At Gateway Church in Austin, John Burke concluded the series What’s After Life?
Can life truly be eternal? What will that be like? Many who have had a near-death experience speak of the “City of God.” Will it have art, music, or film? How will we experience life in such a place? Are pets allowed? This week wraps up the What’s After Life? series by answering some of these questions. Before we begin, consider the day you step from this life into the next. Don’t let fear or anxiety take over your mind at this thought. Instead, imagine how great that life will be in the City of God.
Work through the following questions and Scriptures on your own, and get together with your running partner, life group, or friends and family to talk through what you are learning.
MESSAGE NOTES FROM JOHN BURKE:
Today, we’re wrapping up this What’s After Life series. Over the past 6 weeks we’ve looked at Evidence for the Afterlife from doctors and researchers, the Beauty of Heaven, the God of Love, the Life Review, Hellish experiences, and today I want to bring it all together with a tour of the City of God.
I want you to imagine with me the day you make that tiny step from this life into the next, and I want you to imagine how great that life is going to be—not the end of life, the beginning of the life you’ve longed for. When you understand that perspective, you want to make the most of this life knowing what we do here goes with us there. This life is continuous into the next life. Heaven is a gift—relationship with God in Heaven is free—you don’t earn it, you accept it. All who want it can have it—all who call on the Lord will be saved (set right with God eternally).
How we live our lives now, determines a lot about how you experience the life to come. So today, I want to inspire you to live all out, fully abandoned to doing God’s will on this earth—so that you live your best life now, and forever.
The City of God – Not What You May Think
John, Jesus youngest disciple, had an experience like an NDE in his old age. The risen Jesus appeared to him while he was exiled for his faith on the island of Patmos, and he was taken into Heaven and shown the City of God. Listen to how John describes it:
And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem…It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel…[The angel] measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia [~1400 miles] in length, and as wide and high as it is long. The angel measured the wall using human measurement, and it was 144 cubits [216 feet] thick. The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone…The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass. I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it…Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
– Revelation 21:1–27
I used to read this and picture a gawdy, televangelist-like décor, rod-iron gates with pearls on them, yellow-brick-road-gawdy-gold streets…but when NDErs describe this, you start to see it is nothing like that—it’s mysterious and other-worldly. More real, more solid, yet just like everything made on earth is made of dirt, rock, wood–made of the earth—everything there is made of the Light and Love of God, which is like trying to describe 3D color to a 2D black and white world. John is trying to describe something “other-worldly”—like our world, but way beyond our world. Yet this is a real city—with real life—real people—real beauty, and it’s a place of mystical wonder. It’s where those who love God live together forever—it’s where we finally feel at home, fully.
This is a real place, the place Jesus talked about his last night on earth, the place John visited in Revelation, the place many Christian NDErs I’ve spoken with have talked about. And their different accounts are like hearing different eyewitnesses of an accident—they all are talking about the same place, but all from different perspectives, and when you put them all together you start to see a more complete picture.
Dale Black had a NDE after a plane crash. He came back describing Paradise. I’m not 100% sure it’s correct, but one NDEr was told paradise is the outskirts of country surrounding the City of God, the New Jerusalem.
Jesus said to the thief on the cross “Today you’ll be with me in Paradise.” It’s this gorgeous countryside very much like earth where many apparently start what some describe as a journey toward the Center—toward God. Apparently, not everyone is ready to go straight into the City and up to the Center.
Howard Storm, the atheist professor from last week, who Jesus rescued from a hellish experience, was headed toward the city when he just felt like he couldn’t go farther—due to how he had lived. They stopped. After his life review, he saw the City of God and at the Center a vast multitude singing to God (Captain Dale saw the same multitude singing). Howard asked Jesus, “So what happens to people that are going towards [the Center] but aren’t sure they’re ready?” He said, “They freeze up,” and, Howard said, “What do you mean they freeze up?” And, he said, “They just lock up and… think about themselves and they work on their stuff… they want to move forward but they’re not ready to.” Which is why you should work on your stuff now—move toward God now. The goal is intimacy, full surrender, full harmony with God. Not everyone in Heaven enters Heaven in the same place of full understanding and harmony with God’s will.
Apparently, just like there are prime properties to live in on earth—and those with the most money and power in earth’s terms get the best places and locations—well in Heaven the closer you reside to the center of this City, the more spectacular the experience of Life, God and the Universe. So not everyone immediately goes into the City of God. Some are not ready for it—they live on the outskirts, still enjoying all the amazing sights and sounds and beauty of God’s creation and relationships, but those who lived and believed all that God said—they do have more of the experience of Heaven.
