Heaven on earth

Exodus 24:9-10 tells us that “Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel went up and they saw the God of Israel.” The place that these men went up to isn’t identified, but it can be assumed that they went up to Heaven because the Bible identifies Heaven as the place where God lives. Moses said, “There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness” (Exodus 24:10). In other words, the Lord was standing on something that appeared to be a solid surface, but its transparency made it seem as if he was suspended in mid-air. The Hebrew word shamayim (shaw-mah’-yim), which is translated heaven, describes everything God made besides the earth…The heavens that humans observe with their senses are indicated by this word…The invisible heavens are the abode of God…He dwells in heaven (1 Kings 8:30, 32); yet He is not contained in even the heaven of heavens, the most exclusive part of the heavens (1 Kings 8:27)” (H8064). Luke indicated that after Jesus commissioned his disciples to take his gospel to the whole world (Matthew 28:16-20), “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51).

After the Israelites confirmed their covenant with him, God instructed Moses, “And let them make for 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). A sanctuary is a physical place of worship (H4720). In that sense, the sanctuary that Moses was expected to make was supposed to be a place where the people could enter into God’s presence and commune with him. This was a distinct privilege that only the Israelites among all the peoples of the world were given because of their relationship and covenant with God. Jesus told his followers, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). The word that Jesus used that is translated midst, mesos (mes’-os) means in the middle (G3319). This is very similar to what was depicted by the sanctuary that traveled with the Israelites wherever they went. Moses was told to construct the sanctuary according to a pattern that was shown to him while he was on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights (Exodus 24:18). “The Lord commanded Moses to build a sanctuary in which he would dwell among his people. It was to be a tabernacle or movable tent that would be suitable for the Israelites’ nomadic lifestyle. The Levites would have responsibility for it (Numbers 18:1-7). Its general designation was ‘the house of the LORD’ (Exodus 34:26), but it was also known as ‘the tabernacle of the testimony’ (Exodus 38:21) because it served as a depository for the tables of the law or testimony. Another designation was the ‘Tent of Meeting’ because the Lord met his people there and the sanctuary was filled with his glory and presence (Exodus 40:34-38). From this tent, God would lead the Israelites on their journey” (Note on Exodus 25:8, 9).

The most prominent feature of the tabernacle was an area identified as the Most Holy Place where the ark that contained the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments engraved on them was kept (Exodus 26:34). The ark was a wooden box that was overlaid with pure gold inside and outside. The ark was approximately 45 inches in length, 27 inches wide, and 27 inches high (Exodus 25:10) and was covered with a solid gold lid that had two cherubim on top of it, one on each end facing toward each other, that were also made of gold (Exodus 25:18-20). The estimated cost of the ark in todays dollars is $28 million and it may have weighed as much as 1300 lbs. It was carried using two poles that were also overlaid with gold and were placed in 4 gold rings, one at each corner of the ark. The gold lid for the ark with the two cherubim on it was called a mercy seat. The LORD told Moses:

Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel. (Exodus 25:19-22)

The mercy seat was symbolic of the covering over of sins that was made possible by the shedding of blood through sacrifice (H3727). The term propitiation was used by both Paul and John to describe what happened when Jesus died on the cross (Romans 3:25, 1 John 2:2). John said, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). It seems likely that the exorbitant cost of making the ark and its mercy seat were meant to represent the priceless cost of our salvation. Paul said that the person that is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him (1 Corinthians 6:17). “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

The image that is created by the cherubim that were on top of the mercy seat was one of intimacy as well as spiritual union. The cherubim were “of one piece” (Exodus 25:19), meaning they were connected to each other and their faces were “one to another” (Exodus 25:20). The Hebrew word that is translated faces, paniym (paw-neem’) is sometimes translated as countenance and refers to the look on one’s face (H6440). Paniym is derived from the word panah (paw-naw’) which means to turn. “Used of intellectual and spiritual turning, this verb signifies attaching oneself to something” and in an even stronger sense “represents dependence on someone” (H6437). It was from between the two cherubim that God spoke to the Israelites. God told Moses, “I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel” (Exodus 25:22). In other words, God intended to give Moses step by step directions, somewhat like how a GPS system guides us to our desired destination. For this reason, there needed to ongoing communication between God and Moses and a continual awareness of the Israelites’ location.

