WHAT IS HEAVEN LIKE?

heaven

We are like caterpillars, wondering if we will still get to munch leaves when we emerge from the cocoon, but we haven’t even dreamed of the possibility of drinking nectar from flowers. In other words, I think the kinds of questions we have probably don’t even apply.

But we Christians are people of real hope. What awaits us cannot be understood, on this side of the border, but the only One who has truly been both places has given us glimpses, glimpses that are intended for our joy.
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Download Matthew Part 79

Matthew #79  Matthew 22:23-33

Matthew 22:15-40 records three instances where the religious leaders tried to trap Jesus with difficult questions. They were attempting to make him either discredit himself in front of the people, or trick him into saying something that would get him arrested by the authorities.

Last time we covered the question of taxes. One thing I failed to mention was this: at this point, Jesus was probably not terribly concerned about getting arrested. The time had come. So his response, showing us that politics are basically irrelevant for his followers, was given not to keep himself out of prison, but rather, to teach his followers to trust God, not government.

The next question comes from a group called the Sadducees. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection (that’s why they were so sad, you see?). They were sort of social and cultural Jews, more than anything. They didn’t really take God or spiritual things very seriously. To whatever extent they actually engaged in religion, they only really paid attention to the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah, or Law. In many ways, that makes them a little bit like the  liberal “Reformed” Jews of today. The text that the Sadducees refer to is Deuteronomy 25:5.

5“When brothers live on the same property and one of them dies without a son, the wife of the dead man may not marry a stranger outside the family. Her brother-in-law is to take her as his wife, have sexual relations with her, and perform the duty of a brother-in-law for her. 6The first son she bears will carry on the name of the dead brother, so his name will not be blotted out from Israel. (Deut 25:5-6, HCSB)

There were two issues that were addressed by this law in ancient Israel. The first was one of the inheritance of the land. The land was God’s direct, physical gift to the ancient people of Israel. They did not buy and sell property as casually as we do today. Every tribe, and even every family, had a plot of land that was their special inheritance from the Lord. If a particular family had no son, the land of the father’s family was in danger of being lost. In addition, the family name would no longer be remembered – it would be a dead-end, so to speak. So it was the duty of the closest relative who was willing, to marry the widow, and provide an heir to the dead man. The firstborn son of the widow and the relative (her new husband) would be considered not the man’s son, but rather, the son of the widow’s first husband. This meant that the land-inheritance would remain in the family, and also that the dead man’s family line would be continued.

The second issue that this addressed was the status of the widow. With neither son nor husband to take care of her, such a widow would be in a difficult situation. Women did not usually inherit property on their own, so she would have no home, and no real place in society. This law was intended to protect such widows, and keep them on the family land. The book of Ruth in the Old Testament is much concerned with this law. Ruth provided a real service to her mother-in-law, Naomi, by staying with her after they were both widowed, and marrying the nearest relative of her dead husband. This insured the family line of Naomi’s dead husband and sons would be continued. The man who married Ruth, by doing so, also saved Ruth and Naomi from a life of poverty and danger.

By the time of Jesus, however, this ancient law was no longer in common use. For one thing, the Jews no longer had direct control over their own land, so the problem of inheriting land was not as pressing. The law still taught the principle that God’s people should care for widows and the destitute in society, but it was no longer a matter of obeying the law literally through the marriage of relatives.

I think the Sadducees presented this question to Jesus for three reasons. First, they were trying to trap Jesus in the same way that people try to ‘trap’ Christians today. I hear these types of things all the time today: “Doesn’t the Bible say we should kill all of our enemies? Doesn’t it say we should execute homosexuals?” It is the practice of taking verses out of textual and historical context, and trying to trick someone into saying something stupid. But even by the time of Jesus, these types of verses were not applied directly and literally. It is not merely a matter of what it says, but also of how we interpret it.

