III. Heaven opened
It is instructive to examine the Bible for what it says about the opened heaven.
In the Old Testament
The Old Testament is rather sparse with references toward the opened heaven. There are two passages that speak of heaven, or rather of the doors of heaven being opened:
- In Deuteronomy 28, God promises that He would reward obedience with blessings, among others in the form of rain: “Jehovah will open to ŷou his good treasure, the heavens, to give rain unto ŷour land in its season, and to bless all the work of ŷour hand.” (V.12).
- Psalm 78 says that God "opened the doors of heaven" to the His people in the desert to give them manna (v.23).
Both passages speak of receiving an earthly blessing (rain and manna), not of man looking into God's presence.
Then there are three passages that mention "windows of heaven":
- In Genesis 7 we read: "On that same day all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened" (v.11). So here the windows of heaven are opened - but for a terrible judgment - and this already in the first book of the Bible.
- The second passage tells us that a leader in Israel mentions the windows of heaven, but only with doubt (if not in mockery). He pays for this with his death (2 Kings 7,2.19).
- The third passage, which we encounter only on the last page of the Old Testament, speaks of God actually wanting to open the windows of heaven to pour out blessings abundantly (Mal 3:10).
But none of these passages allow us a look up into heaven. We read only once in the Old Testament that a person was allowed a glance into heaven, and that was Ezekiel. He reports: "And it came to pass, that the heavens opened, and I saw the visions of God" (Ezekiel 1:1). He sees the wheels of God's providence and sees the living creatures that God uses to carry them out. This makes him realize that God has everything under control.
But even Ezekiel, who was allowed a look into the opened heavens, did not see a glorified man there.
In the New Testament
In the New Testament we find a completely different situation. We read no less than five times of the opened heavens - and many other passages speak of the one who is now there. But let us first take a look at the five incidents in which (or in relation to which) the New Testament explicitly mentions the opened heaven:
- At the baptism of the Lord Jesus: Heaven opens on the perfect man on earth.
- With Stephen: He sees the glorified man in heaven.
- With Peter: He sees a vessel like a linen cloth coming down out of the opened heaven.
- At the appearance of Christ: The heavens are opened, and Christ appears in power and glory.
- In the millennium: the heavens will be opened, and angels will ascend and descend on the Son of Man.
The first two and the last two occasions are directly related to Christ: Heaven opens above Him or for Him. The other occasion (the third in the list above) shows a result of His work. Let us look at these passages a little closer.
At the baptism
At the baptism of the Lord Jesus the heavens were opened. Matthew reports: "And lo, the heavens were opened to him" (Matthew 3:16, 17). So does Luke, who mentions that this event took place "Jesus having been baptized and praying" (Luke 3:21, 22). Mark writes that the heavens parted. All three synoptic evangelists tell of the voice that was heard proclaiming that this man, the one who had just been baptized, was none other than the Son, the object of the Father's love and the one in whom the Father was perfectly well pleased: "And behold, a voice out of the heavens saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I have found my delight.” (Mt 3:17; cf. Mk 1:11; Lk 3:22).
Therein lies the explanation. The heavens could now open. At last there was a man on earth who had the good pleasure of God and who, so to speak, drew it down upon himself. "Heaven" could not remain silent. Christ was the One above all. He stood out from the crowd. Outwardly, He was one of many who were baptized, but He had nothing to confess. He made Himself one with those who believed - with the "saints" and "excellent" of Psalm 16:3, to "fulfill all righteousness" (Mt 3:15).
With Stephen we again encounter the opened heaven, again it is linked to Christ, but now it is not in relation to the perfect man on earth, but to the glorified man in heaven. Christ had died on the cross, been raised up from the dead, and the disciples had seen Him "being taken up into heaven" (Lk 24:51). So they stood there looking "up to heaven" (Acts 1:10) and two men in white garments had assured them that He who had been "taken up from you into heaven" would return just as they had "beheld him going into heaven." (Acts 1:11). Since then He had been hidden from the eyes of all men.
In Acts 7 heaven is once again opened. It is tremendous to see this scene, especially in this moment of time. The people of Israel had rejected every testimony, or rather, violated it: the law, the prophets, the testimony of the Son himself, and now they are about to reject the testimony of the Holy Spirit about the glorified Christ as well! They have killed the humbled Christ and rejected the exalted one!
Stephen knows all this, but he is fearless. Courageously he bears witness before the synedrium and dares to expose all the guilt of the people. Their hearts are pierced, and they gnash their teeth at him (v.54).
And it is here that heaven opens up and Stephen sees " the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God! (Acts 7:55). Just at the right moment, God strengthens his weak but faithful witness on earth, through a glance into the opened heavens and at the glorified Christ.
In a certain sense Stephen illustrates the situation of Christians in this entire dispensation. Most of them are unlikely to be stoned to death, but they find themselves facing a number of challenges and in a world that is hostile to them and to Christ. But they have a source of strength, and that is the view upon the glorified Christ: What Stephen was allowed to see with his natural eyes, we are allowed to see with our spiritual eyes.
