Geographic names in New Zealand often reflect its native people and European settlement. Some place names were given by Māoris, explorers, surveyors and administrators. Others are named after British places and battles, historical events, immigrant ships, and important people (explorers, cultural heroes, political heroes, government officials, pioneers, and royalty). Each geographic name has a story associated with it. So, where is Zion and what’s its story?
“Zion” is a word that’s associated with God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The Hebrew word translated “Zion” Tsiyyon (Strongs #6726) occurs 152 times in the Old Testament (mainly in the Psalms and prophets).
Hill of Ophel
In about 1,000 BC, king David captured the fortress of Zion from the Jebusites (2 Sam. 5:6-10; 1 Chron. 11:4-9). The Jebusites were Canaanites (Gen. 10:15-16; Jud. 19:10) and their city Jebus (Jerusalem) was a natural fortress because it was on a ridge that was surrounded on three sides by steep valleys (Kidron, Hinnom, and Tyropoeon). This site was also called the “hill of Ophel”, which was in Jerusalem near the Water Gate and Gihon Spring (2 Chron. 27:3; 33:14; Neh. 3:26NIV). The spring was an essential water supply for the fortress. About 250-300 years after David’s victory, Kings Jotham and Manasseh strengthened the fortifications at Ophel.
When David took up residence at Ophel he “called it the City of David” (2 Chron. 32:30; 33:14). It was his royal city, where he built his palace and ruled over Israel. After David brought the ark to Ophel (Zion), it also became a sacred place where the priests and Levites regularly offered praise and worship to God (2 Sam. 6:10-19; 1 Chron. 16:1-38). David called it God’s “holy hill” (Ps. 3:4; 15:1ESV). So Ophel (Zion) was the key place in Israel for government and worship during the reign of King David. And it was still called Zion when king Solomon dedicated the temple in 966 BC (1 Ki. 8:1; 2 Chron. 5:2).
So in the first instance, Zion referred to the hill of Ophel which was the site of a Jebusite fortress and the City of David.
During David’s reign the city of Jerusalem expanded towards the north. And after king Solomon built the Israelite temple on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (2 Chron. 3:1), it became known as Mount Zion. This hill had been called Mount Moriah in Abraham’s time about 880 years earlier.
When the temple was dedicated, it was filled with a cloud which represented God’s presence (1 Ki. 8:10-12; 2 Chron. 5:13-14; 7:1-3). In this aspect it was similar to the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34-38). The temple was God’s dwelling place (Isa. 8:18; Ps. 132:7, 13). That’s where the Israelites went to meet God (Jer. 31:6). And that’s why Mount Zion was called, “the place of the Name of the Lord Almighty” (Isa. 18:7). This cloud occupied the temple for about 375 years until it departed in the days of Ezekiel (Ezek. 10).
Because the temple was the centre of Israelite praise and worship, God calls Mount Zion “my holy hill” (Ps. 2:6ESV). The temple gave it holiness. That’s where the priests and Levites regularly offered praise and worship to God. That’s where Jewish men travelled to three times a year for major religious festivals (Ex. 23:14-17; 34:18-23; Dt. 16:16). So the temple was the center of their spiritual life. It was the center of Jewish religion.
So in the second instance, Zion referred to the temple mount which was north of the hill of Ophel.
The word “Zion” can also refer to Jerusalem – it’s often used as a synonym for Jerusalem (2 Ki. 19:21; Ps. 69:35; Isa. 1:8; 40:9). This is clearest in poetic passages where “Zion” is the parallel term to “Jerusalem” (Ps. 51:18; 76:2; 102:21; 135:21; 147:12; Isa. 2:3; 33:20; 37:32; 40:9; 41:27; 62:1; Jer. 26:18; 51:35; Amos 1:2; Zeph. 3:14). In these instances, “Zion” and “Jerusalem” can also be figures of speech for the inhabitants of Jerusalem or for the land of Judah or Israel or for the Jewish people as a whole.
