16 March 2014 by Yeo Teck Thiam-
I have always taken comfort in the words Jesus gave before He left His disciples. Jesus said in the Gospels, “Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”
These words in John 14:1-3 are of great comfort and assurance for anyone seeking a place of rest after this life. Jesus said He has a place waiting for us because He has prepared this. So I believe and have trust in Him. It is about a place called heaven.
However, like the disciples, many will ask where this place is, and many also will ask how this promise can be believed. So it is not a new question that we must wonder.
Among the difficulties and confusion that we seek to unravel are the many words that seem related in different ways to the place we are thinking about. There is heaven, the heavens, 3rd heaven, the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of heaven, Paradise, the Holy City, the City of God, the New Jerusalem, Abraham’s bosom and My Father’s House.
Among these, we remember Paul said he was taken up there once. Then John saw these in visions that he was told to write down in the book of Revelations. Yet others also had glimpses of it. But these are personal encounters of a place that is not on earth. So no one on earth will be able to lead us there.
So then, a first thought is to seek to understand the meanings of these descriptions, and then to consider how these are related.
In My Father’s House
The disciples knew Jesus is the Son of God and sought to know more about the things of God from the Lord. Naturally, as the Son, Jesus talked about God as His Father, and so Jesus described the place where God lives as My Father’s House in John 14.
In this context, Jesus was talking about a home where we will live when the time comes for us to leave this world behind. It is about mansions and rooms for everyone who believed Him. This description is specific about “my home”, rather than about a “city”, or “country”, or “countryside”.
Jesus tells us we will be living with Him because He is saying that where He is, there we will be also. So Jesus said there are many “rooms” in His Father’s House to accommodate us. God tells us this, so that we don’t have to worry about leaving this earth behind.
The City of God
Nevertheless, many people conceive of God’s House like a human structure, and imagine the “millions of rooms” like a house on earth. It is difficult for many to see the spiritual aspects Jesus wants us to know. To this end, Scripture also described this as the City of God. This idea is easier for people to grasp.
However, it is important that we do not try to fix God’s House like another city on earth. So, we are told it is a New Jerusalem that comes down to us from heaven in John’s visions in Revelation 21:2. John said that this is where God dwells with men, for He will live with them.
We therefore understand that John was describing what he saw in visions was the promise that Jesus gave the disciples. So we are able to relate this Holy City, the New Jerusalem as the Father’s House that Jesus tells us. It is the City of God because it belongs to God.
Since Jerusalem had the temple of God on earth, John therefore also showed the people in Revelation that this is the New Jerusalem — but there is no temple there because God is living with us. John, of course, tells us much more in the visions in Revelation. But for time being, we will be content to know this aspect first.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, Jesus described the place where Lazarus went after he died as Abraham’s bosom, whereas the rich man died and went to Hades. Lazarus was comforted in his new home, and we can imagine this is a good place.
Also, since Lazarus was with Abraham, we must think he was living where Abraham and godly people are in heaven with God. This description was given to the Jews in the parable because Jesus wanted to tell them that Lazarus was at Abraham’s side with God. This is meaningful because the Jews recognized Abraham as the father of the nation.
Being close to God is a privileged position, and we can see this in John 13:23 at the Last Supper when this disciple was at Jesus’ bosom, reclining at the Lord’s side. The disciples were troubled when Jesus told them that one of them would betray Him. Peter asked John to find out from Jesus who the traitor was.
So, in the Hebrew expression, to be in Abraham’s bosom is to be at Abraham’s side and very close to him. Thus we understand Abraham’s bosom is describing the place God has provided for His people. We can see this is another perspective of the Father’s House that Jesus promised.
The Kingdom of God
When we get to live with God, we are living in God’s Kingdom. It is the domain where God reigns. So we expect that the home where we live must also be in God’s domain, in His Kingdom. Hence, in the Gospels, Jesus told us the Kingdom of God is at hand when He proclaimed the good news.
The good news is about going to live with God. This is the great hope for the Jews in Jesus’ time because they were under the yoke of the Romans. Judea was ruled by the Roman procurator, and the Jews were upset that their nation and kingdom was subject to a foreign king. Hence Jesus told them they would be given a new kingdom because the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Nevertheless, Jesus reminded them that His kingdom is not of this world. In fact, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” Luke 17:20
Jesus told them not to think of God’s Kingdom as a place on earth. It is a spiritual place because God is Spirit. Hence, if the Jews were looking for God’s Kingdom, they must look for a spiritual place. This means it must begin in the heart.
So Jesus taught that “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Therefore, when someone is looking for God, he must begin in the heart because that is where they will meet God. Therefore while people are still on earth, Jesus said it is futile to look for it “here” and “there”. It is because “the Kingdom of God is within you”.
The spiritual perspective of God’s Kingdom means that people should not seek it as a physical place on earth.
