The Promise of Heaven
The Promise of Heaven
Main Idea: Jesus comforts his disciples with the promise of life forever with him in heaven.
- Jesus Gives His Disciples a Command: Trust Me (14:1)!
- Jesus Gives His Disciples Confidence: Here’s Why You Can Trust Me (14:2-3)!
The book begins this way:
I died on January 18, 1989.
Paramedics reached the scene of the accident within minutes. They found no pulse and declared me dead. They covered me with a tarp so that onlookers wouldn’t stare at me while they attended to the injuries of the others. I was completely unaware of the paramedics or anyone else around me.
Immediately after I died, I went straight to heaven.
While I was in heaven, a Baptist preacher came on the accident scene. Even though he knew I was dead, he rushed to my lifeless body and prayed for me. Despite the scoffing of the EMTs, he refused to stop praying.
At least 90 minutes after the EMTs pronounced me dead, God answered that man’s prayers.
I returned to earth.
This is my story. (Piper, 90 Minutes, 13)
The following 192 pages chronicle Don Piper’s tragic car accident and long, painful recovery, but the focus of the book is his story of visiting heaven for the ninety minutes between when he was pronounced dead and when he, in his words, “returned to earth.” In the book he describes what God has done in his life since the accident and how his account of heaven has provided hope for so many. He writes, “I’ve changed the way I do funerals. Now I can speak authoritatively about heaven from first-hand knowledge” (ibid., 129).
Our hope is not supposed to be in the words of Don Piper. Our confidence about eternity doesn’t come from someone else’s experience. What he says is dangerous. He’s replacing faith in the words of Jesus with faith in his own words. Piper’s book ends with him recounting a number of times he has given hope to someone who has lost a loved one or was on the brink of death by telling of his experience in heaven. When we think about death, where are we supposed to look for hope and comfort?
The disciples are being forced to deal with the coming death of Jesus. The night before Jesus’s crucifixion has been set aside for him to prepare them for life after the cross. He tells them he’s leaving, and they cannot follow where he’s going. They are confused. Simon Peter in chapter 13 and Thomas and Philip in chapter 14 pepper him with questions, trying to cut through the haze that has descended on them. His departure is also met with resistance. Peter proclaims his undying allegiance to Jesus, in effect saying Jesus is wrong and they will follow him wherever he goes.
The overwhelming response is not confusion or resistance. It’s anxiety. Jesus begins chapter 14 by acknowledging the disciples’ feelings. He understands his announcement is causing their hearts to be “troubled” (v. 1). Earlier in the Gospel of John, this same word troubled is used to describe what happened to a pool of water; it’s translated “stirred up” (5:7). The disciples’ hearts are stirred up. Like ingredients in a mixing bowl, doubt, confusion, uncertainty, and fear are being stirred around inside their hearts. This potent mixture of emotions is motivated by Jesus’s departure. How can he leave them? Why can’t they follow him? You take those questions and add them to the fact that one disciple will betray him and another will deny him, and you have a recipe for anxiety strong enough to paralyze the most mature disciple.
In this emotionally trying moment, Jesus comforts the disciples. It’s remarkable he can even think of them at this time. Here he is about to take upon himself the sin of the world. He’s on the verge of experiencing the wrath of God for our sin. Yet he compassionately reaches out to comfort his disciples.
Jesus Gives His Disciples a Command: Trust Me!
Where do you look in difficult times? We try to find someone who has gone through a similar experience and look to his or her success as grounds for our hope. We seek some type of calming or soothing emotion: “Things are too up and down, I just need to get away from it all for a little while.” In this time when the disciples’ hearts were stirred up, Jesus reminds them to look to him. He gives his disciples two commands: “Believe in God; believe also in me” (v. 1). The focus of these commands is that they need to continue to do that which they’ve already done. Jesus is not telling them, “For the first time, you need to believe in me.” He’s saying, “You have believed in me; now keep believing, keep trusting, and keep relying on me.” The antidote for the virus of anxiety is trust in Jesus. Not emotions, experiences, or others, but Jesus.
In the same breath he commands them to trust in him, he tells them to trust in God. He links these two commands together. It would have been natural for them as devout Jews to receive encouragement to trust in God. From a young age they would have been challenged with their need to believe in God. When called on to do so, they would say, “Of course I’ll trust in God.” Jesus links their belief in God with their belief in him to remind them that to trust in him is to trust in God, and the reverse is also true: trusting in God means placing their faith in Jesus.
In times of anxiety and stress, we tend to doubt whether God can be trusted. We begin to wonder if he really cares or if he knows what’s best. Our hearts, like ships at sea, are battered by winds of uncertainty and taking on the waters of doubt. In those moments we need to be reminded that God controls the seas. The disciples are being buffeted by the winds of anxiety, and Jesus gives them this command: believe in me. Belief in Jesus will be their anchor in the coming turbulent days. Belief in Jesus will calm the troubled waters that rock their hearts.
Jesus Gives His Disciples Confidence: Here’s Why You Can Trust Me!
