“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb! And all the angels stood round the throne and round the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’ Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple; and he who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
The torches burned long into the night in the banquet hall. Their flickering light cast grotesque shadows across the huge table. Most of the seated revelers were slumped in their places, sleeping off the effects of food and grog. There were a few murmuring conversations, occasional outbursts of ribald laughter. Few but the king noticed when a tiny sparrow flew in the open window, pecked a table scrap, circled the hall several times, then winged through another open window into the remaining night. The medieval king rose, and to no one in particular, began to muse, “Our lives are like that lost sparrow. We come from the darkness of who knows where, flit through the lighted banquet hall of life snatching at morsels, then we fly out the window of death to who knows where! Who can tell me more of these things?”
The stupored king’s questioning has occupied inquisitive minds from the beginning of time. “Whence have I come? Wither shall I go? Why?”
William Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet called death, “The undiscovered country from whose border no traveler ever returns.”
Do you ever wonder about death? What happens after you die? Is there life beyond the grave? What is heaven like?
The big issue is, “How can one find sure answers to such questions?” The best means is for someone to die and return to tell us! And, indeed! Scripture records several incidents of death and resurrection.
Lazarus died and was buried several days. Then Jesus brought him back to life. But Lazarus never talked about his experience (John 11).
The apostle Paul was stoned in the village of Lystra. He was left for dead. But he was revived. Of his death experiences all Paul said was, “I know a man caught up to the third heaven. He saw things no man can utter.” (Acts 14:19, 2 Corinthians 12:2).
Even Jesus died and rose again. And He was with us 40 days before He ascended. Yet He never discussed with His disciples all that lay beyond death’s veil.
Answers to questions about death and the hereafter are frustratingly difficult to find until one comes to the concluding book of the Bible. There in Revelation 7:9-17, John is given a vision of heaven, which he faithfully records.
“I looked,” John wrote, “And in heaven, an open door.” (Revelation 4:1). Through that door John walked, observing as he progressed. His Book of Revelation is his subsequent attempt to give to the world what he saw. And it is of immense importance in answering our basic questions about death.
“Where Are the Dead”
The first question is, “Where are the dead?” Revelation 7:9 observes, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number from every nation, every tribe, and peoples and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
See here! The dead are not in the grave! They are not laying in a cold, musty tomb! They are risen, standing among other people, in the very presence of God!
In the cowboy film Hud, hard times have come to the West. Drought, dying cattle, a father’s sudden death, then there is the somber funeral. An old padre tries to comfort the grieving son saying, “He’s gone to a better place.” But the son bitterly replies, “Not unless you believe that breathing dirt is better than breathing air!”
To the naked eye death is horrid. It is the end of all— coffins, airless decay, skeletons. But John gives us a view from the other side! And to the eye of faith that looks through heaven’s open door, death is to be transported… to heaven… before the throne… with the Saints… always beholding Him!
In Milton’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Mr. Hopeful is crossing the cold, raging river of death. He calls back to the frightened pilgrims on the bank who must follow after him, “Be of good cheer, my brothers. I feel the bottom and it is sound!” John’s revelation gives us the same firm footing as we face death. It assures us that dying is not merely an exit. It is an entrance into paradise!
“Is There Room For Me?”
A second question we must ask is, “Is there room for me in heaven?”
I’ve been asked by the dying as they roll their head on their pillow, look me in the eye, and brood, “Preacher, has God got a place in paradise for someone like me?”
I suppose we all remember how when Jesus was born there was no room at the Inn. We ourselves, have made a long journey, arrived late, and found “no vacancy” signs at every motel. And deep inside, aren’t we all afraid heaven won’t have room for the likes of us?
Yet, look what John saw through heaven’s open door. “A great multitude which no man can number” (Rev. 7:9). Surely this means heaven is big enough to hold all of God’s children.
Jesus promised, “In my Father’s house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14). Hear that? “A place for you.” “Prepared.” By Jesus. He is doing all this for you right now, even while you read this.
“Will We Recognize Each Other?”
A third question is, “Will we recognize each other in heaven?” Some say we are like a drop of water returning to a faceless sea. To die is but to merge into obscurity.
An elderly widow once told me, “I don’t think I could enjoy heaven unless my late husband was there. Will I see him again? Will we know each other?”
In Revelation 7:9, John points out how the host of heaven could be identified by their nationality, tongue, tribe, and race. And this isn’t the only evidence we have. Matthew 17 records Jesus’ transfiguration in which the Lord spoke with two men dead but now in heaven yet clearly recognizable— Moses and Elijah.
John 20 tells of Christ’s resurrection. His voice, his personality, his words, his face, all were recognized by his good friend, Mary Magdalene.
Imagine, stepping through that open door into paradise to be greeted by grandpapa, mother, friends. And who’s that over there? Why it’s the apostle Paul! And isn’t that Mr. George Friedrick Handel? And there’s David, the Sweet Psalmist of Israel! Why heaven’s but one glad reunion of familiar faces and names.
“What Are They Doing?”
A fourth question we must ask is, “What do people do in heaven?”
I love the local newspaper and it’s typo errors. My favorite is the obituary that read, “Mr. Joseph Brown has gone to rust.” Embarrassed, the editor tried to correct it the next day. But another typo read, “Mr. Joseph Brown has gone to roost.” The third day was still worse. “Mr. Brown has gone to roast.” Finally, the fourth day got it right. “Mr. Joseph Brown has gone to rest.”
