By Robin Sam
THE first verse in the first book of the Bible is a simple statement. Genesis 1:1 says, ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ NKJV, ESV and NIV agree on calling it heavens, while KJV simply calls it ‘heaven’. The word used in the Hebrew language Bible is shamayim and that is in plural. Shamayim means heights or elevations.
In Psalm 102:25, the psalmist declares: “…and the heavens are the work of Your hands.”
The Scriptures indicate that there are three heavens (shamayim or heights or elevations) and all of them were created by God. The earth’s atmosphere or the firmament forms the first heaven. The Bible talks about the birds in the sky (Genesis 2:19; 7:3,23; Psalms 8:8). That’s the first heaven. Then, there is the realm of the stars, the planets and other heavenly bodies. The second heaven begins where the atmosphere ends. Although there are great technological advancements today, the second heaven still remains in the domain of the unknown. What we know about it is partial. We still do not know how many stars or planets or galaxies are out there. That’s why a wonder-struck psalmist said in Psalm 19:1: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God.’ The expanse of the second heaven is so vast, huge and immeasurable that even today we acknowledge what the prophet said in Isaiah 40:22, “He stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in.” The third heaven is the domain of the unseen. It is the domain of God and His angels. It’s called the highest heavens or the heaven of heavens (Deuteronomy 10:14; 1 Kings 8:27; Psalms 115:16; 148:4). Paul calls it the third heaven and Paradise (2 Corinthians 12:2 & 4).
Heaven has doors and windows, the Bible says. When God opened the doors of heaven, like He did for the Israelites, He gave them manna to eat (Psalm 78:23). During Noah’s time, when God opened the windows of heaven it rained for 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7:11-12). The windows of heaven are opened not just for retribution but also to reward His children. Malachi 3:10 talks about an abundant blessing that comes upon God’s children as a result of His opening the windows of heaven. When God is angry, He can shut the heavens so it will not rain on the earth and the ground will not yield its produce (Deuteronomy 11:17). God will also open the heavens to send rain on our land in season and to bless all the work of our hands (Deuteronomy 28: 12).
In the New Testament, we see four occasions when God opened the heavens or the skies. And each of the occasions was momentous. Each one was a significant act of God and worth meditating. It’s my prayer that we will allow the Spirit of God to speak to us as we allow Him to explain the significance of the open heavens.
1st Occasion: God opened the Heavens to acknowledge and reveal Jesus as His Son
And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:10,11).
Jesus took baptism at the hands of John the Baptist, his cousin. Jesus need not have taken the trouble as He was God – in flesh! Colossians 2:9 says, “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” Baptism is preceded by repentance. There was no need for Jesus to repent of any sins because He is the Incarnation of the God about whom Numbers 23:19 says, “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent.” Prophet Isaiah foretold about Christ’s character and conduct on the earth. He said, “Because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth” (Isaiah 53:9). Yet, He humbled Himself that He stooped down to receive baptism at the hands of a mere man, His creation. Oh, the humility of Jesus! Why did Jesus receive baptism? Matthew 3:15 records what He told John the Baptist: “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” Christ, who loves righteousness (Psalm 45:7), whose righteousness is like the great mountains (Psalm 36:6), the One who upholds us with His righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10) received baptism ‘to fulfil all righteousness.’ Glory to Jesus!
When Jesus humbled Himself, when the Sinless One stooped to receive baptism the heavens opened. Hallelujah! Why were the heavens parted? They did not part to declare to Israel that their Messiah has come. They did not part to command the world into His obedience. They did not part to proclaim to nations that the Holy One of Israel has indeed arrived! No, the God of heavens would not do any of that. He would allow His Son to take the lowly position. The Son had already offered Himself to walk the road to Calvary. Oh, my God knows that’s a lonely route, a road of much suffering. It’s the hallway of shame and the pathway to perdition. That’s the path no man can walk or would ever want to tread. When the Son made Himself of no worth, the Father parted the heavens to proclaim what He means to Him! Then a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
The Father knew of the time when His Son would cry, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). At that hour, darkness would come upon the land, the veil of the temple would be torn in two, earth would quake, rocks would split and graves open but neither would the heavens open then nor there be any voice from the heavens. The Father and the Son knew that.
At the Mount of Transfiguration, God spoke from the heaven one more time. This time, however, there was no parting of the heaven. Only a voice was heard, the Father’s voice.
While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” (Matthew 17:5; Luke 9:34,35).
At the baptism of Jesus and on the Mount of Transfiguration, God spoke pretty much the same words. However, there was a slight difference and a twist at the end of the iteration. At the baptism, while God spoke to Jesus directly (‘You are my beloved Son’) and acknowledged Him, on the mount the Father spoke to the disciples directly as if pointing to Jesus (‘This is My beloved Son’) and added up a command to them, “Hear Him!” The disciples are not to hear Moses and Elijah but Jesus. Moses and Elijah get their identity from Elohim, their Lord. Because of Jesus, they are in good company on the Mount of Transfiguration but the disciples ought to Hear Him, Jesus Christ, their Lord and Saviour. Hallelujah!
God parted the heavens to acknowledge Jesus as His Son and to encourage and strengthen Him in that knowledge. God parted the heavens to reveal to John the Baptist that Jesus indeed is the Son of God.
And John bore witness, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:32-34).
2nd Occasion: God opened the Heavens to receive a child who has faithfully run the race
When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:54-56).
When the early church was growing in numbers, a dispute arose among the Greeks. They felt the Hebrews were treating their (Greek) widows like second-class citizenry. Before the dispute broke the fellowship of the church, the apostles intervened and appointed a committee to select seven men to look after catering of food and beverages in the church. The men had to be of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. Stephen was one among the seven who was agreeable to the Hebrews and the Greeks alike.
