we go to be with Christ who is an embodied person there. And we wait for him to come and give us a new body — a body here.
And both Scott and Randy wanted to say that, yes, we will be with Christ immediately when we die, but Paul said that it is not our final and best hope for what is coming in the future. We will be with him, but we are going to be with him on a new earth under a new heaven, because Revelation 21:1–3 pictures the coming down to earth of heaven as it were. It says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride [so this is the church] adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with men.’”
So here is God and man coming down for their final settlement on a new earth. Scott and Randy both agreed that often a Christian church does not clearly perceive and teach this truth as we comfort people and seek to give them their final and best hope. It is not merely to die and go to be with Christ, but to be with Christ in the new heavens and the new earth. So I expected us to go there, but the part of this conversation, this 7-minute conversation that made the trip worth it for me, was the direction it took in asking how the hope of heaven affects life now. And it was the two ways that came together that struck me as fresh.
Scott pointed our attention to 1 John 3:2–3, which says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and it does not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we will see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” In other words, if you believe that you are going to see Christ and be changed by him into his likeness and you thus hope in him, it says, you will purify yourself as he is pure. And that clobbered me in a powerful way more than it ever had. That is huge. People who are not purifying themselves with a passion to be pure like Jesus are saying, “He is not what I am hoping for.” And think about that. The Bible says, “everyone who thus hopes in Jesus [that is, everyone who hopes to see and become like Jesus], purifies himself as he is pure.”
So the test is whether we are hoping to see Jesus in his purity and be like him at that moment in his purity, because if we are not, we will be consumed. The test is whether we are purifying ourselves now. So that is huge. If you have a hope for heaven, that means seeing Jesus as he is and being changed into his likeness, because you are seeing him as he is — that will be what you are doing with your life now.
The second way that hoping in heaven impacts our life now is so related to it in a way that I hadn’t seen before. The second way is that hoping in heaven, having this great reward of heaven, makes us so happy now, so secure now, that we can joyfully endure any mistreatment here as we pursue purity or righteousness. So here is the text, Matthew 5:10: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” So our persecution is for righteousness’ sake, which is the same as the purity we are pursuing in 1 John.
Consider also Matthew 5:11–12 where Jesus says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” So here is another absolutely astonishing statement. When we are mistreated and slandered, when we receive every kind of vicious slander, we can and should rejoice and be glad and press on with living for righteousness’ sake — or pursuing that purity that 1 John spoke about.
The hope of heaven and the greatness of our reward affects us in two ways, both of which empower purity of life here and now in the face of opposition. It makes us passionate for purity, because the one we hope to see and be with and be like is pure, and it makes us fearless and happy so that people can’t stop us from pursuing this passion for purity and righteousness here. So that, Tony, was a great encouragement to me. To see the nature of heaven made real in the new heavens and the new earth, and then to see how this double way of hope affects my passion for purity and righteousness was a great incentive for me to get on with the work.