Who Goes To Heaven?

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. (JOH 3:13)

The two most difficult books to understand in the New Testament are the book of Revelation and the Gospel of John, both written by the Lord through the same prophet.  They are difficult in the sense that they are written in very philosophical terms, and are apparently intended for a learned audience.

When the Lord called John to be one of the disciples, he was a simple fisherman, working on the sea of Galilee with his brother and father.[1]  The Lord passed by and invited him and his brother James to become “fishers of men” instead.  One can only imagine the kind of communication that must has passed between the Lord and these two men that in a single instant they abandoned their father, their home, and their livelihood to walk off into the unknown with this stranger – but they did.

For about three years, John and the other disciples followed the Lord throughout the land of Israel.  They saw His miracles, they learned to heal the sick and cast out demons, and they learned to preach the doctrine of repentance from sin, and they eventually came to believe that He was the promised Messiah, come to lead them to throw off the yoke of Rome and reestablish the royal house of David.  Then came the disaster in Jerusalem where within one week of being welcomed as the Messiah, Jesus had been captured and crucified without putting up any defense.  The resurrected Lord appeared to them, spoke with them, gave them their new mission, and yet they were filled with confusion.  Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, James, John, and two others, believing that the great quest was over, and being practical men, went back to the only other work they had known – fishing.[2]

While they fished, they saw the Lord standing on the shore, and they immediately came in to speak with Him. Finally, as He taught them there, they began to understand the real nature of the work they had been called to do and they abandoned fishing once and for all to begin the work of building the Christian Church.  John, more than the others, was inspired by his time with the Teacher, and once he began to see the true implications of the things Jesus had taught, from being a simple fisherman, he became a scholar, learning all he could from the best minds he found as he traveled throughout the ancient world.  By the time he wrote his gospel, and the book of Revelation, he was a very learned philosopher.

Each of the four accounts of the Lord’s life are written from a different point of view, and apparently intended for a different audience.  Matthew was a Jew, and wrote his account of the Lord’s life primarily for his own people, which explains why he so often refers back to the Old Testament to show how Jesus fulfilled all the Messianic prophecies. 

Luke was a Greek, and he wrote for his own people, and since the Greeks did not know the Old Testament, there are very few references to Old Testament events or prophecies.  He also knew Mary personally, so much of his gospel reflects her point of view. 

Mark was a simple man, and he wrote for the simple, good people of all backgrounds.  Brief, to the point, Mark lets the Lord’s own words and actions speak for themselves. 

But John’s love of philosophy, well developed by the time he began writing his gospel, is apparent.  No Wise Men or shepherds for John. He describes the Lord’s birth by saying, The Word became flesh;[3] he describes the Lord’s reception in the Jewish Church by saying, He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.[4]

It is not our intention to say that John’s writing is unnecessarily complex or difficult to understand.  It is our intention to note that many of the things said in John are not as straightforward and clear as the statements in Mark, for example, and as a result require careful study and thought to see their full implications.  The whole of the Word is like a man, clothed.  Some parts, like the face and hands, are fully exposed, while other parts are hidden from view by one, or in some cases many layers of clothing.  Many things in the sense of the letter are “naked” truths, as for example the Ten Commandments, which mean exactly what they say, and can be understood by anyone.  Who can misunderstand, Thou shalt not steal?[5]  Such truths are to form the basic doctrine of the church, to establish the foundation on which everyone can base their faith.

But some of the truths of the Word are heavily clothed because they need to be protected.  They contain difficult ideas within them, ideas not suited to the very simple minds of those from whom the early Christian Church was formed, ideas that had to be given then, but for which understanding would not come until much later:  I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth.[6]

When the Lord came to earth as the Messiah, He wanted to reveal new truth to the Jewish Church, to give them one last chance to turn away from their love of worldly things and become the “chosen” people they claimed to be, “chosen” in the sense that all people who follow the Lord’s commandments are His “chosen” people.  But through their own choice, they were an incredibly external people.  They were so concerned about property and possessions and personal power that in the two thousand years between the call of Abraham and the coming of the Messiah, that church never developed a coherent doctrine of the spiritual world.  At the time of the Lord’s coming, some Jews believed in reincarnation; the Pharisees, known to us as one of the most powerful groups within the Jewish Church taught their followers that there was a life after death; while the other powerful Jewish group, the Sadducees, taught that there was no life after death at all. 

There was no clear “Jewish” teaching on the subject, so the Lord had to start at the very beginning with them.  He taught them in parables that the kingdom of heaven was like a vineyard, or a precious pearl, or a wedding feast, or a number of similar things.  These simple parables about heaven are all in Matthew, the gospel that was directed towards the Jews.

