Reading Slowly to See Heaven on Earth

If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.

–C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Jonathan Edwards‘s fifteenth and final sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 is often overlooked, but is remarkable and evergreen. Compilers of his works note that “Heaven Is A World of Love” rivals “Sinners In A Hand of Angry God” as a second masterpiece in imagery, poetry, and rhetoric. [1]

I’ve been reading this masterpiece slowly since this summer. Part of this is because I do not read fast, but mostly because Edwards is often read best at slower rate.

I first learned I benefited from reading Edwards this way while in college when I was given this copy of his “The End for Which God Created the World,” and read it one summer, paragraph by paragraph, each morning before I went to work.

Reading Edwards this way, at first, is hard. It is like a novice visiting to the Smithsonian and completing a tour of each gallery in record time while the experts have barely left one room, or even one painting. When you slow-read Edwards, you have time to see the masterpiece take shape–the poetry and the brilliance that is there but seen only after a long gaze. This time spent forges a bond with the work that eventually brings a smile, or tears, but always joy.

This is why I have never quite understood the maxim that New England theologians were “so heavenly minded that they were of no earthly good.” Quite the opposite, Edwards shows that extended meditation on heaven can provide much stability and sanity to those on earth for good living.

To give just a glimpse of what I’ve seen and savored in my reading so far, here is a brief summary of the start of “Heaven as a World of Love.” [2]

Edwards begins by focusing on the state of the church in heaven. He acknowledges that the church on earth is imperfect and in a child-like state. Once in heaven, by contrast, the church is perfected and in a state of adulthood.

In heaven, while other gifts end, such as faith and hope, love remains, and then and there, “the Holy Spirit shall more perfectly and abundantly be given to the church than it now is.” [3]  This fountain of love from the Holy Spirit is the object of his sermon in six sections.

Here is one of those:

“Heaven is the palace, or presence-chamber, of the Supreme Being who is both the cause and source of all holy love. God, indeed, with respect to his essence is everywhere. He fills heaven and earth. But yet he is said on some accounts more especially to be in some places rather than others.

“He was said of old to dwell in the land of Israel above all other lands, and in Jerusalem above all other cities in that land, and in the temple above all other houses in that city, and in the holy of holies above all other apartments in that temple, and on the mercy seat over the ark above all other places in the holy of holies. But heaven is his dwelling place above all other places in the universe.

“Those places in which he was said to dwell of old were all but types of this. Heaven is a part of the creation which God has built for this end, to be the place of his glorious presence. And it is his abode forever. Here he will dwell and gloriously manifest himself to eternity. And this renders heaven a world of love; for God is the fountain of love, as the sun is the fountain of light. And therefore the glorious presence of God in heaven fills heaven with love, as the sun placed in the midst of the hemisphere in a clear day fills the world with light.

“The Apostle tells us that God is love, 1 John 4:8. And therefore seeing he is an infinite Being, it follows that he is an infinite fountain of love. Seeing he is an all-sufficient Being, it follows that he is a full and overflowing and an inexhaustible fountain of love.

“Seeing he is an unchangeable and eternal Being, he is an unchangeable and eternal source of love. There even in heaven dwells that God from whom every stream of holy love, yea, every drop that is or ever was proceeds.

“There dwells God the Father, and so the Son, who are united in infinitely dear and incomprehensible mutual love. There dwells God the Father, who is the Father of mercies, and so the Father of love, who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life [John 3:16].

“There dwells Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, the Prince of peace and love, who so loved the world that he shed his blood, and poured out his soul unto death for it. There dwells the Mediator, by whom all God’s love is expressed to the saints, by whom the fruits of it have been purchased, and through whom they are communicated, and through whom love is imparted to the hearts of all the church. There Christ dwells in both his natures, his human and divine, sitting with the Father in the same throne.

“There is the Holy Spirit, the spirit of divine love, in whom the very essence of God, as it were, all flows out or is breathed forth in love, and by whose immediate influence all holy love is shed abroad in the hearts of all the church [cf. Romans 5:5].

“There in heaven this fountain of love, this eternal three in one, is set open without any obstacle to hinder access to it. There this glorious God is manifested and shines forth in full glory, in beams of love; there the fountain overflows in streams and rivers of love and delight, enough for all to drink at, and to swim in, yea, so as to overflow the world as it were with a deluge of love.” [4]

While believers on earth are right to focus on serving in local churches to guard and proclaim the gospel and carry that good news to the ends of the earth, we are helped in that ongoing, though temporal, task by focusing on what will become of the church in heaven. Indeed, we are most effective in our work on earth when we keep heaven in view for there the church will be perfect and with God, for God is love (1 Jn 4:8).

C. S. Lewis remarked, “Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.” When I feel ineffective, I am helped by a slow read of Edwards, and benefit from his redirecting my gaze toward the Bible and to God in heaven.

Most days, I don’t get farther than a paragraph or a “single painting” in the Edwards gallery. Yet, that gaze leads to a heavenly mindedness that gives much for earthly good.

—–

For more on reading Edwards slowly on a daily basis see the new 365 day Edwards devotional by Owen Strachan, Always in God’s Hands (Tyndale Momentum, 2018).

[1] Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 8, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey (Jonathan Edwards Center, Yale University, 2008), 61n7

[2] “Charity and Its Fruits: Sermon Fifteen, Heaven Is A World of Love,” Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 8, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey (Jonathan Edwards Center, Yale University, 2008), 366-397.

[3] WJE 8:368

[4] WJE 8:369-370.