Secondly, their argument was that Moses commanded this law so that the name of the dead brother “will not be blotted out from Israel.” In other words, they are saying that the only “life after death” in the eyes of the ancients was that the family name should be carried on. The law seemed to be given, in their eyes, precisely because there was no resurrection.

Finally, their question was a kind of sly mockery: “When a widow or widower remarries, won’t the resurrection be a mess? Who is married to whom?” They want to show that the resurrection is a silly idea.

Let’s take the biggest issue first: the fact that the scripture does teach resurrection from the dead. The resurrection is central to the teaching of Jesus, and also to the teachings of the apostles, and to all true Christians throughout history. As the apostle Paul writes:

12Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say, “There is no resurrection of the dead”? 13But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is without foundation, and so is your faith. (1Cor 15:12-14, HCSB)

No resurrection, no Christian faith. It is as simple as that. I have preached extensively on the resurrection in the past, and I will do so again later on in this sermon-series on Matthew. For now, let’s consider Jesus’ response to the Sadducees. As I mentioned, they typically only recognized that Torah (the first five books of the Bible) as legitimate. Jesus quoted extensively from the other books of the Old Testament, so clearly, he disagreed with them about that. Even so, he meets them on their own turf. He says, basically, “You want to talk about resurrection, but you want to limit the debate to the Torah? How about this one: ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’”

In case you miss the significance of what Jesus is saying, let me spell it out. When God appeared to Moses, he did not say, “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” He did not say, “Abraham followed me, back when he was alive.” Instead, the Torah records that God used the present tense, indicating that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were somehow still alive, more than four hundred years after they died. According to God, he still was their God. How could he be their God, unless they were still, in some way, alive? That is the point Jesus is making.

I want us to notice something about all this. Clearly, Jesus treated the scriptures with great respect. He shows us there is sometimes significance even in the tense of the words used in the Bible.

Now, sometimes I think for Christians today, we tend to say, “Yes, yes, I believe in the resurrection, but what is this business about no marriage?” If your marriage is difficult, perhaps this sounds like good news. But if you have a good marriage, this seems like kind of a sad revelation. If you are single, you might also be disappointed, lest you die before you experience marriage. For a large number of people, marriage greatly enhances the joy and satisfaction of life. Let’s be honest about something else: this also makes some people wonder about sex in heaven. The Bible says that the only time sex is good and right is within marriage. Some people may wonder if this passage means that there is no sex in heaven, and some might be disappointed with that thought. All of these questions come down to this: How can heaven be, well, heaven, without marriage and/or sex?

The answer is something like this: we cannot really understand what it is going to be like, but it will be better than we can imagine. John writes:

Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him because we will see Him as He is. (1 John 3:2 HCSB)

Jesus said we will be like the angels, but that is not particularly helpful. John, talking about the return of Jesus, says, “we don’t yet know what we will be.”

Paul considers the same issue in 1 Corinthians 15. The following passage is rather long, but I think it’s worth including the whole thing:

35But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? What kind of body will they have when they come? ” 36Foolish one! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37And as for what you sow — you are not sowing the future body, but only a seed, perhaps of wheat or another grain. 38But God gives it a body as He wants, and to each of the seeds its own body.

39Not all flesh is the same flesh; there is one flesh for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is different from that of the earthly ones. 41There is a splendor of the sun, another of the moon, and another of the stars; for one star differs from another star in splendor.

42So it is with the resurrection of the dead: Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; 43sown in dishonor, raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power; 44sown a natural body, raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45So it is written: The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving Spirit. 46However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, then the spiritual. 47The first man was from the earth and made of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48Like the man made of dust, so are those who are made of dust; like the heavenly man, so are those who are heavenly. 49And just as we have borne the image of the man made of dust, we will also bear the image of the heavenly man.

