Today we begin a new summer sermon series, “Questions You’ve Always Wanted to Ask” where you get to ask questions that you have been pondering about God, life, faith or some other important question that you have always wanted to ask. Now the purpose of this series is not to present your pastors as somehow having all of the answers to life’s big questions. I have a lot of questions myself. There are a lot of things that I don’t understand. But during this series, we will see what the Bible has to say about some of the tough issues in life.
Because there are questions for which we need to have answers, and we need to have the right answer, because having no answer, or having the wrong answer, can have horrible consequences in our lives. For an example, in the movie Madagascar 2 some penguins deal with a flashing red warning light in the cockpit of an airplane by smashing it—but then they run out of fuel and crash land the plane. And we don’t want to do that. So here is our first question:
Hi Pastor James,
At our home group sessions over the past weeks, the question of getting
into heaven has been passed around the table. Everyone has a different theory.
Are there different levels in heaven?? eg. if one has a terrible sinful past,
will one have to be the “cleaning lady” in heaven, rather than sitting at the
feet of Jesus, and rejoicing with everyone else?? Should one just be glad
they got there?? …This has got more than just a few of us very worried.
One theory was that even though we are very sorry and believe that Jesus
died for us, and are now trying to lead a life for Jesus, that we will still have
to answer for our past sins and be held accountable after death in some manner.
That is very scary. …
The other part of the question is…… do you go to heaven directly upon death
or do you linger in “sleep” until the last day, and then everyone is raised up??
I always thought one went “straight away”.
So there you go……….. a very big question for a lot of folks.
Are there different levels in heaven where we are held accountable for our past sins? Do we go to heaven right away when we die? You need to know the answer to these questions because those answers will make a big difference in your life. Ignore the question and you could crash like the penguins. Answer the questions in a certain way and you’ll live with fear and worry throughout your life.
Both of these questions are about what happens to us after we die, let’s go back to the beginning to see how death came to be. Before Genesis chapter 3, there is no mention of death in the Bible. Everything was good. God and human beings were living in fellowship with one another. There was harmony in creation.
And yet something changed. God had given the first man and the first woman only one prohibition, And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17 NIV) Tragically, the man and the woman were not able to resist temptation and now they had to live with the consequences of that disobedience. They now had knowledge of good and evil, but they also had shame over their nakedness. They now were more aware, but their beautiful, life-giving relationship with God was broken. When they heard him coming they hid from him. And God called out, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) God knew where they were. But they didn’t know where there were in relation to God. Their sin had become a barrier between them and God. Their human spirit cut off from the God of life, and that, by definition, is spiritual death. There is no real life in our spirit when our backs are turned towards God.
And there are more consequences to come. God tells the man, “…for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Gen. 3:19b). This is the other kind of death, that is, physical death. God made us to be body and soul together, a living being. But physical death unnaturally separates body and soul and the body eventually decays until there is nothing left but dust.
And ever since, that has been the story of the whole human race. Every human being has inherited the brokenness and the rebelliousness of our first parents, Adam and Eve. Every human being is born already separated from God. Every human being is headed towards death, that moment in time when body and soul are wrenched from one another. And we were all reminded once again of the reality of death for each and every human when both Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died last Thursday.
But there is something else that is significant about death. When you die, your spiritual state is confirmed forever. If your attitude at the moment of death is that you are just fine with being separated from God, then you will be separated from him forever. But if you are in relationship with God at the moment of death, then you will be in relationship with him forever.
But God has done something to make a difference about death. One of the most well know verses in the Bible is John 3:16. Let’s say it together “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16) But there are also a couple of verses that follow that are also important. Let’s read them aloud together also. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:17-18) So God’s intention and purpose is to save humanity, not to condemn us. And God saves people through faith in his Son.
God the Son had it all in heaven. He had all of the power and the glory and the riches of God. He had a perfect relationship and unbroken fellowship with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. And yet Jesus left all that behind to become a human being and live life in this world just like we do, with all of its challenges.
