November 19, 1995

OVERWHELMED

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”  Hebrews 12:28-29

Picture this:  You’ve got a new home under construction.  It’s going to be fantastic by the time you move in.  It’s in a great section of the world’s most prosperous city.  The crime rate is zero.  There’s no danger from natural disasters, no earthquakes, no floods, no tornadoes or hurricanes.  It’s got the loveliest view imaginable:  it’s built on the side of a mountain overlooking a mighty river flanked by groves of trees.  And your neighbors are going to be something else!  You’ll be seeing some of the most powerful and interesting persons in the world on a daily basis.  How is all of this possible?  Well, the world’s richest person has decided to adopt you and treat you like his firstborn child.  He’s letting you draw on his wealth, and he’s even going to make you a partner in overseeing his vast holdings.

Now, how would you feel about all that?  You’d be overwhelmed, wouldn’t you?  You’d be overwhelmed with gratitude at all the great things you’d be inheriting, and you’d be overwhelmed with sheer wonder that somebody so great and important decided to take a personal interest in you.

If you weren’t overwhelmed, something would be wrong, wouldn’t it?  It would mean one of two things:  it would mean either that you weren’t receiving these things, after all; or else, if you were receiving them but were grouchy and unexcited anyway, it would mean you were about as dumb and ornery and ungrateful as a person could possibly get.

The scene I’ve just described isn’t imaginary, of course.  It’s real.  If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, then here are a couple of words to clue you in:  God and heaven.  If you’re not overwhelmed each day by a fresh sense of wonder that the God of the universe takes a personal interest in you, and if you’re not overwhelmed each day by a fresh sense of gratitude at what awaits you in the heavenly home he’s preparing for you, then it means one of two things:  either you’re not headed for heaven at all and you’re not God’s child, or else you’re about as dumb and ornery and ungrateful as someone can get and still be a child of God!

Thanksgiving Day is almost here once again.  How thankful are you feeling?  Really now, how thankful are you?   Your answer to that question tells you a lot about yourself.  If you’re overwhelmed with appreciation for eternal life and amazement at the infinite God, it’s a sign of spiritual health.  If you’re “underwhelmed,” if you don’t see much reason for thanksgiving if you don’t feel any reverence or awe, it’s a symptom of serious spiritual sickness.

If you’re not grateful, you’re either not a Christian at all, or else you’re not acting like one.  If you’re not a Christian, if you’re not bound for heaven and you’re not a part of God’s family, then you’d better hurry up and change direction and accept God’s gift while there’s still time.  And if you belong to Jesus, if you really are bound for heaven, then act like it!  Stop acting like a poverty-stricken grump and start acting like you’ve inherited a fortune–because you have!

In Hebrews 12 the Bible gives a stunning description of heaven and the benefits of belonging to Jesus.  Then it gives a stern warning against those may be in the process of refusing heaven by rejecting Jesus.  And finally, to those who trust Christ, the Bible says in Hebrews 12:28, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” Thankfulness, reverence, and awe–there’s no other way to react to the majesty of God and to the magnitude of his gifts.

In Revelation 15 there’s a vision of the inhabitants of heaven singing:  “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty.  Just and true are your ways, King of the ages.  Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name?  For you alone are holy.  All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” (Revelation 15:3-4).

The Bible calls that hymn of heaven “the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb.”  Moses and the Lamb, Jesus Christ–these are the two figures that tower above history, two persons in whom God displayed great and marvelous deeds.

God showed amazing power and concern for his people at the time of Moses.  He set his people free from slavery, and he gave them his law on Mount Sinai in the midst of fire and smoke and storm and earthquake.  It was terrifying and wonderful at the same time.  It gave to the Israelites a kind of greatness for which they should have been grateful.  As Moses put it, “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?  And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:7-8)

Moses and Mount Sinai mark a great milestone; but when Jesus came he far surpassed Moses, and the mountain to which Jesus brings people is far superior to Mount Sinai.  Hebrews 12 says,

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire;  to darkness, gloom, and storm;  to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them…  The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.  You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.  You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

What overwhelming privileges!  If these things don’t fill you with thanksgiving and amazement, then nothing will.  Let’s take a closer look at some of the details.

Hebrews says, “You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.”  The Bible reveals a great city free of crime and danger, with “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).  The city has streets of gold, foundations of precious gems, and entrances of pearl.  It is lit up by the light of God’s glory.  It’s enriched by splendid contributions from every country and culture, and people of every race live there in perfect harmony.  Even the animals live in harmony.  The wolf will lie down with the lamb, and little children can play right next to the cobra.  The Bible pictures the city on a great mountain.  There’s a crystal-clear river of life-giving water flowing right through the middle section of the city’s main boulevard, and all along its banks are the tree of life, full of power to heal and to nourish.

