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Introductory Note: Dealing with death is a challenge for each of us, whether it’s our personal death we’re facing or the death of a loved one to which we’re responding. In this article I’d like for us to consider the Christian’s hope of heaven as an effective solution for coping with death and as a helpful component in grief recovery.—Dr. Bill Baker
 

Seven cities of gold. No man knew where they were, but many men wanted to find them.
 
The date was February, 1540. Vasquez de Coronado, a Spanish soldier and explorer, determined to find the famous Cities of Cibola. Driven by dreams of an Eldorado where wealth was waiting, Coronado and his men explored much of the Southwest United States. But to their great dismay and disappointment they never found their “city of gold.”
 
 
Some thirty-five centuries before Coronado entered the scene of human history another “explorer” lived who also searched for a city. The story of his search is recorded in the Bible. According to Heb. 11:10, Abraham “looked forward to a city with foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” Speaking of Abraham and his descendants, the writer adds in verse 16: “But, as it is, they desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”
 
 
Searching for a city! Regardless of the century of time every person is searching for a city. Like Coronado, most people seem to be searching for some type of earthly city in which they hope to find personal happiness and worldly success. In contrast, some people imitate Abraham in that they are searching for another type of city—a heavenly city whose builder and maker is God.
 
 
In 1949 Ira Stanphill wrote the words to a familiar song which captures the heart of this search for a heavenly city. Verse two of “Mansion over the Hilltop” contains these words:  “Don’t think me poor or deserted or lonely; I’m not discouraged, I’m heaven bound; I’m just a pilgrim in search of a city; I want a mansion, a robe, and a crown.”
 
 
These lyrics suggest three important ideas for us to ponder in our minds and to apply to our lives. “I’m just a pilgrim.” “In search of a city.” “I’m heaven bound.”

                                                                                   I. “I’M JUST A PILGRIM”
 

According to Stanphill’s song, “I’m just a pilgrim.” What does the word “pilgrim” bring to your mind?

 

 

If you’re a student of cowboy movies, you’ll probably think about the twenty-three times that John Wayne’s character called James Stewart’s character “pilgrim” in the movie, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Or, if you’re a student of American history, you’ll no doubt think about the settlers in Colonial America who came to this country to find freedom and fulfillment in a new start and a new life.
 
 
However, if you’re a student of the Bible, you’ll certainly think about God’s people—those who are on a pilgrimage from earth to heaven.  The writer of Heb. 11:8-16 uses several words to describe God’s people: “pilgrims,"  “sojourners,” “strangers,” “aliens,” “exiles,” and “foreigners,” depending upon the translation you’re reading. A “sojourner” is a “resident alien” or a “temporary resident.” The word described the Israelites in their Egyptian bondage and their Babylonian exile. The apostle Peter used the idea when he wrote to his Christian brethren: “I urge you as aliens and strangers in the world to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your souls.” (I Pet. 2:11). Clement, one of the early “church fathers,” described the Christians in Corinth as people who “sojourned at Corinth.” 
 
 
In the ancient world the sojourner was considered a “stranger” and an “outsider.” Socially, the sojourner was often looked upon with suspicion and distrust; sometimes he was treated no better than a common slave. Perhaps that’s why the early church was commanded to “show hospitality to strangers.”(Heb. 13:2) Christians were told to do what the world around them was unwilling to do.
 
 
Based upon these Biblical teachings, it becomes clear that we would benefit greatly by having a “pilgrim mentality” as we continue in our journey from earth to heaven. Abraham and his descendants admitted that they were “aliens and strangers on earth.” (Heb. 11:13) As God’s pilgrims we acknowledge the same mindset. Such a mentality is logical and appropriate since we have transferred our citizenship from earth to heaven. Paul made this fact clear in Phil. 3:19-20. In contrast to people whose “mind is on earthly things,” our “citizenship is in heaven, from which we eagerly await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus himself lived by a “pilgrim mentality” in his personal journey from heaven to earth and back to heaven. John wrote that Jesus knew that “he had come from God and was returning to God” (John 13:3). Like his followers, Jesus was a pilgrim, and, like Jesus, we who are his followers are sharing a common pilgrimage.
 
 
We sing old songs that promote this pilgrim mentality.
 
