Heaven is a rather curious subject... one I love to strike up conversation about-- like whether or not it is real and what it might be like. (In my minds' eye I recall conversations at ICU beds and hospice beds, I also remember airport bars where I grabbed a salad at the counter...one time next to a famous brass player, and I brought up the topic of Heaven.) There are many opinions about whether or not Heaven is a real, with most irreligious folks being completely ambivalent ... that is, until death comes knocking on their door. Suddenly, they are not so adamant; suddenly, they are not so unyielding.
As conversation slowly proceeds about what comes after this life, I have found that one who is face to face with his mortality, oft quietly turns and asks hmm . . . How do I get to Heaven?
People have asked that question for all time and eternity.
Including those in the early church. Remember those folks who gathered after Jesus ascended, and the Holy Spirit descended? How often I have wished I could have been part of that early Christian church! Why, those people were the first to receive the Holy Spirit and his power. They were the ones that realized there was actually freedom in their faith, as they began to understand they were loosed from keeping the Law - a veritable yoke on their backs… what’s more, they were the ones who realized there was relationship with the Almighty because of what Jesus the Messiah had done on the cross. And think of it--the disciples were in those early gatherings - eye witnesses of Jesus’ life and miraculous works --those who knew what he was like as a human being. Oh and of course, there were firsthand accounts of those who had seen Jesus after he came back to life. Discussions must have been electric!
So yes, just imagine that you were part of those folks: worshipping together at the Temple each day, meeting in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and sharing meals with great joy and generosity... Acts 2.46. Moving from house to house, as they continued teaching and preaching this message: “Jesus is the Messiah”... Acts 5.42.
But guess what? Even in the precious early church, disagreements happened. People are people and early on in the church, there was a dispute about procedural matters: how to do things, how widows should receive food, who should give it to them--resolved by the appointing of those who could do such things while leaving the teaching to the apostles, Acts chapter 6. But here in chapter 15, the folks disagree over the most important matter of our Christian faith: how do we come to salvation in Jesus Christ? How do we get to Heaven when we die?
If you read between the lines, the Jewish believers really thought they were superior to the Gentiles who were coming to believe in Jesus. "Some men" not authorized by the church leaders in Jerusalem, took it upon themselves to travel to Antioch to let the new Gentile believers know that they had to be circumcised in order to be saved. (I'm sorry but I can't get it out of my head--how would they know if the new believers had been circumcised or not?)
Why do I say this is important? Because if that group of Jewish believers had prevailed, there would be no John 3.16: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him will not die but have eternal life. Instead it would be whoever believes + the work of Jesus on the cross + our good deeds (obeying many rules/circumcision, etc.) No, No and No. Notice who did the work of salvation: Jesus. Jesus’ death paid the debt for sin … the work is done. Our part is to believe.
From the Jewish believers’ perspective - they were trying to keep the Law of Moses, many already seeking God as righteous Jews, not just living by the ten commandments but the 613 laws the rabbis taught, the oral law. (of those 613 laws, 248 were positive commandments, “thou shalt…” and 365 were negative, “thou shalt not”). There were a whole slew of laws on keeping the sabbath alone! They want the Gentiles to observe these same things to become Christians. Hmmm.
After Paul and Barnabas meet with the Jerusalem leaders, including James and Peter, [This is James, the half-brother of Jesus, the one who gave us the book that bears his name--five chapters of practical, really good stuff for life; James the apostle had been put to death earlier, you will remember], James gives the guidelines--no, the Gentiles do not have to become Jews first to become Christians, but there are some practices that should be avoided: idol worship, including sexual immorality surrounding those idols, and blood (again, because in some pagan idol worship there was drinking of blood…ugh). These were not matters of salvation, but without avoiding these, fellowship with the Jewish believers would have been ne’er impossible. Crises averted. The Church goes forward.
We do not work to earn our way to heaven. Every other faith is about doing… working to earn God’s favor and ultimately, Heaven. Christianity is accepting God’s grace, extended freely to us through believing in Jesus Christ, seeking his forgiveness for our sins = done. Faith alone by grace alone through Christ alone.
Back to the ICU bed, back to the hospice bedside and the airport bar - these where conversations are as real as they ever get. Yes, there is far too much evidence to believe anything but what there is life after death. And if there is a Heaven, how do you get there? Believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God .... your Savior, your forgiver, your Lord. On this, there is no discussion, no debate. There is no eternal glory, no heaven forever with God, without an individual assent and surrender to Jesus as Lord. Heaven comes in Christ alone. Amen!
“In Christ Alone”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rn9-UNer6MQ
In anticipation of Heaven,