Jesus experienced life in this world just like we do, except that he did not disobey God in anything he said, thought or did. Jesus was the only truly innocent human being who ever lived. Jesus didn’t deserve spiritual death, he didn’t deserve a break in his relationship with his Father in heaven. Jesus didn’t deserve physical death, he didn’t deserve to die because of sin.
And yet that is what Jesus willingly did. The apostle John tells, He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
As he hung on the cross, Jesus not only suffered the excruciating pain of the beatings, the flogging and the crucifixion he experienced. Jesus was also paying the penalty for the sins of the whole world. Jesus took our place on the cross and experienced separation from his Father in heaven for our sins as he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus took our place on the cross and experienced death in all of its fullness for us.
And Jesus did that for all the people in the world because he loves all people in the world. He did it so that everyone who trusts in him would have complete and total forgiveness for all their sins, no matter how many, no matter how bad. Jesus went to the cross to take away our spiritual death—our separation from God—and give us a relationship with God—which is spiritual life —instead. And that spiritual life is everlasting, and it begins the moment that you trust in Jesus. That is Stage One of our life with God.
Stage Two of our life with God starts when we die. As Jesus and the two criminals hung on the cross,
39One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
40But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.[a]”
43Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43 NIV)
Jesus’ promise to the criminal, and his promise to us, is that when we experience physical death, yes, our body and soul will be separated, and yes, our body will eventually turn to dust, but our soul will be with Jesus in paradise. And that happens the moment we die. The Bible doesn’t say too much about paradise, but we do know that we will be safe and alive and with Jesus. Some passages talk about it being like sleep, but yet there is this conscious awareness of Jesus’ presence.
Stage Three of life with God happens when Jesus comes back to this earth in a visible form. Then our souls will be reunited with our resurrected bodies and we will have everlasting physical life with God, just as we already have everlasting spiritual life with God. From that day and forevermore, we will be fully alive in every way. One of the beautiful descriptions in the Bible of that life is in Revelation 21, 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (vv.3-4 TNIV) So as followers of Jesus, do we go to heaven right away when we die? Yes we do. There is a part that comes later, the resurrection, but the joy of being in paradise with Jesus comes right away when we die.
There is some mention in the Bible about different levels in heaven, but it is always in terms of rewards, never in terms of punishment or purging of sin. Matthew records these words of Jesus, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12) And the prophet Daniel speaks of the resurrection and rewards in the life to come in this way: Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. (Daniel 12:2-3)
So in heaven there will no difference in terms of the joy that we will all share. But there will be a difference in the degree of glory or reward. It’s kind of like the Pittsburgh Penguins. The whole team won the Stanley Cup and they all get to celebrate that fact all summer long. But Sidney Crosby is the captain. He got to hoist the Cup first. He’s usually the one pictured in stories about the win. But I don’t think that anyone else on the team is bothered by that fact. They are all just glad to be on the winning team.
It will be the same with us. We will all get to see Jesus face to face. We will all get to behold his glory. We will all get to praise God forever and ever. Now some might have an elevated position, but I don’t think that we will be bothered by that.
So if you are living your life trusting in Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, then remember this: Jesus has overcome death and sin. Jesus has overcome spiritual death by bringing us back into relationship with God. Jesus has overcome physical death by rising from the dead. So you don’t need to worry about dying. Confess all your sins to your Father in heaven. Receive forgiveness for all your sins from Jesus. Know that all of your sins have been paid for in full by Jesus on the cross. When he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30) he meant “It is finished!”
You can have the confidence of knowing that at the moment you die, Jesus will take you to paradise, that you will be safe and alive and with Jesus. You can look forward to Resurrection Day, when you will have a new body that will never grow old, never get sick, never wear out and never die. That is some really good news.
Now let’s dream for a moment. Can you imagine what it would be like if every person in this room lived with the courage and the hope that this Good News brings? Can you imagine what it would be like if each and every person in the church was able to share this Good News with all the people around them—at home, at work, at school, in your community—as the Holy Spirit gave them opportunity? Can you imagine what kind of an impact we would have on the Lower Mainland of BC? Can you imagine what kind of impact we would have on the world?
(Shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on 28 June 2009)