Heavenly things

The Bible introduces us to the concept of heaven, but there isn’t much information or details about what it’s like or what we will be doing when we get there. The purpose of the sanctuary that the Israelites constructed in the Sinai desert was to give them a physical representation of heaven, something that would help them to connect with God in a more personal and intimate way. The Bible tells us that the immaterial part of heaven which is invisible to the naked eye is where God lives, but we are told in Luke’s gospel that when Jesus departed from his disciples, he was carried up into heaven (Luke 24:51). At that point, Jesus was in a material body and could be seen with human eyes. The book of Acts, which was also written by Luke, a medical doctor with a scientific view of the world, gives further detail about what happened when Jesus ascended from the earth. Luke said, “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). Jesus didn’t just disappear or keep going up into the sky until he couldn’t be seen anymore. The disciples view of him was blocked by a cloud. After that no one ever saw him again. Some of the meanings of the Greek word that is translated lifted up suggest that Jesus was taken to heaven in a vessel of some sort (G142) which was also visible to his disciples. A similar scene is recorded in the book of 2 Kings depicting the prophet Elijah’s departure from earth. 2 Kings 2:9-12 states:

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.” And he said, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.” And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more.

Elijah’s statement makes it clear that his departure from the earth might or might not be visible to his companion Elisha. There appears to be some overlap between the physical and spiritual realms. What we can see with our physical eyesight may not necessarily be all there is to the material world. Jesus told his disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3). The words that Jesus used that are translated “rooms” and “a place” seem to refer to physical structures, and yet, the Greek word meno (men’-o) which means “to stay” signifying a permanent dwelling place or home can also refer to a state or condition (G3306).

One of the things that we know for sure about the tabernacle that the Israelites constructed in the Sinai Desert was that it corresponded to something that exists in the spiritual realm. God told Moses, “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture so you shall make it” (Exodus 25:8-9). The Hebrew word that is translated pattern, tabniyth (tab-neeth’) means “structure (by implication) a model, resemblance” (H8403). It says in Exodus 26:30 that God told Moses, “Then you shall erect the tabernacle according to the plan for it that you were shown on the mountain.” The fact that Moses was shown the plan for the tabernacle while he was on top of Mount Sinai seems to suggest that he saw it with his eyes and that it was therefore a physical structure in heaven. Moses was on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights (Exodus 24:18) without any food or water. The Israelites assumed that Moses was dead when he didn’t come back down from the mountain within a reasonable period of time (Exodus 32:1). All of the circumstances surrounding the revealing of the pattern to Moses seem to point to a supernatural experience in which Moses may have been given the ability to see eternal and/or future events that were occurring in heaven and to record them in such a way that the building Moses viewed could be replicated on earth.

Psalm 96 depicts a future worship scene that will take place when Christ begins his reign on earth. The psalm opens with a call to worship the Lord because his work of salvation had been accomplished. It states:

Oh sing to the Lord a new song;

    sing to the Lord, all the earth!

Sing to the Lord, bless his name;

    tell of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations,

    his marvelous works among all the peoples!

For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;

    he is to be feared above all gods.

For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,

    but the Lord made the heavens.

Splendor and majesty are before him;

    strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.

The English words splendor and majesty are usually reserved for royalty or some kind of auspicious occasion that is associated with extravagant cost. We don’t think of these words as describing common experiences and might have a hard time imagining what these kinds of things might look like. The biblical view of splendor is connected with strength and power (H1936). Majesty has to do with the impressive character of God (H1926) and how he will be treated with respect when he returns to the world to rule and reign over it (H1921). Psalm 96 eludes to the fact that the tabernacle of God will be present during the millennial reign of Christ. People will be expected to bring offerings to Jesus (Psalm 96:8) and worship him by falling prostrate to the ground (Psalm 96:9). There is no tabernacle of the Lord on the earth right now, but it can be assumed that the kinds of worship services that are depicted in Psalm 96 are currently going on because Jesus’ kingdom is eternal and the spirits of Christians are already with him in heaven (2 Corinthians 5:8).

