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"What is Heaven?"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on November 11, 2018
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
(Q&A Topic:What is Heaven?)
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: John 17:1-5

The DJ steps up to the mic to get this party started. All the wedding guests are in their seats anxiously awaiting the arrival of the head table. Charming bridesmaids and sharp-dressed groomsmen are out in the foyer waiting for their announcement, and the DJ calls the room to attention: "Ladies and gentlemen, it is now my distinct honor to introduce to you the bridal party," and he lays down the classic track.

"Y'all ready for this?"

The bridesmaids come in, and they're dancing with the groomsmen, and everybody's up on their feet cheering and hollering, and the DJ says, "Ladies and gentlemen, now it's my pleasure to introduce to you the couple of honor, the new Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so."

The music stops. Silence falls over the hall. The bride's standing there sobbing all alone.

Moments before, armed police officers rush into the hall and confront the groom. "Are you Mr. So-and-so?"


"You have the right to remain silent."

And the bride watched as they took her new husband away in handcuffs. What do we do now? You can't have a wedding party without the groom. My friend Jason shared this story with me. He was working for a caterer some years ago, and this actually happened at a wedding. Apparently, the groom, on the way to the wedding ceremony, had gotten in a car accident. It was a hit and run. He fled the scene, and the cops tracked him down and found him at the reception and took him away. Jason, my friend who told me this story, said that he watched as the guests tried to adjust to the situation. After the initial shock wore off, they tried to get on with it like nothing had happened, but nobody's heart was in it because you can't have a wedding party unless the groom shows up.

Why is it like that? Because a wedding party is the expression and the celebration of a relationship. In this case, a relationship between a husband and a wife. If the groom doesn't show up, you can't have that. A wedding party involves many things, a venue, a series of events, but all of those things serve the celebration and the expression of the relationship. The same thing can be said of the Christian hope of eternal life in heaven.

Heaven: eternal life in heaven is the expression and the celebration of the relationship that God has established with His people through His Son. You can't have a wedding party unless the groom shows up. You can't have heaven unless Jesus shows up. In the 15th year of the reign of the Roman emperor, Tiberius Caesar, God showed up. God spoke to a man named John--John, the son of Zachariah.

John shared this message with all the people of Israel. He was calling them back to a relationship with the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. People said to John, "Are you the Messiah, the Christ, the promised King?" John answered them. "A man can receive nothing unless it is given to him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said I am not the Christ."

The bride belongs to the groom. The friend of the groom attends to the groom and waits for him and listens for him, and he is filled with joy when he hears the groom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must increase. I must decrease. He must become greater. I must become less. John 3. Thus, John spoke of Jesus because he knew that you can't have a wedding party unless the groom shows up. You can't have heaven unless Jesus shows up.

What is heaven? Some people talk about heaven like a venue, like a destination, a party, a place where we can have a reunion with our family members and friends after we're all dead. Lots of people have believed in heaven as a destination, as a venue. The ancient Greeks, they looked forward to going to the Elysian Fields when they died. The Vikings, if they died in battle, they looked forward to going to Valhalla.

Even modern people with all our scientific sophistication still look forward to some kind of destination, heaven, and I think that it is in part this understanding of heaven that gets people upset with the Christian conviction that Jesus is the only way to heaven. The mental picture that they get is heaven is a venue, and Jesus has the ticket. If you don't have the Jesus ticket, you can't get into the party.

So the picture of God is a bouncer who's at the front gate, the pearly gate, or maybe he sends St. Peter. If you don't have the free Jesus ticket, you're not getting into the party, and it sounds unloving. People say, "Why wouldn't God let everyone into the party?" It sounds unloving if you have this idea of heaven as a venue, as a destination, but not if heaven is a relationship. Not if heaven is the celebration and the expression of the relationship that God has established with His people through Jesus, His Son.

