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It's Only the Beginning

by: Stephen J. Nichols

In the introduction to Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edwards’s Vision of Living in Between Dr. Nichols quotes C. S. Lewis and explains why reading a nearly 300 year-old sermon by a Puritan theologian relates to current cultural issues: “C. S. Lewis once said, ‘If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.’ And one of those Christians was certainly Jonathan Edwards. We learn from Edwards that heaven isn’t only about the future. It has everything to do with life on earth, life in between. He reminds us of our duty to live on earth in light of heaven and to endeavor to bring the realities and the beauty of heaven to earth—even if only in miniature.” It is our desire that reading Nichols on Edwards and then one of Edwards’s sermons, “Heaven Is a World of Love” will challenge you to bring the realities and beauty of heaven to earth.

And doubtless, that which is a part of the happiness of heaven is pleasant and delightful here in this world  – JONATHAN EDWARDS

IN THE OLD CARTOONS the Devil always had a pitchfork, and the angels were always strumming harps. Neither vision got it quite right in portraying what awaits in the eternal state. But somehow those images tend to flood our minds when we think of the afterlife. What will heaven be like? Some think we'll sit on clouds, eat grapes, and listen to harp-strumming angels day after day after endless day.

Others think differently of heaven. They have turned it into one rather posh vacation that lasts quite a bit longer than seven days and six nights. They look to John's account of streets of gold and Christ's talk of preparing "many mansions," from the King James rendering of John 14:2. This view has overcome the temptations of a worldly and temporal materialism by waiting for a heavenly and eternal materialism. The godless have the mansions now, but someday, in that great day of reckoning, we will have the upper hand as we gaze across heaven's vistas from the balconies of our heavenly mansions.

Edwards once preached on the "many mansions" text of John 14:2. His focus in the sermon is not so much on the mansion as our home but on the fact that in heaven we will be with God in the new society. "Heaven is God's house," he tells his congregation, and we should long to be in his house and to dine at his table. Edwards also tells us that it's a big house, adding, "There is room in heaven for a vast multitude; yea, rooms enough for all mankind that are or ever shall be." He closes the sermon by chastising us for thinking of heaven materialistically: "Let the main thing that you prize in God's house be not the outward ornaments of it, [or] an high seat in it, but the word of Christ, and God's ordinance in it." The glory of heaven is God. Edwards won't speculate further about its physical description.

Not only do we like to speculate about the physical aspects of heaven, we also like to speculate about what we'll be doing in eternity. Of course, we have to stretch our minds to think of eternity in the first place. It's like reading a book that never ends. If we take a single grain of sand away from the seashore each day, when the beach is finally depleted, eternity is only beginning. Even in trying to understand, let alone explain the concept of eternity, we're beyond our understanding and capability.

Into all this speculation about heaven and eternity, some sure footing might go a long way. As we have been seeing so far, Jonathan Edwards is a good guide to help us find our way. But Edwards doesn't merely paint a picture of what heaven will be like. He uses that picture to tell us what we should be doing now. This life is one small prelude to the life to come. Or at least it should be. A prelude to a symphony includes all of the themes and motifs that will follow in order to give us a taste of what's to come. The prelude isn't the symphony, but it is the symphony in miniature.

In the previous chapter we looked at waiting. This chapter is really part two of that discussion. What we'll find here is not only Edwards's answer to the question, what will I be doing in heaven? We'll also find out what the answer has to do with life on earth. He tells us that we should be practicing now what we will be doing in heaven. In heaven we will be part of a symphony, the grand symphony serving and praising and glorifying God. We have a lifetime to tune up.


Edwards, like the authors of Scripture, refers to heaven as a time of rest and a time of work. We know what work is, and we know what rest is. They're not the same. So first we need to get a handle on this irony of our life in heaven. Part of the problem is that when we think of work, we only do so in the context of a post-fall world. Adam and Eve were cultivating and working in the garden before the fall. After the fall they continued to cultivate and work the earth. Only now they did so by the sweat of their brow. After the fall they had to contend with thorns and pesky weeds.

Adam and Eve before the fall serve as good models for us when we think of heaven. In fact, John in his revelation of the new heavens and the new earth invites us to do just that. His invitation comes in the form of the parallels between Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 22:1-5.

First, there is a river, "the river of the water of life" (cf. Rev. 22:1 with Gen. 2:10). There is also "the tree of life" (cf. Rev. 22:2 with Gen.2:9). And this tree yields fruit (cf. Rev.22:2 with Gen. 2:9, 16). We have in some ways come full circle.

The opening chapters of Genesis and the closing chapter of Revelation, however, are not a perfect comparison. Two significant contrasts stand out. First, God created "the two great lights," the sun and the moon, not to mention the myriad stars, to illumine his original creation (Gen. 1:14-19). But these objects are unnecessary in the new creation. There God's glory lights up the sky for all to see (Rev.22:5).

The second contrast outranks it all. The splendor and beauty and harmony of the original creation comes crashing down as Adam and Eve disobey God (Gen 3:14-19). They brought the curse into all that God had made, into their relationship with God and each other, into the sky and trees, into the animals of land and sea, and into the soil-the soil that ran through their fingers as their hands kneaded the dirt. In the garden of life, pain and suffering, decay and death would be the new world order.

Then we come to the new creation. In the middle of his description of this eternal home in Revelation 22:1-5, John says, "No longer will there be anything accursed." What was done by Adam has been undone by Christ. Adam brought the curse upon us and upon creation. Christ took it upon himself and removed it from us and from the groaning creation. We are back to the Garden of Eden, but it is so much better. It's not better because we can be eternal materialists in a luxurious garden. It's better because we will have unbroken fellowship, perfect fellowship, with God and the Lamb. We will sing his praises, we will serve him, and we will reign with him. We will rest from our burden of sin and from toil in a sin-cursed, thorn-infested world. And we will freely do our work of praising and serving God, our work of relishing his beauty and glory. A work that Edwards says is enough to "fill up eternity."

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Stephen J. Nichols

Stephen J. Nichols is a professor of Christianity and culture at Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School in Lancaster, Penn. He earned his Ph.D. from Westminster Theological Seminary (2000) and master’s degrees from both West Chester University and Westminster Theological Seminary. Dr. Nichols chairs the Jonathan Edwards Study Group for the Evangelical Theological Society. 

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