Those are just some glimpses, some hints the Bible gives us of what the eternal city of God will be like.  These visions are great and overwhelming, and yet the reality reality is even greater.  The Lord undoubtedly uses figures of speech to describe things that go beyond anything we can grasp right now.

How would you describe the Eiffel Tower to people who have never seen anything larger than a mud hut?  How would you describe the taste of ice cream to someone living in a rain forest?  What sort of sign language could possibly show a deaf person what a symphony sounds like?  How would you describe a glorious sunset or a lovely flower to a blind person?  That would still be a lot easier than describing “the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God,” to people who live in a broken and backward world and who suffer from a lot of spiritual deafness and blindness.

But God’s Word uses human words in a wonderful way, and the Holy Spirit applies them to the hearts of believers, so that even though we can’t grasp the full reality of heaven till we get there, the hints and images God gives us are still enough to overwhelm us with amazement and gratitude.  Just think of it!  A splendid city, an indestructible city, a “city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).

Hebrews 12 goes on to list some privileges that go along with receiving a place in the city of God.  Scripture says, “You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly.”  What a staggering thought!  Already now, if you put your faith in Christ, the angels of heaven rejoice over you.  Already now, whenever you worship and praise God, you are singing along with a giant choir of angels.  So at the unseen and spiritual level, you’re already involved with the angels and mingling with their celebrations.

But when faith becomes sight, and you take up physical residence in the heavenly kingdom, you will have direct and tangible contact with the angels of heaven.  Imagine having angels for your neighbors!  Imagine working together in partnership with angels!  Imagine having a voice that won’t sound out of place with angel music!  Overwhelming, isn’t it?

Now imagine even further.  Imagine that you have to supervise and even evaluate how the angels perform.  Don’t just imagine it, though.  Plan on it.  “Do you not know,” says the Bible, “that we will judge angels?” (1 Corinthians 6:3)  If you belong to Jesus Christ, then you will someday be in such an important position that you’ll be judging angels.

And why?  Because God adopts you and gives you all the privileges that go with being the firstborn child of a king.  Hebrews 12 says, “You have come to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.”  The Bible often refers to Jesus as the firstborn, but here in Hebrews 12 the Greek word for “firstborn” is plural, so it can’t refer to Jesus alone.  It refers to everybody who trusts in Jesus.  The book of Hebrews says a bit earlier that Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers, and here it shows us that every true member of the church of Jesus is given the same inheritance and blessings that belong to Jesus himself.  You can’t get any richer than that!  As the Bible puts it, “All things are yours, … and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s”  (1 Corinthians 3:21-22 RSV).

What an amazing privilege, to know that your name is written in heaven, that God is preparing you to give you a share of all things, and that when you reach maturity and enter his heavenly city, you’ll have free access to the resources of the entire universe for all of eternity.

This is especially astonishing when you realize who it is that gives you all this.  Hebrews 12 says, “You have come to God, the judge of all men.”  God the judge is fearsome in his purity and holiness and justice.  He’s the same God who made Mount Sinai quake and all the people tremble in fright as he revealed his will for them in the Ten Commandments.  But this same judge, this consuming fire of holiness who wouldn’t permit anything to touch Mount Sinai, whose law gives him every reason to drive us disobedient sinners away forever, has decided to relate to us, not on the basis of the law, but on the basis of his mercy and love in Jesus Christ.  When you trust in Jesus, you find that you’ve come to God, the judge of all men, and that the judge loves you and accepts you and even gives you a share in his authority and his reign over the universe.  Fellowship with this awesome and infinite God is heaven’s greatest blessing.

There’s fellowship with God, there’s contact with angels, as we saw earlier, and then next thing Hebrews 12 talks about is fellowship with other people who are very special.  In the heavenly Jerusalem, says the Bible, you come “to the spirits of righteous men made perfect.”  At the very moment God accepts you in Christ, you become part of the great fellowship that includes Noah and Abraham and Sarah and Moses and Miriam and Ruth and David and and Esther and John the Baptist and Jesus’ blessed mother Mary and Peter and Paul and countless others.

Hebrews 11 gives a list of some great heroes of faith, and many more righteous souls have been added to the list since Hebrews was written.  You become part of that glorious group when God accepts you in Christ and makes you a part of his church.  Your name goes into the book of life right on the same list in as all those other men and women of God.

