GRACE IN HEAVEN
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright, shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.
As he confessed in his hymn, John Newton had lived a wretched life. He knew he did not deserve God’s goodness in any way. It was only God’s grace that made it possible for him to be forgiven of his sin and freed from his guilt. He wrote Amazing Grace after he left Liverpool and moved to Olney.
Later on in life he declared he never forgot two important facts: “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.” He had experienced God’s grace for salvation, for living and he was prepared for death. What confidence did he have that God’s grace would be there for him in heaven? Newton again turned to Scripture. He had memorized Jesus’ words of promise that we find in the gospel of John:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms . . I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” John 14:1-4.
Here, Jesus was talking with His disciples. At this point they knew He was on His way to certain death at the hands of the Romans. They were fearful. Was this the end? Was there anything waiting for their Master on the other side of death? And what about them? What was their future? Was there any hope?
These must have been the thoughts that flooded their emotions. So Jesus reaffirms His commitment to them: I will go ahead of you into Paradise and prepare a place where our relationship will continue eternally. You have seen my grace here–just wait until you get to the other side!
While there is much speculation about heaven and what it will be like, one fact is certain for the believer: God’s grace will be there! God is not about to abandon His children to the winds of timeless living without purpose and design. The One who stretched out the universe over billions of years has something majestic planned for us. So let’s not waste our imagination about heaven on things that are only important on an earthly level. That’s like pasting two dimensional drawings in a four dimensional structure. It looks silly.
What is God Preparing for Us?
Years after Jesus had returned to heaven, the Apostle Paul was writing to some believers who were facing the same questions as were Jesus’ disciples. In a magnificent statement for all ages he explained, “God . . . seated us with him in the heavenly realms with Christ Jesus . . .” Why? “ . . . in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 2:7.
Do you see the picture? God is preparing to shower us forever with His grace in ways we can’t begin to understand! In effect Paul is saying, “Don’t worry about it! God has it under control.” As they tried to impose their own values on what God is doing, he reminded them of what the Prophet Isaiah had written centuries earlier:
“ ‘No eye has seen
no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived
what God has prepared
for those who love him’
But God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.”
I Corinthians 2:9, 10
To His servant Daniel in the Old Testament, God revealed what heaven will be like. “But at that time your people–everyone whose name is found written in the book–will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” Daniel 12:1-3
Can you create in your imagination what it will be like to “shine like the stars”? I can’t! But whatever that is, it will be by the grace of God and not by our own efforts. As with grace for salvation, it relieves us of a great deal of anxiety to rely on God’s activity. Living in heaven will be by the grace of God.
Heaven is a place where God’s grace–His unmerited favor–will extend and expand throughout eternity. That releases and liberates us to enjoy God forever without fear or interruption. We can claim that prophetic word by David, “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” Psalm 16:11.
Many illustrations of God’s grace are recorded for us in Scripture. However as King David probably did, let’s look at the incredible example seen in the life of Joseph.
A Model of God’s Grace in Heaven
Joseph is one of the most appealing characters found in the Bible. We know something about Joseph and his coat from story books and even Broadway productions. But there is far more to Joseph than a beautiful coat!
As we look at Joseph for a picture of God’s grace, let’s remind ourselves about the definition of grace: Unmerited favor. You see, in Joseph’s life we can begin to understand God’s unmerited favor to us. If there was ever a time when someone could have “gotten even” for hateful treatment from others, Joseph had a good case with his brothers. What we will briefly describe here you can find in the book of Genesis, chapters 37 through 50. We start his story with his father.
Jacob (Joseph’s father) had two wives, Leah and Rachel. That in itself was enough to bring conflict into the family. Long before he was married to either woman Jacob declared his passion for Rachel. But on his wedding night Jacob’s uncle double-crossed him. As was customary, Jacob had much to drink at his wedding feast. His Uncle Laben then exchanged Jacob’s beloved Rachel with her sister Leah. Jacob, of course, did not discover the change of “brides” until well into the following day.
Being a man of honor in this instance, Jacob kept Leah and a week later received the hand of his true love in marriage. While Leah was not Jacob’s bride of choice, she was the one who immediately became pregnant and began to bear him children. For years this went on while Rachel remained childless.
Finally, Rachel had more than she could stand. She pleads her case of bareness to God as well as to Jacob. Her prayers are answered and she bears a child–a son whom she named Joseph. You can only imagine the pride and joy that Joseph became to his parents. He is showered with favor in every way including the beautiful multicolored coat. This open favoritism of Joseph became the cause of deep envy and hatred by his brothers.