One of the ways that the phrase “in the midst” (Exodus 25:8) can be translated is “at the heart” (H8432) which suggests the possibility that the tabernacle or perhaps the ark of the testimony was symbolic of the human heart. It seems that the primary purpose of the tabernacle was a depository for the tablets on which God wrote the Ten Commandments (Exodus 25:15). The prophet Jeremiah was given a message about the New Covenant that God intended to establish with his chosen people after they returned from exile. He stated:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

The Hebrew word leb (labe) which means heart, can be used figuratively to represent the centre of anything. “However, it usually refers to some aspect of the immaterial inner self or being since the heart is considered to be the seat of one’s inner nature as well as one of its components” (H3820). God’s ability to write his law on people’s hearts has to do with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In a similar way that the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34), the Holy Spirit fills believers and makes it possible for them to preach the gospel (Acts 4:31).

Jesus used parables to describe the kingdom of heaven in a way that would only be clear to those who are filled with the Holy Spirit. He compared the kingdom of heaven to a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field (Matthew 13:31-33), a treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44), and “a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46). The common theme in each of these illustrations is the invisible or you might say immaterial nature of the kingdom of heaven. The point that Jesus was trying to make was that the kingdom of heaven can be discovered and has great value to those who possess it. The link between the Ten Commandments and the kingdom of heaven could be their ability to transform the human heart. One way of looking at the kingdom of heaven might be that it is a state of being that one enters into when the word of God is operative in his or her heart. Heaven is therefore not just a place that we go to when we die, but a state that we can live in that is eternal and connected to God.

Peter, who was recognized as “the predominant disciple during the ministry of Jesus and had a tremendous impact on the early church” (Introduction to the first letter of Peter) understood that heaven on earth was not an idyllic state, but one that ran counter to the culture and mindsets of the Roman Empire and therefore, often resulted in suffering and sometimes persecution. Peter encouraged his followers to share in Christ’s sufferings so that they might be glad when his glory was revealed and said, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, your are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:13-14). Peter asked the question, “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Peter 4:18) and then stated, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19). Peter asserted that it is sometimes God’s will for his children to suffer because that is the example that Jesus gave us. Sharing in Christ’s sufferings means that we enter into a partnership with our Lord and Savior that is based on equal responsibility, goals, and rewards. After he denied three times that he even knew Jesus (Matthew 26:69-75), Jesus asked Peter if he loved him and then gave him this instruction:

“Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:17-19)

Peter said that we should clothe ourselves with humility toward one another and indicated that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). The Greek word that is translated humble, tapeinos (tap-i-nos’) means depressed and is used figuratively to signify being “humiliated (in circumstances or disposition)” (G5011). God’s grace is the divine influence upon the heart that enables us to act the way Jesus did when we are faced with difficult circumstances (G5485). Peter said that God gives us grace when we intentionally humble ourselves and admit that we can’t handle things on our own. He said, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7).

Jesus indicated that people’s hearts can grow dull and be unreceptive to God’s word (Matthew 13:15). In his explanation of the Parable of the Sower, Jesus stated, “When anyone hears the word of of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart” (Matthew 13:19). The evil one, who is known as Satan or the devil (G4190), is described by Peter as our adversary. Peter said that we should “be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). The image of a roaring lion that is seeking someone to devour makes it seem as if the devil feeds on believers, but it could be that Satan’s appetite for evil is quenched through our sins against God. Peter was well aware of the tactics Satan uses to deter believer’s from sharing their faith. Peter’s denial of the Lord involved an innocent question that sparked his fear and made him unwilling to risk the slightest implication that he was associated with Jesus. Matthew’s gospel states, “Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, ‘You also were with Jesus the Galilean.’ But he denied it before them all, saying, ‘I do not know what you mean.'” (Matthew 26:69-70).