The Glory of God
Jonathan Edwards, a well-known theologian, said in Heaven we will all be overflowing with the glory of God—the life, love, joy of God—but some will overflow with a small capacity, some will overflow with a great capacity—I believe that’s what all the talk of rewards in Heaven is all about. This bothers some Christians, but Jesus said it very clearly that how we live in this life affects the life to come, this is just a test to see what we will do with all that God has entrusted to each one. All our money is Monopoly money, and all our possessions are plastic pieces—at the end of the game, it all goes back in the box. What lasts is how you played the game of life to honor God with what you’ve been given.
“Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends,” Jesus said. “Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home. If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities. And if you are untrustworthy about worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches of heaven? – Luke 16:9–11 NLT
Jesus said how we use our money, our possessions, our story, our time—it affects the life to come. Those who have been more faithful to God, will be trusted with more. I believe there’s growth in Heaven, but how we start and what we experience is determined by how we live. So when we tithe and use our resources to further God’s kingdom here on earth—it’s like investing in Heaven’s Stock market that will never drop. When we study God’s Word to know and serve God and are faithful even in little ways, we are moving toward harmony with God, and we will be ready for a greater experience of God’s wonders right away.
So imagine the day you come up to this city. You’re about to go in and see your new home—an eternal home. Which by the way, Jesus promised,
In My Father’s house are many dwelling places…I go to prepare a place for you. – John 14:2
There are two Greek words here, in my Father’s house (Oikos—which refers to a larger extended family residence), there are many Dwellings (Monay—which can mean house, dwelling, mansion—it’s used for all the above. In the City of God, we’re at home everywhere, and we have our own speical places. Imagine a home uniquely made for you, designed by God.
Imagine, the excitement of exploring inside this city—it’s huge.
John in Revelation 21 said 1400 square miles (and as tall)—it’s crystal clear, yet Gold, it’s the size of half the United States (in 3 Dimensions)—so there’s room for all. Your welcoming committee can’t wait to show around, and they’re so excited to show you you’re new home that many of them helped build under God’s direction.
Listen to how Betty Malz, a Christian who died and resuscitated describes coming up to the entrance: “My emotion was a combination of feelings: youth, serenity, fulfillment, health, awareness, tranquility. . . . I was arriving at where I had always dreamed of being. The wall to my right was higher now and made of many-colored, multi-tiered stones. A light from the other side of the wall shone through a long row of amber-colored gems several feet above my head. “Topaz,” I thought to myself… I not only heard the singing and felt the singing but I joined the singing…Suddenly I realized I was singing the way I had always wanted to . . . in high, clear, and sweet tones. . . . The voices not only burst forth in more than four parts, but they were in different languages. I was awed by the richness and perfect blending of the words—and I could understand them! The angel stepped forward and put the palm of his hand upon a gate which I had not noticed before. About twelve feet high, the gate was a solid sheet of pearl, with no handles and some lovely scroll work at the top of its Gothic structure. The pearl was translucent so that…The atmosphere inside was somehow filtered through. My feeling was of ecstatic joy and anticipation at the thought of going inside.”
Remember Christmas mornings as a kid—the excitement and anticipation–it will be better than that. There is only one requirement to enter the city of God.
“The twelve gates were twelve pearls…Nothing evil will be allowed to enter…only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.” – Revelation 21:21, 27
Jesus promised in Revelation 3:
I will never erase their names from the Book of Life, but I will announce before my Father and his angels that they are mine. – Revelation 3:9
Everyone who belongs to him can enter in.
That’s the only important question “Are you His?” As we’ve been saying it’s a heart choice—if you want Him, He wants you, and He makes you worthy to enter in by His payment for all your wrongs. Do you belong to him—give him your heart today—you will see your name in the Book of Life.
So imagine entering the City of God. Don Piper said, “I continued to step closer to the gate and assumed that I would go inside. My friends and relatives were all in front of me, calling, urging, and inviting me to follow..through the iridescent gate. . . . As we came closer to the gate, the music increased and became even more vivid…The closer we got, the more intense, alive, and vivid everything became. Just as I reached the gate, my senses were even more heightened, and I felt deliriously happy.”
You enter the city and it’s full of life.
Gardens, parks, streets, trees, amphitheaters—you’re trying to take it all in, wondering what’s next. Your relatives and friends show you to your house—they’ve been working on it under God’s direction, and it’s perfectly suited to your tastes. In fact, different homes are even from different periods of human history—you marvel at the diversity of beauty of it all—perfectly suited for each inhabitant.
