The Heaven of Jesus
To you it has been given to know the secrets (mysteries) of the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 13:11
According to the Gospels, Jesus said a lot about heaven. Consistent with his method of teaching, he did not give concrete descriptions of or direct answers about heaven. Rather, he provided thought-provoking images which allow us much leeway in imagining the nature of heaven. He referred to heaven as the kingdom of heaven or as the kingdom of God.
There are two qualities of heaven that Jesus notes repeatedly. They are recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke: (1) the kingdom is near (see Matthew 3:2, Matthew 4:17, Matthew 10:17, Mark 1:15, Luke 10:9, and Luke 21:31; and (2) it is difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom (see Matthew 19:23-24, Mark 10:23-24, and Luke 18:24-25). In addition to these two repeated themes, Jesus offers a number of interesting analogies.
The nearness of heaven is illustrated by sayings like “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17) and “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9). In a similar way, Jesus also said, “The kingdom of heaven is among you” (Luke 17:21). Clearly, Jesus saw heaven as a state of being that was close to his listeners, as if they could easily and quickly find it if they knew where to look. This is in contrast to the traditional view of heaven as being a distant place where we may be allowed entry at our physical death. While I do not deny that heaven may be a post-death destination, I believe Jesus consistently referred to heaven as a state of being in this life, here and now. Thus, it is very near and among us.
The difficulty for rich people to get into heaven is summarized in Matthew 19:23-24, “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’” In Mark 10:23, Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” Similar words are uttered in Luke 18:24-25. The difficulty for wealthy people lies not so much in their wealth as in their attachments to their material possessions. Such attachments bind us to that which deteriorates. Attachments consume much of our attention and identity in this life, only to be lost to us at death. The kingdom of heaven, on the other hand, is about the eternal realm to which our soul belongs. Our over-attachment to the seductive and temporary things of the earth makes it difficult to attend to spiritual matters.
Among the analogies Jesus uses to describe heaven are (1) someone sowing good seed in a field (Matthew 13:24), (2) a tiny mustard seed planted in a field that grows into a large tree (Matthew 13:31), and (3) yeast mixed with flour to leaven bread (Matthew 13:33). In each of these parables, Jesus illustrates how the right actions of a person – sowing good seed or mixing yeast into flour – can produce fruitful results that multiply the initial action. The implication is that our experience of heaven is a product of our actions. Interestingly, in Matthew 21:43, Jesus says the kingdom will be taken from those who do not produce the fruits of the kingdom, another indication that our actions are important. Later in the same chapter, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to (1) treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44) and (2) a person finding a pearl of such great value that he sells everything else to possess that pearl (Matthew 13:45). These latter parables indicate that the experience of heaven is worth more than any material thing we can obtain on earth.
The heaven Jesus describes is a far cry from our traditional view of angels on clouds playing harps. The heaven of Jesus is a place where we reap the seed we have sown. If we have not sown good seed, what we receive feels like hell. Our state of being today is a product of the choices we made and the actions we took in the past. They shape our present, just as they will shape our future, both in this phase of life and, presumably, the next. How we shape and treat the world around us today determines the heavenly or hellish world we will experience tomorrow.
The good news is that it is never too late to change, to sow better seeds for a new life; thus Jesus’ invitation: “Repent.”
This is the 18th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.
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