However, this power supply does not work automatically, but to the extent that we are filled with the Holy Spirit. This is exactly what we see with Stephen: he was "full of the Holy Spirit". Here lies the secret. When we are in this state, that is, when we are prepared to condemn everything and thus to clear up with anything that stands in the way of the Spirit's work, then He can show us Christ in glory and as a result we are " strengthened with all power according to the might of his glory unto all endurance and longsuffering with joy" (Col 1:11).
Stephen experiences exactly this empowerment. He shares with his (already angry) audience what he sees: "I behold the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God! (V. 56). Absolute chaos breaks out. In answer to his testimony "they cried out with a loud voice, and held their ears, and rushed upon him with one accord". They drove him out of the city to stone him. Stephen knew that his final hour on earth had come.
If ever there had been a moment capable of making someone panic, it would have been that moment - but there is no trace of it. Stephen not only remains calm, but kneels down and prays for those who stone him, "with a loud voice"! He exclaims: "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge" and falls asleep. Stephen not only stood firm like a rock in the surging waves, he not only remained calm, but he displayed a behavior that shows the moral beauty of his Master: he prays for his enemies.
The two were related. The gaze upon the Christ in heaven gave him strength and peace in the extreme situation on earth. This look at the glorified Christ is still open to us. An example to illustrate this: Paul says in Philippians 1: "Having the desire for departure and being with Christ, for it is very much better," (v. 23). He knew that the moment he died he would be with Christ, and that this was far better than anything on earth. Do we see what peace this look gives? To apply it to Stephen: He knew that the worst the enemies could do to him would only result in his being "with Christ," which was far better!
But why do we often feel so different? Why do much lighter gusts of wind or waves throw us off course? Simply because we do not make enough use of our power source.
With Peter: A message for all people
On the third occasion the sky is not opened above nor for Christ, but to help Peter to grasp the tremendous change that results from the work of redemption accomplished on the cross: "And he sees the sky opened and a certain vessel like a great linen cloth coming down, tied to four corners and lowered to the earth, in which were all kinds of four-footed and creeping beasts of the earth and birds of the sky. And a voice came to him: "Rise, Peter, slay and eat!... To me God has shown to call no man common or unclean." (Acts 10,11.13.28).
Peter is staying with Simon, a tanner, in Joppa. He does not yet know that God wants to use him to open up the kingdom of heaven to pagans. He climbs onto the roof of the house to pray. Peter is hungry, a meal is being prepared. Suddenly he sees "heaven opened". But quite differently than with Stephen, the sky here does not open to reveal the view of the glorified Christ, but Peter sees a "vessel, like a great linen cloth, coming down". In it there are - to the apostle's horror - "all kinds of four-footed and creeping animals of the earth and birds of the sky". The work of redemption had been accomplished, the curtain of the temple had been torn, the Holy Spirit had come to dwell on the earth, and Peter himself had proclaimed a great message on the day of Pentecost. But the fact that gentiles could now be a part, become equal Christians and could belong to the assembly of God, had not yet become clear to him. The linen cloth, along with the animals unclean according to the Mosaic law, was to help him grasp this lesson. But to the voice telling him, "Get up, Peter, slay and eat," he replied with "Not at all, Lord!" He gets a wonderful answer: "What God has purified, do not call common!" The message, repeated three times, prepares Peter for the visit that is suddenly before him: the men Cornelius had sent.
The further process shows that Peter accepted the message. He follows the invitation and visits the Roman captain Cornelius in Caesarea and declares: "God has shown me not to call any man common or unclean" and "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him." (v.28.34.35). Now God can use him to present the Gospel, and while he is still speaking the Holy Spirit falls on all listeners and Peter orders them to be baptized (v.34-48).
Peter had seen heaven opened so that he could grasp the universal reach of the gospel which was not limited to Israel, but was addressed to the gentiles. Although heaven is not opened here to allow a direct view of Christ, indirectly it is opened to help Peter grasp the scope of the Gospel. He should have an eye for the greatness of the work that Christ has done.
At the Appearing (Revelation 19)
At the end of the New Testament John sees "the heavens opened": "And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse, and him that sat on it, called Faithful and True, and he judges and makes war in righteousness." This time it is about the same Christ coming again in power and glory, as "Lord of Lords" and "King of Kings". It is the greatest event to come to this world. Christ will come to judge the evil and take possession of the earth and establish his kingdom.
Opened heavens in the kingdom
The Lord Jesus had also once spoken of the fact that one would see heaven opened. We will deal with this passage last because it concerns a later time, namely that of the kingdom of 1000 years. We read in John 1: "Truly, truly, I say to you: You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (John 1:51). After heaven has been opened at the appearing (Rev 19,11), Christ will establish his kingdom on earth (Rev 20). Then there will be an undisturbed relationship between heaven and earth. He will exercise dominion as the Son of Man, and angels of God will ascend and descend on Him.
The five figures result in a beautiful picture:
- When Christ was on earth, the heavens opened above Him in order to express all the good pleasure of heaven in Him.
