I would like start this section with a passage about Heaven that is frequently overlooked. It is John 3:13:
No one has ascended into Heaven except he who descended from Heaven, the Son of Man.
This is a “wow” statement when you think about it. Jesus is unequivocally saying that nobody has been to Heaven to that point. That means that the two Old Testament visions of Heaven that seem like the person travels to Heaven (Isa. 6, Dan. 7) were just that—visions. They were not field trips. Even though the Bible says that a fiery chariot took Elijah into Heaven. It does not mean that Elijah went to the throne room of God, it just means that the chariot took him up. The word “heavens” can be used to refer to outer space, so it is important to watch your context. This verse also means all those Old Testament people who have been considered “righteous” still had not yet received their righteousness from Christ and gone to Heaven. The punishment for their sins had only been suspended for the time being (see Romans 3:25b). They awaited Christ’s victory in a pleasant portion of Sheol.
Why hadn’t anybody ascended to Heaven up to the time Jesus made that statement? We are sinners and do not deserve to be there. Perhaps we could not even survive being there in our condition. Only atonement for sin can change that situation and when this was spoken Jesus had still not atoned for the sins of the world.
This raises an interesting question about Isaiah’s experience. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah experiences a vision of Heaven and he also experiences his unworthiness. He says, “Woe to me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of people with unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of (hosts.)” I’m sure Isaiah doesn’t know what exactly has happened to him. He doesn’t know if he is actually in Heaven or still in the temple and seeing Heaven. We would call it an out-of-body experience, but it would appear from Jesus’ statement above that he wasn’t as “out-of-body” as he perhaps felt.
Isaiah saw the throne room of God, but only as a vision. Even though only a vision, Isaiah was struck by his unworthiness to be there. “Woe to me” he said, “For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among people of unclean lips.” Heaven isn’t heavenly for those who are unworthy to be there. The holiness of God is stressful for Isaiah in a vision, and possibly lethal for him in person. Still, God gave Isaiah this vision for a purpose. God had a mission to give him and the means to carry it out.
In his vision, Isaiah sees several bizarre creatures in the throne room of God. He calls them, “burning ones”, or Seraphim. The seraphim respond to Isaiah’s unworthiness in this way:
Then one of seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
I have always found this fascinating. Why didn’t Isaiah get burned? Why do coals on the altar atone for him? There is no answer given, so we can’t conclusively say. Perhaps the reason is that Isaiah wasn’t really there, so no burn. The altar that this refers to is the one copied in the Jerusalem temple where sacrifices were made. The Bible is clear that animal sacrifices do not really atone for sin at all. However, they were prophetic, as Isaiah’s experience was prophetic, of a sacrifice that will really atone; and that sacrifice was Jesus.
With the sacrifice of Christ completed, can mankind enter into Heaven and into the presence of God? It would appear so. The first invitation happens on the cross. Jesus says to the repentant thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Some have interpreted Jesus’ words as saying that the thief will join Jesus in the good neighborhood of Sheol. The reasoning is simple, that is where Jesus is going next and we are not aware of a trip to Heaven until His ascension. But Jesus didn’t exactly leave us His travel itinerary. I would add to the evidence for Jesus going to Heaven on that day, Ephesians 4:8:
When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.
I don’t think the ascension referenced here is the one the disciples observed for two reasons. First, Jesus is leading the Old Testament redeemed, here referred to as “captives”, somewhere, presumably Heaven. Next, the gifts referred to is the forgiveness of sins, which would have begun immediately after Jesus had finished His task of atonement. As such, Jesus could have gone to Heaven the very day He was crucified.
Next time: More from the throne room of God