The first thing the Apostle John want his readers to know is exactly who and what they are. Having a correct understanding right-off-the-bat is number one. So, he opens with an exclamation in verse 1: “Behold! Consider how lavish is the love which the Father has showered upon us!” John’s excitement invites his readers to lay hold of this above all else: The lavish love of God. It is the lavish love of God that has motivated the Father to claim us as His children. I like the rendition given in the English Standard Version (ESV): “See what kind of love the Father has given to us.” There is a great Gospel word in here and it is the word “given.” God’s love is not simply exhibited toward us, but imparted to us, “Given to us.” It is this imparted gift of God, the imparted love of God that makes us His children. That is where we must begin if we are going to understand anything about Heaven and life after death.
The extent of God’s love, which has graciously been showered on believers (showered through the washing of the water with the Word) is the inalienable possession you have as a baptized believer. In fact, the gospel language here is much stronger than the language of, “God so loved the world,” in John 3:16. It is this lavish love of God in and through Jesus the Son which results in us being called God’s children. That, John says, is what we are! In God’s giving, you are changed.
The lavish nature of God’s love is indicated by the fact that He, as Father, is the author of our being adopted as sons and daughters. It is the reason for our adoption through the waters of Baptism. Why have you been adopted as sons and daughters? Because of the lavish love of God. And that is different from a bug’s life. It is in this we find the nobility of the Christian’s position: Baptized believers are children of Him who is God, God the Father Himself.
John is describing God’s relationship to His believing people as that of “Father” to “children.” The description is significant, both as an indication of God’s personal and loving nature, and as a definition of the resulting status of Christians. They are God’s children, and members of His household, not only in name (this is not just titular), but also in fact. There is a twofold reality here to be taken into consideration. First, consider how and what God does to make us His children. He sends His only begotten Son, Jesus the Christ, to be us, to live as us, to do what we are supposed to do but never can do. Jesus fulfills the righteousness to which we are called and never obtain and, what is more, bears the penalty for our treason. In other words, the Father sends the Son to be us so we may be sons and daughters as well.
They are God’s children, and members of His household, not only in name, but also in fact.
But how did He send the Son? He sent in the likeness of human flesh. That is why He was, “Born of a virgin.” It is critically important to always hold before your thinking about our salvation that Christ redeemed us in the flesh and, indeed, even our flesh will be redeemed. There is no greater proof of this than His own resurrection. God did not save us by mere edicts pronounced in the sky or waving a magical wand. He came here clothed in our flesh. He lived the life we do not. He bore the penalty we should. Your salvation was accomplished when some Jew was nailed to a tree and three days later clamored out of a tomb: A real historical fact. This is why Luther’s theology is called a theology of the cross. Luther turns our eyes to a real historical event, person, place, where God accomplished the salvation of the world. Jesus saved human bodies because we know His body was redeemed when it broke out of a hillside tomb.
We are saved both spirit and body by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. On the cross He said at the moment of His death, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” So, His spirit immediately went to be with the Father in Paradise. Jesus even uses the word “paradise.” Remember how our Lord told the thief on the cross he would be with Him that day in “Paradise.” Jesus provides the exact pattern for what happens to us upon death, our spirits go to paradise, which we like to call “Heaven.” This is what is properly meant by ‘life after death.’ That is life after death.
But that is not all. There is ‘life after life-after-death.’ Then there is another life after life-after-death. On Easter morning, by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit of God, Jesus’ spirit re-entered His transformed and glorified human body, the same body born of a virgin, only this time the Holy Spirit had perfected it and altered its properties so it could be capable of immortality and habitation in the spiritual dimension of reality. Simply put, Jesus saves our bodies too. The proof of life after life-after-death is the resurrection of the body of Jesus of Nazareth. This is what the goal of salvation is all about: Saving us and this world in the totality of our being; body and spirit, the entire living soul and, moreover, the very planet itself. You see, God is committed to this physicality. He created it, He clothed Himself in it, He saved it, and He resurrected it. If Jesus got out of the grave then all those united to Him will get out of the grave, or the ocean, or be transformed after being sprinkled in the garden, off a pier, scattered on the beach, left for kitty litter, or whatever. God transforms the body and the spirit.