Throughout Scripture we’re commanded to trust God, and we’re given many reasons we can trust him. The Christian faith is not a mindless jump into a dark chasm of confusion. Jesus shines light into the darkness and explains it clearly, providing us with confidence that we can trust him. At the outset of this earth-shattering evening, Jesus assures them of the final outcome. Immediately after he announces he’s leaving he promises, they will be with him where he is. By revealing the outcome to his disciples, Jesus is removing their fear and soothing their anxiety. His explanation will provide them with the confidence they need in the coming tumultuous days.
Jesus tells his disciples they can have confidence because he is leaving to prepare a place for them. Jesus is heading to his Father’s house. When a son heads to his father’s house, he’s returning home. Jesus is returning home, and his home has become their home. Jesus is preparing for them a new, different, and better home. Heaven is a real place. It’s not a location from a science fiction novel, no more real than Santa’s workshop. Look at how Jesus describes it. It’s a “house” with “rooms,” and twice he refers to it as a “place.” Heaven is not a figment of the imagination or a state of mind. Heaven is a real place created by God for his people to dwell with him forever.
I love what C. S. Lewis writes about heaven in his timeless work Mere Christianity:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. (Lewis, Mere Christianity, 136–37)
There’s a desire that earth can’t fulfill. This unfulfilled desire is a reminder heaven is real. God has planted within our hearts this desire for something more, something greater. The writer of Hebrews described men and women of faith as those who were looking for a different kind of city, one whose architect and builder is God (Heb 11:10). Jesus tells his disciples of such a city, a place designed specifically for those who follow him. It’s a place with many rooms, which not only pictures how great and grand it is but how welcoming it is for the weary traveler. Their travels are about to take a turn down a long, lonely, deserted highway, but Jesus promises them they will find at their destination a room prepared for them by the Master’s own Son.
We are not citizens of earth; we are citizens of heaven. If you follow Jesus, there will be unrest in your soul while you sojourn on this earth. In the classic Christian allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan tells the story of Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. He meets a cast of characters, some good, some evil. His travels take him through many difficult places, and he is never at home until that day when he reaches the Celestial City. Don’t waste your life trying to make your home here. Jesus promises that each person who follows him will have a room in the Father’s house perfectly designed for him or her. No one who enters the Father’s house will be turned away. There’s room for everyone.
This promise must have lifted the disciples’ hearts out of the murky waters of despair. Jesus promises them eternal rest in his home. This promise alone would remind them to trust him because if he is preparing a place for them, then he is not going to leave them on their own. Between the crucifixion and the resurrection the disciples were scared and helpless. They felt abandoned by their Lord. The promise of heaven was given to protect them from the temptation to feel forgotten. The devil likes to use that against us, saying, “God has forgotten you. If Jesus really cares about you, why is he leaving you all alone in this broken world?” This promise of heaven, like a battering ram, assaults that temptation. Jesus essentially says, “If I have a special place designed just for you, do you really think I wouldn’t come back for you? Do you really think I’d leave you by yourself?” Next time the devil assaults you with feelings of loneliness and despair, trust Jesus who gave us the promise of heaven so we would never doubt his perfect plan for us.
I wonder if we hear the words of Jesus, “I am going away to prepare a place for you,” and picture Jesus dressed in overalls and a tool belt, doing construction on a heavenly mansion. The preparation of the place is not with a hammer and nails. The instruments are a cross and a grave. The way Jesus prepares this special home for his disciples is by laying down his life so their sins can be forgiven. This promise should arouse in us a greater appetite for heaven. However, a few earthly snacks can spoil our appetite for heaven. The more we avoid them, the stronger our appetite for heaven grows.
The first threat to our appetite is an unhealthy attachment to earthly things. We can grow so attached to the things of this life that heaven seems like a punishment. The constant consumption of earthly candy has diminished our appetite for the transcendent feast promised in eternity. We need a better perspective on earthly things. Earthly joys are just a foretaste of the full and complete joy we will have in heaven. Why do we love family vacations? Is it the rest and fellowship? That’s a small, imperfect taste of our heavenly rest and fellowship. Why do we love sports? Is it the feelings of exultation and triumph and sharing that with others? That’s a small sliver of the triumph and exultation we’ll enjoy together in heaven. The pleasures we experience on this earth are gifts from God, but they are designed simply to whet our appetite for the eternally satisfying joys of heaven.
Randy Alcorn, author of a book on heaven, writes,
Many assume heaven will be unlike earth. But why do we think this? God designed earth for human beings. And nearly every description of heaven includes references to earthly things—eating, music, animals, water, trees, fruits, and a city with gates and streets. The Bible speaks of the new heavens and a new earth—not a non heavens and non earth. “New” doesn’t mean fundamentally different, but vastly superior. If someone says, “I’m going to give you a new car,” you’d get excited. Why? Not because you have no idea what a car is, but because you do know. (In Light of Eternity, 31; emphasis original)
Don’t allow earthly things—joys and pleasures—to diminish your appetite for heaven. Ask God to use them to prime your taste buds for heaven’s glory.