In the 17th chapter of John, the Gospel of John, we get to hear Jesus praying. He comes to His Father in prayer. He knows that His hour has drawn near. He's going to complete the work that God gave Him to do, and we get to hear Jesus pray, and here's what He said. "Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son that Your Son may glorify You, just as You have given Him authority over all people so that He might give eternal life to all that You have given Him, and this is eternal life that they may know You and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. Father, I have brought You glory on earth by completing the work that You gave Me to do. Now, glorify Me in Your presence with the glory that We had before the world began." This is the Gospel of the Lord. Jesus says that knowing God is eternal life. Through Jesus, we know God, and that is eternal life. It's not so much about a destination or a venue. It's about a relationship. Knowing God is eternal life. To grasp what Jesus is saying, we need to understand the character of this knowledge. We need to understand the result of having this knowledge and the reception of this knowledge.

The character, the result, and the reception of this knowledge. First, the character. What kind of knowledge is it? It's personal knowing. It's knowing in the sense of relating to another person. You ever play the game apples to apples? It's a word-association game, and it's all about personal knowing. One person gets to be the judge, and they play the green card.

The green card always has an adjective on it like "majestic." The other players have their red card, seven red cards, and each of those has either a common noun or a proper noun, and they play the card that they think best matches the green card that the judge played. So someone seeing majestic played, they might play "Rocky Mountains" or "my bathroom" or "Michael Jackson." Then the judge collects them all and decides.

What can be so infuriating about the game apples to apples is that it's totally subjective. There is no external rule book that tells you what the right answer is. It all depends on the judge. So the key to winning at apples to apples is personal knowledge of the judge. You're more likely to win if you know the judge, if you've spent time with the judge. You know how they think, what makes them laugh, what makes them cry, what they love, what they hate. Apples to apples depends on this kind of knowledge, this personal knowing, and that's the kind of knowledge that Jesus is talking about when he says that to know God, to know him is eternal life. It's that personal knowing, the kind of knowing that a husband and wife have of each other, through years of marriage, conversations shared together, first-hand experiences.

That's the kind of knowledge that Jesus is talking about when he says, "Knowing God is eternal life." That's the character of this knowledge. Well, what's the result of this knowledge? The result is that a wedding venue becomes a wedding feast. The result is that a house becomes a home. My dad served in the military, so my family moved around a lot when we were growing up. When I was older, I had the opportunity to go back and visit some of the houses that we had lived in.

They were vaguely familiar, but they didn't feel like home anymore because the people weren't there. It wasn't the physical address that made it home. It was the people that I know, the people that know me. That's what made it home. Also, it is the personal presence of Jesus that makes heaven heaven. It is knowing him that makes it eternal life and not eternal torment.

To grasp the result of this knowledge, we only need to think about what the result would be if we didn't know Jesus. Imagine I could get into a venue called heaven, but I didn't want to know Jesus there. Then that place would become hell for me. Or if later today I find myself in hell on earth, but I know Jesus there, I trust Jesus there, then even that place can become a glimpse of heaven for me.

Now, I say glimpse because the Bible sometimes does talk about the kingdom of heaven, the rule and reign of God as an event, as a venue, as the venue that the whole universe is waiting for. See, God the Father has prepared a party to celebrate the marriage feast of the lamb. His Son and His bride, the church, that is the people who know Him, the people who trust Him. God is planning for this event, and we are waiting for Jesus to show up to put these events into motion: the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, the new creation of all things.

We are waiting for Jesus to show up. We who know Him. But all those events and the venue aren't the most important. You can't have a wedding party unless the groom shows up. Jesus is the most important, and He's already showed up. You've been driving around, and you've seen the bumper sticker. No Jesus, no peace. N-O Jesus. No Jesus, no peace. Then the second line, know, K-N-O-W, Jesus. Know Jesus, know peace. What the sticker's trying to say is that Jesus is not merely a ticket to get into a venue. To know Him is to have peace. That's the result of knowing Jesus.

