Acts and the Question of Heaven
Updated: Apr 23, 2022
What if heaven is as much about what happens on earth as it is about where you go when you die?
Many of us think of heaven as a distant place far removed from this world. It’s seen as a destination of sorts for the faithful dead. It’s often considered faraway and remote. And it’s not clear to what extent those in heaven may or can engage with us – or we with them. While it’s certainly attested in scripture that the faithful dead go to be with God, the Bible offers a much more robust vision of heaven than we often get. Take the book of Acts, for example, where heaven functions as mission control for the advance of the God’s Kingdom on earth. Here’s what I mean.
A Fresh Metaphor
“Mission Control” is my new favorite metaphor for heaven, because that’s exactly the picture we find in the book of Acts. At the beginning of Acts, the resurrected Jesus ascends to heaven, where he is enthroned at the right hand of God the Father. From that point on, through the rest of the book, Jesus is not distant, remote, or detached. Just the opposite. He’s providentially engaged in overseeing and advancing the mission of the Church. To draw on another theologian: the one who reigns in heaven rules over earth.
That’s why mission control is such a helpful image. Think about any mission to space. You’ve got the crew in a shuttle going on the mission. But you’ve also got critical people on the ground overseeing the mission. Without mission control, no one goes to outer space. The people on earth lead those missions into the heavens.
Acts offers a reversal of that picture. Jesus is enthroned in the heavens, and his posture is one of authority and governance over the Kingdom of God which is manifest on earth in the ministry of the Apostles and the growth of the Church. Let’s consider a few texts in which this comes to the surface.
The ascension of Jesus is crucial to way we understand heaven. Notably, after Jesus ascends, the disciples are chastised by two angels for looking up toward heaven (1:11). Jesus has gone into heaven, but not so they can gaze into heaven and long for the day they will join him. Rather, Jesus has gone into heaven because it is from heaven that the ascended Lord will give the apostles power to be his witnesses (1:8). Most importantly, this is the answer to their question about the timing of the kingdom and its restoration. When will the kingdom be restored? It starts when Jesus goes to heaven (i.e., mission control) and from there sends the Spirit to empower the Church to fruitfully engage in the mission to bear witness to the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. The power to do the mission comes from Jesus in heaven because heaven is the control room for the mission on earth.
We get a clear picture of how Jesus is closely engaged in the mission of the Church in Acts 9:32-35. Peter has gone to Lydda where he finds a bedridden man named Aeneas. Upon his arrival, Peter says, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you,” (9:34). How is Jesus portrayed? Distant? Remote? Away in heaven somewhere? No, certainly not. To the contrary, Jesus is portrayed as deeply engaged in the mission of his Church. Jesus is portrayed as the primary agent in the advance of the Kingdom. Jesus is portrayed as working through his Church to accomplish his purposes. Jesus is running this operation…from heaven. So, again, heaven is mission control for the Kingdom of God.
A little earlier in Acts 9, we read the famous account of Saul’s (aka Paul’s) conversion. When Jesus confronts Saul, he says, “Why do you persecute me?” (9:4). Not: why do you persecute my people? What’s the significance of this? Again, Jesus identifies with the Church. He is nearby. He shares in the suffering of his people. He is aware and engaged, not distant and remote. And he is at work preparing and positioning one of the key people who will take the name of Jesus to the nations (9:15). To strengthen the point, Jesus is also speaking to Ananias regarding his role in Paul’s healing and restoration. What picture do we get? Jesus is coordinating his people for the advance of his Kingdom. And where is doing this from? He’s doing it from heaven. Because heaven is mission control for the Kingdom of God on earth.
Let’s look at one last passage that sheds light on this image of heaven as mission control, though there are certainly others. In Acts 10, Jesus coordinates a meeting between Peter and Cornelius, which becomes the occasion for the first time the Holy Spirit is given to Gentiles. This coordinating initiative on the part of Jesus is highlighted in that Peter and Cornelius both receive independent visions from Jesus preparing them to meet. They are in different cities. Neither of them knows who the other is. But Jesus knows. And Jesus is at work. And this is a crucial moment as the mission extends beyond Judea and Samaria to include non-Jews in the newly expanding kingdom community. Again, let’s not forget where Jesus is as he does this work. He is coordinating this all-important step in the mission from heaven. Why? Because heaven is mission control for the Kingdom of God on earth.
Let’s Expand our Thinking
So, what do we do with this? I think we need to expand the way think about heaven. Yes, heaven is a place where believers wait in the presence of God for the coming resurrection of the body. I'm not disputing that. But that’s not all. Heaven is the place from which Jesus is executing his mission through the Church to advance the Kingdom of God on earth. And that means Jesus wants to work through you, because you are part of that mission.
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, Alabama, Director of Research at Wesley Biblical Seminary, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice, The Letters to the Thessalonians, and Bless the Nations: A Devotional for Short-Term Missions. Connect at theologyproject.online.
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