N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes our salvation.
The Bible uses “heaven” to refer to the sky as well as to where God lives — but these weren’t considered the same thing.
The point of the Temple—this is where I want to develop considerably further what was said in the earlier volumes—is that it was where heaven and earth met. It was the place where Israel’s God, YHWH, had long ago promised to put his name, to make his glory present. The Temple, and before it the wilderness tabernacle, were thus heirs, within the biblical narrative, to moments like Jacob’s vision, the discovery that a particular spot on earth could intersect with, and be the gateway into, heaven itself. In the later period, even synagogues could sometimes be thought of as meeting places between heaven and earth; how much more the actual Temple.
The Temple was not simply a convenient place to meet for worship. It was not even just the ‘single sanctuary’, the one and only place where sacrifice was to be offered in worship to the one God. It was the place above all where the twin halves of the good creation intersected.
When you went up to the Temple, it was not as though you were ‘in heaven’. You were actually there. That was the point. Israel’s God did not have to leave heaven in order to come down and dwell in the wilderness tabernacle or the Jerusalem Temple. However surprising it may be for modern westerners to hear it, within the worldview formed by the ancient scriptures heaven and earth were always made to work together, to interlock and overlap.
There might in principle be many places and ways in which this could happen, but the Jewish people had believed, throughout the millennium prior to Jesus, that the Jerusalem Temple was the place and the means par excellence for this strange and powerful mystery.
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 4:96–97.
Basically, heaven and earth, in biblical cosmology, are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two different dimensions of God’s good creation. And the point about heaven is twofold. First, heaven relates to earth tangentially, so that the one who is in heaven can be present simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth: the ascension therefore means that Jesus is available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on the earth to find him. Second, heaven is as it were the control room for earth; it is the CEO’s office, the place from which instructions are given. ‘All authority is given to me,’ said Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel, ‘in heaven and on earth.’
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 122.
In short, the Jews were not wooden literalists, imagining heaven as far away above the sky, although they were familiar with and used that image at times. Rather, as we see in the Transfiguration, heaven is next to earth but in a different “dimension” (to borrow from science fiction). As C. S. Lewis describes the relationship in the Chronicles of Narnia, for those with faith and open minds, heaven is just a trip through a wardrobe or a mural away — right here but invisible and imperceptible most of the time.
(Lk. 9:30-31 ESV) 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
“Glory” almost always refers to the Shekinah — the brightly shining glory that surrounds God. For Moses and Elijah to appear in glory is for them to appear as they are in heaven. That is, they have not so much left heaven as God has opened a passage between heaven and earth, so that the apostles see Jesus, Moses, and Elijah as they appear in heaven — because heaven and earth are briefly intersecting.
Luke tells concerning them what he has just shown concerning Jesus—namely, that they are present “in glory,” sharing in the status of those who belong to the heavenly court.
Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 381.
They retained their heavenly appearance because God had opened a window between heaven and earth, not only allowing Moses and Elijah to stand with Jesus on earth, but for all three to appear as they are in heaven.