One of the most fascinating NDEs I studied was from the 1890s. She describes beautiful two-story wrapping verandas, marble columns, sitting rooms in her heavenly home that her brother-in-law who had died was helping build for her and her husband (who had not yet arrived). And she described other family members who all lived in other places nearby—how they enjoyed each other’s homes, went to the lake to swim (yes there are lakes). But get this—the water is Living Water. You don’t have to hold your breath and it gives a cleansing sensation many NDEs described as divine.
After settling in, Jesus comes to show you the work you’ll be doing. Work? I thought this was like retirement? Hardly—it’s like work when work is your passion and you lose sense of time. Colton Burpo, a 4 year old kid who had an NDE was asked by his dad, who is a pastor “What was your favorite part of heaven.” Colton shocked him. He said, “My homework.” Your homework? “Yes, my work—Jesus would give me assignments to do. That was my favorite part.” In Heaven, work is life-giving.
Have you ever gotten lost in a project, many call it “in the zone.” I watch my son working at the business he’s created around his passion, music and vocal coaching, and he loses track of time. When I wrote the book, Imagine Heaven—I was lost in the wonder of it all and it felt life-giving, not like work at all. That’s the work of Heaven, and you can start to experience it now as you follow God, develop your gifts, and fear not.
There’s work and responsibility in Heaven.
It’s what we were created to do before the fall, Genesis 1:26 says before frustration and decay and computer viruses entered work, we were made to oversee and care for all creation. God is a Creator, a Builder, a Developer—and he loves to co-create through us. Listen to how Dr. Neal describes the people in the City busy doing God’s work.
Clearly doing God’s Work. If you love creativity, imagine getting rewarded with an assignment to create and showcase a special exhibit for the President of All Creation! Imagine all the time ever needed to create that music or art you never had time for on earth. Imagine the joy of being in the zone as you research, explore, discover, develop or build something commissioned by the Great Designer/Builder/Scientist of all.
Dr. George Ritchie an MD and Psychiatrist had an NDE, Jesus led him into one of the dazzling buildings with high-ceilinged corridors and people walking around—buzzing with excitement as if everyone was enthralled with discovery and on the verge of some great new breakthrough. Ritchie said, “We entered a studio where music of a complexity I could not begin to follow was being composed …Next we walked through a library the size of the whole University of Richmond. . . . Here, the thought occurred to me, are assembled the important books of the universe. Immediately I knew this was impossible. How could books be written somewhere beyond the earth! But the thought persisted, The key works of the universe.”
Part of the reward of Heaven encompasses the types of projects, roles, responsibilities, creative endeavors, exploration, exciting assignments God will give his faithful servants. Jesus told his twelve disciples,
“I assure you that when the world is made new and the Son of Man sits upon his glorious throne, you who have been my followers will also sit on twelve thrones, judging [ruling] the twelve tribes of Israel” – Matthew 19:28 NLT
Ultimately, God is making everything new—joining Heaven and Earth. Right now, they are separated, but one day Heaven and Earth will be made new as one.
Jesus told a parable of Heaven, likening it to a wealthy man (God) who entrusted his money to ten different servants and asked them to use it to expand his business interests. When he returned as king, The first servant reported,
“Master, I invested your money and made ten times the original amount!” “Well done!” the king exclaimed. “You are a good servant. You have been faithful with the little I entrusted to you, so you will be governor of ten cities as your reward.” The next servant reported, “Master, I invested your money and made five times the original amount.” “Well done!” the king said. “You will be governor over five cities.” – Luke 19:16–19 NLT
God rewards those who are faithful with what they’ve been entrusted, and they will be given greater work, greater assignments—because they were trustworthy. God is equipping us to rule with him. When we undergo suffering and hardship, there really is a greater purpose.
“If we endure hardship, we will reign with him” – 2 Timothy 2:12 NLT
God is training us to govern in eternity through hardship. Amazing, Jesus said some of us will govern angels, others will rule cities—some will be over nations, others over animals, over various projects, all will be life-giving work.
But it’s Not just all work, and no play—God created play, and culture, fun, and exploration. If there’s anything you’ve loved about this life, that’s just the beginning of what God has in store for those who love him.
The center and Highlight of it all is the God of Love.
If you didn’t catch that, NDErs say consistently, all the beauty, all the joy, all the new sights, sounds, colors, senses all were like candlelight against the sun compared to the Presence of God—nothing compares. And in God’s presence you know who you are fully, you know how special you are–You are His unique child—his one and only—you’re loved and valued beyond measure. It’s true today—so let’s keep moving toward the Center, toward intimacy with God now—because God IS the greatest reward forever.