As a boy, Joseph had some dramatic dreams. He was not timid in telling these to his brothers. In his dreams, he was a famous ruler and they, his brothers, would become his servants. As you read the account you will see he almost eager to share his dreams with them.
“Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.’
”His brothers said to him, ‘Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?’ And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.” Genesis 37:5-8.
For years, the brothers’ hatred lay dormant like the embers of an abandoned camp fire. The coolness of the surface concealed the inward hostility. Finally, when they saw a chance to take care of their problem brother, their hatred flared up into burning rage. As they were tending sheep miles from their father and home, they caught sight of Joseph approaching. They easily recognized his beautiful coat which identified him as the favored son.
Jacob wanted a report on his sons’ conduct and Joseph had been sent to check on his brothers. We pick up the story in Genesis 37:17-20:
“So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.
“ ‘Here comes that dreamer!’ they said to each other. ‘Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.’ “
Right on the heels of their plan, a caravan of merchants from Gilead came by, camels loaded with spices for the markets of Egypt. They see a less complicated way to get rid of Joseph. Showing little concern for either Joseph or their father, the brothers decide to sell him to the merchants. It had been their intention to kill Joseph. Thus, when they sold him to the merchants, in their minds, he was as good as dead. Never again would they have to listen to Joseph’s dreams!
The brothers returned home with the beautiful coat, now torn and stained red with the blood of a goat. The obvious conclusion is declared: Joseph is dead, killed by some ferocious animal. On hearing the news, Jacob was overwhelmed with sorrow and mourned for weeks.
Sold into slavery
When the Midianite merchants arrived in Egypt with their spices, they also put Joseph up for sale on the slave market. Potiphar, a high government official, bought Joseph. The brothers have gotten the ultimate revenge: The favored son becomes a slave in a foreign land.
As a slave, Joseph had several choices about how to conduct himself. Will he brood over his wretched situation or will he make the best of it? He chooses to be hard working and trustworthy. His master takes notice. As a result, he is soon promoted in Potiphar’s household. But he also catches the eye of Potiphar’s wife. When Joseph rejects her immoral demands she strikes back. She convinces her husband that Joseph tried to attack her and he is thrown into prison.
In jail, long months turn into years. Yet, despite the double injustice of being sold into slavery followed by false imprisonment, Joseph again chooses to be reliable and honest than to complain about his life. He is relying on the truth of his childhood dreams. The Captain of the Guard sees in Joseph unusual skill and integrity. He soon puts Joseph in charge of running the prison.
Finally, there’s a chance for Joseph to be rescued from prison. Egypt’s Pharaoh had become angry with two prominent employees and he imprisoned them. They are placed in the same prison where Joseph is now in charge. While in jail, the two servants each had a disturbing dream which they couldn’t understand. Joseph, however, was able to interpret their dreams. Within three days, each experi-enced the—prediction Joseph had made: The Chief Cupbearer is restored to service in Pharaoh’s court and the Chief Baker is hanged.
Of course, Joseph asked the cupbearer to put in a good word for him in Pharaoh’s court. Probably his last words were, “Help me get out of here!” The cupbearer failed–until two years later. Pharaoh had a perplexing dream which no one in the palace could interpret. Then the Chief Cupbearer remembered Joseph’s kindness to him in prison and recalled his own failure to do something to help him. He told Pharaoh that he knew someone who could interpret dreams. Notice what happens.
Rise to prominence
“So Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was quickly brought from the dungeon. When he had shaved and changed his clothes, he came before Pharaoh.” Now we learn something of the character of Joseph. The hardship of over ten years of slavery had brought Joseph to a better attitude about himself and life as well. Compare Pharaoh’s inquiry and Joseph’s answer:
“Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream, you can interpret it.’
“ ‘I cannot do it,’ Joseph replied to Pharaoh, ‘but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.” Genesis 41:14-16. While Joseph was still confident, it was not self-confidence. Adversity has taught him the lessons of patience and trust. He was being prepared for great service. He was beginning to see God’s hand in his life. This would allow him to experience God’s grace in his life and equip him to show “unmerited favor” to others.
Joseph is now standing before the Supreme Ruler of Egypt. It turns out there were two dreams which no one in Pharaoh’s Court could figure out. On listening to the dreams, Joseph declares that the dreams are one and the same. Seven well-fed, choice cows are swallowed up by seven thin and famished cows, yet the thin cows remain the same. Seven full heads of grain are swallowed by seven empty heads of grain and they remain the same.
Joseph gives a brief and direct interpretation: Egypt will have seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. The famine would include the entire region around the land of Egypt.
