Theology in the Bible is always pastoral. It is spoken into the real circumstances of life. Scripture contains laws for a real nation, prophecies for real exiles and epistles for real churches. Therefore, you cannot be satisfied with just knowing what the truth is. You must know how that truth impacts church life.
I suspect that part of the reason the Beatific Vision has fallen on tough times is because it is seen as impractical. Yet in this article I want to argue that a knowledge of the Beatific Vision is pastorally necessary.
To do this, I will present seven different people in a church who need this doctrine. This list is not exhaustive. Nevertheless, I hope it demonstrates that the Beatific Vision is not ivory tower speculation, but a grounded doctrine that makes a real difference to Christians.
First and foremost, Pastor, you must pastor yourself with this truth. Whether personal friends or “celebrities,” you no doubt know of men who failed in ministry. Many things can cause this, but surely among them is an eye on the wrong things.
What greater motive is there to pursue holiness than this: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). Any pastor who gives in to temptation has forgotten seeing God is for the pure of heart. As Paul says of ungodly teachers, “Their mind is set on earthly things.” (Philippians 3:19).Too much ministry in this present day has descended into pragmatism. The church needs pastors who are heavenly minded. Click To Tweet
If the end of the road is to behold God, why would you turn to adultery or success or power to satisfy? Too much ministry in this present day has descended into pragmatism. The church needs pastors who are heavenly minded.
Do not think that taking time to stir your heart with thoughts of the beatific vision is a waste of time. Your church needs a God-entranced pastor. That doesn’t mean you only think about eschatology, but also that you take time to enjoy the lesser sight of God you have by faith now. What Paul prays for the Ephesian church, pray for yourself:
And I pray that you being rooted and established in love may have power together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God (Eph. 3:17b-19).
Those who regularly evangelise will know non-Christians love to ask about eternal life. This isn’t a surprise. After all, the good news is primarily fulfilled in the future.
I was once in an evangelistic course with a non-Christian man. Having struggled with suicidal thoughts, he asked “Why is living forever a good thing?” This is an understandable question. Life is so often hard. Why would an eternal life not be as tedious as this?
One could talk about the new body, the new creation and restoration of loved ones. Yet these are secondary joys. The greatest joy of our future is God himself. As Piper memorably put it: “God is the Gospel.” The good news of heaven is him.
An unbeliever who reads the gospels and falls in love with Christ, dips her toe into the future joy. Pastor, what you should offer to the outsider is God himself. Those sheep of his pasture will hear that voice.
Imitate the method of John. He describes the new heavens and the new earth, including the promise “They will see his face” (Rev. 22:4). Then he ends his book with a stirring call to the outsider to come in:
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life (Rev. 22:17)
Describe the beatific vision and then call people to come and quench their thirst on God’s majesty.
The Church Member
Yet this is not just a truth for the novice in the Christian faith. It is something needed throughout the Christian life. John says this to established Christians:
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. (1 John 3:2-3)
The Christian hope is the Beatific Vision: “we shall see him as he is”. But this hope has a consequence: “All who have this hope will purify themselves, just as he is pure.”If you are meeting the king of heaven, you will take seriously the call to make yourself pure. Click To Tweet
I have a friend who went to an upper class British school. Once, while he was head boy, they had a visit from Queen Elizabeth II. The senior students were tutored in protocol: what they should say, what they should wear, how the school should look. The hope of meeting the Queen led to a change of behaviour.
So it is for the Christian. If you are meeting the king of heaven, you will take seriously the call to make yourself pure. As the author to the Hebrews says, “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Knowing holiness is part of seeing God, every Christian will make that effort. Each church member needs to have this vision of glory to motivate them for the hard graft of sanctification.
Most parents and children’s leaders will be familiar with children’s incessant questions about heaven. “Will there be pets in heaven?” or “Is there ice cream in heaven?” or “What about the jewelled city?” None of this is bad, but children should be grounded in the centrality of God in the new heavens and earth.
One of our family’s favourite books is The Garden, The Curtain and The Cross by Carl Laferton. It grounds the biblical story in the presence of God. The joy of the garden is “People could see God, and speak to God, and just enjoy being with God.” The primary curse of the Fall is described this way “It is wonderful to live with him… but because of your sin you can’t come in.” After describing the salvation of Jesus the book ends by circling right back to the start. “We will see God and speak to God and just enjoy being with God – just as he planned.” This simple gospel overview, grounds the good news in being with God. Children can understand this. They can grasp the joy of seeing and enjoying God.