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians indicated that the physical and spiritual realms are intertwined and that believers are involved in spiritual battles on an ongoing basis whether or not we are aware of it. Paul said that believers should “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:10-12). The idea that we can have hand to hand combat with spiritual forces in the heavenly places makes it seem as if believers are caught in the middle of the two realms that continually compete for their attention. Paul said that we must stand against the schemes of the devil if we want to enjoy the spiritual blessings that God has given us. Even though we have received salvation, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are safe from the adversary that wants to make our lives a living hell. Peter said that you must resist the devil, “firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:9-11).

Living in the spirit

The Bible identifies three distinct parts of human beings that make it possible for us to be alive: the body, the soul, and the spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23). What we think of as our bodies, the physical part of our being, the Bible describes as the flesh, the material nature as distinguished from that which is spiritual and intangible. The Greek word sarx (sarx) is specifically used in reference to the mortal body in distinction from a future and spiritual existence. Sarx implies weakness, frailty, imperfection, both physical and moral and by implication represents human nature. Sarx is “used specifically of the incarnation of Christ, His incarnate human nature” (G4651). The Apostle Peter talked about Jesus suffering for righteousness sake and said, “For Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18). The soul (psuche, psoo-khay’) is that immaterial part of man that is held in common with animals. It is the vital principle, the animating element in men and animals and is “the seat of the senses, desires, affections, appetites, passions, the lower aspect of one’s nature” (G5590). Jesus spoke of the soul as the driving force in our lives and even equated it with life itself (Matthew 6:25). He said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). Pneuma (pnyoo’-mah) is unique to man and is “the breath breathed by God into man and again returning to God, the spiritual entity in man (Matthew 27:50).” When the Bible talks about spirit, in general, it is referring to “a simple, incorporeal, immaterial being (thought of as possessing higher capabilities than man does in his present state)” (G4151).

Jesus said, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). The Holy Spirit, who is often associated with the spiritual nature of God (Ephesians 6:17), is a distinct person that is “spoken of in connection with God the Father, as having intimate union or oneness with him” (G4151). The Holy Spirit is described “as coming to and acting upon Christians, illuminating and empowering them, and remaining with them, imparting to them spiritual knowledge, aid, consolation, sanctification, and making intercession with and for them (Ephesians 3:16; 6:18)…The technical expression ‘to be baptized in [or with] the Holy Spirit’ refers to the spiritual baptism into the body of Christ for all those who were truly saved (Matthew 3:11).” Jesus described the Holy Spirit as “another Helper” that would be with us forever (John 14:16). The Holy Spirit’s first appearance on earth is recorded in Acts 2:1-4 where it says, “When the day of Pentecost arrived they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”

Moses’ initial encounter with God may have involved all three persons of the trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Exodus 3:1-6 states:

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

When Moses turned aside to see why the bush was not burned, he was in essence entering into the spiritual realm, or you might say turning on his spiritual senses, which then made it possible for God to communicate with him. Jesus often used the phrase, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:15) to get people’s spiritual attention and said, “this is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:13). Jesus used the Greek word suniemi (soon-ee’-ay-mee), which is translated understand, figuratively to mean bringing together something in the mind, “to grasp concepts and see the proper relation between them. Hence, to comprehend, understand, perceive” (G4920). Jesus linked understanding with the heart to conversion to Christ and said, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). In other words, the human spirit is predisposed toward communion with God, but our flesh lacks spiritual acuity.

The Apostle Paul explained in his letter to the Romans that there is an internal conflict going on in believers between our spirit and our flesh. Paul stated:

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:14-25)

Paul described the law as being spiritual and said that he delighted in the law of God in his inner being. What Paul most likely meant by his inner being was the new nature that Jesus Christ gives to believers (G444). God promised the Israelites he would give them “a new heart and a new spirit” (Ezekiel 36:26) and foretold of a covenant that he would establish with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:31-33).

