Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Nearness of Heaven

"Our Father in heaven...."

How Far And Yet So Near

In a culture of silent males and emotionally-detached or distant fathers, we might find ourselves troubled by the second part of this address in the Lord's Prayer. Even if we've associate fatherhood with a loving, nurturing, parental presence in our lives, heaven seems kind of far away, doesn't it? What happens to all the warmth of God being our Father if he's going to be far off on some lofty throne, attended to and maybe even guarded by unearthly angelic beings? We read that even they must cover their faces and bow before this awesome Ruler.1 What are we to do with this?

If Jesus' depiction of God being in heaven makes God seem remote to you, consider that other passages of the Bible take this matter yet a step further! The Scriptures tell us in many places that God's glory, loving kindness, and exaltation are in fact above the heavens.2 The book of Hebrews tells Jesus himself is exalted above the heavens as our High Priest.3 The triune God reigns over the heavens. In fact, God made heaven and earth4 and therefore existed without them just fine. Solomon, that wisest of Old Testament kings exclaimed upon completing the first Jerusalem temple that “the heavens, even the highest heavens,” cannot contain Yahweh!5 The Psalms depict him as having to stoop down just to look upon the heavens!6 And so, God our Father only inhabits heaven by way of what theologians call “condescension.” That is, God lowers himself to inhabit heaven!

Think about that! Heaven is actually a stopping point for God on his way to us! Heaven is his throne and the earth is his footstool.7 Yet, in his loving compassion and infinite desire for us, he chooses to dwell among his people in both heaven and earth!

Remarkably, Jesus tells us that when we speak to God, our words are heard in heaven. Heaven is that close. Though heaven seems to us to be beyond the stars, heaven is so near that the One who inhabits its throne hears our every whispered word in prayer and even the inaudible longings of our hearts.8

These precious opening words, “Our Father in heaven,” communicate to us that God is both near to us (as Father) and far above us (in heaven). Yet at the same time they tell us that heaven, the highest realm of all creation, is also as near as the words in our own mouths and the longings in our hearts. There is only one reason for this. It is precisely because of who it really is who reigns there and hears our every sigh: It is Our Father in Heaven.

And so, heaven is not just a “home beyond the stars,” although it certainly is that and more. It has rightly been called “the capital and powerhouse of the cosmos” from which all is created, governed and sustained.9 Yet although every human parent may abandon us, and every earthly relation might fail us, there is One on the throne who is on our side and who can be trusted more and the dearest earthly father, more than the tenderest of mothers.10 He is not a stranger or a tyrant up there on the seat of power, not an old man with a telescope holding a fist full of lightening harpoons, and not a remote aloof monarch who needs to be approached through saintly channels.

He is our Father and his nature is the true nature of fatherhood. He is holy, just, and pure, and from his capital of power he rules all things—for us! His fatherhood tells us he is willing to help us. His heavenliness tells us he is able. Yet because our Father inhabits heaven, we can rest assured that heaven is always near, that all things ultimately will work out for his glory and for the good of all he calls his children,11 and therefore ultimately the most powerful force in the universe is on our side. Our loving Father is on the throne of omnipotent sovereignty and his enemies are but kindling for his consuming fire. Yet his throne is for our sake called “the mercy seat” and “the throne of grace.”

Without Exaggeration

It has been said that Jesus was given to hyperbole, or overstatement, as when he tells us to cut off a hand that causes us to stumble. But when Jesus calls God “our Father in heaven,” this is nothing less than understatement. To say God is in heaven is actually to bring him down. He transcends all, yet he stoops down to us to raise us from the dust and seat us with princes,12 loving us and calling us his children.

What a wonderful thing it is, then, to be able to say, "Our Father, who art in heaven." It should fill us with wonder and joy, assurance and courage. When we pray this way, we address the most powerful Being in the universe who sits enthroned securely in the most powerful place in the universe, and we find that this powerful Being is not only mercifully inclined toward us; he is intimately attuned, intertwined, and involved with us and as our perfect Dad.

1See for example: Isaiah 6:1-5; Revelation 4:9-10
2See for example Psalms 8:1; 57:5,11; 108:5; 113:4
3Hebrews 7:26
4Genesis 1:1; 2 Kings 19:15
51 Kings 8:27; 2 Chronicles 6:18
6Psalms 113:4-6
7Isaiah 66:1; Acts 7:49
8Romans 8:26-27
9Carroll Eugene Simcox, Prayer the Divine Dialogue (IVP, 1985)
10Psalm 27:10; Isaiah 49:15
11Romans 8:28
12Psalm 113:4-8

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