On Earth as It Is in Heaven: Seeking a Biblical Pattern for Worship

worship.jpegIf Scripture stands against our natural and cultural bent towards innovative worship, it also provides a biblical pattern for the kind of worship God requires. Last week I considered the first problem—namely, the problem(s) with man-made worship. This week, I want to show how a pattern of worship repeats throughout the Bible.

Actually, Jonathan Gibson has provided this biblical-theological survey already. In his chapter “Worship On Earth as It Is in Heaven,” in Reformation Worshiphe traces a basic pattern of worship from Genesis to Revelation. In what follows, I’ll employ some of his findings to help us see what “biblical” worship looks like.

Worship in Eden: The Basic Pattern

The basic pattern of worship begins even before the Fall. In Genesis 2:15–17 Adam is commanded to “serve” and “guard” in the garden-temple of Eden. These verbs are used later to speak of the priestly service of Levites. From the light of later revelation, we can see worship is not something that emerged after redemption. It was the reason why God made humanity in the first place.

And thus, Jonathan Gibson lists the basic elements of worship like this:

  • Call to Worship (through God’s Word)
  • Response (by faith and obedience, love and devotion)
  • Fellowship meal (union and communion with God)

Reflecting on this prelapsarian (i.e., before the Fall) worship, he states,

Adam was commanded to fast from one tree in order that he might feast at another three, and thus enjoy consummate union and communion with God—everlasting life. And so, for Adam and all his descendants, a liturgy was fixed, stitched into the very order and fabric of human life on earth: call–response–meal. (4) Continue reading

The Lord’s Reign: Herman Bavinck on the Scriptural Sense of God’s Transcendence

paige-weber-974172-unsplash.jpgThe Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.
— Psalm 103:19 —

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.
— Isaiah 57:15 —

Where is God?

In one sense, God is everywhere (Ps. 139:7–12). In another, God is outside of space and time (1 Kings 8:27). Still, in a third way, Scripture speaks of God as dwelling in heaven, high above his creation (Isa 57:15; cf. Ps. 135:6). Yet, it is important to remember God’s place in heaven is not outside of creation. Rather, it is the created place for the glorious and uncreated God to dwell within creation.

From that divine throne, God rules all creation. And in creation, God reveals himself to us in his world and in his word. Bringing these big and beautiful realities together, Herman Bavinck describes what it means for God to be over and in creation. Doctrinally, these realities are expressed by the terms transcendence and immanence. And in the newly released volume Philosophy of RevelationBavinck has this to say about a scriptural sense of God’s transcendence: Continue reading

Getting A Vision of Heaven on Earth: Heaven, Earth, and the Bible Project

22But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering,23and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect,24and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.25See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.
— Hebrews 12:22–25 —

Yesterday, I argued in my sermon that the local church is an earthly display of a heavenly reality. From Hebrews 12, we learn that when we gather in the name of Jesus, we are (imperfectly) revealing the glories of heaven—a myriad of saints and angels gathered around the throne of God. Or better, we are foreshadowing the final assembly of the nations who will worship around the throne of God.

In making that argument, I assumed a certain amount of background information about how heaven and earth relate. I want to fill in some of the gaps here. (This brief temple story may help too). Continue reading

Honoring a Father in the Faith

gloryjpegPay to all what is owed to them: . . .
respect to whom respect is owed,
honor to whom honor is owed.

— Romans 13:8 —

In God’s kind providence he has given me many fathers in the faith. Some have taught me how to read the Bible, others have showed me how to love my family and do the work of the ministry, and others have even helped me know where to stand. It is this last category that I am reminded of today.

More than five years ago, when I was newly called as pastor, Jim Downey told me where to stand and how to lead my first funeral service. To someone fresh out of seminary and nervous to conduct his first funeral, such simple instructions were truly invaluable. His fatherly advice was most welcome and would be the first of many funeral services he and I conducted together. But with sadness in my heart, we will not share that ministry again.

On Monday, July 6, Jim went to receive his reward in heaven. Yesterday, I stood next to the man who told me where to stand at a funeral. And today, I want to honor him for his service to the Lord. Continue reading

Food for Thought: Competing Visions of Heaven

heaven2What would a trip to heaven look like?

In 2004, Baker Books decided to test-run a book about one man’s trip to heaven. The book was Don Piper’s Ninety Minutes in Heaven. In ten years, his book has sold over 6 million copies, been translated 46 times, and prompted a whole new genre of “Christian “ book—heavenly tourism.