And when the day comes for you to join them in the heavenly city, you’ll be able to enjoy direct conversation and friendship with them.  Just think of spending time with your favorite Bible characters. That’s what I call having great neighbors!  Those righteous people would have been wonderful to know during their time on earth, but knowing them in heaven will be even better.  In heaven they are made perfect:  all their sins and faults are gone, and they mature fully into the persons God designed them to be.  And the same will be true of you when you get to heaven.

Also, your loved ones who died in Christ will be there.  You can enjoy their company forever.  All their good traits, the things you loved about them, will still be there in even greater measure, and anything bad will be completely removed.  They are among the “righteous souls made perfect.”  They may be hard to recognize at first, I suppose, when all their physical defects and spiritual defects are gone–but you might be hard to recognize yourself by the time God is finished perfecting you! Actually, of course, we’ll recognize and know each other as we never have before.  Everything phony and deceptive will be gone and our true selves in Christ will shine forth as God intends.

The heavenly Jerusalem, then, is a place of perfect fellowship with God and humanity, and it’s above all the place of perfect fellowship with the Person who is both God and human, Jesus himself.  The last, climactic thing Hebrews 12 says about coming to the city of God is that you come “to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

That’s the heart of being a Christian here on earth, and it’s the supreme joy of being in heaven:  to be with Jesus and somehow to hear his blood speaking.  When Cain committed the first murder and killed his brother Abel, the Bible says that Abel’s blood cried out from the ground against Cain.  But Jesus’ blood speaks very differently.  His blood cries out for God to give us mercy and love. His blood speaks to us of forgiveness and eternal life.  Jesus is our mediator, the one who brings us together with God, and the blood of his sacrifice on the cross is the guarantee of salvation to all whose souls are sprinkled by it in faith and baptism.

The blood of Jesus inspires the adoration of heaven, and it’s the center of our faith and worship here on earth.  Dr. Simon Kistemaker writes,  “What is the message of the blood?  It tells me that Jesus removed the curse, lifted the burden of guilt, and forgave my sins.  It assures me that I have peace with God and that I have been set free to live a life of obedience.  It tells me that God loved me so much that he had his Son die for me.  I go to church not to hear a theological lecture or to receive some pastoral advice on how to avoid conflict, but to learn that the blood of Jesus daily speaks to me and brings me the message of salvation.”  The blood of Jesus–that is our supreme reason for thanksgiving and awe.

Now, let me ask you again:  How thankful are you?  Are you overwhelmed with thanksgiving and awe at who God is and at what he’s done for you?  Are you living in the grateful joy of somebody who is becoming unimaginably rich, or are you a grouch and a grumbler?  Are you living with the dignity of someone who will judge angels, or do you get tangled up in silly disputes over petty things that don’t even matter?  Are you focused on your great birthright and inheritance in heaven, or only on your short-range desires for food and sex and thrills here on earth?

We’re living in a time of when thanksgiving is all too rare.  It’s more common to gripe and feel sorry for yourself whenever the slightest problem comes along.  Arguments and lawsuits and labor disputes and divorce battles keep multiplying.  More and more of us seem to be dominated by an appetite for food and sex and thrills.  Why is that?  These things are symptoms of a lack of thanksgiving and reverence.  We don’t appreciate the magnitude of God’s gifts.  We’re not amazed at the majesty of God the giver.  And that means we need to change–and soon!

If you’re tempted to grumble and complain, ask yourself:  Do I have a place in God’s city or not?  If you don’t, you’ve got bigger problems than the whatever circumstances might be making you grumble at the moment.  God takes it as a dreadful insult if he shows you the overwhelming glory of heaven and gives the blood of his Son to make you fit for heaven, and then you still refuse and reject him.  It’s a dreadful insult, and you’ll pay a dreadful price. Hebrews 12 says, “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks.” Otherwise, you won’t escape the fire of his wrath.

On the other hand, if you accept Christ and you have a place in God’s kingdom, then act like it!  Whatever else goes wrong for you from time to time, you’ve always got a reason to be grateful, a reason that nothing can shake or destroy.  So if you tend to grumble, stop it!  Let the riches of God’s grace and the home he’s given you overwhelm you with gratitude.  If you tend to get bogged down in petty disputes and trashy desires, cut it out!  Let the greatness of God and the value of your inheritance and birthright overwhelm you with awe.  Let every day be filled with thanksgiving and praise.

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.'”

PRAYER

Lord our God, we give you thanks for all the good gifts of your creation and above all for the unspeakable gift of your new creation in Jesus Christ.  Open our minds and hearts to the unshakeable kingdom you have prepared, and overwhelm us with gratitude for our marvelous inheritance with awe at your eternal holiness.  “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”  Amen.  (Revelation 5:13)

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.