 
               “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing thru;
                 My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue;
                The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,
                And I can’t feel at home in this world any more.”
                                            (“This World Is Not My Home,” Traditional)
 
 
               “I am a stranger here within a foreign land,
                My home is for away upon a golden strand;
                Ambassador to be of realms beyond the sea,
                I’m here on business for my king.”
                                           (“I Am A Stranger Here,” 1902, Dr. E. T. Cassel)
 
 
We sing new songs like “Homesick” by Mercy Me that remind us that we’re pilgrims en route to heaven. We feel homesick when loved ones complete their pilgrimage, and being left behind we miss them.
   
               “I close my eyes and I see your face
               If home's where my heart is then I'm out of place
               Lord, won't you give me strength to make it through somehow
               I've never been more homesick than now.”
 
 
One old gospel song tells the story of an elderly minister who had spent his life working in a foreign mission field. Finally, the years took their toll and, in retirement he returned alone to the United States on a ship. When his ship finally docked in the harbor, he saw a great crowd of people cheering loudly as if to welcome him home. However, his joy turned quickly to disappointment as he realized that they were there not for him but for a celebrity on the ship. As his eyes misted and his heart sank, it seemed as if a voice from within was reminding him, “Remember, son, you’re not home yet.”
 
 
Not home yet! That’s the bottom line for every child of God. By definition a pilgrim cannot be “at home” until he reaches his final destination. Perhaps we need to hear an inner voice reminding us, “Don’t get too comfortable on this earth. This world is not your home. Remember, you’re not home yet.”

                                                                                    II. “IN SEARCH OF A CITY”
 

“I’m just a pilgrim, in search of a city.” Searching—for a city! That’s the story of each person’s quest in life.
 

Seemingly, most people decide to invest their lives in learning about and searching for some earthly city, hoping to find happiness and success. Tragically they discover that the city, once found, is filled mostly with disappointment and discouragement. To their deep regret they learn that wealth is elusive, success is temporary, life is fragile, and death is certain. In contrast, some people choose a different road, clearly a road less traveled. Their search is well-described by the writer of Heb. 13:14:  “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.”
 
 
“I’m just a pilgrim in search of a city.” A wise pilgrim wants to learn as much as possible about the city being sought. So, our search raises an important question:  “What can we learn about heaven, the city that is to come?” To answer that question we turn to the only source of authentic information about the afterlife we have available to us—the Bible. In our study we learn at least three important things about heaven that will enlighten and encourage us in our journey.
 
 
First, Heaven Is A City Designed!
 

Heaven is neither an accident nor an afterthought in the mind of God. Abraham, that ancient pilgrim, looked forward to the city with foundations, whose builder and maker is God. (Heb. 11:10) According to I Cor. 2:7, the preparations for heaven began before the worlds were created. Throughout human history God, the supreme Architect, has continued to build an eternal home for his people, his pilgrims. “Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” (Heb. 11:16)
 
 
Christians recall the promise Jesus made to them through his apostles. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. 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.” (Jn. 14:1-3)
 
 
Secondly, Heaven Is A City Described!
 

What is heaven like? Obviously, since heaven is a spiritual city, it defies human description. On one occasion the apostle Paul was privileged through some type of vision to visit Paradise (or heaven) in which he “heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.” (II Cor. 12:1-4) However, Paul’s spiritual insight led him to share information that provides glimpses into heaven:
 
 
               “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Rom. 8:18)
               “Our light and momentary afflictions are preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (II Cor. 4:17)
 
 
The apostle John saw the heavenly city in his visions on the isle of Patmos. He described what he saw in this way:
 
 
               “And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’” (Rev. 21:3-4)
 
 
Can we imagine such a city?  The absence of all that is bad—and the presence of all that is good! As I try to visualize the heavenly city in my mind I see at least four pictures.
 
 
          Picture #1: I see heaven as a place of activity.
 

Thankfully, based on what Paul wrote about heaven in I Cor. 15 we’ll all have new bodies which are spiritual in nature. Since we’ll never get tired or weary, activity will be welcomed! Paul described heaven as a place where we will glorify and worship God (II Thess. 1:10; Phil. 2:10-11). In Rev. 7:15 John indicates that we will serve God in his temple in heaven. Clearly, in heaven we will be engaged in activities that will bring honor to God and will provide for us continuing joy and celebration!
 
