PROGRESS IN HEAVEN Based on Rev. 7:13-17
By Pastor Glenn Pease
The story is told of an old farmer who frequently gave his testimony at prayer meetings, and it was always the same. He would say, "I am not making much progress, but I am established." One spring this farmer was hauling was logs when his wagon sank into the mud in a soft spot in the road. As he sat there reviewing the situation a neighbor came by and said, "I see everything is normal. You aren't making any progress, but you are established." Many people feel established when they are really only stuck. The fact is, progress is essential to the Christian life, for not to be moving ahead is to be slipping back.
Two Irishmen were walking from New York to Yonkers. After a long walk they inquired from a man how far it was to Yonkers. "Five miles," he replied. After walking again for a considerable time they asked another passer-by. He also said it was five miles. They pursued their journey and finally asked a 3rd man. "Its just five miles," he responded. One of the Irishmen said to the other, "Well, we're holding our own anyway." The fact is, they were losing ground, for all of their efforts was getting them no nearer to their destination. You are not holding your own if you are not moving forward.
Progress is linked to the idea of the abundant Christian life. Paul had not attained all that Christ saved him for, but he was ever pressing on to reach it. That is the motive of all who really understand that life and growth go together. Longfellow in A Psalm Of Life wrote,
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act that each tomorrow
Finds us further than today.
It is universally recognized that progress is essential in this life, but this unity does not continue when we look at eternal life. Christians generally have not thought very deeply about life in heaven, and the result is they tended to jump to the conclusion that progress ends in heaven. This is based on the assumption that once we are made perfect, and once we become like Christ, there is no further room for progress. I Cor. 13:12 is the text usually used to confirm this conviction. It says, "Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood."
This text has led Christians to stop thinking about heaven and all of its infinite potential. They assume that they will be at once all they will ever be, and so they lose the motivation to gaze into eternity with enthusiasm, like those who are convinced that progress will be a part of all eternity. My purpose in this message will be to expose you to the great Christian minds who see perpetual possibilities even after we become like Jesus.
The foundational theological principle for this view is very simple. The finite can never become equal with the infinite. In other words, just because we become like Jesus does not mean we become equal to Him, and just because we gain an understanding of all God's plan and purpose in history does not mean we know all that God knows, or that we understand all of the mysteries and purposes of God for other worlds throughout eternity. Those who assume that we will cease to make progress have too small a view of God, and too limited a view of His infinite wisdom.
Charles Spurgeon was one who had a vast view of eternity and of God, and thus of progress. He wrote, "As eternity goes on, I have no doubt that the Savior will be indicating fresh delight to His redeemed. "Come hither," saith he to his flock, "Here are yet more flowing streams." He will lead them on and on, by the century, aye, by the chiliad, from glory unto glory, onward and upward in growing knowledge and enjoyment. Continually will he conduct his flock to deeper mysteries and higher glories. Never will the inexhaustible God who has given Himself to be the portion of His people ever be fully known, so that there will eternally be sources of freshness and new delight, and the Shepherd will continue to lead His flock to these living fountains of water. He will guide them-
From glory unto glory, that ever lied before,
Still widening, adoring, rejoicing more and more,
Still following where He leadeth from shining field to field,
Himself our goal of glory, Revealer and Revealed!
If Spurgeon was alone in this conviction, we could say he was just an eccentric dreamer, but the fact is, most everyone of the great Christian minds that have delved deeply into the study of God's eternal plan feel the same as Spurgeon. Jonathan Edwards, one of the greatest minds America every produced, and one of the world's most brilliant preachers and theologians, felt that God's infinite creativity will call for periodic changes in the glory of the eternal kingdom. Just as women change their furniture around and get new things, so God will provide infinite variety throughout eternity.
Jonathan Edwards is most famous for his history changing sermon Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God. Few people know that he was a great student of heaven. He argued much for Christians to recognize that there will be eternal progress. He wrote, "That the gloried spirits shall grow in holiness and happiness in eternity, I argue from this foundation, that their number of ideas shall increase to eternity." He goes on to explain what he means by pointing out that after a million years in eternity we will not have the same number of limited ideas that we had the day we entered heaven. Heaven will not be so dull and uneventful that there is nothing to remember.
Even if there were only one new thing every million years, that would be progress, but this is folly, for we know God will have infinite variety for us. There will be endless new relationships with the saints from all parts of the world and all times in history, and this will mean endless progress. The only way to escape it would be to make heaven like hell where each is kept in solitary confinement, and unable to form any new relationship, or convey any new knowledge. The Bible tells us, however, that even in hell there is progress, for the rich man who died came to learn by his tragic end the folly of neglecting God's Word. He requested that his brothers be warned less they too be fools as he was. That was an enormous step of progress.