An important role that was identified with Jesus was the High Priest. The Apostle Paul stated in his letter to the Hebrews, “Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4;14-16). Paul’s exhortation to draw near to the throne of grace implies that believers currently have access to God’s throne room in heaven. Paul explained in his first letter to Timothy that Jesus acts as a mediator between God and man. He said, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). The roles of high priest and mediator were necessary for mankind to be reconnected to God because of our collective sin against him. Paul taught that sin separates us from God and because we need a way to make things right with him, Jesus, the Son of God, had to die on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins in order to reconcile us to God the Father. Paul said:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)

One of the ways that we know God hears our prayers is that he answers them. If it were not for Jesus’ death on the cross, our prayers would be falling on deaf ears. The Israelites were able to communicate with God because of their special relationship with him. The key to that relationship was the Day of Atonement, the day once a year when the High Priest went into the Holy Place inside the veil of the tabernacle and approached the mercy seat of God (Leviticus 16) which was symbolic of entering God’s throne room. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews indicated that Jesus entered into God’s throne room in heaven once and for all to make atonement for sin. He said:

Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:23-28).

Exodus chapter twenty eight describes in detail the garments that the High Priest was expected to wear when he entered into God’s presence. It can only be assumed that Jesus was wearing similar garments when he entered into God’s presence. God told Moses, “Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests—Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. You shall speak to all the skillful, whom I have filled with a spirit of skill, that they make Aaron’s garments to consecrate him for my priesthood. These are the garments that they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a coat of checker work, a turban, and a sash. They shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother and his sons to serve me as priests. They shall receive gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen” (Exodus 28:1-5).

God indicated that the garments worn by the High Priest were to be “for glory and for beauty” (Exodus 28:2). The Hebrew word that is translated glory, kabowd (kaw-bode’) means “weight; but only figurative in a good sense, splendor or copiousness” (H3519). One of the ways to understand what is meant by the word kabowd or glory is to think of it as a measurement of wealth. There used to be a saying, he is worth his weight in gold. From that standpoint weight is a measurement of how much value someone brings to an organization. Jesus’ glory is immeasurable, but the idea was that the garments that the priest wore would reflect the high value of the sacrificial system that was put in place to make atonement for the sins of mankind. The Hebrew word that is translated beauty, tiph’arah (tif-aw-raw’) means ornament (H8597). It is derived from the word pa’ar (paw-ar’) which means “to gleam, (causitive) embellish; (figurative) to boast; also to explain (i.e. make clear) oneself” (H6286). Isaiah’s prophecy about Jesus first coming to the earth stated, “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form of majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). It is therefore likely that the High Priest’s garments reflect the glory and beauty of Jesus’ second coming. Psalm 96 concludes with these words:

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness. (Psalm 96:11-13)

Psalm 96 associates Jesus’ glory and beauty with his judgment of the earth. All the heavens and the earth will rejoice when Jesus returns because he will finally put an end to sin in the world.

The six garments that made up the High Priest’s royal apparel: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a coat of checker work, a turban, and a sash (Exodus 28:4) likely all had a special significance with regard to Jesus’ sacrificial work on the cross, but the ones that were very clearly associated with his atonement for sin were the breastpiece and the ephod. The ephod was described first, probably indicating that it was the most important item in the High Priest’s garments. Exodus 28:6-14 provide the details of the ephod’s construction:

“And they shall make the ephod of gold, of blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and of fine twined linen, skillfully worked. It shall have two shoulder pieces attached to its two edges, so that it may be joined together. And the skillfully woven band on it shall be made like it and be of one piece with it, of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen. You shall take two onyx stones, and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel, six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, in the order of their birth. As a jeweler engraves signets, so shall you engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel. You shall enclose them in settings of gold filigree. And you shall set the two stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel. And Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord on his two shoulders for remembrance. You shall make settings of gold filigree, and two chains of pure gold, twisted like cords; and you shall attach the corded chains to the settings.”