The centerpiece of the first covenant that was established with the people of Israel was the Ten Commandments which God spoke to them directly from the top of Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1-17). Afterward, God said, “You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven” (Exodus 20:22). It seemed to be important that the Israelites hear the basic terms of their covenant with God directly from him. When it came time for them to confirm the covenant, “All the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do. And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD” (Exodus 24:3-4). Somewhat like how the Holy Spirit remains with Christians and illuminates and empowers them, God traveled with the Israelites through the desert in the form of an angel. Exodus 23:20-21 states:

“Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.”

“There is the distinct possibility that various Old Testament references to the ‘angel of the LORD’ involved preincarnate appearances of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Things are said of the the angel of the LORD that seem to go beyond the category of angels and are applicable to Christ. The designation ‘angel of the LORD’ is used interchangeably with ‘the LORD’ and ‘God’ in the account of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:2-6). Exodus 23:21 states that the angel of the Lord has the power to forgive sins, a characteristic belonging to God alone (cf. Mark 2:7; Luke 7:49) and that he has the name of God in him. No man can see the full glory of God and live (Exodus 33:20), but Jesus Christ, in whom all the fullness of deity was manifested in bodily form, has made God the Father known (John 1:18; Colossians 2:9)” (note on Exodus 23:20-23).

An interesting thing to note about the preincarnate existence of Jesus is that God told the Israelites “he will not pardon your transgressions” (Exodus 23:21, emphasis added). The Hebrew word that is translated pardon, nacah (naw-saw’) “is used of the undertaking of the responsibilities for sins of others by substitution or representation” (H5375). In his preincarnate state, Jesus’ role seems to be comparable to what it will be like when he returns to the earth and judges all of mankind. Jesus said of this final judgment, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world'” (Matthew 25:31-34). Jesus’ depiction of those who are blessed by his Father as sheep might be connected with the role he played in the Israelites journey through the wilderness. God said that he would send his angel before the people to guard them on the way (Exodus 23:20). The Hebrew word that is translated guard, shamar (shaw-mar) means to watch carefully over, to care for and “also indicates caring for sheep (1 Samuel 17:20)” (H8104). The Hebrew word derek (deh’-rek), which is translated way, “is most often used metaphorically to refer to the pathway of one’s life” (H1870). It’s likely that guarding the people on the way meant that Jesus would keep the children of Israel in the will of God by making sure that they reached the land that God promised to give them.

Moses and seventy of the elders of Israel were given the opportunity to see Jesus in his glorified state after the people of Israel confirmed their covenant with the LORD. Exodus 24:9-11 states, “Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel went up and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.” One of the meanings of the word chazah (khaw-zaw’), which is translated beheld, is “‘to see’ in a prophetic vision” (H2372). The prophet Ezekiel saw a similar scene in heaven and recorded his prophetic vision this way:

And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. (Ezekiel 1:26-28)

Moses and the elders’ experience was not described as a vision and it’s possible that they were somehow transported through time when they “went up and saw the God of Israel” (Exodus 24:9). The Hebrew word chazah means “to gaze at; (mentally) to perceive” (H2372). Evidently, these men were able to spiritually perceive what was going on in heaven and shared a meal with Jesus (Exodus 24:11) just as his twelve disciples did when they confirmed the New Covenant with him during their last supper together (Matthew 26:26-29).

Peter indicated that suffering was associated with living in the spirit and said, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions, but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:1-2). Peter’s recommendation of filling our minds with the kinds of thoughts that Jesus did in order to combat our spiritual enemy, the devil was similar to Paul’s prescription for spiritual success. Paul stated:

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17-24)

Putting off your old self and being renewed in the spirit of your minds has to do with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Greek word that is translated renewed, ananeoo (an-an-neh-o’-o) means to renovate or reform. “The renewal here mentioned is not that of the mind itself in its natural powers of memory, judgment and perception, but ‘the spirit of the mind’; which, under the controlling power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, directs its bent and energies God-ward in the enjoyment of fellowship with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ, and of the fulfillment of the will of God” (G365).