Jerusalem is also called God’s “holy hill” (Ps. 48:1NET)(Jer. 31:23; Dan. 9:6; 20ESV). The city is said to be holy because it includes the temple. Joel gives a warning in Zion, God’s holy hill and promises future peace (Joel 2:1; 3:17). Likewise, God promises to return to Zion, the holy hill, and bring back the Jews to restore Jerusalem after their Babylonian captivity (Zech. 8:3).
In Psalm 48, Jerusalem is called “Zion”, “Mount Zion”, “the city of the Lord Almighty” and “the city of our God”. In Psalm 87, Jerusalem is called “Zion” and “city of God”. In captivity, the Jews said “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1-5). The Babylonians had asked them, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”, but they couldn’t do this because they were committed to not forget Jerusalem.
So in the third instance, Zion referred to the city of Jerusalem or its inhabitants or the kingdom associated with Jerusalem.
Following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the name Zion was assigned to its present location across the Tyropoeon Valley (see Josephus). Apparently the upper room where Jesus celebrated the Passover (Mk. 14:15; Lk. 22:12) and the room where the disciples gathered after Christ’s ascension (Acts 1:13) were in this area. So, today the more dominant western hill is called “Mount Zion”.
So in the fourth instance, Zion refers to the hill west of the Tyropoeon Valley. This means that “Zion” has been used to describe three hills in Jerusalem: the hill of Opel, the temple mount, and the western hill.
In the coming millennial kingdom “the Lord Almighty will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem” (Isa. 24:23). In that day Jerusalem will be the religious and political capital of the world (Isa. 2:2-4; 25:6-8; Mic. 4:1-3, 7). Once again, God calls Zion “my holy hill” (Joel 3:17). That’s where Christ reigns and where people worship Him (Ps. 99:2,9). As king David ruled Israel from Jerusalem (Zion), so in future Jesus will rule the world from Jerusalem (Zion).
So in the fifth instance, Zion refers to the city of Jerusalem. This is similar to the third instance only Christ will be personally present, and not just represented by a cloud.
The Greek word translated “Zion” (Sion, Strongs #4622), occurs seven times in the New Testament. Five of these are synonyms of Jerusalem from the Old Testament prophets (Mt. 21:5; Jn. 12:15; Rom. 9:33; 11:26; 1 Pt. 2:6). Another seems to refer to the second coming, which results in Christ’s Millennial reign in Jerusalem (Rev. 14:1). We will now look at the other instance of “Zion” in the New Testament.
In the New Testament “Mount Zion” refers metaphorically to the heavenly Jerusalem, God’s holy, eternal city. Hebrews says, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22). This is the eternal dwelling place of God and His people (Rev. 21:2 – 22:5).
Just as there is an earthly Mount Zion in Jerusalem, so there will be a heavenly Mount Zion and new Jerusalem (Gal. 4:25-26). As the Bible progresses, the word Zion expands in scope and takes on an additional, spiritual meaning. As king David ruled Israel from Jerusalem (Zion), so in future Jesus will rule the universe from the new heavenly Jerusalem (Zion).
So in the sixth instance, Zion refers to the new heavenly Jerusalem inhabited eternally by God and His people.
Lessons for us
So the story behind Zion stretches from about 3,000 years ago into the eternal future. Zion was a holy place for the Jews because that was where God dwelt. This was true for the hill of Ophel, the Temple Mount and for the city of Jerusalem. But according to the Bible, God the Holy Spirit now lives in Christians. They are said to be temples of the Holy Spirit. This means that instead of holy places, we now have holy people. Does our practice match our position? Do we respect each other as being holy?
In the coming stages of God’s plan of salvation, Zion is associated with both Christ’s earthly reign from Jerusalem and with God’s eternal reign from the new heavenly Jerusalem. Are we looking forward to this time? Does it encourage us in our Christian lives?
Written, August 2016
The Greek word paradeisos (Strongs #3857) only occurs in the following three passages of the New Testament. It is an ancient Persian word meaning “enclosure, garden, or park”.
When Jesus was being crucified one of the criminals alongside Him said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” Then Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:42-43).
When Paul described a vision he had 14 years ago, he said “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell” (2 Cor. 12:2-4).
Jesus concludes His message to the church at Ephesus with, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7).
