Read Revelation 4:1-7. When John is taken to heaven in Revelation chapter 4 he is overwhelmed with all that his senses are trying to comprehend. He is a first century man taken to a place that goes beyond the edges of his imagination.
To give some sort of context, how would someone from that time frame describe our technology? It would be difficult for them to put words on parchment that accurately describe things that we overlook like our cars. He was in a time when most people walked everywhere. The military might have horses and chariots, royalty would ride horses and donkeys. What words could he use to portray a method of transportation that used no power from horses or man? He might say it was like a covered chariot propelled by itself with no horses. Is that an accurate portrait of a car? Not really. But understanding his context, it’s as close as he can get. There are so many innovations that a first century man or woman hasn’t seen, it is beyond their imagination. The first cars appeared in the 1880’s and their development has been constant and relentless since those days. Someone from 20 centuries ago hasn’t seen that development. The knowledge jump is too great for someone of the first century. Given time and extensive instruction there could be some understanding but in the beginning it would be overwhelming.
John has a desire to describe what he is seeing but there are few things in his age that can help him.
Now, go back to Revelation 4 and look at John’s descriptions. I’m going to highlight how he struggled to put the things he saw into 1st century words. Over and over you see the word, “like” because it wasn’t exactly a trumpet but like a trumpet.
“the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet”
“in front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.”
In chapter 15 John describes it like this, “And I saw what looked like a sea of glass glowing with fire” So this sight was similar to a sea of glass but sometimes this sea had orange and red and yellow coloring. So this sight was similar to a sea of glass but not a sea. Or John tries to describe what he’s seeing by combining two things that are vastly different, like a rainbow (variety of colors based on light refraction) and an emerald (a green jewel).
“the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby”
“A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne”
Another way John tries to recount what is happening involves using several similar things.
“From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder”
Would we describe the things John saw and heard in the same way? For some things like numbers or things that we clearly understand like a throne, we would describe it similarly. But for other things we might write something from our perspective. For example, “flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder” we might describe as “A laser light show reaching from the one horizon to the next. A rush of sound like a sonic boom with an explosion of fireworks.”
This type of language happens throughout the book of Revelation until John starts describing the city coming down from God. “and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.” Once again this is demonstrating how John struggles with descriptions because the rock, jasper, isn’t clear. Jasper can be black, green, white, red, yellow, brown, blue, orange, varied and with stripes of other colors. So what is John trying to convey with the phrase, “like a jasper, clear as crystal”? The city looks like something he doesn’t have the words to relate. That is the point, heaven is indescribable based on first century context and you could add indescribable for us as well.
1 Corinthians 2:9
“However, as it is written:“What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”— the things God has prepared for those who love him—”
Within the context of 1 Corinthians this verse is discussing the differences between human thoughts and God’s way. Delving into this verse more gives us some insight into heaven and what awaits believers.
Notice that Paul mentions two of our five senses (sight and sound) and then our intellects.
From a sensory level, we cannot grasp heaven. Heaven will be enthralling. There is a reason that you will have a new body, because your current body couldn’t process the sights, sounds and smells.
You haven’t seen anything as beautiful or captivating.
You haven’t heard a sound more appealing.
You haven’t tasted something so extraordinary.
You haven’t smelled anything as delicious as heaven.
With all of your senses, nothing you’ve experienced thus far comes close. Think about all the amazing sights that you’ve seen in your life. From skyscrapers in New York City to the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon to a dark starry night to the loving eyes of someone dear to you, nothing is as beautiful as heaven.
Search through your memory at all the sounds you’ve heard, that fast car, baby’s first words, the sound of your footsteps on a quiet forest hike, the cheer of the crowd, the laughter of a girl you like, nothing sounds as good as heaven.
Smells are powerful because our memories are tied to them. Years after my father’s death when I smell his cologne I’m immediately taken back to a place right beside him. Use those memories now and think about cookies baking at grandma’s house, the smell of a summer rain, the distinct smell of your favorite flower or of paper at a library. Maybe your favorite smell is puppy breath or the salty breeze coming in from the ocean. Whatever smell you’ve imagined, nothing will smell like heaven, it exceeds imagination.
The next phrase from 1 Corinthians 2, “no human mind has conceived”, deals with imagination and knowledge. Every creative mind that ever existed on the 3rd planet from the sun is lacking when it comes to imagining the full concept of heaven. The best of us, the most brilliant, the most captivating cannot dream up what God is making.
When a business person develops a product to sell, they first imagine it. Then they work through the details to see if it’s possible and profitable. After some work on a prototype they begin a focus group or test market. Finally they release their product to the masses with an avalanche of marketing. Without the imagining, without the dream nothing else can happen. We cannot even conceive heaven and yet some act like they know exactly what it will look like.
1 Corinthians 13 commonly called the love chapter has this weird section that doesn’t seem to fit into the context. After explaining what love is and does, it talks about the future.
“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
In case you’re wondering we are in the “before” part of each of these three examples; knowing in part, like a child and as a reflection. Paul is being extremely clear that we have limited knowledge on the future with God. But the interesting thing is that we are surrounded by love both within the chapter and within our life. Being united with God leads to completeness. Think about how you envisioned life when you were in 3rd grade and then how life actually turned out. As a child you couldn’t even comprehend all the negative things like bills, stresses, worries, relationship issues, housework, job duties. From a positive side you couldn’t understand the way you would gladly sacrifice for your kids or spouse because of the love you have for them. You wouldn’t understand the joy of watching your kids open a gift from you. You have no context for intimacy with your spouse and the joy of that experience. Things that would never enter the mind of a 3rd grader are everyday occurrences of an adult.
Another of the analogies was looking into a mirror. In the first century, mirrors were brand new and not especially clear. They did offer a reflection but it wasn’t great. In heaven we will see face to face. There is nothing between us and God, no barrier, full knowledge, fully known and shockingly completely loved.
This is the entire point of this first part on heaven, you have no concept of what heaven will be like. I don’t care what the old hymns say, it’s indescribable. God has used millennia to create something so far beyond our ability to process. The current earth with vast oceans, tropical rainforests, solar systems that we are still discovering, is a mystery to us. So how do we have the audacity to think that we understand what heaven will look like? The apostle John tried to explain what he was seeing but it was weak in comparison.
God, your loving father, wants to shock you with a gift so extravagant, so incredible that you will be in awe for centuries to come!