Peter contrasted people who are living in the spirit with those who are spiritually dead and said that the gospel was preached to the dead so that they might “live in the spirit the way God does” (1 Peter 4:6), indicating that the key to living in the spirit is a relationship with Jesus Christ. When we are living in the spirit, we are shifting the focus of our attention away from the material needs of our bodies onto the immaterial world around us. Heaven is sometimes thought of as a distant place that we go to when we die, but John the Baptist declared during his ministry that the kingdom of heaven was at hand (Matthew 3:2). The phrase is at hand can be understood to mean near in the sense of being close to you (G1448). A person can come near to God by embracing the Gospel (G1451). Paul told the Ephesians, “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13). Peter encouraged believers to “above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8) and went on to say, “Beloved, do not be surprised by the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13). Peter didn’t hide the fact that living in the spirit might lead to persecution and suffering from a human standpoint, but he also made it clear that we will rejoice and be glad that we have been good stewards of God’s grace when Christ returns to judge the world (1 Peter 4:3-11).

Hidden treasure

Paul described the power of the Holy Spirit as being somewhat like hidden treasure in the hearts of believers. Paul stated, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). The Greek word translated power, dunamis refers specifically to miraculous power and usually by implication a miracle itself. “Dunamis almost always points to new and higher forces that have entered and are working in this lower world of ours” (G1411). One of the mechanisms Paul used to illustrate the hidden treasure inside the believer’s heart was to contrast his suffering with the supernatural ability he had been given to deal with it. Paul said, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down but not destroyed: always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).

Paul talked about a process of renewal that he compared to the renovation of a house. He said “but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). The Greek word translated renewed, anakainoo (an-ak-ahee-no’-o) has to do with the renewal of spiritual power (G341). Paul talked more about this renewal process in his letter to the Colossians. He said, “Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him” (Colossians 3:9-10). The Greek word translated knowledge is epignosis (ip-ig’-no-sis). Epignosis is about the Holy Spirit having a more powerful influence on the mind of the believer (G1922). When we submit ourselves to God’s will, the Holy Spirit is better able to lead us in the direction God wants us to go.

The argument Paul made for enduring suffering in this life was centered around the idea that development of the unseen power of the Holy Spirit would result in eternal glory or a never ending state of blessedness in the afterlife (G1391). Paul said, “The little troubles we suffer now for a short time are making us ready for the great things God is going to give us forever. We do not look at the things that can be seen. We look at the things that cannot be seen. The things that can be seen will come to an end. But the things that cannot be seen will last forever” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18, NLV). Paul’s suggestion that the persecution Christians experience in this life are like little troubles compared to the great things we will receive in heaven was based on his understanding of eternity. According to Paul, eternal things do not wear out, grow old, or loose their attraction. Eternal things get better, stronger, and more satisfying as time goes on (2 Corinthians 4:16).

Suffering

Paul opened his second letter to the Corinthians with an explanation of why he hadn’t returned to visit them. Rather than sharing the details of what had happened to him , Paul talked about believers suffering. Paul told the Corinthians that God was their primary resource during difficult times and stated, “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). The Greek word translated mercies, oiktirmos means pity (G3628). Oiktirmos has to do with the emotions of the heart and typically signifies compassion, a feeling of distress about the unfortunate circumstances of others.

Paul went on to explain that God comforts us in our suffering so that we can comfort others. The two Greek words Paul used that are translated comfort in 2 Corinthians 1:4 are parkaleo and paraklesis. These words mean, “to call to ones side” (G3870) or “a calling to one’s side (G3874). The idea Paul was conveying was togetherness. Paul wanted the Corinthians to know that God was by their sides when they went through difficult circumstances and he also stated that God comforts us “so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (1 Corinthians 1:4, ESV).