This is the popular notion of heaven: Rest. Do we sit on clouds, adjust our halo, and play harps? In Revelation 7:15 John saw, “They are before the throne of God and serve Him day and night….”
It would seem, then, that heaven is not an eternal sort of South Florida lazy indulgence in trivia that we call retirement.
“They serve Him,” the Bible explains. When French impressionist painter Renoir lay dying, he said, “What a pity! I was just beginning to show promise.” If John’s Revelation is correct, and I believe it is, then our promise is not ended in death, but progresses as we continue to serve with fulfilling work, as we continue to live our lives amidst a colorful community from every race, tribe, and tongue. As we fellowship without war, divorce, covenant-breaking, sickness, absences, and our general cussedness!
And just look at the worship of heaven! My but what a great congregation! Full attendance! Singing a new song! Beholding God’s face! Faith turned into seeing!
“What is Heaven Like?”
Yet a fifth question, “John, when you looked through heaven’s door, what did heaven look like?”
John used very descriptive language in the text. God will “spread His tent over us,” a mid-eastern sign of hospitality. My son and I were in Egypt. We’d rented two camels and ridden out to a sheik’s tent in the Sahara desert for supper. Sweet dates, roasted meat, music, belly dancers, and very strong drink were the fare. I ordered a Pepsi. The sheik looked pained and disappeared. I heard the Range Rover start up. Forty-five minutes later it returned— with my Pepsi. They’d had Coke, but no Pepsi. And my wish was their command. He’d “spread his tent over me.” I was his guest. I must be pleased. This hospitality concept is in the text here, too. And just look at God’s care for us in His tent. In His pavilion we “hunger no more,” “never again thirst,” suffer no “scorching heat,” and drink cool refreshment from the “spring of living water.”
John goes on to describe how in God’s presence there are no more tears, no more sin, no guilt, no more unfulfillment, no broken relationships, no disease, no fatigue, no crippling old age.
Heaven’s architectural and artistic beauty are detailed— streets of gold, gates of pearl, incredible worship music. And right in the middle of it all— God’s throne!
Some days I come home from a trip late at night. As I round the last corner I see my house all lighted up. My key fits the lock, and I go in to find the familiar smell, my books, my chair, my music, clean clothes. All these things are fine. But what I most want to see is my wife’s face.
The same with heaven. The streets of gold, the pearly gates, the music and people— all these things are nice. But the best of it all is Jesus! And I’ll fall on His neck with joy!
Interestingly, Revelation 4:6 describes the area around God’s throne as “a sea of glass.” Like the lake surface on a perfect summer morning. In God’s presence there is not a ripple of care, of pain, doubt, worry, or sin. In short, we shall live in the Lord’s presence undisturbed forever.
“Who Get’s In?”
A final question, the most important question of all, is, “Who is allowed into heaven?”
Have you ever read The Fisherman’s Prayer? It goes like this…
“I pray that I may live to fish
Until my dying day.
And when it comes to my last cast,
I then most humbly pray,
When the Lord’s landing net,
And peacefully asleep,
That in His mercy
I be judged big enough to keep.”
How big is a “keeper” in the Lord’s eyes? What sort of person gets into heaven?
Revelation 7:9 mentions those in white robes, palm branches in hands, who praise God saying, “Salvation belongs to our God.”
“Who are they?” Verse 13 asks.
To which verse 14 replies, “They are those who’ve washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. They’ve suffered for Jesus, coming through great tribulation. Now they serve God night and day.”
What a perfect description of a Christian. Their sins cleansed by Christ’s blood on the cross. Their new life lived in white-robed righteousness. Suffering. Serving. Worshiping.
This is not the easy-believism of today’s lukewarm church. It is the life-changing faith of Jesus Christ!
Let me ask you a question. If you were to die today and stand before God and He asked, “Why should I let you into heaven? What would you say?
Would you appeal to the good life you tried to live? God would say, “That doesn’t save you!”
Would you offer to buy your way in with a sum of money? God would say, “Your money is no good!”
Would you tout your religion and honors and education? God would turn you away!
The only way into God’s heaven is through Jesus Christ. For when you turn from sin and self to face Jesus, when you ask Him for mercy, ask Him to come into your life and fill you with His presence that you might serve Him, when you begin to actively worship Him, then you become a child of God. And there is room in God’s house for all His children.
“In heaven.” “An open door.” “I saw,” John wrote.
In 1295 AD, Marco Polo returned from a long sojourn in China. To his Italian friends he chronicled the adventures of the Far East. Silk! Spices! Fireworks! Pagodas! Printing presses! “You’re exaggerating!” his friends hissed. “Behold, the half of it I have not told you!” Polo said.
And I can say the same to you about heaven. For you must read John’s Revelation for yourself. Even then, words can never do justice to paradise. For as Paul wrote, “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has thought entered the mind of man as to the wonderfulness of what God has created for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
At the beginning of Christianity, when all of this first came to be known, Clement of Alexandria, Egypt, wrote of Jesus, “He has turned all our sunsets into sunrises.” And this day may He turn all your fears into faith.
Lord Jesus, I want to go to heaven when I die. Forgive my sins. Come into my life. Fill me with your presence that I might serve you. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen