The Wait for Heaven

Brian W. Thomas
Wednesday, August 31st 2016
Sep/Oct 2016

“Pastor, I just want to be with the Lord in heaven and for all of this to finally be over,” Ella exclaimed with an earnestness that let everyone know she meant it. This was her third round of chemotherapy, and the will to fight the good fight had diminished with each drop of poison introduced into her bloodstream. Ella joins the chorus of countless saints across the ages in expressing their desire for heaven, where Jesus has promised he will “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist anymore—or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist” (Rev. 21:4).

As much as we may long for heaven, we must still wait for the final judgment and the new creation. Even death itself does not usher us into the final state of the new creation. In life and death, we must wait, and as philosopher Tom Petty sings, “Waiting is the hardest part.”

Waiting as Blessed Hope

Whether it’s waiting in line at the DMV, waiting in traffic, or waiting for the results of a biopsy, one thing is certain—no one enjoys it. This is especially acute in a consumeristic culture continually bombarded with advertisements promising immediacy and instant gratification. Our impatience with God’s timing, however, is not unique to our time and place. The Old Testament is replete with the refrain “How long, O Lord?” The tension in such a question is palpable, but it is alleviated in part by the knowledge that God is not bound by the linear constraints of time. God is infinite and therefore lives in radical simultaneity in which past, present, and future co-inhere without being constrained, as we finite creatures are, in the succession of moments from past to present to future. Thus Peter can say that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day (2 Pet. 3:8). It is easy to view waiting with a negative attitude, particularly during difficult seasons of life; however, the Bible provides a more positive approach by stressing it is as “hopeful expectation.”

The Hebrew words for “wait” most often employed in the Old Testament are closely tied to the concepts of trust and hope (qavah, yachal, chakah). We are to wait upon the Lord with hopeful expectancy, like children going to sleep on Christmas Eve in eager anticipation of the gifts that will be received come morning, because we are confident that our Heavenly Father will deliver on all his promises (cf. Ps. 130:5–6). Thus the prophet Isaiah can say that those “who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Isa. 40:31).

The Old Testament tells a story with a future-oriented focus pointing toward the promised Prophet (Deut. 18:15), Priest (Ps. 110:4), and messianic King (Isa. 9:6–7), who will usher in a kingdom where God’s reign is fully realized by Israel and the nations. Thus the writer to the Hebrews can speak of the Old Testament saints as dying in faith, not receiving the promises, but only welcoming them from afar (Heb. 11:13).

When we open the New Testament, the writers quickly demonstrate how the great promises of the Old Testament have been inaugurated and fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:15). Through the means of grace, Christ grants us a share in all the blessings of this ancient hope. The promised kingdom can be experienced and enjoyed now by faith in the king’s death and resurrection. The gift of the Holy Spirit poured out in holy baptism is a guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of Christ’s glory (Eph. 1:14). And yet we followers of Jesus must await the full manifestation of these promises to fully bloom.

The tension of waiting for heaven is tied to the fact that we live between what theologians often refer to as the “already and the not yet.” Paul Raabe notes how this already/not yet tension underlies everything the Scriptures teach about eschatology:

Waiting on this side of the cross is thus centered on Christ’s second advent, as Paul writes to Titus:

Notice how Paul connects the dots here between the already (“grace…has appeared”) and the not yet (“appearing of the glory…of our Savior”). This waiting he describes as our blessed hope; but the present is not a time for spiritual apathy, as if we are to passively abide the time twiddling our thumbs. It is a time for training in godliness, because those redeemed by Christ’s finished work are “zealous for good works.”

A Kingdom under Attack

Life under the cross can be likened to a battlefield as we wage war with sin, death, and the devil. Swiss theologian Oscar Cullmann compared life between the already/not yet to life between D-Day of the Normandy invasion and V-Day at the end of the Second World War. The death and resurrection of Jesus are like D-Day; Christ’s return will be like V-day. (1) C. S. Lewis similarly spoke of this present world as enemy-occupied territory:


Life under the cross presses us not only into a war within, but also a war without. As Steven Hein warns, “Spiritual warfare also entails a battle against the forces of evil outside the Christian which can bring experiences of temptation, trial, and tribulation.” (3) While we are assured of final victory, we live in the present fighting the good fight of faith. As such, we are called to arms with the weapons of faith (Eph. 6:10–20).

There will be times when we grow weary and want to give up in the face of what seems like insurmountable odds, repeated failure, and trials of varying degree and kind. Like Ella in our introduction, we just want it to be over. Our Lord’s timing often feels like it is moving at a snail’s pace. But Peter reminds us that the Lord’s delay serves a patient purpose: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

Before Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, he gathered his disciples together to give them their marching orders: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21). Thus, until the king returns, he has left his church with the vocation of expanding his kingdom through the ministry of his word and sacraments (Matt. 28:19–20). The church is the visible manifestation of Christ’s kingdom on earth, like a city set on a hill, shining the light of Christ so that all would know where to find safe passage and refuge (cf. Matt. 5:14–16).

My grandfather used to regale me with sea stories in my childhood. He served as an engineer on a U.S. Navy ship sunk by a Japanese torpedo in the South Pacific. As he and his fellow survivors floated in the shark-infested waters amid the wreckage awaiting rescue, my grandfather said he hoped for three things:(1) that he would be saved, (2) that his fellow sailors would be saved, and (3) that the rescue ship would reach safe harbor so they could finally go home. This hope of survival in the midst of danger motivated them to band together to stay alive. Similarly, when we pray the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come,” we are not asking for the kingdom of power to come, for that is already present; we are asking that the kingdom of God’s grace would come into our hearts and into our neighbor’s hearts, so that all would enjoy the blessings of the kingdom of glory to come. In light of this petition, Luther encouraged his barber and friend, Peter Beskendorf, to pray the following:


The task of evangelizing this present world is not an easy endeavor. The enemies are great, certainly, but the mission of the church militant is not achieved by the power of the flesh, which is, quite frankly, good news. Paul continues the military metaphor in encouraging the church of Corinth for mobilization:

To pray “thy kingdom come” is searching and demanding. First, it means we are not the king and must lay down our own kingdom-building projects, taking every thought captive unto the king’s command. Second, it is an acknowledgment that our citizenship is not gained through merit but by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of the king alone; for we serve a benevolent king whose rule is not tyrannical, but compassionate, merciful, and loving. He rules this kingdom not with the sword but with grace through the sword of the Spirit, which is to say, his holy word.

As we lift this prayer to God, we begin with ourselves: “Use me, O Lord, to faithfully serve in your kingdom through my earthly vocations, in my relationships, and through the resources you have graciously provided.” However, this prayer is not given just for us personally but corporately, for it begins with the plural possessive pronoun, “Our Father who art in heaven.” Here we must recognize that this is a battle we do not, and should not, fight alone, for there is strength in numbers. Our king has promised, moreover, that all authority in heaven and earth are his; and as we carry out his gospel mission, we have the comfort of knowing that he is with us always, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). Until then, we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

1 Paul Raabe, "The End Times," in God’s Words: Intro to Classic Christian Theology (St. Louis: CPH, 1988), 165.

2 Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time, trans. F. V. Filson (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1950), 84.

3 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1978), 51.

4 Steven A. Hein, The Christian Life: Cross or Glory? (Irvine, CA: New Reformation Publications, 2015), 107.

5 Martin Luther, A Simple Way to Pray: For Peter, the Master Barber, trans. Matthew C. Harrison (St. Louis: CPH, 2012), 9.

Wednesday, August 31st 2016

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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