Paul didn’t state it specifically, but he somewhat implied by his use of the word comfort that he was talking about the Holy Spirit when he said “the God of all comfort” (1 Corinthians 1:3). Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as the “Comforter” (John 15:26). The Greek word translated Comforter, “parakletos is the one summoned, called to one’s side, especially called to one’s aid and is used of Christ in his exaltation at God’s right hand” (G3875). The Holy Spirit gives us divine strength so that we are able to undergo trials and persecutions on behalf of God’s kingdom.

One of the goals of a Christian’s life is to maintain peace and harmony (G4991). As we go through our daily routines, things can happen that interfere with our peaceful existence. Paul identified three kinds of suffering that Christians have to deal with in his explanation of why he hadn’t made it back to Corinth. First, Paul talked about tribulation (2 Corinthians 1:4) which can be anything that burdens our spirit (G2347). Paul also referred to this as trouble and said, “For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life” (2 Corinthians 1:8).

Paul also talked about the sufferings of Christ (2 Corinthians 1:5). At the heart Christ’s suffering were emotions that were caused by external influences on his mind (G3804). Most likely Paul was referring to spiritual warfare, but this kind of suffering can also be caused by people who are abusing us, those who try to manipulate us into doing things we don’t want to do. Another scenario Paul mentioned was being afflicted (2 Corinthians 1:6). Affliction is the pressure of circumstances (G2346). According to Paul, affliction is what bonds us with other believers. Out of affliction comes the notion that we are in this together. Paul was essentially trying to tell the Corinthians, I feel your pain and I wish I could be there with you.

Even though he was unable to visit them in person, Paul wanted the Corinthians to know they were very important to him. Paul took his ministry responsibility seriously and didn’t intend to just leave the Corinthians hanging. In order to assure them of his commitment to return, Paul reminded the Corinthians that God had called him to minister to them and said, “I call God for a record upon my soul, that to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth” (2 Corinthians 1:23). Paul had intended to encourage the Corinthians when he returned for a second visit, but because of his own suffering, Paul decided to write to them rather than talk to the Corinthians face to face.

Patience

James letter “to the twelve tribes which were scattered abroad” (James 1:1) was meant to be a lesson on the topic of patience (James 1:2-4). Apparently, Jesus’ promise to return to Earth was being questioned and the delay of this event was causing believers to be filled with doubt. James encouraged Christians to wait patiently in his statement, “Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh” (James 5:7-8). The phrase “stablish your hearts” has to do with the way we think about our lives. It is likely James was referring to the commitment believers make when they give their lives to Christ. James was pointing out that even though the primary function of salvation was to secure God’s forgiveness and eternal life, Christians should expect to go through a difficult and sometimes long process of transformation before they go to heaven.

The return of Christ was misunderstood to be an event that would happen in the near future, perhaps before the first generation of Christians died. The reason it was so important to believers was likely because the persecution that was taking place was very difficult to handle. The return of Christ may have been used as a coping mechanism to get through the horrible circumstances Christians had to deal with. The problem with that approach was that it didn’t leave room for the possibility that suffering was to be expected and embraced rather than avoided in the Christian life. James wanted believers to understand that spiritual development was counter intuitive and shouldn’t be thought of as a quick and easy process that anyone can get through. His analogy of the precious fruit of the earth (James 5:7) being like the faith that Christians are developing throughout their lives suggests that the cultivation of spiritual fruit (love, joy, peace, etc.) is the outcome that we need to focus on in order to survive the trials and temptations that we all have to go through.

I think patience is often misunderstood because we associate it with things that are unpleasant. I believe James’ opening statement, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2) was meant to teach us that joy and patience actually do go together. The key to understanding this strange concept may be James use of the Greek word hegeomai (hayg-eh’-om-ahee) which is translated “count it” in James 1:2. Hegeomai means “to lead, i.e. command (with official authority)” (G2233). Hegeomai is also translated as “have rule over.” You could say that exercising patience means that you take control of a situation, you don’t let your circumstances determine how you are going to behave. Another way of describing patience is long-spirited. From this perspective, you could say that patience is letting yourself be stretched spiritually. In other words, your spirit is dominating your flesh or human nature. One way of doing this is through prayer. James encouraged believers to pray about their difficult circumstances (James 5:13) and stated, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16).