How could anyone think that the saints in heaven will never gain any new insights? Edwards says that they will go on forever growing in their knowledge of God and His works, and the more they do, the more they will love Him, and the greater will be their delight in heaven. Eternal life meant eternal growth, and not eternal stagnation. If the plant kingdom is so redeemed that the tree of life will bring forth 12 kinds of fruit with a new one each month, as we read in Rev. 22:2, it is inconceivable that man will be locked into a state where growth is not possible. The objection is that perfection does not need growth and new experiences, but this is not so, for God is perfect and yet does experience what is new.
Did the world always exist, or was it a new idea when God said let there be light, and He began the creation? Jesus did not always exist as a man, and so the incarnation was a new experience for Him. The angels in heaven rejoice when a sinner repents because a new name is written down in glory, and a new relationship develops between God and that man. It is new for God as well as man. God is continually having new experiences, and so He has what can be called growth even in perfection.
The new heaven and new earth already exist in God's mind, but it will be a new experience for God, as well as man, when it will become actual and we will relate to Him in a new way in that new world. There is no escaping it, for even a perfect God does experience what is new. He does not make progress in the sense of going from less perfect to more perfect, but He progresses in the experiencing of His infinite wisdom as it is expressed in new and creative ways. He is a Person and a not a computer. He is free to do what He has never done before, and can anyone believe He will let eternity go by with never a new idea to add to the joys and pleasures of the redeemed?
The nature of God demands that we believe in eternal progress. Jesus is making progress now as He reigns at the right hand of the Father until all enemies are put under His feet. He is moving forward to the day of final victory over all evil. Are we to suppose that when that battle is won and He reigns supreme with evil no longer a menace that He will no longer have anything for us to do but to rest in peace forever on a sort of endless vacation? Wars are won to eliminate that which hinders progress so that we can get on with what really matters. It is hard to imagine that the whole battle with evil in human history will be won so that people of God can stop their pressing on to new heights in their relationship to God. It seems more reasonable to believe that with evil out of the way man can then really begin to grow.
It is nothing short of presumption to assume that the day you enter heaven you will be as advanced in your wisdom, knowledge, and relationship to God as Abraham who has had a 4000 year head start on you, or the Apostle Paul with a 2000 year head start. It is even more presumption to assume that you will know God on your first day in heaven as well as you will a year later, or a million years later. Instead of exalting God to the level of the infinite you lower God to the level of your finite capacity when you think there is no room for progress in heaven.
John Bunyan in his vision of heaven has Elijah explaining to him, "But as to that which you object, that happiness cannot be complete, and yet admit of new additions, I must tell you that when the soul and body both are happy, as mine now are, I count it a complete state of happiness, for through all the innumerable ages of eternity, it is the soul and body joined together in the blessed resurrection state that shall be the continued subject of this happiness. But in respect of the blessed object of it, which is the ever-adorable and blessed God, in whose blissful vision this happiness consists, it is for ever new for the divine perfections being infinite, nothing less than eternity can be sufficient to display their glory, which makes our happiness eternally admit of new additions, and by a necessary consequence our knowledge of it shall be eternally progressive too."
The knowledge of eternal progress can be so encouraging to the those who feel this life has not been all they wish. Ian Maclaren wrote, "Heaven is not a Trappist monastery, never is it retirement on a pension. No, it is a land of continual progress. One translation of the words of Jesus, "In my Father's house are many mansions," renders them, "In my Father's house are many stations;" because Jesus implies that heaven will afford opportunity for endless adventurous and abundant living. "What an encouragement," one exclaims, "To all those who have ever arrived on earth, to all who were cut off before the song was sung, or the picture painted, or the vision realized."
One of the most powerful reasons to believe it is the picture you get if it was not so. If the thief who died with Jesus does not grow, he will be a poorly prepared person for paradise. Some actually believe that those, like him, who accept Christ late in life, and who have not developed a Christian knowledge of the Word of God, will have to live on a low level of knowledge forever. They feel they are locked in when you die. Where you are then, you will be forever. Many Christians will be locked in on a very low level while others will be very high. There is truth to this for the beginning of heaven, but to lock people into their state at death forever is to introduce part of hell into heaven, and it robs God of His infinite mercy which delights to see His children press on to make all of their potential actual.
The text in verse 17 says that Jesus will be our Shepherd even in heaven, and He will guide us to springs of living water. If we are perfect, we should not need a guide any longer, but the fact is we will always need Jesus as our guide, for we will always be followers and learners, and for all eternity Jesus will teach us and lead us into greater experiences of God's grace and glory. This is the conviction of the great servants of God through history, and they base it on the nature of God. If your view of God is great enough, you will have doubt about progress in heaven.