Joseph’s advice to Pharaoh? Appoint an administrator to collect food throughout the land during the seven years of plenty to protect the people from the seven years of famine that will follow. In quick order, Pharaoh designated Joseph as the administrator for the program he had outlined. He is highly successful. It was not long before Joseph was defacto the Prime Minister of Egypt.
Seven years of famine
The seven years of plenty soon elapsed into the time of extreme famine. While striking hard in Egypt, the drought reached up into the land of Canaan where Jacob and his sons were living. Survival depended on their ability to buy food in the only place where food was available — Egypt.
Jacob sent ten brothers to buy food, but they were not prepared for what they would find once they arrived in Egypt. When they sold Joseph into slavery, he was 17 years old. After years as a slave in Potiphar’s house, his prison experience and at least seven years as Prime Minister of Egypt, Joseph had to be at least 38 years old. Not only would the brothers not recognize Joseph, they were convinced that he was dead. The brothers were in the land they felt sure would dispose of their brother.
When they arrived in Egypt, they got tough questioning and rough treatment from the “governor” of the land. It brought back grim flashbacks of their treatment of their brother and father. “They said to one another, ‘Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.’ “ Genesis 42:21.
Joseph put them through several tests to see if they had changed their ways. He held one brother, Simeon, in prison while the others returned to their father with instructions to bring back his younger brother Benjamin. “You will not see my face again,” Joseph warned, “unless you bring your younger brother back.”
Months later, with their youngest brother Benjamin in their company, the brothers returned to Egypt. Joseph put them through one more test before revealing himself to them at a private reception. It was there in his home that he spoke in their language; he embraced them and fed them and clothed them. He assured them, “My home is your home! Go back and bring Dad here! The very best of the land is waiting for you!”
With great celebration and excitement the brothers returned to Canaan. Jacob hears the astonishing news: Joseph is still alive! And he is master over Pharaoh’s household. He wants us to come to his home, under his provision and protection to a place still rich in pasture for our flocks and herds.
Jacob and his family––66 people altogether––make the journey in a caravan to reunion and security. How different from the caravan to separation and slavery that Joseph had taken years earlier.
From slave to savior
The picture of grace through the life of Joseph is not fully revealed until Jacob dies. The transgressing brothers believed that as long as their dad was alive, Joseph would not try to seek revenge for the evil they had done to him. There was that nagging fear that once Jacob was dead and gone, they would suffer the fury of the man they had scoffed at and sold into slavery. In the end, Joseph’s story with his brothers is a beautiful picture of what God’s grace in heaven will be like.
Jacob dies. To fulfill his dying wish, his body is carried back to his homeland and is buried. At that point, the dread of what might very well happen comes out into the open. Listen to the conversation between the brothers. “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?’ “ So they sent word to Joseph, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph; I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly. Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.’ When their message came to him, Joseph wept.
“His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him, ‘We are your slaves,’ they said.
“But Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.’ And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.’ “ Genesis 50:15-22.
Oh, yes, the brothers knew full well what they deserved and in that land and in that time what would soon take place. Only by grace–unmerited favor–could they escape. But it didn’t end there. The provision of grace far exceeded their wildest expectations. Joseph provided the best he could arrange. Nothing was held back.
Joseph, the picture of Jesus
Joseph understood that God had sent him ahead as a slave in order that he might become the savior of his people. It’s like Jesus talking with His disciples, “I am going ahead to prepare a place for you so that where I am you, too, can be!” Just like Joseph with his brothers, God’s grace reaches past death and beyond the grave to those who are members of His family.
God has given us a picture of His grace in heaven through the life of Joseph. That’s amazing when you consider that all the parts are there. We, like the brothers, really don’t deserve anything but God’s righteous wrath. God sent His beloved Son Jesus into the world as a servant. Like Joseph, He was treated with contempt and ridicule. In rage, His own people shouted to the Roman governor, “We will not have this man to rule over us! Crucify him!” and that is just what they did.
Jesus, like Joseph, has gone ahead of us. He is preparing a place for all who will take Him as their Savior. When we reach the other side where He is waiting, He will continue to shower us with His grace. That’s not just a last minute afterthought — it’s been His plan from the very start. As the Apostle Paul told his associate Timothy, “this grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.” II Timothy 1:9, 10.
Yes, even before time began God planned for His grace to carry us into the ages to come. Beginning with His grace for salvation and for living and for dying, we can follow God’s great design for humankind. Are you a part of that design? Do you know Him? Have you tasted of His grace? Would you like to be sure of God’s unmerited favor forever? You can be!