God is committed to this physicality. He created it, He clothed Himself in it, He saved it, and He resurrected it.
This is why Baptism is so graphic. In a baptism, infants and adults alike are symbolically drowned, their bodies and spirits being put to death by being united with Christ’s crucifixion. This is not something merely internal, an asking Jesus in your heart, it is external, physical, and happens to you in the totality of your person. You are baptized body and spirit. Your whole soul undergoes a death to crucify the old nature with Christ. Then the soul emerges from the waters. The waters wash down over you, body, and spirit. This, my friends, is a graphic pledge and effectual uniting with the resurrection of your spirit as it becomes “born again,” “born from above,” the Holy Spirit now inhabiting that which was once unholy, but it is also the pledge and effectual uniting with the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Paul is explicit about this in Romans 6, Peter is graphic about it in 1 Peter 3, and here John is explicit too.
But, John says, “What we shall become has not yet been disclosed.” The Christian’s knowledge of Heaven, and indeed of God Himself, is bound to be incomplete during the earthly pilgrimage. We shall only, “…know fully as we are fully known,” writes Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12-13, when we see the Lord, “…face to face.” Meanwhile, a humble confession of our ignorance about the ultimate truth of God and the salvation in Christ which He makes possible is a desirable (and indeed imperative) attitude for the Christian to take. It is a mystery. What our resurrected bodies will be like is, for us now, as mysterious as the incarnation and the Holy Trinity.
Notwithstanding, “We know that when He appears, we shall be like Him.” The full revelation of the character of God’s children lies beyond history in eternity, but some truths about the future enjoyment of God’s presence in Christ by the members of His family can be stated with confidence now. A threefold sequence of events is anticipated based upon the fact that the Son of God was really human, died, and rose again. “He will appear; we shall see Him as He really is; we shall be like Him.” At the moment of Christ’s final “appearing,” John assures his readers all genuine believers will be revealed as being, “…like Jesus.”
You see, the bodily resurrection is still in the future for everyone except Jesus. Paul is quite clear in 1 Corinthians 15.23: “Christ is raised as the first-fruits; then, at His coming, those who belong to Christ will be raised as He has been raised.” The ‘coming’ of which Paul speaks has not yet happened. Therefore, clearly the dead in Christ have not yet been raised.
We should especially remember that the use of the word “heaven” to denote the ultimate goal of the redeemed, though hugely emphasized by medieval piety, mystery plays, and the like, and still almost universal at a popular level, is severely misleading and does not begin to do justice to the Christian hope. I am repeatedly frustrated by how hard it is to get this point through the thick wall of traditional thought and language that most Christians put up. “Going to Heaven when you die,” is not held out in the New Testament as the main goal. The primary goal is to be bodily raised into the transformed, glorious likeness of Jesus Christ. If we want to speak of, “Going to Heaven when we die,” we should be clear this represents the first, and far less important, stage of a two-stage process. That is why it is also appropriate and perhaps better to use the ancient word “paradise” to describe the same thing.
According to the Bible, the ultimate destiny of Christians is bodily resurrection, an event which has not yet happened. This means all such persons are currently in an intermediate state, somewhere between death and resurrection in heaven or paradise. There are no category distinctions between Christians in this intermediate state. All are in the same condition and all are “Saints.” Your departed loved ones and the saints of old are in Paradise with the Lord.
According to the Bible, the ultimate destiny of Christians is bodily resurrection, an event which has not yet happened.
So, what is Heaven right now? Well, it is nothing less than the comfortable waiting room of paradise. It is an antechamber to the completion of our redemption, the resurrection of our bodies, when Christ returns to establish Heaven fully and completely on earth visibly, tangibly, and totally. Better stated, heaven or paradise is a staging area for the global invasion of the departed saints and Christ the King of the world. The trumpet is sounding and summoning Christian after Christian to depart from this world and muster in Paradise. The call is going out to leave this sinful world and ready for the glorious invasion by being in the presence of the Son, being sanctified to perfection in their spirits by the Holy Spirit.
