Inexpressible

2 Corinthians 12:2-4 

One summer, a mom and dad decided they were going to take their kids to Disneyworld, but wanted it to be a surprise. So the dad came up with the idea that they would tell the kids they were going on vacation to Kansas. They started telling the kids how wonderful Kansas is and how many amazing things there are to see and exciting things there are to do. And this went on for weeks with the kids getting more and more excited about going to Kansas. Finally, they started out on their vacation, they drove all night, and in the morning they arrived in Orlando, Florida and drove up to the gates at Disneyworld and announced to the kids, “Guess what, we’re not going to Kansas, we’re going to Disneyworld!” The kids looked at each other, looked at their parents and began to cry. And together they said, “We want to go to Kansas!”

We’ve all had the experience of going somewhere and imagining what it will be like and it doesn’t deliver. One place you can be certain you won’t be disappointed is heaven. It will surpass your wildest imagination.

Several years ago, a famous evangelist in our brotherhood, Jimmy Allen, preached a sermon on “What Is Hell Like?” I heard him preach it when we had him come for a gospel meeting in Del City, OK. It was a powerful, frightening sermon, and he described hell in such explicit detail it terrified everyone. It became an instant sensation and that sermon made the rounds – every preacher started preaching a sermon on what hell is like, and I’m sure it scared a lot of people into being baptized.

And this isn’t to minimize hell, and say it has no place in our understanding of God, because Jesus actually talked more about hell than he did about heaven. And we need to have a healthy understanding of hell and know that a person without Jesus Christ as their Lord has hell as their final and eternal destination.

So, I’m not demeaning those sermons on hell, but I don’t recall a corresponding sermon being preached on “What Is Heaven Like?” And it seems to me that it’s a lot more biblical to draw people to heaven than to scare people out of hell. Maybe there haven’t been the sermons on heaven because we’re afraid of saying it wrong, of not getting it right, of leading people astray, of building up their expectations too high

I’ve spent the last several weeks talking about heaven, but I know that what I’ve said is incorrect – not intentionally, but because any description of heaven is inadequate. I hope what I’ve said is true, but at best it isn’t enough.

When Marco Polo returned from his travels in China and told his stories of the wonders he had seen, he was accused of being a liar and a fabricator. On his death bed, church officials told him to recant if he was to have any hope of going to heaven, to which he replied, “I have not told the half of what I saw.”

The OT tells the story of the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon and after she saw his palace and all of its glory she said, “The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard.” (1 Kings 10:6-7)

That’s what it is like to try to describe heaven. Not even the half of it has been told. And even if I could, you wouldn’t believe it until you see it with your own eyes.

The apostle Paul had an experience like that. He describes it in 2 Cor. 12:2-4: “I know a man in Christ (and he’s talking about himself) who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.”

He talks about “inexpressible things” – things that human language just isn’t adequate to describe. Now Paul was not permitted to tell what he had seen, but when we come to the book of Revelation, John says the angel told him to write down and tell what he had seen. And what he describes gives us an eyewitness glimpse into heaven – but only a glimpse. But we need a glimpse – we need to imagine what heaven will be like – how can we anticipate what we can’t imagine? And even though our finest and grandest dreams aren’t good enough, we need to imagine heaven – to have heaven in our hearts.

I think that’s something of what motivated Abraham. Abraham was always a wanderer, never settled down, never fit in. In Hebrews 11:13-16, the writer says: And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. No wonder he wandered; no wonder he felt like a stranger. If heaven is your home, nothing else measures up.

Did you notice that the writer called heaven “a city”? In Hebrews 13:14, he writes: For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
In the last two chapters of the book of Revelation the writer calls heaven “the city of heaven” 15 times.

John describes that city in Revelation 21 and 22: I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (Rev. 21:2-3)

Then an angel gave John a tour of the Holy City: And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls. The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long. He measured its wall and it was 144 cubits thick, by man’s measurement, which the angel was using. The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass. (Rev. 21:10-21)

Our inclination is to turn this into an analogy and say it can’t really be like that. But John uses a phrase: “…by man’s measurement, which the angel was using.” I think he’s telling us, this is real. I know there is symbolism in this language, but this isn’t some imagery that isn’t real – he’s talking about stuff that we recognize – exact measurements, concrete descriptions. All of those gemstones and precious metals – he’s saying heaven is more amazing than we can imagine or appreciate, but it’s real.

It’s interesting that he described the city as a cube. One other thing in the Bible is described in cubic dimensions – the Holy of Holies in the Temple – the place where God dwelt with his people. It was accessible only by an elite few and only a few times during the year. But on the day of the crucifixion, John tells us that the curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom. The Holy of Holies was opened and through the cross access to God was granted to all.

Now in John’s description of heaven, that access is taken a step further. John said, “there is no temple there.” Why? Because God is the temple – this is where God dwells with his people – not in a temple, not behind a curtain, but side by side, face to face. God is what makes heaven beautiful. Even if heaven were no more than a rat infested apartment in the slums it would be beautiful because that is where God is.

We sing the song, “You are beautiful beyond description, too marvelous for words…” That’s what makes heaven beautiful.

A little girl and her daddy were looking up at the stars one night, and the little girl sighed and said, “If heaven looks this pretty from the wrong side, imagine what it will look like from the right side.” I think she got it right.

John wasn’t done with his description. Look at Rev. 22:1-2 – “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

This is Central Park – it is a restoration of the Garden of Eden itself. We were designed by God to live in paradise, not in a fallen world, and when it is restored it will be the centerpiece of the beauty of the city.

In 1495, Leonardo da Vinci painted his masterpiece, The Last Supper. Centuries of dust and moisture and damage left the painting needing a major restoration. In 1970, a 21 year project was begun that completely cleaned and restored and even repainted some of the most heavily damaged areas.

This earth will undergo a major restoration in which the entire creation will be laid bare and the new Jerusalem will come down in all its glory and heaven and earth will become one. And God will once again walk among his people in the cool of the day.

Why does God give us these glimpses of heaven? So we won’t settle for this life. Where you’ve been isn’t who you are; it is where you are going that defines who you are. The question is not just, is there life after death; the question is, do you have life before death? Is your life now lived in such a way that you will be prepared for your life then?

Paul wrote in his Colossian letter: Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Col. 3:1-4) Do you have your heart set on things above? If Christ is your life, then heaven is in your heart.

(I want to acknowledge my dependence on two resources for some of the content in this sermon: Rick Atchley’s, Amazing Place, and N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope - both excellent studies on heaven.)