What will heaven be like? Do you actually think about that very often? Is there very much concreteness to your thinking? I’m guessing probably not. I’m also guessing that the older you get, the more you wonder about what heaven will be like. I know that for years my mother was quite content with vague images of pearly gates, a gatekeeper named Peter and streets of gold. She knew that “a river runs through it,” that there are angelic creatures everywhere with varying numbers of wings, that there is a special floor just for Baptists and that there is little likelihood of running into any Catholics. But once she passed 90, most of that began to change. Suddenly the presence of Catholics or even Anglicans seemed much more likely and the special floor for Baptists seemed less likely. The images seemed less important; yet the questions remained.
Gradually my mother pontificated less and less about precisely how she thought heaven would be, and she began to ask more frequently what I thought. Because my mother was past 90 and had been a believer her entire life, it was possible for me to avoid purely speculative answers while assuring her that heaven would exceed our fondest imaginations; that the place Jesus had gone to prepare for us would be beyond any level of perfection that we could envision; that the tearless joys of heaven would be so great that we gladly would toss out our long list of burning questions we once thought we would ask God as soon as we got there, because they would seem petty and irrelevant (which, of course, many of them really are!).
Some people may need to undergo a radical personality change when we get to heaven. For our threescore and ten on earth, or as it seems increasingly common today, for our fourscore and ten, we have been quiet, contented pew persons, avoiding doing anything very demonstrative, avoiding such pious acts as bowing, crossing, genuflecting or even saying “amen” to the prayers or to the words, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.” But in heaven, we will be shouting “hallelujah” over and over, multiple times each day. How do I know? The Bible tells me so.
Our passage from Revelation 19 says that a loud voice of a great multitude will shout “hallelujah,” and that no sooner will they have shouted it than they will shout it again. Then it says that the 24 elders, who also play harp (5:8), will be shouting, “hallelujah.” And just when it’s starting to sound unnecessarily redundant or too enthusiastically Pentecostal for our tastes, “something like the voice of a great multitude and like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder” will shout yet another “hallelujah,” adding “For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns.” Get your pipes ready. That voice includes yours!
Just exactly who constitutes this “great multitude” of “hallelujah” shouters? It’s the same multitude that was described earlier on in chapter 7 of Revelation where John writes, “I looked, and behold, a great multitude, which no one could count, from all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God Who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” Sounds like we had better be practicing our praises right now while we have the opportunity.
Why would we wait? Why would we celebrate passively? Why would we decline to show the slightest hint of enthusiasm in our worship? Is it that we are embarrassed to do so, even when we are safely surrounded by persons of like faith? Or is it simply because we are too bored in our worship experiences to truly throw ourselves into them, with all our hearts and souls and mind? This, too, will pass, “when we all get to heaven.” But why not practice some of this enthusiasm as a warm-up act? Why not ready ourselves for this eternal celebration around the throne of God? Why not see worship as a drama in which we are the actors instead of the audience, to borrow from Kierkegaard?
The Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) met earlier this month for 12 days in Lusaka, Zambia. They had endless meetings about many things, including such spiritual headliners as climate change and gender equality. But do you know what made by far the greatest impression on all the delegates from Northern lands who had made their way to darkest Africa for this conference? Two things: 1) the level of enthusiasm for worship exhibited by their African brothers and sisters in Christ, and 2) the fact that they were content to worship together for 2 to 3 hours at a time with no one fidgeting, looking at the clock or seeking distractions to help pass the time. Imagine a culture where the privilege of worshiping God is so treasured! These African Anglicans are actively getting reading for heaven!
In a session for feedback, many delegates praised the beauty and power of the choral singing they had experienced. For Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the high point was the Festival Eucharist held on the Cathedral grounds, which formally opened the proceedings and included 5,000 Anglicans from across Central Africa. He said, “We had the Word, the Sacrament, and this hugely joyful celebration that summed up what the church is about.” Wilfrid Baker of the Church of Ireland said, “It showed me that there is an enthusiasm and a joyfulness about the worship that, to a large extent, we have lost in the North.” Canon Elizabeth Paver of the Church of England said she was considering whether “our own services need to be longer” to match the celebrations of 2 to 3 hours common in Zambian Anglicanism. As Dawn Margaret is fond of saying, if we cannot be willing to devote 75 minutes per week to focusing on worship, what will we do in heaven when worship will be at the very center of our existence, when our hallelujahs will be “like the voice of a great multitude and like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder?”