The Kingdom of Heaven
The name of God is sacred in Hebrew and many of the Jews would rather use another word that means God indirectly. Since God lives in heaven, it is appropriate to describe the place where God reigns and lives as the Kingdom of Heaven.
This is another way that the Gospel describes the Kingdom of God when the good news was preached to the Jews. This brings us close to the meaning of heaven. Many are able to relate the hope of heaven with this meaning.
However, for the Christian, heaven is where God lives. Thus, if one is looking for heaven, it is not possible to look for heaven without God. It is not possible because we are not looking for another physical place when we die. Heaven is not a material place. However, it has an owner also.
We can see this problem when we think of hungry ghosts in the 7th month. These clearly have no home. Obviously, the hope is not realized for a beautiful place hereafter for many who died, and people do not know where to go or find it. If people look for another place to call home hereafter, the dead must knock at the owner’s door since no dead person owns a place beyond this life.
If the departed person wants to go to heaven, he must ask the house owner of heaven. If they do not believe in God, then they must look for the owner of another “heaven”. However, they don’t know anyone else either.
So, it seems best to ask God about heaven. It is because God has a Kingdom if any seek Him. It is a personal choice.
For this reason, the thief on the cross said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” And Jesus told him, “Truly, I say to you. Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 24:42, 43.
We can see that Paradise is describing a blissful place hereafter. It is a place where people live in God’s domain, in His Kingdom. It describes something more than “residential units” like “rooms” and “mansions”, or the New Jerusalem, or the City of God.
Paradise is a beautiful place having many things which we are not told. Paul said he was in this place once when he was caught up to the third heaven. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12 that he heard things that man cannot tell.
We can imagine Paradise like a Garden as this is the meaning of the Greek word, “paradiso”. It speaks of beautiful surroundings and environment where people are blissful. And that is also how we imagine heaven to be.
The Third Heaven
Paul said that he was caught up to the third heaven and saw many things too wonderful to describe. It seems well that Paul spoke of the third heaven so that we can see what he meant specifically. Clearly, Paul was not referring to an earthly place when he spoke of the third heaven.
Paul declares he went there, but he was not sure how he got there. He was not sure whether he went there in his body, as heaven is a spiritual place. However, we know this is the domain of God because he was brought there in Jesus.
This brings us to consider why Paul spoke of Paradise and the third heaven. Obviously, Paul wants us to know he was not talking about “up in the blue skies”, or about “outer space”.
The Heavens and Heaven
We can see there are many perspectives and opinions about “heaven”. For through the ages, different people have different ideas about heaven. Some consider the skies as heaven. Some consider outer space is where heaven is located. In Paul’s time, this would not be different either.
In Scripture, the Hebrew word “shamayim”, and Greek word “ouranois” are in the plural in speaking of the “heavens”. This is necessary, so that we can see that the heavens are spoken as separate from earth, and have more than one aspect.
Since Paul mentioned the third heaven, we can tell there are at least 3 aspects. It suggests or we deduce there are also the 1st and 2nd heavens to consider. Thus we note in Scripture that the word “heavens” is used, rather than “heaven”.
In Genesis, these thoughts were presented in Creation as well, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” We can see that the word used is “heavens” rather than “heaven”. Scripture tells us that God separated “the heavens” in this Creation through gathering the waters in the heavens. God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it.
We see that God made two “heavens” in this universe. The 1st heaven is our skies for the waters under the expanse and the 2nd heaven is the outer space above our skies’ atmosphere. Since these two places are in our world, the 1st and 2nd heavens do not refer to the 3rd heaven that Paul was speaking.
Going to Heaven
Since Paul was caught up to a spiritual place in Paradise, he described this as the 3rd heaven so that we know he was not talking about this universe. The 3rd heaven where God lives and also planned for us to be, is beyond the 1st and 2nd heavens of this universe.
So the Psalmist wrote: “Who is like the LORD who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth?”
And again, “Be exalted, O LORD, above the heavens. Let your glory be over the earth.” Psalm 113:5
We begin to understand that the word “heavens” does not describe one place, and Paul was trying to emphasize that he was not somewhere in earth’s skies or in outer space when he was taken to the 3rd heaven. He was not in this world when he was caught up to Paradise.
Heaven is God’s throne where the LORD sits enthroned on high, and the Kingdom of God is a spiritual place. We will never get there in our physical form. If we are to get to Paradise and heaven, we cannot hope to go there in our earthly body. We will need Jesus to take us there because it is His home.
NB Scripture verses in italic are from NIV.
Note: Mr Yeo Teck Thiam is a retireer who used to work as a chemical engineer, specializing in food and perfume chemistry for an international food company and perfumer. His other main interest is astronomy and other mathematical matters, relating to the Biblical passages.
References for pictures