The Great Beyond

Texts: Revelation 7:9-17

Rev. Barrett Ingram

November 1, 2020

It was the summer of 2003, and I was living with my parents, between graduating from undergraduate and starting seminary. That summer, I was working at a bank. Most of my day was spent in what they called the vault – it was a windowless, interior room on an upper floor, and it contained files on any customer who had loans.

It was the first day of August, and it was my last day of work – as I would soon be moving to Nashville to start school. I was eating breakfast, and I saw an ambulance with its lights on go by in our neighborhood… and in one of those weird premonition-type moments, I thought, “maybe it’s headed to my grandparents’ house.” My mom’s parents lived down the street from us, a few blocks away. But, I didn’t think much of it. The day went on. Since it was my last day, my department had a little farewell party for me during the afternoon break time. I went back to my desk in the vault, and a little while later the phone rang. (This was before we all had cell phones with us 24 hours a day, like we do now.) I was surprised to hear my dad’s voice. He said, “Your grandfather had a massive stroke this morning. He’s at the hospital. It doesn’t look good. You should stop by there on your way home.” I thought of the ambulance in the neighborhood that morning as I made my way to the hospital. My grandfather had been on large doses of blood thinners because of an aneurism elsewhere in his body, so it wasn’t possible to operate to stop the bleed in his brain. He had said some time before that he was ready to go whenever it was his time, and so now it looked like this was the appointed time. The ICU nurse said that some of his bodily functions were shutting down, so we knew it would not be long. When I was alone in the room – with all of those tubes and beeping machines that were keeping him alive – I said, “Goodbye, see you in the great beyond.” I’ve often puzzled at those words that seemed to pop into my head and out of my lips without a premeditated farewell address. What did I mean by the great beyond?

It’s common in language to speak euphemistically when we discuss something that makes us uncomfortable, and such is the case with death. Even though all of us have lost friends and loved ones to death, and even though we know we all will one day die, there is something about death that makes us feel uncomfortable. In the church’s ancient hymn, called the Te Deum, it praises Jesus by saying, “When thou hast overcome the sharpness of death.” So, we often speak of death using euphemistic language. “He or she passed away,” we say. The Bible speaks of death euphemistically as well. In Genesis, we are told that God breathed into Adam’s nostrils “the breath of life” and he became a living being. So, when someone dies in the Bible, it is often said the he breathed his last, or gave up his spirit or (in the old King James) his Ghost. Remember, the word for breath, wind and Spirit can be used interchangeably. It refers to the life force that makes life itself possible. In 1st & 2nd Kings and Chronicles, when one of the characters like King David or King Solomon dies, it says, “and he rested with his ancestors and was buried.” When Jesus first learned of the illness of Lazarus, he delayed travel until it was too late. At that time, he said to the disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him” (John 11:11). When they revealed their ignorance of the Lord’s euphemistic language, Jesus plainly told them, “Lazarus has died” (v. 14). When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death: thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.

Drawing on the biblical witness, the Christian faith has always attested to the fact that there is more to life than what we experience daily in the here and now. But, it’s hard to describe. I once worked with a church musician who had grown up in a Pentecostal church, and he said to me, “Every Sunday in the Pentecostal church was about heaven and hell, but you Presbyterians don’t talk about that much.” Having grown up Presbyterian, I hadn’t ever thought about it that way, but I had to admit that he was correct – we don’t! And the reason we don’t is because the Bible is embarrassingly vague about the specifics of the life hereafter.

In John’s vision, in the Book of Revelation, he says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” In Genesis, God creates the heavens and the earth; in Revelation God re-creates, and we have a new heaven and a new earth.

Where is this place? What does it look like? It is inevitable that we think of Heaven as a place -- a geographical location. “When my soul is called up yonder, I’ll be there.” But, where exactly is there? “When the saints go marching in?” Marching? What will we be marching into? Or we have the vision of the New Jerusalem, which is captured in the song Beulah Land. Or “I’ll Fly Away,” but to where are we flying? When we die, are we removed from this place to another one just like it, but somewhere else – or is it an alternate dimension of reality that we cannot perceive?

When we peer through John’s veil from this world into the next, we get a few clues – albeit cryptic ones. In later chapters of Revelation (21) we behold a city whose foundations are foursquare, whose streets are paved with gold, whose walls are made of jasper, and where a river, bright as crystal, flows from the throne of God, who is in its midst. John sees the most exquisite, most precious/expensive/beautiful materials that were known to him – and heaven, he says, is built out of that! It’s literally beyond human comprehension.

Here in today’s text, we glimpse not so much of the physical attributes of the city, but of its inner life and character. John says that in heaven there will be people gathered from every single nation and tribe and language on earth, all giving praise to the Lamb who sits on the throne. Heaven will be full of praise and worship. All of God’s creatures will be gathered around the throne saying, “Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

In verses 13-15, John speaks of those in white robes who have come through the great ordeal or tribulation. Before God’s eschatological triumph, there will be a time of suffering and difficulties. Again, there are theories about what exactly this term means and how that is going to play out in history. Since there appears to be nothing that we can do about the great tribulation, it is not clear that we need to worry about it. Instead, the call is to trust the only one who can bring us safely through any ordeal or tribulation. Those who remain faithful through the tribulation are in heaven, and they will serve God in his temple. Their robes have been washed white in the blood of Jesus. In the Old Testament, animals were sacrificed for the forgiveness of sins. In the New Testament, it is understood that Jesus is the Lamb of God, and his death on the cross was the full, final sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the world. So, heaven is the place where those redeemed by Christ gather around the throne of God in perpetual worship.

Eugene Peterson says this: Heaven in the gospels and the Revelation (and throughout scripture) is the metaphor that tells us that there is far more here than meets the eye. Beyond and through what we see there is that which we cannot see, and which is, wondrously, not ‘out there’ but right here before us and among us; God – his rule, his love, his judgment, his salvation, his mercy, his grace, his healing, his wisdom. Calling the word Heaven a metaphor does not make it less real; it simply recognizes that it is a reality inaccessible at this point to any of our five senses.[1]

In that sense, heaven is the great beyond….beyond what we can touch and taste and smell and hear and see. But what the Bible teaches us about the next life is meant to help us live faithfully in this life. Those last two verses are profoundly comforting. We are told that never again will people be hungry or thirsty, that the sun will not scorch them with heat. Because the Lamb is the good shepherd who leads them to living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. And even here, on this side of eternity, we sometimes get those rare, wonderful glimpses of heaven – whenever we see broken dreams and bodies put back together, whenever we see hope emerge from a hopeless situation, whenever a stranger is welcomed, whenever someone who is hungry gets enough to eat, whenever someone who is lost finds the way home. Our work as believers is to bring a little more heaven on earth – to make those glimpses a little less rare – for as we say every week, “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

“No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9)

[1] Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1992)