Everything the Gospels Say About Heaven

The Flammarion Woodcut, a depiction of the heavens and the earth from 1888.

As part of my preparation for a Sunday School class I’m teaching next week, I decided to take a look at every place where the four gospels mention the word “heaven” and do a quick analysis.  This isn’t super scholarly–it was all done in English with some simple online tools, but it might be a good starting point for deeper study later.  I’ll try to write up some conclusions before long, but it might be fun (depending on your definition of “fun”) for you guys to take a good look first and see if anything in particular jumps out at you.  Again, this is a rough first look, done in my spare time over two evenings.

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If you do a simple word search for “heaven” in the gospels, you find 123 verses that contain that word.

Matthew

Just over half of those verses, 65, are in the gospel of Matthew, which uses the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” where other gospels say the “the kingdom of God.”  That accounts for 31 verses, none of which are referring to the afterlife. Another twelve are references to “our Father in heaven,” used as a label for God.  Of the remaining 23, we have:

Lines that are in some way acknowledging heaven as the dwelling of the Father, the Spirit or the angels

  • 3:16-17 Two references in the story of the baptism of Jesus, in which heaven opens and the spirit of God descends, and then a voice from heaven calls out “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
  • 5:24 “But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne…”
  • 6:10 (The Lord’s Prayer) “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
  • 11:25 A reference to God as “Lord of Heaven”
  • 14:19 Jesus looks up to heaven as he prays.
  • 16:1 The Sadducees demand a sign from heaven
  • 18:10 “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”
  • 21:25-26 Jesus presses his enemies to answer whether John’s baptism was from heaven or from men.
  • 22:30 “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”
  • 23:9 “And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.”
  • 23:22 “And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.”
  • 24:36 “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
  • 26:64 “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
  • 28:2 “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.”

References to the faithful storing up rewards/treasures in heaven

  • 5:12 “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
  • 6:20 “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…”
  • 19:21 “Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Heaven mentioned as part of a hyperbolic figure of speech intended to reinforce a teaching point

  • 5:18 “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
  • 24:35 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

A declaration regarding apostolic authority

  • 18:18 “”I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”

A declaration regarding the authority of Jesus

  • 28:18 “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.””

Mark

The word “heaven” appears only 14 times in Mark, (1:10-11, 6:4,; 7:34, 8:11, 10:21, 11:25,30-31, 12:25, 13:31-32, 14:62, 16:19) all of which can be placed into the same categories used for Matthew, and most of which are parallel passages to a line in Matthew.  The one notable line which Matthew doesn’t contain is Mark 16:19, which is part of a longer ending added by an anonymous scribe.  The oldest manuscripts of Mark end at verse 8.  16:19 reads “After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.”

Luke

Luke uses the term 28 times.

Usages seen previously in Matthew and Mark

Lines that are in some way acknowledging heaven as the dwelling of the Father, the Spirit or the angels

  • 2:15  “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven”
  • 3:21-22   At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descends from heaven and the Father’s voice calls from heaven
  • 9:16  “Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them.”
  • 10:21 “Father, Lord of heaven and earth”
  • 11:13 “your Father in heaven”
  • 11:16 “a sign from heaven”
  • 15:7 “rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents”
  • 15:18,21 “I have sinned against heaven and against you”
  • 18:13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”
  • 19:38 “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
  • 20:4-5 Jesus presses his enemies to answer whether John’s baptism was from heaven or from men.
  • 21:11 “signs from heaven”
  • 22:43 “an angel from heaven appeared”

References to the faithful storing up rewards/treasures in heaven

  • 6:23  “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.”
  • 12:33 “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
  • 18:22 “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

Heaven mentioned as part of a hyperbolic figure of speech intended to reinforce a teaching point

  • 21:33 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

Usages unique to Luke

Heaven as the originating place of the sun

  • 1:78        “by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven”

Heaven, the place from which divine punishments are issued

  • 9:54  “When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them ?”
  • 17:29 “But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.”

Heaven as the place where Satan once was

  • 10:18     “He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”

Heaven is where the names of the faithful are recorded

  • 10:20 “However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Heaven, the destination of the resurrected Jesus

  • 9:51  “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.”
  • 24:51  “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.”

Obviously, where exactly one draws the lines between categories is a matter of subjective assessment.  The final category could easily be placed with the first, (Lines that are in some way acknowledging heaven as the dwelling of the Father, the Spirit or the angels), but I thought it important to set it apart in this analysis because of the sheer importance of these verses to Luke.  9:51 marks a major turning point in the narrative—any scholarly outline of Luke will take note of the shift that happens here.  24:51 is at the very end of the book.  Most of Luke’s narrative is bookended by the line announcing that Jesus will at some point be taken up to heaven and the line that depicts it happening.

John

John’s themes and interests are very different than those of the other three gospels, and that is evident in his sixteen uses of the word “heaven.”  Four of them come under the most prominent category from the synpotics:

Lines that are in some way acknowledging heaven as the dwelling of the Father, the Spirit or the angels.

  • 1:32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.
  • 1:51 He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
  • 12:29 Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.
  • 17:1 After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed

Of the other twelve occurrences, all are found in chapters three and six, and all twelve make exactly the same point:

Jesus came down from heaven

  • 3:13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.
  • 3:27 To this John replied, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.
  • 3:31 “The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all.
  • 6:31 Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ “
  • 6:32 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.
  • 6:33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
  • 6:38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.
  • 6:41 At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”
  • 6:42 They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
  • 6:50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die.
  • 6:51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
  • 6:58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.”
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1 Comment

Filed under Bible

One response to “Everything the Gospels Say About Heaven

  1. joe

    This is a great research topic!

    One verse that came to mind is this Matthew 19:23 : “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

    I know that this is a verse of doubtful origin, but it seems to pertain to people entering heaven at least. Is this within your “31 verses” that you discounted in your reference above?

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