But John had moved far beyond such things in his studies.  Inspired by his experience with Jesus, he went far beyond the simple teachings of the Jewish Church, and tried to find the right words to express the beautiful ideas that had been planted in his mind by Jesus himself, had grown under the influence of other scholars, and were now coming to fruit through Divine inspiration. 

So, the question is, what did John mean when he wrote about the Lord that No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven?[7]  It appears on the surface to support the traditional Christian teaching that Heaven is for God and the Angels, hell for fallen angels, and that the only paradise that people like us can expect will be on earth after the Messiah returns.  It seems to say that no one has ever gone to heaven (and one must presume that no one ever will) except the Son of Man who descended from heaven.  This is confusing because there are so many other passages where the Lord describes heaven and instructs us how to prepare ourselves for our eternal homes with Him in heaven.  How are we then to understand this passage in the light of all the other teachings in the Word?

The key idea that unlocks the meaning of this teaching is the reference to the “Son of Man.” Throughout the Word of the New Testament, the Lord sometimes refers to Himself as the “Son of Man,” as in our text, or as “Son of God.” These two names reflect essential duality in God. The “Son of Man” has to do with the Lord’s Divine Wisdom, or Truth, while the “Son of God” has to do with His Divine Love or will.

Even a brief study of the New Testament will show that He refers to Himself as the “Son of Man” when He is being tempted, while He refers to Himself as the “Son of God” when He is teaching or doing miracles of healing, but He never refers to Himself as the “Son of God” when He is being tempted.  The reason for this is that God’s inmost, or supreme love is to bring every human being into heaven.  It is for this purpose and this purpose only that He created the universe in the first place.  This Divine Love for the salvation of the human race could never be tempted.

On the other hand, when God took on the human form from Mary, He took on with it certain limitations that had to be fought and put off in the process of glorification.  One of these limitations was that although His Divine Love of saving the human race could never be questioned or tempted, He could have doubts and temptations as to the means He should employ to accomplish that goal.  Should He travel to this town or that?  Should He heal the sick, or cast out demons?  Should He argue with Pilate and Herod?  Should He come down off the cross?  The Lord had to constantly struggle with decisions as to how He was to accomplish the unwavering goals set for Himself by His own Loves.  From this understanding of the Divine nature, we can see that this passage is primarily intended to tell us something about the Divine Truth, and how it will affect our spiritual lives.

John said, No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.[8]  The “Son of Man who is in heaven” is the symbol chosen by John to represent the concept of Divine Truth from the Lord, so we could restate our text in this way:  Nothing can go to heaven except the Divine Truth which comes from heaven.  But this doesn’t really help us much, because our real concern has to do with people going to heaven, especially ourselves.  Let us then rephrase the passage again, to this:  No one can lift himself into heaven, but the Divine Truth can lift him up.  This is how the Doctrines of the New Church explain this passage.  They say, “the Son of man” denotes the Divine truth in the heavens; for this comes down, and therefore ascends, because no one can ascend into heaven unless Divine truth comes down into him from heaven, because the influx is Divine, and not the other way about.[9]

John said, For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.[10]  The Divine Love so desired that all people could have the chance to know how they should live to prepare themselves for heaven that He clothed Himself in that Light,[11] or truth, and showed Himself in the world in the human form.  The “Son of Man” descended from heaven so that He might lift each of us up into heaven.  It was necessary that He do this because we cannot lift ourselves into heaven. 

We do not have the knowledge or the strength to save ourselves.  Only God’s power can free us from the bonds of hell and give us eternal life.  He gave us the Word of the Old Testament, and then came in the human form to open it up, explain it, and show the meanings that had been hidden within.  And when we live according to those teachings, when we live in charity as God commanded, we become more heavenly.  The truth that descends from God out of heaven that we make our own, is the same truth that heals our lives and lifts us up into eternal, spiritual life. 

John tells us that the Lord taught, If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?  No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.  And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.[12]  AMEN.

 

First Lesson:  NUM 21:4-9

Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. {5} And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?  For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.” {6} So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died. {7} Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD that He take away the serpents from us.”  So Moses prayed for the people. {8} Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” {9} So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.  Amen.

Second Lesson:  John 3:1-21

There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. {2} This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” {3} Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” {4} Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” {5} Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. {6} “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. {7} “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ {8} “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes.  So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” {9

 



[1]MAT 4:21, MAR 1:19, LUK 5:10

[2]See JOH 21:1-14

[3]JOH 1:14

[4]JOH 1:11

[5]EXO 20:15

[6]JOH 16:12-13

[7]JOH 3:13

[8]text

[9]AC 9807:9

[10]JOH 3:16

[11]see JOH 1:1-14

[12]JOH 3:12-16