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“In Heaven” and the Age to Come

21 April, 2008

In my last post I talked about the address of the Lord’s prayer, “Our Father in heaven”, but only got to “Our Father”. Now I’d like to explore some things (certainly not everything) about what the phrase “in heaven” means.

I’ve said in the posts below that one of the ways to understand the Lord’s prayer, since its a paradigm or model prayer, is by looking at what the language the prayer uses means throughout Matthew. So we’ll look at a little bit of what ‘in heaven’ is talking about in Matthew.

Again, the disciples are privileged and called to address God as Father because they belong to Jesus his Son. Just before this prayer Jesus started using ‘heavenly’ language to describe the character of our Father:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…. (Matt 5:43-45)

It’s really remarkable that Jesus mentions ‘in heaven’ first in this context, of teaching his disciples not to think and act like this world thinks and acts, because that’s not the character of their heavenly Father. He showers creational mercies upon everyone (v. 45), and truly loves even those who have hated him, which is the opposite of what any sinner would do (vv. 46, 47). We as sons, therefore, must reflect the character of our Father, stated in strongest terms: ‘You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (v. 48).

The contrasts between ‘in heaven’ and the ways of the world, plus the stark black and white statements concerning those who are good and evil, just and unjust, and the perfection which God is and which he requires of his children, should all come together in pointing out to us that Jesus is drawing a contrast — to use Paul’s language — between the present evil age and the life of the age to come. The sons of God are all those (men and women, girls and boys) baptized in the Holy Spirit (3:9) of adoption and ushered by him into the Kingdom of heaven through the gospel of Christ. Jesus is hear setting up a black-and-white distinction between earth considered with regard to the human rebellion that characterizes the present world, and ‘in heaven’ where goodness and righteousness dwell, from where the graciousness of God toward us (his enemies!) is displayed. This realm, the ‘kingdom of heaven’ spoken of throughout Matthew, is dawning in the person and work of Christ our King.

There’s also an interesting passage just after the Lord’s prayer speaking of fasting discreetly, so that ‘your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you’ (v.18). ‘In secret’ here is speaking of the same reality as ‘in heaven’, which is important for setting up the context of Jesus’ teachings about laying up treasures in heaven and not being anxious immediately afterward (vv. 19-34), and I would argue the rest of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (through 7:27).

So we’re not to seek our reward in the self-absorbed flattery of others like the hypocritical Pharisees, who Jesus contrasts with the sons of the Father throughout these passages. We’re to place our whole heart and all our treasure ‘in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where theives do not break in and steal’ (6:21). And if we look to and serve God rather than earthly treasures (we can’t do both, v. 24), if we ‘desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one’ (Heb 13:16), then we should not worry about our Father’s good provision and sustenance during our pilgrimage to that city whose builder and maker is God (vv. 25-34). Our ‘heavenly Father’ knows and provides exactly what we need (v. 32), and we are to ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things’ will be given to us also (v. 33). If even the wicked know how to take care of their children when they ask, ‘how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!’ (7:11).

Jesus’ final mention of our theme in the Sermon on the Mount is in the process of wrapping up his call to ‘enter by the narrow gate’ (v. 13) and warnings for unfaithfulness and unrighteousness:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (v. 21)

This brings full circle the theme of earthly vs. heavenly, unrighteous vs. righteous, what is seen vs. what is ‘secret’, the present age vs. the age to come, in Jesus’ warnings of the coming Day when he will judge the earth according to the justice and perfection of the loving obedience that the will of his righteous and holy Father requires. Jesus is being thoroughly ‘apocalyptic’ here — there is only black and white at this point, no gray.

In this (thank God!) he is also pointing us to himself, pointing us who are given ears to hear by the Spirit of adoption. Though we are in ourselves as hypocritical as the Pharisees, though we’re worldly-minded (5:47) and anxiously self-seeking Gentiles (6:32), who are all brokenness in light of our Father’s blistering perfection, we are righteous and perfect by faith in Christ the Righteous One. He has become our treasure in heaven, he is by far the best thing our heavenly Father has given to his children. He is the narrow gate and his words are the rock upon which we must build all our hopes:

And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, becuase it had been founded on the rock. (v. 25)

Living within this reality of the age to come, and living as an outflow of Christ for us and the Spirit at work within us, we are enabled, however haltingly, to walk faithfully with our Father following his Son, as the Word and Spirit bear good fruit from good trees that will not be cut down in judgment (unlike the impotent teaching and lives of false prophets, vv. 15-20). This is true even when we so often fail miserably at seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness.

‘In heaven’, ‘heaven’ and ‘heavenly’, and so on, are extremely important themes throughout Matthew (not to mention elsewhere!), especially in regard to the frequent references to the kingdom of heaven which I’ve only barely touched upon — but I hope this partial exploration of the meaning of “Our Father in heaven” has been a helpful and encouraging look at how Jesus is teaching us to pray. Jesus is speaking in light of and from the persepective of the realities of the age to come, and this is how he calls us to consider everything as well, especially in prayer.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on earthly things. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Col 3:1-4)

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