I put “Christian” in quotes because even as visions of heaven are known in Scripture, the descriptions are nothing like the visions described in newfangled spiritual journeys. In fact, it is worth asking: What should we think about  Heaven is for Real, Ninety Minutes in Heaven, Twenty-three minutes in Hell, etc.? Let me offer five thoughts.

First, descriptions of heaven are superfluous to and compete with the Bible.

There are a number of times in Scripture when God’s word speaks of prophets and apostles entering God’s heavenly court. However, in the case of Isaiah (Isa 6), Paul (2 Cor 12), and John (Revelation), their vision became recorded Scripture. This is categorically different from the accounts offered by Piper, Burpo, and others. In a world of competing sound bytes, these books add to Scripture’s testimony of what to know and believe about God, heaven, and how we get there.

Likewise, for those raised back to life, Scripture has no record of their experience. Apparently, God’s sufficient word did not (and does not) need such testimony. In fact, in Jesus’ parable with the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), Jesus makes it clear that if earth-dwellers “do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” In context, this has direct application to Jesus death and resurrection, but it also relates to near death experiences today. If Heaven is for Real is considered a way to engender faith in those who won’t read the Bible, such thinking is a vain invention of man, not the ways of God. The Spirit (who inspired the Word) will do nothing to undermine the authority of the Scripture.

Second, in Scripture heavenly visions were accompanied by great afflictions.

John was not brought into heaven until his tortured exile on Patmos; when Isaiah left God’s throne room, he was tasked with proclaiming the ‘gospel’ to a nation who wouldn’t believe (Isa 6:9–11). And in Paul’s case, the apostle declared that a messenger from Satan accompanied his visions, so as to keep him from becoming conceited (2 Cor 12:7). By contrast, the recent heavenly accounts have brought acclaim, book contracts, and movie deals. There might be some slight discomforts that followed, but thorns sent from Satan himself? I’m doubtful. When we reconsider the places in Scripture where Paul, John, and Isaiah encounter God, it is apparent that the comparison is apples and oranges.

Third, God’s revelation always exalts Scripture and Jesus Christ.

In 2 Peter 1, Peter speaks of the origin of Scripture as arising from the Spirit and not man (vv. 19–21). Strikingly, he contrasts his own vision of glory with that of the OT. He says that the inspired word is more reliable than his own experience with the divine. Such apostolic humility gives us pause when we hear others speaking (and getting paid to speak) of their experience, especially when their message is more about heaven than Jesus. While Scripture is a radically, Christ-centered book (Luke 24:27; John 5:39), these new bestsellers focus more on heaven, than Jesus. And yet, what would heaven be like without Jesus? In a word, it would be hell! Indeed, for Christians, Christ is our heavenly hope. Or more put more starkly: Heaven is Christ.

Fourth, why are we convinced that uninspired heavenly visions are from God?

Since we know Satan masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor 10:4), why would be surprised that in these days, the father of lies would seek to lead astray the elect of God, as Jesus says in Matthew 24:22, 24, 31? Would it not be a stratagem of Satan to concoct a series of visions that feign heaven, but without mentioning the gospel? Satan is very happy for people to believe in heaven and the afterlife, especially if takes them away from God’s Word or it increases the likelihood that they would begin looking for the sensational in life, instead of life in Scripture (cf. Deut 32:47). In other words, if Satan’s goal is to distance Christians from the truth God’s Word, why wouldn’t he use heavenly tourism as a way creating a taste for something less than Christ himself?

Fifth, and most importantly, heavenly visitations are superfluous for the believer who worships every Sunday.

Though we don’t often speak this way, when Christians assemble for worship, they visit heaven every Lord’s Day. Or better, heaven visits them. According to Hebrews 12, when believers gather in the name of Jesus, they are Spiritually and literally (if not bodily), gathering around the throne of Christ. Read Hebrews 12:22–24.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. 

It doesn’t say, “And you will come to Mount Zion” in the future; it speaks in the present tense: “You have come . . .”

When believers gather to worship, the Spirit of Jesus is present. When the Scriptures are read and preached rightly, Jesus, who sits in heaven, speaks on the earth. When the congregation sings a new song (i.e., a song of salvation), they are joining with the angels. And when we lift our hears in prayer, we are entering the very throne room of God. Sadly, too many Christians forget that they “travel” to heaven every week. As a result, they are vulnerable to the exotic testimonies of others.

In the end, heavenly tourism, as sold at the local Wal-Mart, is deficient, dangerous, and possibly even demonic. It competes with the way in which God has spoken, and it leads believers and unbelievers alike to put confidence in the words of men and experiences that stand outside of Scripture. All in all, it is a kind of literature that is not needed and should be avoided. God has given us everything we need for life and godliness in God’s word (2 Pet 1:3). The question for each of us is, “Do we have an appetite for the things of God, or are we content to settle for visions of heaven that speak little of the gospel?”