50Brothers, I tell you this: Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, and corruption cannot inherit incorruption. (1Cor 15:35-50, HCSB)

We are like seeds, wondering what happens after we are planted, but having no point of reference. I once grew zucchini squash in my garden. The seeds are smooth and flat, roughly the size of a fingernail, but oval shaped. There is a kind of beveled border all around the edge of the seed. The seed is cream colored. Now, that seed is pure zucchini. There is nothing in the seed that is anything other than zucchini. It contains every part of the DNA of a full zucchini plant. And yet, the seed is nothing at all like the whole plant – in fact it isn’t even very much like the zucchini squash. The plant is green. It grows to over two feet tall, and more than four feet around of spreading green stalks and leaves. The flowers are long and yellow or orange. The zucchini “fruit” is a foot long or more, with white flesh and dark green skin. The seeds do not change their essential nature. The DNA of the grown plant is the same as the DNA of the seed that dies to produce the plant. You might say the plant is the seed, as it was meant to become. Yet the plant is also so much more than the seed. And no matter how long you took, you would never be able to imagine the plant merely from looking at the seed.

Another illustration comes from the caterpillar and the butterfly. The caterpillar is not much like a butterfly. It is slow and ugly and it must crawl on the ground. The butterfly is pretty. It flies, flitting nimbly from flower to flower. And yet they are the same. The caterpillar becomes the butterfly. The butterfly that emerges is the caterpillar, but transformed into an entirely different mode of existence.

We are like caterpillars, wondering if we will still get to munch leaves when we emerge from the cocoon, but we haven’t even dreamed of the possibility of drinking nectar from flowers. In other words, I think the kinds of questions we have probably don’t even apply. There may not be munching leaves after the chrysalis, but there is flying, and drinking nectar. There may not be marriage in heaven, but there may be something better, something so much better that we haven’t even imagined it. In fact, I think we can count on that.

For myself, I see three or four areas where the Holy Spirit speaks to me through this text. First, I recognize that many people today use the same sort of “trap” used by the Sadducees. They take a scripture out of its historical, cultural and textual context, and then try to play “gotcha.” I love Jesus’ response: “You are deceived, because you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God.” He wasn’t just being mean, he was stating the facts. We need to remember that many people are deceived and don’t know either the scriptures, nor the power of God. We should not let them discourage us.

Jesus responds to these ignorant, deceived people by instructing them. He pays careful attention to the scripture, and honors what it says. I don’t know that any of them changed their minds, but I’m sure it encouraged the disciples, and it did, at least, provide the Sadducees with the opportunity to hear the truth and repent.

This passage also encourages me to think about the resurrection. God himself speaks of the dead as if they were still alive! Christianity is a faith that is built upon the hope of a good, eternal future where our very selves are purified, redeemed and continue on in glorious existence.

We may not be aware of how unique this is, even among world religions. Hindus believe that it takes approximately 8,400,000 reincarnations before you can reach nirvana. Therefore, the chances are not very good that you are anywhere close to the ultimate goal. Even then, the Hindu vision of the ultimate goal is that you lose your sense of individuality and become absorbed into the impersonal, cosmic one-ness that is God. In other words, for all intents and purposes, you will cease to exist as you. That doesn’t sound very hopeful.

Tibetan Buddhists, likewise, have this as their goal: to utterly cease to exist. They believe that the only way to escape suffering is to do so. Again, this is not what I would consider true hope.

In Islam, there is a vision of an eternal paradise in which people continue to exist as individuals. However, in Muslim heaven it is much better to be a man than a woman. Unlike the Christian vision of the resurrection which we have been considering, it just sounds a lot like a nice life on earth, especially for men. Also, though one can wish for paradise, there are very few ways to have real hope that you will get there. It is almost always an uncertainty, which is perhaps, why proportionately more Muslims are willing to die for the “cause,” since that way offers more of a guarantee of heaven.

But we Christians are people of real hope. What awaits us cannot be understood, on this side of the border, but the only One who has truly been both places has given us glimpses, glimpses that are intended for our joy and hope.

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