I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt that I might dwell among them. (Exodus 29:45-46 ESV)
Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:23)
Becoming a follower of Christ is a wonderful spiritual experience. We are reconciled with God, forgiven, cleansed, and the Spirit of God enters us and transforms us from the inside.
Whether we immediately realize it or not, this experience of being born from above challenges a typical image that many seem to share about God. It is the image of God sitting on his throne in heaven.
This image was deeply embedded in my understanding of God as a new believer. I was a bit confused those early years in my faith. I knew that the Spirit had come to live within me. I also knew that I was a child of God. Yet, I could not reconcile this truth of my new life with an equally “true” yet dissonant picture of God reigning in heaven. This picture of God being in heaven was shaped in part by the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus taught us to pray: “Our Father who art in heaven.” I wondered how could God be within me and in heaven at the same time? My confusion was only exacerbated by the visions of John in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 4:1 John saw a door open up in heaven. In this same verse John was told to come up to heaven to see what must take place. John continued by writing: “At once I was in the Spirit and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne” (Rev. 4:2). This made it seem logical to think of God being up in heaven. Paul’s visionary experience, mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12 also reinforced this image. Paul wrote: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2). Referring to God being in the third heaven made it sound like God was even more distant from earth.
My problem was not just a cognitive one. It was existential as well. I occasionally got the feeling while praying that there was a barrier in the sky between God and me. I was not alone in feeling this. I heard others speak of experiencing similar barriers when they prayed. The explanation was that unseen principalities and powers in the heavens were causing these barriers and the barriers could only be eliminated by engaging in extended times of intense prayer. The angel’s conflict with the Prince of Persia for 21 days in Daniel 10:13-14 was the Scripture used to validate this explanation. These shared experiences and Daniel 10 confirmed my perception that God was somehow physically distant.
Yet, these feelings of God being distant in the heavens did not make any sense to me. How could I have the Spirit living within me and still feel God distant from me?
Paul added to my confusion with his statement in Ephesians 2:6 that we were seated with Christ in the heavenly places. How could we be seated in the heavenly places when heaven is so far away?
Though it took a number of years, God began to clear up this confusion. The first thing that he used to help clear this up was a comment by Millard Erickson in his book, “Christian Theology.” Erickson pointed out that it was inaccurate to think of God as filling the universe. The universe is created. God is completely separate from what he created. Therefore, God does not fill up the universe. He is simply everywhere present in it.
The second thing that helped me was reading about Jesus’ ascension in Acts 1. When Jesus ascended, he disappeared in a cloud (1:9). In the Exodus story the cloud functioned as a symbol of God’s presence with his people (see also Numbers 9:15-22). In 2 Chronicles the cloud (glory) descended upon the temple symbolizing God’s presence in the temple (7:1-3). When Jesus disappeared into the cloud, he did not go anywhere spatially, he simply left the creation and entered the divine sphere of existence. Someone who moved through walls can certainly leave the created sphere. Thinking about Jesus in this way made sense of Jesus’ promise in Matthew 28:20 where he said: “I am always with you.” Jesus is now everywhere present in the creation just as the Father is.
These two small but important bits of information changed the way I envisioned heaven. It went from being some distant place in this universe to being everywhere around me. In addition, since the Holy Spirit lived in me, God was even closer. Paul’s statement of our being seated with Christ in the heavenly places made sense. Being seated with Christ was a metaphorical statement. It referred to us co-ruling and co-reigning with him. Being with Christ in heaven was possible because heaven in a very real sense is all around us.
This perspective of God being present everywhere in the universe and of Christ being in me was electrifying. I finally understood that I was absolutely immersed in God. I was like a tree. As the tree is planted solidly in the ground, I am planted in God. In addition, as the ground provides nourishment for the tree, God provides me with everything I need to grow and flourish.
This new perspective put new meaning to the term Good News. When we turn to Jesus any relational distance that existed between God and us is completely eliminated. Being reconciled to God through Christ, God is completely with us. We live immersed in his life-giving presence every minute of every day.