“Going to Heaven” is so common a phrase describing the Christian’s hope when days on earth are done that you’d think it would be found in the Bible more often than it is. How often is that? Brace yourself. None at all.
Here is what was on the mind of the apostle Paul when he wrote from prison to the saints in Philippi. He wrote that he was in a strait—hard pressed between two things. The one was that the saints here on earth needed him, and on that account he was confident of his release through their prayers and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. This, Paul wrote, was “according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phi 1:20,21 NKJV).
And so Paul anticipated that if he lived, Christ would be magnified in his body. And—the other side of the strait—if he died? What gain did he have in mind?
For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. (Phi 1:23 NKJV)
There it is, the other thing that pressed hard upon him, which he called “far better”—the desire to “break camp” (for so the word depart implies) and… go to Heaven? But it wasn’t Heaven that was on his mind. It was to be with his beloved Lord Jesus Christ who loved him and had died for him, and whom he had come to know and love in sharing His sufferings here on earth.
And where is Christ? Yes, in Heaven, and of course the habitation of the saints who have gone on is in Heaven. But going to Heaven was not the yearning of the apostle, but rather to be with Christ Himself, as we discover also in the rapture passage:
Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. (1 Thes 4:17)
“With the Lord.” That’s what Heaven was all about for Paul… being with his beloved Lord Jesus.
This is just as, for Christ Himself, returning to Heaven was all about being with the Father.
But now I go my way to him that sent me; and none of you asketh me, Whither goest thou? (Jn 16:5).
I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go to the Father. (Jn 16:28)
Christ desired to be with the Father. And where is the Father? “Our Father, who is in heaven…” (Mt 6:9)
And His great desire was and still is that His own be with Him there:
Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. (Jn. 17:24 NKJV)
If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour. (Jn 12:26).
Those two verses are joined together in an old hymn:
O Jesus, Thou hast promised
To all who follow Thee,
That where Thou art in glory
There shall Thy servant be.
Yes, but those who love Him desire to be with Him even though it mean sharing in His suffering and shame. Such was the love of Ittai the Gittite for David the king at the time of Absalom’s coup. It looked like David had lost the kingdom, so he gathered his few faithful followers and prepared to leave Jerusalem behind. When he saw his friend Ittai and his men among those following, David urged him to go back. Foreigner that he was, and already an exile (from Gath of the Philistines), he need not jeopardize his life like this. “Return and remain with the king,” David said. (Quite something, that David called Absalom king.) But it wasn’t securing his own life and interests that was in Ittai’s heart. It was David himself who was in his heart. And he continued to call him king.
And Ittai answered the king, and said, As the LORD liveth, and as my lord the king liveth, surely in what place my lord the king shall be, whether in death or life, even there also will thy servant be. (2 Sam 15:21)
What love. And such is the love of those who have come to know the King of kings in the days of His humiliation and rejection—in the days of our sojourning here in this present evil Christ-hating world. To follow Him, to serve Him, to be with Him wherever He is… this is all we desire.
It’s all He desires.
I am reminded of the repentant thief on the cross who asked the Lord beside him to remember him when He came in His kingdom. “And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be… in paradise” (Lk 23:43). Paradise? It’s the same word that the Septuagint translators used for the Garden of Eden. “Today you will be… in the Garden.” How wonderful is that; who could want more? But did you notice that I left out two words? “Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.” What is Paradise without this One, who so loved a dying thief that He was laying down His own life for him at that very moment, desiring that he live with Him forever in the Paradise of God?
This reminds me of Samuel Rutherford (1600–1661). He was a Scottish pastor who was a Nonconformist—that is, one who refused to “conform” to the required procedures of the Church of England. For this he was deprived of his ministry in Anwoth in southwest Scotland, was exiled to Aberdeen in the north, and barred from preaching anywhere in Scotland “for the duration of the King’s pleasure.” It was during his two years in Aberdeen that Rutherford wrote many letters which were eventually compiled and published. In the earlier letters he often wrote with sorrow of his temptation to believe it was the Lord Himself who had been displeased with him and had therefore removed him from his duties as pastor. This caused him deep anguish; he felt defeated, and wrestled with doubt and discouragement and depression—along with the pain of being separated from the flock of God he loved so much, grieving that they were left to hands of hirelings and the jaws of wolves. But then he made a discovery. Over and over he would write of Jesus coming to him in such times, coming to him and communing with him His love for him, a love the depth of which he had not known before, but had discovered in the fellowship of His sufferings. Oh how this love raptured his heart.
And Rutherford came to love Him as never before, to the extent that, although he wrote profusely of going to Heaven in his letters, he wrote also this:
“If heaven were at my disposing, I would give it for Christ, and would not be content to go to heaven, except I were persuaded that Christ were there.”