Hell

Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) to illustrate what takes place at the time of death. In the Old Testament of the Bible, hell was referred to as she’ol or hades. She’ol was, “a place of degradation, the locality or condition of those who have died or have been destroyed. It is implied that although, so far as the world is concerned, they have perished, yet they are still in a state of existence and are within God’s cognizance.” Prior to Jesus’ resurrection, everyone went to the same location when they died. She’ol was the place of the dead. It referred to the “netherworld or the underground cavern to which all buried dead go. It was not understood to be a place of punishment, but simply the ultimate resting place of all mankind (Gen 37:35)” (7585). In the New Testament, the word translated hell is geenna (gheh´-en-nah). Gehenna (or Ge-Himmon) was a valley of Jerusalem used figuratively as the name of the place (or state) of everlasting punishment (1067). Gehenna may have been believed to be a place that everyone that had turned their back on God went in order to be separated from him for eternity. Gehenna is described as “a gorge (from its lofty sides; hence, narrow, but not a gully or winter-torrent)” (1516).

Jesus’ story went like this:

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.'” (Luke 16:19-25, ESV)

After the rich man was denied relief from his suffering, he asked Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers of their impending doom. Abraham denied the rich man’s request stating that his family had already been warned by Moses and the prophets (Luke 16:27-29). The rich man replied, “Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him. If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luke 16:30-31).

The interesting thing about Jesus’ story is that a short time later, he raised a man named Lazarus from the dead. He may have done it as a witness to the fact that the story he told about the rich man going to hell was actually true.

The narrow gate

Jesus’ analogy of the kingdom of God being like a grain of mustard seed made it seem as if there would be only a small number people that would make it into heaven (Luke 13:19). Therefore, someone asked him, “Lord, are there few that be saved?” (Luke 13:23). Jesus’ response made it clear that the limitation to getting into heaven was not because of the size of God’s kingdom, but the method by which people would have to enter into it. He said, “Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able” (Luke 13:24). Jesus previously referred to the strait gate in his Sermon on the Mount in which he said:

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth to life, and few there be that find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)

The Greek word translated narrow, thlibo (thlee-bo) has to do with a path of life that is filled with trouble and suffering (2346). What Jesus was saying was that most people wouldn’t chose the strait or narrow gate because it runs counter to our natural instincts. Jesus further illustrated this point when he said, “And behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last” (Luke 13:30). The Greek terms Jesus used for first and last suggest he was describing a processional or steady stream of people going through the gates of heaven. In this processional those who started out at the end of the line might get in first due to their effort to enter the gate as quickly as possible. Others who were at the head of the line, but hesitated to go through the gate (i.e. experience suffering in their lives), might not make it in because the doors would eventually be shut (Luke 13:25).

Jesus’ instruction to “strive to enter in at the strait gate” (Luke 13:24) may have been a reference to spiritual warfare. The Greek word translated strive, agonizomai (ag-o-nid´-zom-ahee) means to struggle and is literally translated “to compete for a prize” (75). Figuratively, agonizomai means to contend with an adversary. Satan is sometimes referred to as our adversary (1 Peter 5:8) and the Apostle Paul talked about spiritual warfare in the context of wrestling “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12). Something that Jesus seemed to want his listeners to understand was that the strait gate couldn’t be entered into without expending some effort. In the illustration he used of the master of the house rising up and shutting the door unexpectedly, Jesus said of those that didn’t make it in, “Then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets. But he shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence you are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity” (Luke 13:26-27).

It’s not fair

Jeremiah’s job as a prophet to the nation of Judah caused him to be a target of abuse and slander. It says in Jeremiah 20:1-2, “Pashur the son of Immer the priest, who was also chief governor in the house of the LORD, heard that Jeremiah prophesied these things. Then Pashur smote Jeremiah the prophet, and put him in stocks that were in the high gate of Benjamin, which was by the house of the LORD.”

