The overlap of heaven and earth
I taught the following lesson to the high school students of Grace Fellowship Church on Sunday, March 13, 2022.
Today, we continue a study we began last week of the relationship between heaven and earth. While we tend to think of these two realms as being distinct and completely separated from one another, we’ve already learned that that wasn’t always the case. In fact, it isn’t entirely true even now.
As a reminder, the goal of this study is to give us a more accurate view of heaven itself. As Christians, heaven is what we hope for. It’s where we long to be. Everything we do in the Christian life is moving us in that direction, but it’s difficult to move toward something we’re uncertain about. Imagine I’m holding a box with a hole in the top, and I tell you, “Stick your hand in it.” Would you want to stick your hand in it?
Probably not. Unless you’re the recklessly adventurous type, you’d probably want to know what’s in the box first. So, we’re studying the relationship between heaven and earth to better understand the nature of heaven itself. Ultimately, we want to discover what heaven will be like.
From creation to the promise
Briefly, I’ll review what we’ve talked about so far.
We began in Genesis 1, where God created the heavens and the earth (Ge 1:1). He created all of the natural world, but he began the process by forming two distinct parts of the natural world—the heavens and the earth. Most of us would rightly interpret that to mean he created the land and the sky, and that is true, but in the Hebrew mind, the sky was more than a mere part of the natural world. The sky was vast and untouchable. There were no airplanes. There were no apps to tell them what the weather would do. There were no skyscrapers. As far as those ancient people were concerned, the earth is man’s domain. This is where we dwell. The sky, or the heavens, is where God dwells. Up there and out there are God’s domain.
In other words, the ancient Hebrew mind didn’t make a distinction between heaven, the spiritual realm of God where we go when we die, and the heavens, that is, the sky above. In a very real sense, these two ideas about heaven were one and the same.
Then, we talked about God’s creation of the land. He didn’t build a temple for people to worship him in. He built a beautiful, massive garden, where Adam and Eve would join him in expanding his creation. He told them to work the garden (Ge 2:15). He told them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it (Ge 1:28). In other words, as his image-bearers, they would have a certain level of authority over the earth he created.
Most notably, though, God was with them in this endeavor. According to Genesis 3, the LORD God was walking in the garden in the cool of the day (Ge 3:8). He was not far from them in the skies. He was strolling through the garden right along with them, which tells us something significant about the original relationship between heaven and earth—God’s domain and man’s domain. It tells us they were the same. There was complete overlap between the two. It wasn’t earth here and heaven way up there. They were completely united right here on earth.
As we know, however, heaven and earth didn’t remain united. Adam and Eve were not content to be God’s image-bearers and participants in the expansion of creation. Instead, they decided they wanted to be like God (Ge 3:5). They no longer wanted to rely on God’s definition of good and evil. In their ignorance, they chose to define good and evil for themselves. God said eating the forbidden fruit was evil. Adam said it would be good to eat the fruit, and he ate it.
You, of course, know the rest of the story. God banishes Adam and Eve from the garden, creating a complete separation of heaven and earth.
Then, we came to Genesis 11—the story of the Tower of Babel. That’s when a large group of people decided they would build themselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens (Ge 11:4). What were they trying to do?
They were trying to reach the place of God. They knew the domain of God and the domain of man were now separate, so with their advanced technology of brick-making, they thought they could build their way into heaven. No, someone says, they were just trying to build a tall tower into the sky. Well, remember that the ancient Hebrew mind believed the sky was the place of God. To some degree, we still think that way. That’s why when we talk about heaven, we’re prone to point up. We may not be as awestruck by the heavens above as people once were, but we still have that sense that God is far above us.
Genesis 11 tells us the people were trying to make a name for themselves (Ge 11:4). Like Adam and Eve, they were trying to elevate their positions above God’s image-bearers. They wanted to reach the place of God himself, but God would not allow it. He confused their language, so they could no longer communicate with one another. He dispersed them over the face of the whole earth, just as he banished Adam and Eve from the garden, which is an important lesson throughout the entirety of Scripture. Sinners will never reach God on their own. We will never reach heaven on our own.
Lastly, we turned to Genesis 12 and looked at God’s calling of and promise to Abraham. The people in Genesis 11 wanted to make a name for themselves, but God wouldn’t allow it (Ge 11:4). Abraham is a nobody, who’s not making any effort to be a somebody, and God says to him, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great” (Ge 12:2). The operative word in that promise is I. God says, “I will make your name great.”
God continues his promise to Abraham, saying, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Ge 12:3). Here we see another parallel in the Bible’s story. Originally, God intended to use Adam and Eve to expand his creation, which at the time was both heaven and earth. Now that the great divide has occurred, and heaven and earth are no longer one, God has chosen Abraham to be the starting point of this blessing that will eventually spread across the land to all the families of the earth.
Today, we’ll talk more about what that blessing is.
A bridge between heaven and earth
Let’s now jump ahead in the timeline just two generations from Abraham and look at a rare event in the life of his grandson, Jacob. Go with me to Genesis 28.
Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first. (Genesis 28:10-19)
The first thing to notice here is that God reiterates the promise he made to Abraham. In verse 14, he says, “In you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Ge 28:14). In other words, this promise doesn’t fade with time. To the contrary, God inches the world closer and closer to its fulfillment, and this event, in particular, is a striking example of the unfolding of that promise.
Keep in mind, Jacob has not proven himself to be the most upstanding character. Up to this point in his story, he hasn’t accomplished much more than living up to his name, which means deceiver. By the time we reach Genesis 28 in the Bible, Jacob is best known for deceiving both his brother and his father. In short, this is not a man who’s seeking God. He’s not making any effort to reach heaven, yet God reaches down to him. God brings a part of heaven to earth.
As the story goes, Jacob falls asleep one night as he’s traveling, then he dreams one of those dreams that is undeniably significant. This is no ordinary dream, and he knows it as soon as he wakes up. In his dream, he sees a ladder, which is more likely a staircase or perhaps a ramp of some kind, extending down from heaven, creating a bridge between heaven and earth. He sees angels ascending and descending on it, proving a pathway between heaven and earth has been opened (Ge 28:12). In fact, he sees none other than God himself standing at the top of it.
You may remember that heaven and earth are utterly divided at this point in the timeline. Sin has caused a complete separation of the two. In the beginning, heaven and earth overlapped. They were one and the same. Then, Adam’s sin caused a division because sinful people don’t belong and don’t deserve to be in God’s realm. Yet, God is now revealing what his promise to Abraham really means. When he says he’ll bless all the families of the earth through Abraham and now Jacob, he is suggesting that heaven and earth can actually be one again. The separation doesn’t have to last forever. God is showing with this ladder that a connection between the two is possible.
Notice how Jacob defines this place. Look again at verse 19. Jacob “called the name of that place Bethel” (Ge 28:19). The name Bethel means house of God. In verse 17, he says, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Ge 28:17). In other words, he calls it Bethel because he recognizes this spot as a unique place where heaven and earth met after their separation. It’s a place where he stood in the presence of God. Though God should be in heaven and Jacob on earth—two distinct and separate realms—Jacob saw God.
Can you think of another place in Scripture referred to as the house of God?
The overlap of heaven and earth
Go with me to Exodus 29. Let’s continue to watch the relationship between heaven and earth evolve.
It shall be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations at the entrance of the tent of meeting before the LORD, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God. (Exodus 29:42-46)
I know we’re starting right in the middle of a paragraph, but I wanted to jump to the most relevant part.
In Exodus 29, we are reading about God’s plans for the tabernacle. As you may know, the tabernacle was designed to be a place of sacrifice and worship for the Israelites after leaving their slavery in Egypt. It’s the first of its kind. Until now, the people of Israel never had a designated place to worship.
By the way, when we talk about the Israelites, we’re talking about Abraham’s descendants. These are the people from whom that blessing God promised Abraham would come, and it was to them God gave the tabernacle.
From an outsider’s perspective, the tabernacle was nothing more than a large, elaborate tent the Israelites carried with them from place to place, but the Israelites knew better. They knew what is described here in Exodus 29. Look again at verse 42. God says, “There, in the tabernacle, I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory” (Ex 29:42). Then, in verse 45, he adds, “I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God” (Ex 29:45).
Do you see what’s happening here? No longer will the bridge between heaven and earth be a unique experience of one man. All of Israel will get to have the same experience through the tabernacle. God isn’t revealing himself for one night only. As long as Israel keeps the covenant he made with them, his presence will remain in that tabernacle. He will meet with the people (Ex 29:42). He will dwell among the people (Ex 29:45). Though the location is small and fixed, heaven is coming to earth.
This is what God is doing through the tabernacle. He’s offering a small overlap between heaven and earth. They’re not exactly reunited, but they’re not entirely separated either.
There’s just one problem with the overlap of heaven and earth, and that is sin. Sin caused a division in the first place because sin cannot exist in God’s realm. So, the question is, how can any kind of overlap exist?
If you have read all of the books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible, then you know God prescribed a lot of rules for the tabernacle. Every detail in its construction had to be just right. Many cleansing rituals had to be followed by both the priests and the people. Sacrifice after sacrifice after sacrifice had to be offered. In other words, the Israelites had to go to painstaking efforts to purify themselves, not to mention continue in obedience to God’s moral commands, or else this bridge between heaven and earth would be closed.
To be clear, none of these sacrifices or rituals could move anyone from earth into heaven, but by God’s design, these things were enough to keep that tiny overlap of heaven and earth in place.
The tabernacle, which later became a more permanent temple, was great news for God’s people. The promise to Abraham continues to unfold. Jacob’s ladder becomes a perpetual event in the life of Israel. It’s no longer one man’s dream. God’s presence and glory will remain with the people. Granted, his presence will be in only this one place and the people must keep a covenant of rules, sacrifices, and rituals, but it’s progress nonetheless. It’s an undoing of sin’s destruction. It’s a glimmer of hope for the future.
Where is God?
