President George H. W. Bush passed away last week. Tributes have been pouring in. When he was president, we may not have agreed with all his actions, but in hindsight, we see his wisdom, his decency and his character.
President Bush was an Episcopalian, except for a brief time in Midland, Texas, when he and Mrs. Bush attended the Presbyterian church. In her autobiography, Mrs. Bush spoke about their shared faith: They were reluctant to use their Christian faith as a political tool. She acknowledged they prayed together and had a deep spiritual connection. Both attended church regularly.
The Bush family had deep connections with Billy Graham. On the night the air campaign against Iraq began, the Bushes invited the famous evangelist to spend the night in the White House. That night, they needed a pastor.
No one, of course, can know if a person is truly saved. Jesus told us we will know people's faith by their fruit, but from a distance, even wax fruit looks edible. But by his own words, George Bush professed faith in Christ. Spiritual fruits of joy, goodness, kindness, gentleness and self-control showed in his life.
Because of his profession of faith and the evidence of fruit in his life, I believe George Bush went to heaven upon his death. What happened next?
I saw a touching cartoon that depicted the President flying in on his WWII TBM Avenger, sharing joyous hugs with his wife and his daughter Robin (who passed away when she was three from leukemia), standing before a wrought iron heavenly gate. President George W. Bush, in a glowing tribute to his father, broke down when he spoke about his Dad being reunited with Robin and Barbara. It is a lovely picture.
But it is inaccurate.
When a believer dies, he is immediately brought into the presence of God. Jesus said to the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise." There is no standing before pearly gates, with St. Peter poring over the pages of a book, trying to figure out if you belong in heaven or hell. You will stand before God.
We are not given many details about these first moments in heaven. Revelation 7 gives a glimpse, like looking through a keyhole. There will be many people there, robed in white. They are waving palm branches, just like the crowd did on Palm Sunday when Jesus entered Jerusalem. They are shouting in loud voices, "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb." This multitude understands we do not get to heaven by being good; we arrive there because of grace. Our God, who sits on the throne, does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
John, who saw the vision of Revelation, tells us these are the people who have been made clean by the blood of the Lamb. They will never again be hungry. They will never again thirst. The Lamb (Jesus) will be their shepherd. They will be led to springs of living water. God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Whatever else we might dream about heaven, this much is clear. Jesus is the main event. The focus is on him. In heaven we will see the extent of his mercy and the depth of his grace. You will realize how much God must love you to allow you to be part of this scene. The parts of your soul that have not yet been healed from your own sins will be healed in those first moments. For the first time, you will be exactly who God created you to be. You will be healed, from top to bottom.
Will you recognize others in the crowd? Probably so. We will gain a new body (the details are a little tedious) that will be immortal, incorruptible. At the very least it means no more aging, no more sickness, no more addictions, no more imperfection in our looks (I wonder what my perfect self will look like?). But the essence of who we are, who Jesus redeemed us to be, will remain intact.
Will we have a break time to catch up with loved ones? The Bible doesn't say. I like to think so. I would like to have time to talk to my Dad. I'd like to hug my mother. I have some friends - Robert, Ray, James and Steve - I would like to catch up with. I'd like to find a couple of my professors and thank them. But again, the Bible doesn't really spell this out.
The main point of heaven is to be with Jesus. Dallas Willard wisely observed that time on earth was to prepare for heaven. If we did not want to be with Jesus on earth, we will be pretty miserable in heaven.
When President Bush came into the presence of Jesus on Friday night, he was not greeted by his daughter or his wife. He was greeted by Jesus. It was the voice of Jesus that called his name. It was then the former President knew for the first time the fullness of God's mercy, his love and his grace. He was given a white robe. His voice joined the multitude: "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb."
Whether you are president or just a plain person, what matters in heaven is Jesus. Do you know him, or do you just know about him?
Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
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