For more on visits to heaven, read David Jones four-page outline on ‘Near Death Experiences.’ It will give you more than a few things to think about and help you formulate a better understanding of what Scripture says about heaven, seeing God, and near death experiences.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss


Thinking About ‘Near Death Experiences’

heavenDavid Jones, professor of Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has provided an excellent resource on how to think about “Near Death Experiences” (NDE). In four pages, he gives thoughtful Christians a historical, cultural, biblical, and practical look into a discussion prompted by the recent movie Heaven is for Real.

Here’s a brief outline:

  • He begins with the way that all religions have NDE tales, and he chronicles the rise in recent Christian interest in the subject.
  • He points to the ten NDE in the Bible (e.g., the widows son, 1 Kgs 17:17–24; the Shunammite’s child, 2 Kgs 4:32–37;  the dead man who touched Elisha’s bones, 2 Kgs 13:21; Jairus’s daughter, Matt 9:18–26 [par. Mark 5:21–43; Luke 8:40–56]; the widow’s son, Luke 7:11–16; unnamed saints, Matt 27:52–53; Jesus, Matt 28 [par. Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20–21]; Lazarus, John 11:1–4; Dorcas, Acts 9:36–41; and Eutychus Acts 20:9–12) and observes that no one (including Jesus) returned to earth touting the glories of heaven.
  • He considers a number of other heavenly experiences in Scripture and concludes with cautionary counsel from Scripture about the recent book/movie Heaven is for Real and its predecessor 90 Minutes in Heaven—the book which Tim Challies notes as creating a new genre of Christian non/fiction (namely, Heaven Tourism).

If you have read the book, seen the movie, or are in conversation with those who have, let me encourage you to read Dr. Jones four-page outline. It will give you more than a few things to think about and help you formulate a better understanding of what Scripture says about heaven, seeing God, and near death experiences.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Eternal Judgment: An Unbelievable Problem or A Blessed Promise?

Yesterday, I argued that there is a certain kind of beauty to the reality of hell.

Now, if that sentence is taken by itself, it sounds cruel and compassionless, but indeed when we consider what Revelation 19 records, we need to see that just as there is incredible beauty in the wedding feast of the lamb (Rev 19:6-10), there is a corresponding beauty in Christ’s decisive victory and eternal judgment over all those who stand against him.

Therefore, we look again at Revelation 19:1-5, to behold the beauty of the victorious Lord.  But before reading on, please read yesterdays post; both are necessary to see how Scripture portrays Christ’s beautiful victory over his foes.

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Hell: A Terrible Problem or a Beautiful Promise?

Last year, Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins, a book about “heaven, hell, and the fate over every person”sold more than 185,000 copies. When it was released, it took the # 2 spot on the NYT best-seller list.  For all of 2011 it went in and out of the “Top 100”—often in the Top 10.  The book tour included audiences of 3000 people.  In all, it amassed an incredible response of a subject—hell—that most in our culture would choose to ignore. Sadly, the book’s presentation challenged orthodoxy and worse, misread the passages that defend the literal reality of eternal judgment.

Shortly after the book was released Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle released their response: Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity, and the things we made up.  In their book, Chan and Sprinkle provided a strong, biblical exposition of the doctrine—there is a literal, conscious, eternal hell for those who are outside of Christ.

Their defense was needed, bold, and biblical.  But was it beautiful?  That is what Trevin Wax asked last year.  And it is a valuable question.  Can hell be beautiful?  And if so, how?  Does the Bible command orthodox Christians to love hell, or simply to believe that it exists? (This is a question that Kevin DeYoung wrestled with last year as well in his post: Is it Okay for Christians to Believe in the Doctrine of Hell But Not Like It?)

Such questions led me to preach a sermon last year entitle “The Beauty of Hell.”  While not trying to paint a picture of hell as unalloyed beauty—because the vision of men and women made in God’s image suffering eternally is a horrific reality—it is vital for evangelicals to see that when all is said and done, the Scriptures portray God’s eternal victory over evil as a beautiful and glorious thing.

Accordingly, we will look at one passage which displays God’s eternal destruction of those in hell as a beautiful. In Revelation 19:1-5, John hears and records a chorus of hallelujahs.  Each shout of praise tells something about God and his cosmic victory. These include the victorious judge, the eternal victory, the beauty of a defeated foe.