Before we go any further, let’s pause here to talk about God’s presence. I suspect some of you are thinking, Isn’t God everywhere? How could his presence be limited to the tabernacle?
Let’s turn now to 1 Kings 8. In this chapter, we read about the completion of Solomon’s temple. By this time, the people of Israel are in the land of Canaan. They’re no longer wandering the wilderness. They’ve established themselves as a legitimate nation. And Solomon has finally built a permanent structure in which the people can worship God and enjoy his presence. They’ve upgraded from the tabernacle to a temple.
Here’s what King Solomon says at the dedication of the temple:
But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built! (1 Kings 8:27)
Evidently, Solomon believes God is too big, too vast, and too great to be confined to the temple, yet he still acknowledges God’s promise to dwell on the earth through the temple (1Ki 8:27). On the one hand, God’s presence is in the temple. On the other hand, God is everywhere. How can these two things be true at the same time?
God is everywhere, but that’s to say he reveals himself everywhere. That’s not to say he makes his presence known everywhere, and this is something Solomon and the Israelites understand. When the Bible talks about God dwelling on earth in this one place, the temple, it isn’t denying that he is everywhere. And when the Bible talks about God being everywhere, it isn’t denying that he especially dwells in the temple.
Once again, you’ll notice the distinction here between heaven and earth, or sky and land. According to Solomon, what’s significant about God’s presence in the temple is that it signifies God is dwelling on earth, at least in this one concentrated location. It stuns Solomon to think of God living on earth. He says, “Will God indeed dwell on the earth?” (1Ki 8:27). He can hardly fathom it.
Why? “Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you,” Solomon says (1Ki 8:27). You may remember the Hebrew word for heaven and sky is the same word. You can imagine Solomon looking into the sky when he says this, thinking about how big and vast it is. Surely, he thinks, God must be up there because the land is too small and insignificant for him to be down here with us mortal sinners.
To be abundantly clear, though, the Israelites were not theologically naive. They didn’t believe God was literally limited to the sky. In fact, Solomon says as much here. “Behold, the highest heaven cannot contain you” (1Ki 8:27). What’s the highest heaven? Do multiple skies exist? Do multiple heavens exist? The simple point Solomon is making is that God is even bigger than the vast sky. He’s too big for the earth, and he’s too big for the sky.
In short, the Israelites understand that God is everywhere. They also understand that he makes his presence better known in specific places at specific times.
The Bible uses a lot of figurative language to help our finite brains comprehend what’s happening. How do you explain to someone where God is? Better yet, how do you convey the idea that God is so vast that he’s everywhere? In Hebrew thinking, you point to the sky. He’s up there. Why? Because when we look at the sky, we feel a sense of awe. It’s big. It’s out of reach. When we look at the sky at night, we see just how vast it is. It seems to go on forever.
When the Bible tells us that God dwelt on the earth in the temple, does that mean he shrunk down and squeezed himself in or that he’s no longer in the sky? No, of course not. This is all illustrative language to help us grasp what’s happening, and what’s happening in the tabernacle and temple is that God is slowly revealing his purpose to reunite heaven and earth.
New heavens and a new earth
Let’s skip ahead on the Bible timeline and go to Isaiah 65.
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD, and their descendants with them. Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the LORD. (Isaiah 65:17-25)
Once again, heaven and earth started as one. Sin caused an utter separation between the two. Then, God instructed the Israelites to build a tabernacle, which would become an overlap between heaven and earth. Eventually, Solomon built the temple to replace the tabernacle, and the temple became the overlap.
After Solomon’s death, the nation of Israel split into two kingdoms—Israel in the North, and Judah in the South. Sadly, both kingdoms broke the convent with God. Both because disobedient and idolatrous. Both were conquered and enslaved by foreign enemies. Even the temple is destroyed.
As we read about the fall of Israel and Judah, we may begin to wonder about the promise God gave to Abraham. Wasn’t God’s presence in the temple a sign of that promise? If so, how could God leave the temple and allow it to be destroyed by the Babylonians?
Prior to, during, and even after the fall of Israel and Judah, God sends several prophets to speak to the people. Isaiah was one of them. And what kind of message does he bring? He speaks a lot about the judgment to come, but he also speaks about the promise. Specifically, he talks about a day when God will create new heavens and a new earth (Isa 65:17).
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Ge 1:1). According to Isaiah, God intends to it all over again. He promises to recreate the heavens and the earth. He will give us new heavens and a new earth (Isa 65:17). Ultimately, he will restore what sin destroyed. He will restore that perfect unity between heaven and earth. That’s the plan. That’s the promise. Despite how dismal and hopeless things seem at this point in Israel’s history, God has not forgotten his promise, and he’s not abandoned his plan.
It is here that we are beginning to see where everything is leading. Despite the popular misconception, God’s people are not removed from this earth once and for all. I said before that when we think of heaven, we typically think of heaven as being completely separated from the earth. In turn, we think of our ultimate hope as leaving the earth. According to Isaiah and other prophets, however, that’s not where the story ends. Instead, heaven comes down, heaven and earth are reunited, and God’s people live forever on a new earth, not in a realm completely separated from earth.