As Paul says he was “caught up to the third heaven” and “caught up to paradise”, “paradise” is synonymous with “the third heaven”. This is the heaven which is God’s abode (see link). The other ways of using the Greek word for “heaven” in Scripture are the earth’s atmosphere and the universe of stars and galaxies. So Paul had a personal audience with the Lord.
The repentant thief was promised that when he died from crucifixion, his soul and spirit would go to God’s dwelling place. However, according to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, some Jews thought that in this context “paradise” was the part of Hades which was the abode of the souls of the pious until the resurrection (Lk. 16:23).
The passage in Revelation says that true believers will enjoy eternal life in heaven, just like Adam and Eve enjoyed being in the Garden of Eden before they sinned. Note that it is called “the paradise of God” because God is there.
So the word “paradise” is used in the Bible to describe where God lives. This place is commonly called “heaven”.
Written, January 2015
Also see: The good thief went to “Paradise (Lk. 23:43). Lazarus went to “Abraham’s bosom” (Lk. 16:22NKJV). Are they two different places? Are they intermediate heavens or the real thing? And where do Christians go who die today?
In the Bible, the words translated as “heaven” or “heavens” can mean either:
- The earth’s atmosphere
- The realm of the stars
- The dwelling place of God and the angels
The term the “heaven and earth” is mentioned in 26 verses of the NIV Bible. Most of these are describing what God created in the beginning of time (Gen. 14:19; Ps. 115:15, Isa. 37:16). It refers to the universe. The physical world of the earth, its atmosphere and the realm of the stars.
The term the “heavens and earth” is mentioned in 15 verses of the NIV Bible. Likewise most of these are describing what God created in the beginning of time (Gen. 1:1; Jer. 32:17; Acts 14:15). It refers to the universe. The physical world of the earth, its atmosphere and the realm of the stars.
New heavens and new earth
The term “new heavens and new earth” is mentioned in two verses (Isa. 65:17; 66:22). Isaiah lived until at least 680 BC, which is about 75 years before the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem when Daniel was captured and deported to Babylon (in 605 BC) and about 94 years before the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem (in 586 BC) and took more captives. The book of Isaiah is about God’s judgment and deliverance of the Jews. Isaiah predicted that the judgment was imminent (Ch. 1-39), but they would be eventually restored (Ch. 40-66). It ends with restored people living on a restored earth under the rule of the Messiah.
In this portion of the book, Isaiah is looking ahead to when the Jews would be in exile in Babylon. Isaiah 63:15 – 64:12 is a prayer of those in exile seeking deliverance from their captivity. The prayer is answered in Chapters 65-66, which mentions the new heavens and the new earth.
“See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind” (Isa. 65:17NIV).
“‘As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,’ declares the Lord, ‘so will your name and descendants endure’” (Isa. 66:22).
This new creation is characterised by (Is. 65:17-25; 66:19-24):
- Longevity and no infant mortality (65:20)
- There will be death and therefore sin will be present (65:20), but Satan will be bound (Rev. 20:2-3).
- Children will be born (65:23)
- No war or calamity (65:23)
- Wild animals will be tame and not dangerous (65:25)
- Jews return to Jerusalem (66:20)
- Jewish worship and priesthood will be re-established, which implies that the temple will be rebuilt (66:21)
- All humanity will worship the Lord (66:23)
- Resurrected Christians will rule the world with Jesus Christ (Rev. 20:6)
So the Jews are promised a time of great blessing which has not yet occurred. When he spoke to Jews who rejected Christ, Peter called this the “times of refreshing” when God will “restore everything”, which was predicted by the Old Testament prophets (Acts 3:17-24). As it is referred to as a 1,000 year period in Revelation 20:1-7, this is often referred to as the Millennium.
Heaven and the Millennium
But those who trusted God before the death of Christ also go to heaven (God’s dwelling place). Although most of the promises they were given were physical (like the Millennium), they also had a heavenly hope. They realised that this earth was not their final home: “admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth” and “they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16a). Therefore, the verses in Isaiah probably include the eternal state of heaven. The main difference between the two is that there is sin in the Millennium, but not in heaven. Their temporal relationship is shown in the timeline. The Bible indicates that the sinful world vanishes after the Millennium and before the eternal state (Isa. 51:4-6; Rev. 20:11; 21:1).
