Am I alone in having kept a vague little picture hidden in my mind that I used to pull out and dust off every time I heard the phrase ‘heavenly places’? (I’m guessing I’m probably not.)
Take this example for instance: ‘But God….made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up together and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus’ (Eph. 2:6 NKJV).
Back in the seventies and eighties we used to sing a song: ‘I’m a conqueror and victorious, I’m reigning with Jesus, I’m seated in heavenly places with Him, with Him….’ In my imagination I would see myself sitting on a sweet little chair beside Jesus on His much larger Throne, perched on a fluffy white cloud far above the earth in this mysterious locality called ‘heavenly places’, both of us apparently having a great time though I admit I did sometimes wonder should we be doing something other than just sitting there being happy and victorious.
(Oh, and by the way, if you’re still singing that song with a similar snapshot in your mind, now may be the appropriate time to issue a spoiler alert.)
It turns out those imagined heavenly places of long ago aren’t exactly what Paul had in mind when he was writing to the Ephesians. For one thing, my pretty little picture didn’t take into consideration that being ‘raised up’ means raised up from death, which logically suggests there has to be a burial first (gulp!) (Eph. 1:20).
And nobody told me the original language used by Paul was far more specific than just sitting beside Jesus on my own little throne. The word he used, ‘synegeiro’, doesn’t mean ‘together with’ in the sense of being in the company of someone in the same physical locality. It means being totally bound to them in unbreakable and absolute union and implies an intimate covenantal relationship.
Then there are those undefined, cryptic ‘heavenly places’. Paul mentions them five times in Ephesians ¹. Rather than actual ‘places’ somewhere in Heaven, the word here (G. epouranios) more specifically conveys a spiritual realm, an atmosphere, and a perspective. In fact ‘places’ is not even in the original text and was added by translators.
These ‘heavenly places’ Paul was referring to are better understood as a supernatural sphere where spiritual activities take place. Even Satan and his troops are active in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12), but their activities are far below the authority and power of Christ and those who are His (Eph. 1:18-23).
So far my long ago imaginative picture of ‘heavenly places’ is not holding up well under scrutiny, is it?
Did you ever wonder why Christ is ‘seated’ in this spiritual sphere we call ‘heavenly places’? Or why we too are said to be ‘seated’? There is a hint in the book of Hebrews:
And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God… ( Heb.10:11,12)
The writer of Hebrews wanted to prove to his or her readers the superiority of the New Covenant ushered in by Jesus Christ over the former law covenant instigated by Moses. The context of this passage compares the Old Covenant priesthood to the New Covenant, in which Christ is our eternal Great High Priest, whose own innocent blood is sufficient to deal with sin once and forever.
The Old Covenant priests ministered in rostered shifts and were required to stand as they performed their duties in the presence of God, repeatedly offering sacrifices to atone for the people’s sins day by day, year after year. No priest could sit until his priestly role was completed for the day (Deut. 10:8, 18:5-7; Num. 16:9; 2 Chron. 35:5; Judg. 20:28). Christ however, after offering His one time, eternal sacrifice, sat down, signifying that His work was forever finished.
The reference in Ephesians 2:6 to being seated with Christ now takes on deeper meaning for us. When Paul speaks of God having raised us and made us sit together with Christ, he uses the word ‘sugkathizo’. Once again, this word implies an intimate, binding connection, not simply sharing the same space. This is the same word that the Septuagint², an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament often quoted by Jesus and New Testament writers, used when Abraham sat by God as a blood covenant was established between the two of them. Later the same word was used when Moses sat before the people to minister the Law (Septuagint Gen 15:11; Ex. 18:13).
So being seated with Christ is something more than relaxing on a fluffy cloud surveying the heavens. It speaks to us of our covenant relationship with Him. And it is positional. In Christ, we are made to sit, because His work is finished and we can add no more to it. These heavenly places in which we are seated are a supernatural realm we increasingly inhabit as we come to rest in the truth that our redemption is finished and we can do nothing to complete or increase it. This truth is known in the Heavens, it is known by angels, it is known by Satan, it is known by creation – it is only human hearts that fail to grasp hold of it.
Hmmm…it seems my long-ago neat little mental picture of heavenly places is so not the truth Paul was trying to convey to his fellow believers.
And yet……do you sense this truth taking hold of us? Do you sometimes momentarily, as a friend recently described it, ‘catch a glimpse’ of something so complete, so restful, so beautiful in its finality and its perfection, that you want to run deep into it and never return to this earthly domain where faith is ridiculed and chaos seeks to rule? Could it be that something new is happening within us, something momentous and without precedent?
Christ’s journey from the Cross to the right hand of the Father did not end with His resurrection. There were three major events in that journey: burial, resurrection and ascension.
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:6,7)
Our journey into the depths of Christ has led us to the Cross where we have embraced Him in His sufferings, died to our old natures and been buried with Him; it has led us on to an empty tomb where we have been raised to the new living way of resurrection Life and Kingdom dwelling with Him. And now, just as He ascended to the right hand of the Father, we must journey on to learn to live in the glory of His ascension, where we have been lifted into the heavenly atmosphere of His undisputed rule and reign. (I am not referring to a ‘rapture’ here where believers are bodily lifted off the earth….this is a spiritual realm available to us while we learn to walk in the Spirit here on the earth.)
So….about those heavenly places? They are not a faraway celestial location at all. Could it be they are a spiritual realm that may be apprehended anytime, anywhere, by Christ-followers who have ceased striving for their own righteousness and to whom His finished work of redemption is becoming a moment by moment reality? I believe so.
Christ Jesus, after burial, after resurrection, ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father – a scriptural phrase signifying a position of unequalled divine authority (Acts 5:32; Rom. 8:34; 1 Pet. 3:22; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1). And here’s the thought I want to leave with you: in Christ we occupy that same position, seated with Him on His throne, just as He sat down on His Father’s throne (Rev. 3:21).
This authority is not an authority that has constantly to be proven as some apparently feel they must do. It is not an authority we must strive to demonstrate. It is an authority born out of brokenness, forged in a furnace of affliction and sealed with the Father’s approval. Whether we feel we have it is not the issue: whether we are conscious of it is also not the issue. It is not earned by anything we do or think we are, it is covenantal. It is ours by inheritance.
This authority is exercised as we walk in the Spirit and live in the Presence of Christ the King, without any conscious effort on our part. It will flow naturally from us from a position of rest in the finished work of Christ.
Put simply it is the authority of the overcomer. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the Bride of Christ is on the ascent. Hold that thought until the thought holds you.
¹ Ephesians 1:3; 1:20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12
² The Septuagint, meaning ‘seventy’ (also known as the LXX) is a translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek language. The tradition is that 72 Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek in the third and second centuries BC in Alexandria, Egypt. It was the first known major effort at translating a significant religious text from one language into another. Many New Testament quotes from the Old Testament Hebrew are taken from the Septuagint indicating the apostles and New Testament writers obviously felt comfortable using it.
© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2016 Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included. To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.