Is that all we will be doing for the whole of eternity? Is that really it? Will we get tired of it, or at least get hoarse from all that singing and shouting? Apparently there is a great deal more that we cannot even begin to imagine and that cannot be described adequately in literal human terms, hence all the apocalyptic imagery. Sometimes John admits that what he sees in his vision is “like” something on earth, and he is just doing his best at trying to describe it intelligibly. But he tells us that there will be wheat and barley, and oil and wine (6:6). There will be a river clear as crystal and fruit trees (22:1,2) and a crystal sea (4:6); there will be harpists, perhaps lots of them (14:2); we will sing the Song of Moses and the Song of the Lamb (15:3,4); there will be lots of feasting (19:9,17) and, above all, we will “hunger no more, nor thirst, nor will the sun beat down on (us), nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be (our) Shepherd, and will guide (us) to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from (our) eyes” (7:16,17). After all, we were created in the image of God, and He knows best what we will need for all eternity.
Would you like more details? Perhaps. But from what we are told, everything has a pretty good ring to it. Will it be dark and chilly without the sun? Apparently not: John writes that “the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (21:23). What’s more, “there will no longer be death, (and) there will no longer be mourning or crying or pain” (21:4), and the One “who sits on the throne says... ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost’” (21:5, 6).
These are thoughts that come in handy when we are standing at the bedside of a believer who is facing “the valley of the shadow of death.” These are truths that enable us to “fear no evil.” These are the things that assure us that “death is now but our entrance into glory” (Jesus Lives and So Shall I).
My favorite verse in our passage from Revelation 19 is the last, verse 9: “Then (the voice coming from the throne of God) said to me, “Write, ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ And he said to me, ‘These are true words of God.’”
We have a feast coming up soon – the annual benefit dinner of the Chicago Master Singers at the elegant Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park. It requires lots of preparation in order for it to be successful; but once the evening arrives, the greatest joy is sharing it with friends who have gathered to celebrate all that is good about CMS and to bask in our fellowship together. One of the best ways to ensure that it will be a special time is to invite others to join us for this great celebration, because such things are meant to be shared. I think that we are in for another amazing evening.
But no matter how splendid this gathering will be, I know it cannot begin to compare to the marriage supper of the Lamb. Jesus Himself spoke of this great feast in one of His Kingdom parables, saying “Behold, I have prepared My dinner: My oxen and My fattened livestock are killed, and all things are made ready. Come into the marriage feast.” This will be the benefit dinner to end all benefit dinners. And the benefits are eternal. Consider Who is the Host, and Who is calling us to the dinner! His voice says, “These are the true words of God.” And we of all persons are most profoundly blessed to have been “invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”
Who will be on the guest list? Have you invited your friends? In the parable of Jesus, when the first round of invited wedding guests failed to show up, replacement players were recruited from the streets. But it was the servants of the King who were sent out to bring in the wedding guests. Perhaps that’s what God desires us to be doing as His servants: not just to be enjoying the fruits of our own religious experience but to be active recruiters of others. To use other Biblical analogies, we are to be going into the fields that stand ready for harvesting and into the vineyards where the fruit already has fully ripened.
If the tables are to be filled at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, I think that God wants us to be active in the process. As Paul writes in Romans 10, “There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for ‘WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.’ How then will they call on Him in Whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him Whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” Paul did not deliver this as an address at a clergy retreat. He wrote this to laypeople of the Church at Rome who, like us, were expected to be proclaiming the Gospel wherever they went, even at the cost of their lives. Don’t you have friends with whom you would like to share this dinner?
What will heaven be like? We have our questions and would like to know more. There’s no “click here to find out more.” But what we do know is absolutely glorious. And it should inspire the way that we worship and the way that we witness. Our worship should indeed be the sort of “hugely joyful celebration” described by Archbishop Welby, a celebration carried out with enthusiastic involvement and commitment. And our witness to those with whom we would enjoy sharing the Marriage Supper of the Lamb should be intentional and passionate, unselfconscious in our proclamation that “Jesus is Lord.” “Blessed (indeed) are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” Try to ensure that everyone you know is on the guest list. It’s an important part of your job as a servant of the King.
In His Name, Who lives and reigns forever with the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit, Amen