To know Him is to know God is to have eternal life. Why is this the case? Because in Jesus, we come to know our Creator. Jesus is the Source of all the good in every person, place, and thing that you love. He is the Source. Think of the music that you love. Jesus is the genius behind every musician. He's the talent in every artist. Think of the places that you love: in the mountains, in the morning, on a boat, on a glassy lake at midday, on a beach at sunrise or sunset. Jesus is the living Word who brought all those things into existence.

Think of the people that you love, the qualities in them. Your mom, your dad, sister, brother, cousin, friend--all from Jesus. If you don't want to get to know Jesus, then eventually, you will lose all those good things. That's what the Bible calls hell. But if you want to get to know Jesus, and if you want to spend eternity getting to know Him, that's what the Bible calls eternal life in heaven.

The amazing thing is we don't have to wait until we're dead. We don't have to wait until we're physically dead to receive this eternal life. Jesus promised His disciples in John 6:47. Everyone who trusts in Me has eternal life. Present tense. Already, right now, has eternal life. This is what He offers you. Will you receive Him? Sometimes, people get upset when they hear Christians say that Jesus is the only way to heaven, and I know, I know it sounds unloving, but try to understand the Bible's definition of heaven.

It's not merely a venue or a destination. It's a relationship with Jesus. If I said I wanted to go to heaven, but I didn't want to get to know Jesus, it would be like me saying, "I want a wedding reception but not a wife." If I said I wanted to go to heaven, but I didn't want to get to know Jesus, it would be like me saying, "I want to be adopted, but I don't want a family." If I said I wanted to go to heaven, but I didn't want to get to know Jesus, it would be like me saying, "I want a friend, but I don't want to give up any of my me time."

Knowing Jesus is eternal life. So we talked about the character of this knowledge. We've talked about the result of this knowledge. What about the reception? How do you get to know Jesus? Maybe you don't know Jesus. Maybe you don't know Him as well as you should. How do you get to know Him? When Jesus was here during the reign of the Roman Empire, the way you got to know Him was to go stand in the physical place where He was, to hang around Him like His followers did for those years.

Well, now, things are different, right? He's been crucified, risen from the dead, ascended into heaven, seated at the right hand of God, the Father. So can we get to know Him like they did? Can we? Again, when we say that Jesus has ascended into heaven, we're not saying that He's stuck in a little chair, in a throne room, in outer space. Think of heaven more so as a relationship to say that Jesus is at God's right hand is to say that He is in the most favored place in the universe.

He gets all the glory; He gets all the honor, and He's not stuck there. He's not stuck in one place. Rather, He fills every space. He is filling the space that you are in right now, and He's here in this word that we are sharing. He has showed up, as He offered Himself for you once and for all on the cross. Now, He showed up to offer Himself to you so that you might know Him, so that He might bring you into that most favored place with the Father. Will you receive Him?

Not too long ago, I was visiting with my friends Ryan and Anne, and I was talking with their little four-year-old daughter Beatrice. Beatrice kept saying all morning, "Uncle John is coming! Uncle John is coming!" Uncle John is the godfather of Beatrice's older brother Louis, and Beatrice wanted to let everybody know that Uncle John was coming. Now, I knew that Uncle John hadn't visited since Beatrice was a baby. So I asked her, "Bea, do you even know Uncle John?"

She said, "No, but he knows me. He knows me."

So maybe you don't know Jesus like you should. Maybe you don't know Jesus at all, so just start with that: "He knows me." I promise you that's the truth. He knows you. Say it with me: "He knows me."

Too often, I am like that poor dude who got arrested before his wedding reception. I don't always show up as a husband. I am not fully present for my bride like I should be. I'm not as attentive to her needs as I should be. I don't think enough about the kinds of gifts I should get her. I don't always show up but last week, by the grace of God, I showed up. I showed up in a way that surprised Amy, my bride of 17 years, and to be honest, surprised me.

We were all there in the car with our four kids, and we were talking about how our family is so different, how everybody in our family thinks differently, and they started talking about how mom thinks. I said to the kids, "Guys, you got to understand how your mom thinks. Your mom thinks in songs and pictures. Songs and pictures."

And everybody was quiet, waiting to see how mom would react to this assessment of her internal life, and a great big smile came over her face almost with tears in her eyes. She said, "I do. I do." Later, I asked Amy about this, why this observation meant so much to her. She said that, "It showed me that you know me. What you said about me, I wasn't even able to say myself. But when you said it, I knew it was true, and it showed me that you know me."

Being known feels really, really good almost like a glimpse of heaven. If you're willing, I invite you to pray with me: Father in heaven, You know us better than we know ourselves. You know our sin, and You know our shame. You know our greatest longings and our deepest needs, and You have made Yourself known to us in the self-giving love of Your dear Son, Jesus. Send us Your Word. Send us Your Spirit. Gather us into a community of people, a family of people that know You so that we might get to know You more and so receive eternal life. Because You live, and You reign, one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

Reflections for November 11, 2018

Title: What is Heaven?

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour, and you just heard a message by Dr. Michael Zeigler, titled "What is Heaven?" I'm Mark Eischer here in the studio with Dr. Zeigler and joined by Dr. Tony Cook.

Tony Cook: It's good to be back. What is heaven? I thought I already had this figured out. It went from, being young, thinking about this disembodied state kind of thing, floating around in the clouds like the cartoons. When I went to seminary, a lot of the focus, I think, was on the new creation, and so, it's not this cloud floating around with God, but that it's a recreation of heaven and earth, and being there with God. I finally get that down, and then you change it on me. You know, you told heaven is not about a destination, but a relationship. What are you talking about?

Mike Zeigler: The revelation for me was that, yeah, the place is important. God cares about physical things, and He's gonna renew the physical things that He said were good. But the thing that makes the place special is the Person whose there. That was the emphasis--not trying to say that heaven isn't an actual place, a new creation, but it's the presence of God, the presence of Jesus that makes it what it is.

Tony Cook: You talk about knowing, and knowing people, and the deepening of that, but knowing God, that's kind of crazy. I mean, how can you know God? And do I need to know Him to a certain level to be with Him? Or how does ... that makes me a little nervous, man, so, how does that work?

Mike Zeigler: Right, as I was working on how to bring out that truth where Jesus speaks in the prayer in John 17, that eternal life is that they may know You, the one true God, that is a frightening statement, and it's just echoing things that were said in the Psalms--Psalm 46, "Be still and know that I am God," and that's a call to something that we have a really hard time doing right now in our current state, to be still, and to know God. If you let that call sit on you, it becomes a burden of the Law, and it'll crush you.

Tony Cook: Yeah, well, I was thinking about that when you were preaching it. I was like, is this good news, or is this bad news?

Mike Zeigler: It's another way of saying the First Commandment, and I think that move to go from the emphasis on my knowing God to God knowing me, that's the Gospel move, and it's the promise that He knows me, and He's gonna bring me. He's gonna do the work to bring me into a relationship with Him. I had another Scripture I just thought of. Paul says something along those lines in 1 Corinthians 13, "Now we see as through a glass dimly. Then we shall see face to face. Now we know in part. Then we shall know fully, even as we are fully known." That's the Gospel promise is that, God knows you; Jesus knows you already.

Tony Cook: So, if there's somebody who heard this message, and there might have been something different than they had heard before, what's kind of the one takeaway--the final thing that you'd want them to take away from that sermon?

Mike Zeigler: I've got two now, so maybe it's like two sides of the coin. One side of the coin is to rest in the promise that Jesus knows you, and He knows everything about you, and you can't hide anything from Him, and He loves you still. The other side of the coin is this is simultaneously a call to get to know Him. I think the best way to get to know Him is to sit down and read the Gospels. Read through the entire Gospel in one sitting. You can do that with the Gospel of Mark in about a couple hours, and things will jump out of you. You'll get to know Jesus. Or listen to it on audio. I think those would be the two sides of the coin.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Lord of All Hopefulness" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

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