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Crash Helmet or Christ Helmet? Reflections on a Paragraph

I do not know who Annie Dillard is, but by her impressive CV and the list of honors she has received for her writing, I feel like I should. From her self-description, I suppose there are many things I would disagree with her about, but her singular quote is so striking that I would love to talk to her about her experience with Christianity, Christians, and Christ. One more qualification: Since I have never read her work (Teaching a Stone to Talk), I am completely in the dark as to the context of this quotation, still it is worth citing and thinking about.

On the whole I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs [Annie, might you include Chinese believers who suffer under Communist rule or Middle Eastern Christians who willingly accept beheading rather than forsake Jesus?], sufficiently sensible of the conditions.  Does anyone have even the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no-one believe a word of it? . . . It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church, we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may awake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to a place from which we can never return (Quoted by Bruce Milne, The Message of Heaven and Hell, 32).

Do we Christians really have a clue as to what we are talking about, when we speak of heaven and hell?  Why do we live with such urgency in this life, and so little care about the next?  Do we really know the God of the Bible?  These are penetrating questions.  If we take the Bible seriously, we learn quickly: God is the One who created you and me and everything else; who consumes mountains with raging fire, who causes the earth to swallow men and the sea to drown the world’s strongest army, who disembowels dictators with worms, who demands perfect holiness from all men, such that without it, no man shall enter his presence.  This is the One, True, and Living God. He is the God who is full of wrath against man’s sin.  Your sin!  My sin! And thus Annie Dillard is right, we should wear helmets when we come to church.  Too often Christians make church a social club, a fellowship of the moral, instead banqueting hall for beggars, addicts, pimps and whores.

Still, God is patient!  That doesn’t mean that he has changed from the days of the Old Testament.  The most powerful images of judgment are found in the New Testament, after all.  It simply means that in this age of evangelism, God is patient with his world, in order to redeem his sons and daughters.

And yet, he is the God who also poured out his wrath on his Son, so that men and women who pay too little attention to him, might still find grace in order to stand in his judgment.  Indeed, the kingdom is not entered by religious zealots–liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican–it is entered by those who are born again.  Those who have been born from above trust not in their religious works nor fear their spiritual lethargy; they trust in the Son and exalt in his work alone.

Heaven and hell are realities that those in church and out of church take too lightly.  But Christ has a message for both groups. If you have the Son, you have eternal life in heaven; if you don’t have the Son; then hell awaits. Annie Dillard is right that such a God demands that we wear crash helmets when we come to church or go anywhere, but indeed a crash helmet will do nothing to protect us from the blast of God’s nostrils.  We need a Christ helmet, and indeed that is exactly what God offers us in Jesus.  Ephesians 6 says, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.  Put on the whole armor of God . . . the helmet of salvation.”

Today,  may Annie Dillard’s words make us think soberly about heaven and hell, but instead of putting on a crash helmet, may we put our trust in Christ, the one whose sacrifice protects us from the wrath of God, and whose resurrection promises his imminent return.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Heaven on Earth: RDM’s reflections on heaven

Today, on his weekly blog, “commentary,” Russell Moore reflects on the “earthy”-ness of heaven. Sitting under his teaching at Southern Seminary and church, the Lord has used Dr. Moore in profound ways to shape my own understanding of eschatology and how good it will be to taste and see (both corporeal activities) the Risen Christ reigning bodily on earth and to participate with him in the earth he created and redeemed.

Dr. Moore’s point, in short, is that the goal of earth is not an ethereal pilgrimmage to the heavens above, but rather the age to come is to be that of a restored Eden–a renewed earth reclaimed by Jesus, shared with his followers, and enjoyed forever by all those who are found in Christ. It is a powerful vision and one that glorifies Jesus, the King of Glory, as eternal God and the firstborn Son. Here is a sampling of Dr. Moore’s reflection.

For believers, the intermediate state is blessedness, to be sure. But in heaven there is yet eschatology. The ultimate purpose of God is not just the ongoing life of believers but that his kingdom would come, his will would be done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). That awaits the end of all ends, the return of Jesus and the final overthrow of death.

What a thought to ponder that dwelling in the presence of God in heaven is a temporal thing to be improved upon. “In heaven there is yet eschatology“! At the end of the age, there will be a restored garden (Rev. 22), a universal gathering of the elect (Heb. 12), a wedding feast and a boundless celebration (Matt. 22:1-14; 25:1-3; Rev. 19:7-10; 21:1ff), and finally “the kingdom of the world men [will have become] the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev. 11:15). What a day that will be!

Read the whole thing here.