A new heaven and a new earth
The term “a new heaven and a new earth” is also mentioned two verses (2 Pt. 3:13; Rev. 21:1). 2 Peter 3 comments on those who doubt God’s final judgment of the physical world. They are called scoffers (v.3). As the earth was devastated by a global flood in Noah’s time, in future the universe will be devastated by a fire (v.6-7, 10-12). At this time the sinful world is replaced by a sinless one (Mt. 24:35; 2 Pt. 3:10; Rev. 21:1). This judgement occurs before the “day of God”, which is the eternal state. It’s God’s final triumph over sin and evil. Christians are told to look forward to the “day of God” and “a new heaven and a new earth” – these terms are equivalent. They are told, “But in keeping with His promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Pt. 3:13). They look forward to God’s new creation where there will be no sin (Rom. 8:21). In this sense, it will be like God’s original creation. The physical universe will be transformed and renewed in a similar manner to the bodies of believers (Rom. 8:20-23). So it seems as though the eternal state has a physical component.
Most of the book of Revelation describes future events. These include the second advent of Christ as a warrior who defeats all His enemies (19:11-20), and then as a king who reigns over the earth for 1,000 years (20:4-6). The final event is the new heaven and new earth, which is the eternal state (21:1-22:5). John says, “Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Rev. 21:1).
This new creation is characterised by:
- God is present – it’s His home (22:3)
- No sadness, suffering or death and therefore no sin (21:4). It will be a place of harmony, peace and joy (Col. 3:20).
- Only Christians will be there – non-Christians are excluded (21:27). It’s their eternal home where they have a close relationship with the Lord (21:3, 7; 22:4).
- Christian will have new bodies, like that of the risen Lord (Phil. 3: 21).
- Christians will be worshipping and praising the Lord, serving Him and reigning with Him (22:3, 5)
It is also described in: “Heaven and hell: What is heaven like?”
Lessons for us
We can see that those who trust God are promised a future time of blessing. It’s what they longed for (Heb. 11:16a; 2 Pt. 3:12-13). They look ahead and forward, not behind and backwards. Are we anticipating a time without sin and being in the presence of our Savior?
In view of this we should “make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with Him” (2 Pt. 3:14). It should change our behavior. Are we pure? Are we blameless? Are we holy? Are we at peace or is there strife?
Written, July 2013
As there will be people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” in heaven, it seems that some of these would not have heard about Jesus before they died (Rev. 5:9-10). I believe that infants go to heaven when they die because they are not accountable for their sin. We will look at other people in two categories, those who lived before and after Christ.
The Bible says that those who trusted God in Old Testament times go to heaven. Although most of the promises they were given were physical, they also had a heavenly hope. They realised that this earth was not their final home: “admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth” (Heb. 11:13NIV). Instead they were looking towards heaven: “they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16a). We are told that God “has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:16b). In particular, Abraham “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).
These people are commended in Hebrews as those who lived by faith. The Bible says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). The Jews were told, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). This faith was based on a revelation from God.
“Enoch walked faithfully with God” (Gen. 5:22, 24). So did Noah (Gen. 6:9). This means they obeyed God. “Noah did everything just as God commanded him” (Gen. 6:22). “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). Job repented after God revealed His power through nature (Job 38-41; 42:6).
So those who trusted in God’s revelation to them before the formation of the Israelite nation go to heaven. In their case, God usually spoke directly to them.
God spoke to the Israelites “at many times and in various ways” (Heb. 1:1). It is stated that Moses accepted “disgrace for the sake of Christ” (Heb. 11:26). But as Moses lived about 1,450 years before Christ, this seems to be a figure of speech. It means that Moses choose to be loyal to God and to associate with his fellow Israelites. The reason given is that “he was looking ahead to his reward”. As Hebrews was probably written about 65AD, the writer knew that the Messiah was the one through whom God guaranteed their promised future.
So the Israelites who trusted in God’s revelation to them in Old Testament times go to heaven. In their case, the revelation was usually miracles and the law given through Moses.
We know God revealed Himself to the Israelites as they were His people during this period of time. But what about the Gentiles? The Israelites were told to follow the laws that God gave them through Moses so that other nations would come to know God: “Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ 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?” (Dt. 4:6-8).
Rahab is a Gentile who trusted God (Heb. 11:31). She told the Israelite spies, “I know that the Lord has given you this land … for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Josh. 2:9-11). Because of what she had heard of the Exodus and the defeat of the Amorites, she realised that the God of the Israelites was greater than the Canaanite gods. So she rejected the Canaanite gods to follow the God of the Israelites.
Also Ruth the Moabite told her Israelite mother-in-law, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Likewise, she rejected the gods of the Moabites to follow the God of the Israelites. God’s interest in the Gentiles is shown in the book of Jonah where Jonah was sent to Nineveh with a message of God’s judgment and the people repented of their sin (Jon. 3:1-10).
So the Gentiles who trusted in God’s revelation to them in Old Testament times go to heaven. God revealed Himself to them through the Israelites when they heard about their law and the miraculous preservation of their nation.
All the above are examples of people who go to heaven without hearing about Jesus. But the Bible says the following about Jesus, “There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12NLT). And Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). This means that the only way to get into heaven is through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Before Christ’s death people were saved according to their acceptance of God’s revelation to them. It was based on the future work of Christ. So those who trusted in God’s revelation in Old Testament times go to heaven because their faith in God was equivalent to faith in Jesus Christ. They were saved on credit. “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of His blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Rom. 3:25). In this way God overlooked the sins of those who trusted in Him before Christ’s death and resurrection.
In Romans, God reveals that we are all sinners (Rom. 3:23) and we can only get to heaven through trusting in Christ’s sacrifice for us (Rom. 3:22-26). But it also says that people are judged according to God’s revelation to them: “All who sin apart from the law (Gentiles) will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law (Jews) will be judged by the law” (Rom 2:12). The two main ways that God reveals himself to people who haven’t heard about Jesus are creation and conscience.
Firstly, the physical world demands a Creator. Its design requires a Designer. The laws of nature require a Lawmaker. By looking at our universe, anyone can know that there is a creator God. “The truth about God is known instinctively. God has put this knowledge in their hearts. From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see His invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God” (Rom. 1:19-20NLT). Enough of God is revealed in His creation that there is no excuse for not believing in Him. Those who reject this revelation follow idols and practice sinful behavior and suffer God’s judgment (Rom. 1:18-32).
Nature is a testimony of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Ps. 19:1-4). Also, Paul said “We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, He let all nations go their own way. Yet He has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; He provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:15-17).
So if people haven’t heard about Jesus, they can be judged according to their response to the revelation of God in creation. If they turn from idolatry and seek the true God, then God may give them additional revelation. For example, Cornelius was a Gentile who sought God. So God sent Peter to tell him about Jesus and salvation (Acts 11:14). God can appear to people in many ways throughout their lives. He can send people to inform them (Rom. 10:14-15). Because God doesn’t want anyone to perish in hell and wants everyone to repent of their sin, we must trust that He has made a way for those people (2 Pt. 3:9).
Secondly, everyone is born with a conscience. We all have an instinctive knowledge of right and wrong. For example, most people know it is wrong to lie, steal, and commit adultery and murder. The Bible gives God’s standards for humanity. But for those who are ignorant of this it says: “They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (Rom. 2:15NLT). Anyone who has not heard about what the Bible says will be judged according to their conscience. God will say, “What did you think was right and wrong?” The next question is, “Did you always do the right and not the wrong?” By that standard, of course, everyone fails. The conscience proves that we are sinners like the law does for the Jew.
The issue is their response to a guilty conscience. If they were sorry for their behavior and would repent then they would probably go to heaven. This reasoning is based on the fact that God is just and wants all to be saved. He has made a way for all, but few accept it.
Like those who lived before Christ, the issue is whether they responded to God’s revelation to them. So through the creation and our conscience, God gives everyone the opportunity to turn to Him and be saved from the penalty of their sinfulness and go to heaven.
Lessons for us
Like the Israelites, a Christian’s behavior can influence an unbeliever to repent and follow God and go to heaven. “Live such good lives among the pagans (your unbelieving neighbors, NLT) that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pt. 2:12).
Although people can to be saved without hearing about Jesus, it isn’t likely to occur in very many instances. The usual way to go to heaven is to respond to hearing about Jesus. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:14). That’s why it’s important to tell people about Jesus as much as possible and support others in this work.
Based on a message given at my mother’s funeral on 3 April 2013
A funeral usually involves memories and reflections of the life of the person who has died. But the funeral of a Christian can also look ahead in anticipation of what lies ahead.
Help from God the Creator
The source of a Christian’s help and protection throughout life is described in Psalm 121NIV.
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—He who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm— He will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
When this song was written about 3,000 years ago, God’s people knew that the only reliable help and protection comes from the God who made the universe – “the Maker of heaven and earth”. In this context the Hebrew word for “heaven” means the atmosphere and the stars and galaxies. A God with the intelligence and power to create the universe and populate it with living plants, animals and people was surely able to help them! The Bible says He was the source of life on earth whereas all other gods and philosophies are the product of the human imagination.
Unfortunately in our modern world we have largely lost this knowledge and this confidence. We have forgotten about God the Creator. Even though we have wonderful technology, science can’t explain how matter was created from nothing or how life originated, and we often replace God the Creator with the idea that things created themselves.
So when we struggle in life where does our help come from? Some people go to counsellors for help who encourage them to get help from outside themselves. Because people usually can’t solve their own problems, they need to get help from someone else. In a similar way, we all need “outside help” to sustain us and God the Creator is the ultimate outside help!
Psalm 121 ends with, “The Lord will watch your coming and going both now and forevermore”. Here those who trusted God the Creator were promised that God would protect them throughout life and into the future. They could live with assurance and confidence that God would continue to help them. Likewise Christians can have the assurance that God will sustain them during their life and afterwards.
A different world
You may ask if God created everything in the beginning, why is there so much suffering in the world? The world today is very different from the one God made originally. We live in a different world. In the beginning it was a perfect world with harmony between God, people and the natural environment. But when people turned against their Maker, it changed and sin, evil, suffering and death came into the world. This change was caused by people like us. We live in a world with consequences – an act has a consequence and an effect has a cause. Because people turned against God our relationships have been ruined. We ignore God and are separated from Him, we can’t get along with other people, and we exploit the natural environment. Another consequence is that the Bible says we are destined to eternal punishment. Because we are the cause of this problem, we need outside help. Because each of us is guilty, we can’t help each other. The only reliable help available outside humanity is God the Creator.
Help from God the Lifesaver
Fortunately, God didn’t only create the universe and the laws of nature in the beginning, but He also continues to sustain it. He is not only incredibly powerful, but He is also incredibly loving. We remember His special act of love at Christmas and Easter when we celebrate the unique birth and death of Jesus Christ. God knew that mankind was doomed to eternal punishment unless He provided them with outside help. He did this about 2,000 years ago when Jesus Christ lived on earth and died and came alive again. Jesus was unique; He was God living as a human being. He showed His power over our world by the miracles He did. When He died by crucifixion, He took the eternal punishment that we deserve. If we turn towards God by being sorry for our behaviour and accepting the fact that Jesus has taken the penalty for our sin, then He promises eternal joy instead of eternal punishment. This is called eternal life. So Jesus is like a lifesaver – He can rescue us from the eternal consequence of our selfish behaviour. In this way God is making a new creation and He gives us the choice of being a part of it. Although we spoilt God’s original creation, and there is now sin, evil, pain, suffering and death, these will be absent in God’s new creation. Instead we can be reconciled with God, we can love one another and we can look forward to the restoration of creation like it was in the beginning.
Because a Christian has accepted Jesus as their Savior they can have an inner assurance, joy and peace.