Pashur had heard Jeremiah say that God was going to punish the people of Judah because they would not repent. Pashur’s actions gave the people the impression that Jeremiah was lying and was not a true prophet of God. Jeremiah was severely beaten and placed in a torturous device that would have caused him severe pain and discomfort. Pashur’s intention was to scare Jeremiah into silence. Instead, Jeremiah proclaimed:

And thou, Pashur, and all that dwell in thine house shall go into captivity: and thou shalt die, and shalt be buried there, thou, and all thy friends, to whom thou hast prophesied lies.

Jeremiah’s bold proclamation was not given as a result of his own strength, but because he feared God more than he feared Pashur. Jeremiah complained to the LORD about the unfair treatment he received. He said, “I am in derision daily, every one mocketh me” (Jeremiah 20:7). Jeremiah had become a laughing-stock and was mocked for speaking the truth. He was so upset by what was happening, that he wanted to give up his calling (Jeremiah 20:9).

In a moment of complete despair, Jeremiah revealed his feelings of depression and thought of suicide. He openly declared, “Cursed be the day wherein I was born: let not the day wherein my mother bare me be blessed, cursed be the man who brought tidings to my father, saying, a man child is born unto thee; making him very glad…because he slew me not from the womb; or that my mother might have been my grave…wherefore came I forth out of the womb to see labor and sorrow, that my days should be consumed with shame?” (Jeremiah 20:14-18).

Jeremiah’s death wish was in part a testimony to the hopelessness of the situation in Judah. Even though Jeremiah would have rather been able to encourage the people of Judah with a message of God’s mercy, he knew their destruction was imminent and all he could do was try to warn them. Showing us that he felt like a man stuck between a rock and a hard place, Jeremiah declared of the LORD, “Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forebearing, and I could not stay”

Suffering

The prophet Micah was an ordinary man, an average citizen of the nation of Judah, that received a message from the LORD about God’s judgment against Samaria and Judah. Regarding the idolatry of Samaria, Micah was told, “And all the graven images thereof shall be beaten to pieces and all the hires thereof shall be burnt with the fire, and all the idols thereof will I lay desolate” (Micah 1:7).

Micah was greatly affected by the message he received because his own home town was going to be overrun by the Syrians as they marched toward Jerusalem (Micah 1:14). What was going to happen to Judah was a reversal of what they had experienced during the reign of king Uzziah. Over the course of fifty plus years, Judah’s borders had been expanded. They had regained territory lost in various wars and were prospering financially.

One of the indictments Micah brought against the rich citizens was their abuse of the poor. Micah declared, “Woe to them that devise iniquity, and work evil upon their beds! When morning is light, they practice it, because it is in the power of their own hand” (Micah 2:1). Basically, Micah was saying that people were dreaming up schemes to get rich and were acting without restraint. In particular, people were stealing each other’s land and were disrupting the social order of the nation (Micah 2:2).

When God’s people entered the Promised Land, every family was assigned a portion of land that was to be their inheritance throughout time. Even if a person sold his land, it was to be returned to him or a family member in the year of Jubile, which occurred every 50 years (Leviticus 25:50). The people of Israel and Judah were not following this law and the poor were being left homeless (Micah 2:9).

Like Isaiah and Amos, Micah’s message referred to a remnant that would be regathered to their homeland. An interesting aspect of Micah’s prediction was its depiction of sheep apparently being led to the slaughter. Speaking for the LORD, Micah said, “I will surely assemble, O Jacob, all of thee, I will surely gather the remnant of Israel; I will put them together as the sheep of Bozrah, as the flock in the midst of their fold: they shall make great noise by reason of the multitude of man” (Micah 2:12).

Psalm 44:22 also depicts God’s people as sheep being led to the slaughter. This psalm may have been written during the reign of king Hezekiah, which coincided with Micah’s ministry. Isaiah also used this illustration in his portrayal of the Messiah (Isaiah 53:7). God’s people and their Messiah were most likely depicted sheep being slaughtered because of the brutality they experienced and the innocent who were killed along side the guilty who deserved to be punishment.