 
          Picture #2: I see heaven as a place of fellowship.
 

That fellowship will certainly be a part of our activity in heaven. We do understand from Jesus’ teachings in Matt. 22:30 that there will be no marriage in heaven. However, several scriptural references suggest that there will be recognition and fellowship in heaven (that is, the story of Lazarus in Luke 16 and the apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration in Matt. 17). Surely we’ll be able to recognize all of God’s “pilgrims” described in the Bible, and certainly we’ll be able to recognize the people we’ve known and loved in our own lifetimes. That being true, our time in heaven will be filled with wonderful fellowship.
 
 
In reference to fellowship in heaven I value the reflections shared by older one man of faith. Perhaps you also will appreciate his sentiments about Heaven.
 
 
“When I was just a boy I used to think of heaven as a glorious golden city, with jeweled walls, and gates of pearl, with nobody in it but the angels, and they were all strangers to me. But after a while my little brother died. Then I thought of heaven as that great city, full of angels, with just one little fellow in it that I was acquainted with. He was the only one I knew there, at that time. Then another brother died, and there were two in heaven that I knew. Then my acquaintances began to die, and the number of my friends in heaven grew larger all the time. But, it was not till one of my own little ones died that I began to feel that I had a personal interest in heaven. Then a second child died, and a third, and a fourth. So many of my friends and loved ones have gone there that it seems that now I know more people in heaven than I know on earth. And now, when my thoughts turn to heaven, it is not the gold and jewels and pearls that I think about, but the loved ones there. It is not the place so much as the company that makes heaven seem beautiful to me.”  (Author unknown)

           Picture #3: I see heaven as a place of beauty.
 
Heaven will certainly be a city of unparalleled beauty. God has given us the capacity to see and enjoy beauty in this physical world. Because he has created so many colorful and beautiful things God must value beauty. Surely that beauty will be a part of heaven!
 

The sun was already beginning to set when the young girl and her father sat down on the deck to enjoy the sunset. Neither one broke the silence as they watched Mother Nature at her best. The sun was partially obscured by the towering cumulus clouds, but its power was still displayed brilliantly in the colorful scene. Reds, oranges, yellows—all were arrayed in majestic splendor across the western sky. So bright, so beautiful, so awesome! Finally the sun dropped beneath the horizon and the evening shadows began to steal across the sky. The little girl looked up at her father.  With large, wondering eyes she asked, “Daddy, if this side of heaven is so pretty, what must the other side be like?"
 
 
The question is a good one:  what must the other side be like? We consider the beautiful scenes in our world—waterfalls, mountains, valleys, sunrises, sunsets. Fully aware of God’s creative powers for beauty, we believe more and more that our hope is real: the best is yet to be! The song declares the awesome truth:  “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be!”
 
 
          Picture #4: I see heaven as a place of victory!
 

When we get to heaven death will have been conquered and Satan will have been defeated. Indeed, we will be “more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Rom. 8:37) Indeed, we will sing and shout the victory! As the song says, “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.” (Amazing Grace, John Newton, 1779)
 
 
Thirdly, Heaven Is A City Desired!
 

Speaking of cities, what city on earth do you most desire to visit? How would you like to visit Clarendon, Arkansas? If all of your expenses were covered, would you want to go? Probably not, since you have little or no knowledge of this town of 2000 people in central Arkansas. Your desire to go there is probably about zero! I can understand your lack of interest. I would share your lack of enthusiasm except for the fact that Clarendon, Arkansas happens to be the place where I “committed my childhood” just a few years ago, and it’s the place where both my parents are buried.
 

What about other cities of the world? Honolulu? London? Paris? Without doubt your desire level begins to grow. You may have a special city you’d love to visit. Your desire level to visit that city may be extremely high.
 
 
What about that “city to come”—heaven? Based on their behavior most people in our world have little or no desire to go to that city. Perhaps they just don’t understand what is there for them. Perhaps they are too distracted by the treasures and pleasures of this world. However, for God’s pilgrims heaven is the ultimate destination! The apostle Paul was very emphatic when he confessed, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ. . .”  (Phil. 1:21-23). Furthermore, he described in II Cor. 5:1-4 how much Christians long for heaven, how we desire to inherit our heavenly dwelling.
 