What happens when a person dies? Not only do the lungs stop breathing and the heart stops pumping. The Bible says that at death a person’s invisible soul and spirit is separated from their body. If they trusted in Jesus the Savior, their soul and spirit goes immediately to be with God in heaven. After death they are enjoying a perfect place. That is why Paul could say, “To die is gain” (Phil. 1:21) and that he preferred to be “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). So they are in a better place. Their death is a loss for us, but a gain for them.
But there is more! On Easter Sunday we recall that the body of Jesus was raised back to life after being buried in a grave. The Bible describes a coming day when the bodies of believers, who trusted in Christ the Savior will also be raised back to life:
“What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever. But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:50-57NLT).
This is also described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18. As part of God’s new creation they will have new bodies which won’t wear out and die (1 Cor. 15:42-49; Phil. 3:21; 1 Jn. 3:2) and they will be transported to be with God in heaven – spirit, soul and new body. This will be a great victory over the sin, suffering and death of our world. That’s why Christians can look forward confidently to the coming resurrection. There’s victory ahead!
The hymn, “How great Thou art”, summarises the greatness of God and the reasons for our Christian faith.
The first verse is about God the great Creator and source of life on earth. It says “Your power throughout the universe displayed”. Do we see God’s power in His creation?
The third verse is about Jesus Christ the great Lifesaver and source of eternal life. It says “On the cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin”. When we stand before God, will He be like a lifesaver or like a judge? If we turn towards God by confessing our sins we can be ready to meet Him.
The last verse is about the great resurrection when the bodies of those who have trusted in Christ will be raised and changed to be with Him forever. It says “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home – what joy shall fill my heart”. Are you ready to experience this joy?
Written, April 2013
Infant death is agonizing and raises many questions. The Bible teaches that we are sinful from childhood: “Every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Gen. 8:21), “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child” (Prov. 22:15) and “from our youth till this day we have not obeyed the Lord our God” (Jer. 3:25). We are all sinners (Rom. 3:10, 23). So children are never innocent in the sense of being sinless. This is serious because spiritual death is a bigger issue than physical death. It leads to eternal separation from God, which is the opposite of eternal life (Jn. 3:16; Rom 6:23).
Three Bible verses teach that infants are not accountable for their sin. Firstly, when the Israelites rebelled and refused to enter Canaan, they were punished with all their army except Joshua and Caleb dying while they wandered 38 years in the desert. At this time God promised that their young children would enter Canaan, “And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad—they will enter the land. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it” (Dt. 1:39, Num. 14:31). Because they did not yet know good from bad, they were not responsible or accountable for the Israelites’ disobedience.
Secondly, when the king of Judah was being attacked by the kings of Syria and Israel, he was given a sign that his enemies would be defeated by Assyria. Isaiah was to have a son and before he “knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right” the land of the two kings will be laid waste (Isa. 7:14-16). Children who are not accountable do not know the difference between right and wrong or good and evil. They are not yet aware of their sinful condition or God’s cure.
Thirdly, when God rebuked Jonah, He similarly distinguished between young children and adults,“And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jon. 4:11).
God judges people who haven’t heard the gospel message according to their response to the revelation of His eternal power and divine nature in the universe He created (Rom. 1:19-21). If they can discern what God has made, they have no excuse. However, if they are unable to discern what God has made (which is true for infants), then they have an excuse and will be saved instead of judged.
At what age can a child respond to God’s revelation in creation (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15-16)? It is the age at which they can understand the issue and respond to the work of the Holy Spirit in their life (Jn. 16:8-9). It is when they can recognize His works of creation and choose to accept, honor and thank Him (Rom. 1:21). Those who die at a younger age go to heaven rather than be condemned to spiritual death.
Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for … the sins of the whole world’ (1 Jn. 2:2). As a loving and merciful God, it is reasonable to assume that He accepts Christ’s payment for the sin of those who are unable to understand God’s revelation and their sinful state such as babies and young children. After all, Abraham said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). But once children reach the age of God-consciousness, they are accountable for their sin.
We will now look at some other Scriptures that are sometimes used to answer this question.