- Today, like Stephen, we can look up to heaven and receive our strength there.
- Therefore, we may experience that the Gospel is addressed to all people.
- Heaven will open again, so that Christ can come out of heaven, appear in glory, and take possession of the earth.
- Then His kingdom will begin and there will be an undisturbed relationship between heaven and earth.
In the following passage we want to deal mainly with the second point: with the Christian's view of the glorified Man in heaven.
The Old Testament contains images that symbolically introduce us to the glorified Christ. For example, we read in the book of Joshua that God changed the food for the people of Israel after they crossed the Jordan and entered the land. For forty years they had eaten manna in the desert. Now it says: "And they ate of the old corn of the land on the morrow after the passover, unleavened loaves, and roasted corn on that same day. And the manna ceased on the morrow, when they had eaten of the old corn of the land; and there was no more manna for the children of Israel; and they ate of the produce of the land of Canaan that year." (Jos 5:11,12).
The manna is an image of Christ, the bread from heaven; that is, of the Son of Man who lived on earth in lowliness and humility. The roasted grains stand for a different kind of food. They had been exposed to the heat of the fire. They speak of Christ who bore judgment and went to death, but who did not remain there; instead was raised and glorified.
The roasted grains were not found in the desert, but only in the land - which stands for the heavenly places where the Christ is (Eph 2:6).
For Israel it was a chronological sequence. They received the roasted grains and the manna stopped. For us Christians however, the manna never stops. We can and must feed ourselves again and again from Christ, who "humbled himself" and "was made nothing" (Phil 2:7,8). Even in heaven we will enjoy this manna, although surely in another way (Rev 2,17). On the other hand, we will also be allowed to stay "in the land" (that is, to understand the Christian position and accept it in faith: raised with Christ and seated in the heavenly places) and to feed on the produce of the land.
As has often been said: The manna gives humility, the roasted grains give strength. In this book we want to deal primarily with "roasted grains".
We encounter another highly interesting illustration in Elisha's life. He had been called as prophet and successor of Elijah (1 Kings 16:16,19). Before Elijah ascended to heaven, Elisha was allowed to make a wish of his own. He asked for "a double blessing" of the spirit of Elijah, that is, the part of the first-born (Deut. 5:21,17): He wished for spiritual strength - not material things or fame.
Elijah gives an amazing but revealing answer. He tells Elisha three things (2 Kings 2:10):
- "Ŷou have asked a hard thing!" - spiritual power is not easy to get.
- "if ŷou see me when I am taken from ŷou, it will be so to ŷou": So, there was a way to get spiritual strength.
- "...but if not, it will not be so" - There was no other way to get spiritual strength.
What is the only way to acquire or use this power from above? Elisha had to see Elijah when he ascended into heaven. This is a beautiful and fitting illustration of our theme: Elijah stands for the glorified man, for the Christ who ascended to heaven. Only one thing gives us strength for our life on earth: the view of the glorified Christ.
Elisha had understood this well. When the time came, he looked in the right direction: "And Elijah went up into the sky in a storm wind. And Elisha saw it..." The effects should not be absent. The following events show only too clearly that everything depends on this "looking up":
- Elisha returned to the Jordan, called upon the God of Elijah, struck the waters and the waters parted. He had power from above (v.14).
- The sons of the prophets had not been there and had not seen Elijah ascend. They observe Elisha and expertly state: "The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha!" (V.15). They recognize the power in Elisha, but they themselves do not possess it. They might bring "50 brave men" together, i.e. they have a measure of natural power - but it is of no use to them at all. They search mountains and valleys to see whether God had "thrown" Elijah there. The lack of spiritual strength goes hand in hand with the lack of understanding: they completely misjudge God. They speak of believers who do not have the Man in heaven before their eyes and are therefore spiritually powerless.
- Later, Elisha attracts the wrath of the king of Syria because he thwarts his plans by communicating them to the king of Israel. The king of Syria sends "a strong army" and surrounds the entire city of Dothan, where Elisha is staying. The servant of Elisha is horrified: "Oh, my lord! What shall we do?" He did not yet know the power from above.
- Not like Elisha. He gives the astonishing answer: "Do not be afraid! For more are those who are with us than those who are with them". Elisha had also seen the enemy army. But he saw more. He prayed for his servant: "Lord, open his eyes that he may see! And the LORD opened the eyes of the lad, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha." These fiery horses and chariots show the connection to 2 Kings 2: Elisha had seen Elijah when he ascended into heaven, and the fiery horses and chariots. Now, at the decisive moment, he has power. He sees the power from the height that is ready to protect him from the Syrian army.
The power in risky situations - and the calmness that comes with it - has only one source: the view of the glorified Christ.
At the same time an advanced, but nevertheless frequently encountered argument is refuted: The preoccupation with the glorified Christ in heaven does not in any way make one unfit for good work on earth. On the contrary: Whoever proved that he had strength for the circumstances on earth was Elisha - not the sons of the prophets or the servant (before his eyes were opened).
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