We need to understand the danger of forgetting our destination. We recall the mistakes of the Israelites following their deliverance from Egyptian bondage. They lost their desire to enter the Promised Land and, because of their rebellion and sin, had to wander for forty years in the wilderness. Let’s learn from their mistakes, and, in contrast, let’s maintain our desire to reach our Promised Land—that heavenly city that is to come. That desire motivates us to sing with Ira Stanphill, “I want a mansion, a robe, and a crown.”
 
 
                                                     III. “I’M HEAVEN BOUND”

“I’m just a pilgrim in search of a city. I’m not discouraged, I’m heaven bound.” All of us are bound for somewhere. No one is going nowhere; there is no “nowhere man.” You are a “going somewhere” person who is either discouraged or encouraged by your individual journey.
 
 
Most of earth’s travelers are understandably discouraged.They are drawn to the world’s promises for success and happiness yet they suffer from the consequences of their choices. They seem wise enough to see that their road leads to destruction but they are not wise enough to choose the better road. Thus, they continue to seek but they never find their city of gold.
 
 
In contrast, the Christian (God’s pilgrim) who has transferred his citizenship to heaven can claim with confidence, “I’m not discouraged.” Why not? The answer is simple:  “I’m heaven bound!"
 
 
 
CHOOSING OUR PILGRIMAGE. . .
 

The truth is that we are all bound for somewhere. Therefore, because of that truth it is critically important that we choose our pilgrimage with wisdom.
 
Abraham was a wise man. He understood that on this earth nothing lasts. No city is enduring. Therefore, as a wise man he searched for a “better country, that is, a heavenly one.” His wisdom led him to “seek that city that is to come.”
 
 
Likewise, the apostle Peter was a wise man. He acknowledged the perishable nature of everything on this earth, and he understood the value of an imperishable, eternal inheritance.
  
                 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you.” (I Pet. 1:3-4)
 
 
Abraham and Peter would challenge us to consider carefully our journey in life. What is our pilgrimage? On what road are we traveling? Toward what city are we headed? The key question is: “We’re searching for what city?”
 
 
The Christian perspective about heaven is unique. The world may think that we are fools for giving up the treasures and pleasures of earth. The world may think that we are fools for transferring our citizenship from earth to heaven. So, we ask the world a vital question.  Since here on earth we have no enduring city, why are we fools to seek that city that is to come?
 
 
Our answer is simply this:  “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose!”*
 
 
                                                                                       
 

Heaven is real. Because it is real heaven provides hope to the person who asks, “How do I get ready to die?” Because it is real heaven provides help to the person who asks, “How do I respond to the death of my loved ones?”
 
 
Heaven is a prepared place—for a prepared people.  We become prepared by trusting in Jesus and doing what he says to do to become his followers. We stay prepared by trusting in Jesus and by “walking in the light, as he is in the light.” (I Jn.1:7)
 
Then, because we are prepared, we will say confidently with one elderly lady as she contemplated her journey to the heavenly city, “I always keep my suitcase packed!”
 
 
Then, because we are prepared, we will not fear when that door into eternity opens for us.
 
Then, because we are prepared, we will sing with calm assurance and hopeful anticipation the words of the old song:
 
 
               “Don’t think me poor or deserted or lonely; I’m not discouraged, I’m heaven bound; I’m just a pilgrim in search of a city; I want a mansion, a robe, and a crown.”
 

I wish you the best in your spiritual journey through death and into the life beyond. And I wish you the best in all of your relationship journeys!
 
                                                                              

*Quoted by Elizabeth Elliot (1981), Through Gates of Splendor (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., p. 167) in regard to her husband, Jim Elliot, a missionary who was killed by the Auca Indians in Ecuador in 1956. The quotation was probably adapted by Jim Eliot from Philip Henry, a seventeenth-century minister in England, who allegedly wrote, “He is no fool who parts with that which he cannot keep, when he is sure to be recompensed with that which he cannot lose.”
 

RESOURCES: If you're interested in other articles about death and grief issues, check out the category called Grief Recovery under the Resources tab on the Home page, or just click the image to the right. 
 

In June, 2009 Dr. Baker was asked to present this material about “Heaven: Searching for a City” to his home congregation during a Sunday morning worship service due to recent deaths in the congregation.


(To hear his lesson as given on that occasion please click on the play button below.)
 

 

 
 

              Grief Recovery #1004
                                                                             
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