The stones of remembrance were reminders of the process God used to build Jacob’s family. The fact that the names of the sons of Israel were engraved on the stones in birth order suggests that the stones of remembrance were intended to serve as a reminder of the designated order or ranking of their importance in the physical realm. We know their rank was altered in the spiritual realm because Reuben’s position as Jacob’s first born son was usurped by Joseph, the first born son of Jacob’s second wife Rachel. Judah, who was the fourth son of Leah, Jacob’s first wife, inherited God’s eternal kingdom by becoming the father of Israel’s Messiah.

The correlation between the ephod and the breastpiece seems to be centered around the completeness that was established by Israel having twelve tribes. Somewhat like the twelve birth stones we use today to signify which month a person is born in, there were twelve stones inlaid in the breastpiece, one for each of the twelve sons of Jacob. Exodus 28:15-21 contains the details of their placement:

“You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, in skilled work. In the style of the ephod you shall make it—of gold, blue and purple and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen shall you make it. It shall be square and doubled, a span its length and a span its breadth. You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of sardius, topaz, and carbuncle shall be the first row; and the second row an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond; and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; and the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper. They shall be set in gold filigree. There shall be twelve stones with their names according to the names of the sons of Israel. They shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes.”

In this particular passage, the breastpiece is referred to as the “breastpiece of judgment” (Exodus 28:15). The Hebrew word that is translated judgement, mishpat (mish-pawt’) is properly translated as “a verdict” (H4941) implying that the crime and the penalty have already been established. This most likely has to do with the Ten Commandments which had already been communicated by God directly to the Israelites (Exodus 20:1-17). Jesus told his disciples in his Sermon on the Mount that he would fulfill the requirements of the Ten Commandments. He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).

The elect

One of the issues God had with the children of Israel being his chosen people was their attitude of entitlement. In spite of their disobedience to God’s commandments, the Israelites saw themselves as better than the rest of the world, because they were consecrated to the LORD (Isaiah 65:5). God’s judgment of his people was intended to bring an end to their bad behavior (Isaiah 65:6-7).

God’s primary objective in the captivity of his people was to preserve the Messianic line of descendants until Christ was born. Although the nation of Judah was destined to spend 70 years in captivity, it took much longer to purge the idolatry from the people’s systems. Isaiah described this process in terms of wine making. He said, “Thus saith the LORD, as the new wine is found in the cluster: and one saith, Destroy it not; for a blessing is in it: so will I do for my servants’ sake, that I may not destroy them all. And I will bring forth a seed out of Jacob, and out of Judah an inheritor of my mountains: and mine elect shall inherit it, and mine servants shall dwell there” (Isaiah 65:8-9).

The “mine elect” (Isaiah 65:9) Isaiah was referring to in this passage was the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Upon his birth, Jesus became the heir to the throne of God’s  kingdom, which in Isaiah’s time encompassed only the Promised Land. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, a new covenant went into effect that determined God’s elect or chosen people would no longer be those born into the household of Jacob, but those who accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Isaiah declared of those who rejected Christ, “And ye shall leave your name for a curse unto my chosen: for the Lord GOD shall slay thee, and call his servants by another name” (Isaiah 65:15).

The millennial reign of Christ that begins at the end of the great tribulation will be a time of transition from temporal to eternal life. During that time period, there will still be sinners alive on earth (Isaiah 6:20), but a new system of government will exist that mandates submission to God (Isaiah 32:1). It will be evident at that time that God’s elect are “chosen ones” (972) that have been called into the service of God on an individual basis rather than collectively as a group, as with the nation of Israel. Isaiah declared of these people:

They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain, nor bring forth trouble; for they are the seed of the blessed of the LORD, and their offspring with them. And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; and whiles they are yet speaking, I will hear. (Isaiah 65:22-24)