A second appetite spoiler is a wrong perspective on Jesus. Have you ever spoken to someone who said he had no desire to go to heaven, sit on clouds, and strum a harp for all eternity? Some think heaven is endless boredom, like being a monk or nun forever. No, heaven is about Jesus. Our view of heaven reflects our view of Jesus. The less we think of Jesus here on earth, the less excited we’ll be for heaven. If we think of Jesus as a boring, dull, cosmic killjoy, or if we view him as someone who is only to be tolerated, then we will have no appetite for heaven. It’s no wonder some of us don’t want to spend eternity in heaven with Jesus since we don’t take the time here on earth to discover what an inexhaustibly delightful, satisfying, and magnificent Savior Jesus is. We should view our years here on earth as preparation for an eternity with Jesus. Use the seventy or eighty or one hundred years God gives you to prepare for an eternal retirement. Invest right now in your relationship with Jesus.
Jesus gives living water. He is the all-satisfying source of eternal refreshment. He is not only profoundly happy himself, but he created happiness. Not only is he beautiful, but ugliness flees from his presence. When we come to this realization, our appetite for heaven will grow, and we will no longer be content with the cotton candy of this world. The more our love for Jesus Christ grows, the more our appetite for heaven grows.
In the book of Revelation, we get a glimpse of heaven, and every scene centers on one person: Jesus. The worship of Jesus Christ to the glory of the Father is the defining characteristic of heaven. Heaven is not great because there is no sickness, death, or pain. It’s not great because the streets will be made of gold and every tear will be wiped away. All those things are true, but heaven is great because Jesus is there. As Jesus makes this promise to his disciples, he doesn’t promise the coolest bachelor pad in the sky where we can do whatever our hearts desire. Though heaven will comprise wonders we can barely imagine here on earth, the promise of heaven is that Jesus will be there. He tells them, “If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also” (14:3). The promise is that they will be with him. Nothing would ever separate them from Jesus Christ. Think of every word that describes what is good: beautiful, peaceful, joyous, wonderful, great, amazing, happy, spectacular. Heaven will be all of these things but only because Jesus is there. Sin will no longer separate us from his presence. We will forever enjoy the one we were created to enjoy.
Jonathan Edwards wrote,
The redeemed have all their objective good in God. God himself is the great good which they are brought to the possession and enjoyment of by redemption. He is the highest good, and the sum of all that good which Christ purchased. God is the inheritance of the saints; he is the portion of their souls. God is their wealth and treasure, their food, their life, their dwelling place, their ornament and diadem, and their everlasting honor and glory. They have none in heaven but God; he is the great good which the redeemed are received to at death, and which they are to rise to at the end of the world. The Lord God, he is the light of the heavenly Jerusalem; and is the “river of the water of life” that runs, and the tree of life that grows, “in the midst of the paradise of God.” The glorious excellencies and beauty of God will be what will forever entertain the minds of the saints, and the love of God will be their everlasting feast. The redeemed will indeed enjoy other things; they will enjoy the angels, and will enjoy one another: but that which they shall enjoy in the angels, or each other, or in anything else whatsoever, that will yield them delight and happiness, will be what will be seen of God in them. (“God Glorified,” 74–75)
Heaven is heaven because Jesus is there. At the apex of their distress, the disciples could remember this promise from Jesus: “You will be with me where I am.” That promise sustained Abraham as he left his own country and looked for a new city. It was on the lips of David as he wrote: “You reveal the path of life to me; in your presence is abundant joy; at your right hand are eternal pleasures” (Ps 16:11). When an aged Peter took pen in hand to encourage suffering disciples, he reminded them of this promise:
The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, strengthen, and support you after you have suffered a little while. To him be dominion forever. Amen. (1 Pet 5:10-11)
The presence of Jesus is the promise that sustains us in the midst of difficulties. Like the disciples, we need to cling to the words of Jesus as our hope and our confidence while we walk through this fallen, sin-plagued world.
A. W. Tozer called heaven “the long tomorrow” and reminded the church to “look to the long tomorrow” (quoted in Alcorn, In Light of Eternity, 160). Many days feel like they will never end. You wake up with a headache, the car doesn’t start, your boss is grumpy, your lunch is cold, traffic is bad, the kids are out of control, and bedtime can’t come soon enough. On those days, those never-ending days, we need to remember there is only one day that will never end, and it’s a good day. Only the long tomorrow in heaven with Jesus will go on forever.
Reflect and Discuss
- What remedy does Jesus give his disciples for their troubled hearts?
- If the remedy for troubled hearts is faith in Jesus, what must be the root cause of troubled hearts?
- What would it look like to trust in God in a recent anxiety in your life? What would look different?
- Why can the disciples have confidence even though Jesus is leaving?
- Why is it good news today that Jesus is preparing a place in his Father’s house for his followers to go to in the future?
- How has the promise that Jesus is preparing a place for you affected your life today?
- Are there any things in your life that have become distractions to eternity?
- What is the defining characteristic of heaven?
- Are you growing in affection for Jesus so that you have a desire for heaven?
- What are some earthly appetizers that extinguish your hunger for heaven?