You may not use the phrase “Beatific Vision.” But you must ground the future hope in God. One of my children as a pre-schooler talked about heaven “And when I die, I’ll see Jesus and give him a great big cuddle.” Pedants may want to question whether the return of Christ includes a beatific embrace. But surely the idea of the great joy of heaven being God himself is something we must impress on our children.
After all, Reformed children have memorised for centuries a famous statement of the blessed state:
“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
The Future Leader
Developing new leaders is a perennial concern of the churches. What do we look for? Rightly, we look for character qualities (as described in Titus). Certainly, we hope for right doctrine and evident giftedness. Yet surely, if the first command is to love God, we must seek devotion to him?
The Beatific Vision calls us to love God. It is interesting how God’s call of a prophet included an appearance of God’s glory to begin that prophet’s ministry. Moses at the burning bush (Exod. 3). Ezekiel’s symbolic vision of heaven (Ezek. 1-2). Perhaps most striking is Isaiah’s vision (Isa. 6).Don’t just teach students to understand doctrines. Teach them to bask in doctrines. Help them to enjoy the dim sight of God now to prepare them for the future. Click To Tweet
After beholding the thrice holy God, Isaiah seeks two things. First, he seeks atonement “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (v.5). This is the proper response to God from a sinner. But after he has received forgiveness his desire is to go: “Here am I. Send me!” (v.8).
When young leaders really grasp the greatness of God, they will cry out “Here am I. Send me!” Now of course, no student will get the vision of Isaiah! Nevertheless, potential leaders can be taught to seek that heavenly future and be led to worship that God. This will equip them very well for the journey.
Let me challenge seminary professors to have the goal of adoration, not just information. Don’t just teach students to understand doctrines. Teach them to bask in doctrines. Help them to enjoy the dim sight of God now to prepare them for the future. I find Michael Horton’s structure of systematic theology a helpful overview. We need the Drama (biblical theology), the Doctrine (systematic) and the Discipleship (christian life). But greatest of all we need the Doxology. If a seminary professor sees the goal is beholding God, surely they will seek to grant a lesser but still glorious sight of him now.
The Worldly Believer
Across the world, health and wealth teaching has gained influence. Many believe God grants worldly blessings now to reward those who trust in him. Even where a “prosperity gospel” isn’t taught, Christians can naturally become focused on worldly blessings.
It is often said that this is an over-realised eschatology. There is some truth to that. But it’s equally true that this is an under-realised eschatology. You think God wants to give you a car? A promotion at work? A hip replacement? Your vision is much too small! God’s blessing to you is to see his face.
Thomas Chalmers famously spoke of the expulsive power of a new affection. The only way to remove our desire to sin is to increase our desire for God. Do you really believe like David “You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:11)? If you do, you’ll never be satisfied with the things of this world.
In Grounded in Heaven, Michael Allen speaks of a right asceticism that accompanies the beatific vision. This is not the ascetism that believes all earthly desires are wrong (which Paul clearly condemns in 1 Tim 4:1-5). But rather it is a willingness to make sacrifices in this world. When we know the joy of God’s presence that awaits us, such sacrifices do not seem so absurd.
The Dying Saint
Dying well was a chief goal of many Christians in the past. In our age it is one we have forgotten. What do you say to someone on their deathbed? If you are confident they are in Christ, lead them to expect what comes ahead.
No doubt there is some comfort to be found in a new body or being reunited with loved ones. But surely, any true believer will be most besotted with heavenly vision.Dying well was a chief goal of many Christians in the past. In our age it is one we have forgotten. What do you say to someone on their deathbed? Click To Tweet
“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12)
I knew one dear brother who became particularly attached to Psalm 139 as he approached death. At first, I was a little confused as it didn’t speak at all about death. Yet what was precious to him was its descriptions of the wonderful character of God. What he saw there was the pale reflection of his creator. This was exactly what he needed before he saw face-to-face.
Another sister struggled with widowhood. She launched herself into quite weighty theological works on the new heavens and the earth. This included an emphasis on the beatific vision. Here was the comfort she needed: to know where her dear husband now was and what joy he was experiencing. This didn’t totally remove the pain but it enabled her to see that her husband’s experience now was “better by far” (Phil. 1:23).
This is just a drop in the ocean of pastoral implications of the Beatific Vision. Helpful reflections could be given for the hymn writer, the celibate Christian, the pragmatist and many others. What I hope you’ve seen in this, is the Beatific Vision is not a dusty doctrine for academic halls. It is a vital doctrine for pastoring and living the Christian life