So, what is happening in Paradise right now? Right now, Jerry McDowd, Art Winterstein, John Hass, Roberta Fetkenhauer, Alice Carneiro, Peggy Moe, Bill Soule, Jim Payne and every baptized believer in Jesus Christ are not strumming harps on clouds and neither are they adrift in a celestial stupor. What they are in fact doing is waiting around for you. They are waiting for you and the full number of those whom God has and is calling to be saved to be so. They are waiting for you to get busy and open your mouth about the Redeemer of the world, pack the Kingdom of Heaven on earth (which is the Church) with souls, and then either join them in the staging area of Heaven for the invasion or, alternatively and much, much better, come here to join you with and in their resurrected bodies upon the Parousia – the glorious return of the King.
The saints in Paradise are waiting, keeping one eye on the time and another eye on the evangelistic efforts of the Church. They are waiting and, by what we read in the Book of Revelation, they are a bit zealous, eager for God to wrap things up on earth, so His Name might be glorified and His will be fully done on earth as it is in Heaven. One might even say they are complaining and murmuring a bit (just like we do when we are kept in the waiting room longer than our liking). “How long, O Lord, how long before you vindicate your name on the earth and give us our resurrection bodies so that the naysaying deniers of your Holy Word might be shut up? How long?” And He who sits on the throne says, a little longer.
Heaven, then, will be on earth, just as Revelation says. The heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, will descend and rest upon the earth and it will be here that Christ will rule and reign for ever and ever among the people He has redeemed in the totality of their bodies. This is why we confess in the Apostles’ Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Everlasting life is embodied life and the realm in which persons shall live eternal embodied lives is right here on earth. Christ is laying claim to everything which rightly belongs to Him: Our spirits, our bodies, and the earth itself.
As children of a heavenly Father, the disposition of believers both derives from, and may be identified with, the nature of God: “Like Father, like son.” Therefore, it follows that rejection of God will result in a rejection of His disciples. The world hates God’s children (3:13), just as it hated God’s Son. There is a positive side to the fact that the world does not “recognize” God’s children. The truth that Christians belong to God’s family is attested to by the “hatred” of the world. With such an assurance John can encourage his readers and help to establish their faith. So, stop pandering to your godless friends by immersing yourself in their culture rather than recognizing you were immersed into Christ and your rightful culture is among the children of God.
As children of a heavenly Father, the disposition of believers both derives from, and may be identified with, the nature of God: “Like Father, like son.”
John’s, “…serene certainty that we shall see our Lord and be like Him, is the model for all our thinking about the life to come.” But, as the next immediately reminds us, such a vision of Heaven cannot be detached from Christian experience and responsibility here on earth. Because we believe Heaven will ultimately be on earth, then we ought to be the first and foremost trailblazers for taking care of the earth, taking care of our bodies, taking care of people in need, taking care of animals….
Finally, the Christian assurance that, in the end and in glory, we shall see God in Christ and become like Him (verse 2), has practical and ethical implications for the present. While we shall never become completely like Jesus, until, “…we see Him as He really is” (verse 2b), that very certainty supplies a challenge for the believer to become like Christ now (cf. 2:6). “Everyone who has this hope in Him keeps himself pure, just as He is pure.” The idea of hope (the confident expectation that, in Christ, the believer will at the end share fully in God’s eternal life) is an incentive to pureness of living in the present. The exact significance of “keeping oneself pure” in this context is indicated by the next section (introduced by verse 4), which sets out the first condition for living as a true member of God’s family: the renunciation of sin and the pursuit of pure living. In other words, the genuine child of God must “keep pure” by seeking to remain free from sin. The hope of being like Christ in the end should inspire (and can produce) Christ-like behavior even now. But hear this Gospel: When you do not (and that is all the time), it is the lavish love of God which makes us the children of God. And so, we are.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in 1 John 3:1-3.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 1 John 3:1-3.