The Hope of Heaven at the End of Ministry
Growing up in a small town, I often attended worship services and funerals that featured songs about heaven. Some had good theology. Others didn’t resemble biblical teaching on heaven at all. But heaven wasn’t just a major theme of our songs. Lots of people talked about it. As they talked about “the pearly gates” or their “heavenly home,” I noticed how they never talked about being freed from the presence of sin or gazing at the Savior or spending eternity with God in perfect worship. Instead, folks talked about heaven because they wanted to see Grandma Sally or escape difficulties or avoid making hard decisions. For many in my community, heaven wasn’t an infinitely holy place where God himself lived, the glory of God but rather a way to achieve a more-or-less optimized version of their present life without the interruption of various hardships.
But heaven isn’t heaven without Jesus.
PASTORING IN LIGHT OF HEAVEN
Years later, when I became a pastor, I reacted wrongly to this squishy, sentimental view of heaven. How so? Well, I simply didn’t give it much thought or attention! I so didn’t want to be an escapist about heaven. I didn’t want to sing sappy songs about heaven that were devoid of biblical ideas. And so, to my shame, I mostly left it alone, unstated, assumed.
The Word, though, began to reshape my warped thinking. When I was about forty, I preached through the Gospel of John. I remember how the Upper Room Discourse and the High Priestly Prayer absolutely rocked me (John 14–17). I couldn’t escape thinking about heaven because Jesus wanted me there—along with all those he has redeemed.
The longer I pastored, the more stuff that happened that pushed me toward heaven. A loved one dies, and the family grieves. At this point, as the pastor, I have a choice of what to do. I could point them to the heaven of twangy southern gospel songs—or, I could point them to Jesus’ heaven, the promised eternal dwelling of the redeemed, all of whom gained entry by the bloody death of the Lamb of God (Rev. 5). Heaven is our home country, the real place of citizenship for all who follow Christ (Phil. 3:20–21). Is there a better way to comfort a grieving spouse than to help her think upon the infinite glory her deceased husband was now experiencing? Is there a happier truth than what he once saw dimly he now sees face-to-face?
The longer and longer I pastored, the more and more I realized I couldn’t talk well about heaven if I didn’t meditate on it before the Lord. If its reality didn’t shape my life now, then I could only mouth true words to those in need.
WHAT STILL AFFECTS ME
One aspect of heaven affects me more than all the rest: Scripture’s repetitive use of the word hope. As a young Christian, I impoverished myself spiritually by reacting against an unbiblical use of hope as mere wish fulfillment. True enough. Biblical hope is more than that. Scripture wraps the richness of all Christ’s promises in that one little word hope (Rom. 8:24–25; Titus 2:11–14; Heb. 6:13–20). All that Jesus secured for us through his death and resurrection, all that he promised us in the gospel comes to focus in that little word hope.
As I read the Word devotionally and as I preached through the Bible, this hope of heaven became pronounced. I’m getting older now, and my anticipation of living forever with Jesus and the saints is beginning to come into full view. Paul could “exult in hope of the glory of God,” knowing that “hope does not disappoint” (Rom. 5:2, 5). He later connects hope to our present-day perseverance when he declares, “For in hope we have been saved” (Rom. 8:24–25). This hope of our inheritance in Christ changes how we live and face trials.
Fascinated with the biblical teaching on hope, I began to study it intensely, not so much to preach on it—although that happened in the course of expositions—but to enrich my soul and keep my heart focused on “the things above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). Somewhere in this process, I spent a year preaching through Revelation. To say that heaven overwhelmed me would be an understatement. From that point, I found that my preaching, my public praying, my counseling, and my encouragements to the congregation often ventured into the hope of heaven. It seemed most natural, and it proved most helpful.
HOPE, HEAVEN, AND PREPARATION
Eventually, in the middle of 2018, I was diagnosed with a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. That diagnosis led to chemo and repeated visits to the oncologist. It was a hard season. But do you know what happened? My ministry-heart had been so focused on helping the flock understand the hope of heaven that when I faced this trial diagnosis, I found that this same hope took much of the sting out of what lay ahead. I remember telling my oncologist, “I’m not afraid of dying. I am a follower of Christ, and he has promised me through the gospel that I will be with him forever.” That certainty helped me time and again as I faced the destructive effects of chemotherapy. It still does as I live in remission. Heaven isn’t just for my sermons; it’s to steady my walk as my flock’s shepherd.
When I talk to people about suffering and death, I gladly speak of the hope of heaven that buoys me. They know I have taken a close look at death without it robbing me of joy because the hope of heaven steadies my heart even as it enriches my ministry.
A sister in our church recently lost her husband of seventy-years. She told me a few hours after his passing, “Pastor, I never knew just how powerful salvation is until this moment.” Heaven came into view as she rested in the powerful work of Christ. What an enjoyable talk we had even in the pain of loss. As I reflect on it, I’m encouraged even now.
As Samuel Rutherford wrote, “Neither need we fear crosses, or sigh, or be sad for anything that is on this side of heaven, if we have Christ.” The hope of heaven in the future means we can endure anything in the present, this side of heaven. I should have talked about this at the beginning of my ministry because I certainly can’t quit talking about it now as I near my ministry’s end.