Age of accountability
As all the Israelites over the age of 20 died in the desert before they reached Canaan, except for Joshua and Caleb, some think this is the age of accountability for one’s sins (Num. 14:29). However, this was the age above which men served in the army (Num. 1:3; 26:2; Josh. 5:4, 6). They were punished, not because 20 was the age of accountability, but because instead of serving the Lord by taking possession of Canaan, they grumbled against the Lord.
When Bathsheba’s baby died, David stopped fasting and said “Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23). Some believe that David believed that when he died he would go to heaven where his son would be. However, it is more likely that David was referring to death or the grave, not to heaven. There is little in the Old Testament about life after death. Job may have believed in a future resurrection (Job. 14:13-15) and the psalmists allude to an after-life (Ps. 16:10-11; 17:15; 49:14-15). The clearest passage is Daniel 12:2-3.
Some believe that when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”, He was saying that the little children belong to the kingdom of heaven and so would go to heaven if they died (Mt. 19:14; Mk. 10:14; Lk. 18:16). However, the verse seems to be explained in the following verse as “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mk. 10:15; Lk. 18:17). In the case of Matthew this thought is given in Mt. 18:3. The emphasis is that child-like faith is required to enter the kingdom of God, not that young children belong to the kingdom of heaven.
So infants go to heaven when they die, but what about us? We can join them in future by realizing our sinfulness and believing that Jesus Christ has taken the penalty for our sin (Acts 16:31).
Written, November 2012
The idea of seven heavens is found in Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. In Islam and Judaism, the divine throne is said to be in or above the seventh heaven. In Hinduism, the god Brahma lives in the seventh heaven. However, none of these ideas are mentioned in the Bible.
It is thought that the myth of seven heavens came from ancient astrologists who could identify seven great heavenly objects (the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) and assumed that each was moving in a separate heaven, in a series of layers above the earth. These were the only objects that people could see in the sky that moved with respect to the fixed stars. They gave us the names of the week: Sunday after the sun, Monday after the moon, and Tuesday to Friday after the Norse versions of Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and Venus, and Saturday after Saturn.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word “samayim” (Strongs #8064) is translated as “heaven” or “heavens” and has the following meanings according to the context in which the word is used:
- The earth’s atmosphere: “the rain had stopped falling from the sky” (Gen. 8:2NIV).
- The realm of the stars: “the stars in the sky” (Gen. 22:17).
- The dwelling place of God and the angels: “Hear from heaven, your [God’s] dwelling place” (2 Chron. 6:21).
Another expression representing the dwelling place of God is “the highest heaven” (literally the heaven of heavens): “To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it” (Dt. 10:14). This expression doesn’t represent multiple heavens, but the uniqueness of God’s home compared to the atmosphere and the stars.
In the New Testament, the Greek word “ouranos” (Strongs #3772) is translated as “heaven” or “heavens” and has the following meanings according to the context in which the word is used:
- The earth’s atmosphere: “the birds of the air” (Mt. 6:26).
- The realm of the stars: “the stars in the sky” (Heb. 11:12).
- The dwelling place of God and the angels: “Father in heaven” (Mt. 6:9; 12:50).
- God: “I have sinned against heaven [referring to God, by metonymy] and against you” (Lk. 15:18).
Christ’s incarnation and ascension is described as: “He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens” (Eph. 4:10). This expression doesn’t represent multiple heavens, but the uniqueness of God’s home compared to the atmosphere and the stars.
Paul said that he was “caught up to the third heaven”, which was “paradise” (2 Cor. 12:2-4). If God’s dwelling place is the third heaven, then the other two heavens are the earth’s atmosphere and the universe beyond the earth.
So, the Bible refers to three different heavens, not seven heavens. These are three usages of the word “heaven”, not a series of layers above the earth. God dwells in the “highest heaven”, which is unique (Lk. 2:14). It is not necessarily physically uppermost or furthest from the earth, but it is superior and supreme. That is why Jesus is “exalted above the heavens”; He is greater than anything in the atmosphere and the rest of the universe (Heb. 7:26). Today, we mainly use the word “heaven” for God’s dwelling place.
Written, April 2012