Although, Stephen was primarily put in-charge of serving the tables, God used him mightily. Acts 7:8 says, “And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” God’s power was so fully in him that people opposed to the Gospel “were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke” (verse 10). And because they could not tackle him, they tried an underhand manoeuvre. They foisted false charges against him and brought him before the Jews’ council. Although the odds were stacked against him, Stephen faced the situation valiantly. Like Gideon, he must have decided to go with his own strength because he knew the Lord was with him. Stephen was the sort who would never let go of an opportunity to glorify the Name of Jesus. He gave the Sanhedrin a ringside view of the Jewish history beginning from Abraham, the famine in Egypt, the Patriarchs, Moses’ leadership, Israel’s rebellion and ended his sermon with the coming of the Just One, Jesus. While he did not defend the charges against him, Stephen laid a counter charge against his accusers. He said, despite having so many promises made to it, Israel did not live well enough to claim them. Secondly, the greatest promise made to the nation of Israel – the promise of the Messiah – was fulfilled in God’s time but not only did Israel fail to recognise it but it also betrayed and killed the Messiah.
Even if one member of the Sanhedrin had repented of his act, Stephen’s life would have been spared. Alas, that was not to be. Church father of the 2nd century Tertullian wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Stephen, the first martyr of the early church, may have lost the battle but he won the war. He did not find favour with the Sanhedrin but he saw the face of God! He did not win a convert through his last message, but God translated him to the Eternal Kingdom of God. There was nothing commendable about his swansong but Jesus the Son of God stood up to welcome His child back home. Hallelujah!
Going by the way he described the position of Jesus (“Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”), it is safe to say Stephen did not only see Jesus, he must have also seen the throne of God the Father. Oh, what a precious privilege Stephen had! He saw the Son of God and God Himself!
Why were the heavens opened for Stephen? God wants us to take this lesson to heart. When we die as His faithful witnesses, God does not send one of his minions to welcome us home. The task of ushering us into His presence has not been given to any angel, no, not to Gabriel or Michael. Jesus Himself will come to receive us. What a glorious position we have in Christ! That the King of kings stands up to receive us, embrace us and wipe away all our tears! Oh, it is a great honour to live and die for Christ.
In 2 Timothy 4:6-8, Paul wrote his valedictory thus: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.” May that be our prayer and hope too!
3rd Occasion: God opened the Heavens to reveal the mystery of the Gospel to His servant
The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” (Acts 10:9-13).
Peter’s vision at Joppa while he was staying at the house of Simon the tanner opened the Apostle’s spiritual eyes to a new dimension. Till then, he was preaching only among the Jews. The vision at Joppa made him realize that when Grace arrived Law went out of vogue. In other words, Grace superseded Law. Salvation was not by works but by faith. Cornelius, the centurion, lived in Caesarea. Cornelius was a Roman citizen who served in the Italian regiment. Although he was devout, feared God and gave alms, to redeemed Jews he was still an outcast. Apostle Peter, in his right mind, would have nothing to do with him because of Cornelius’ nationality. Although the distance between Joppa (where Peter was staying) and Caesarea (where Cornelius lived with his family) was only 63 km, the spiritual gulf between the two was vast. Only Christ’s grace displayed at Calvary could bridge that. The vision that Peter got while he was in Joppa was God’s way of revealing the mystery of the Gospel to Peter, one of His chosen vessels.
When God revealed it to Paul, another of His chosen vessels, the apostle wrote in Ephesians 3:6, “…that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel…” What is the mystery of the Gospel of Christ? It is this: The Gentiles (that’s us, folks) who were once aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenant of promise have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2: 12,13). And, how did this happen? It happened through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Paul explains this: “For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity” (verses 14-16).
It appears that while the vision had an impact on Peter, it had not fulfilled its cleansing act in him.
He continued to be hypocritical when it came to dealing with the Gentiles. In receiving the Gentiles and humouring the Jews, Peter was a complete failure until Paul set to address the issue. Peter’s Janus-faced approach was influencing others. In Galatians 2:13 Paul says, “And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.” Because Peter was in a position of authority, other Jews took notes from his actions so much so that even Barnabas, the “good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of the faith” (Acts 11:24) got side-tracked a bit.
Referring to this instance, Martin Luther in his commentary of Galatians writes: It is surprising that such good men as Peter, Barnabas, and others should fall into unexpected error, especially in a matter which they knew so well. To trust in our own strength, our own goodness, our own wisdom, is a perilous thing. Let us search the Scriptures with humility, praying that we may never lose the light of the Gospel. “Lord, increase our faith.”
4th Occasion: God opened the Heavens to reveal Himself to His children
Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God (Rev 19:11-13).
Apostle John must have thought his ministry was over when he was packed off to Patmos island in the west coast of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). However, the One seated on the throne, the Lord who makes all things new (Rev 21:5) had a new assignment for the apostle. John was to write about the things that must shortly take place (Rev 1:1).
Patmos was quite far from Jerusalem where John was one of the pillars of the church. Patmos was 771 km (479 miles) away from Ephesus where John was leading a church. The farthest thing in John’s mind, however, while he was at Patmos must have been his liberation. Through the message given to the Church in Philadelphia, God must have spoken to John himself about his incarceration. Jesus revealed Himself to John as the One who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens. It must have been an irony of sorts to John who was in chains to hear Jesus say, “See, I have set before you an open door and no one can shut it” (Rev 3:8)
If he had remained in Ephesus or been part of the decision-making body in Jerusalem, it would have been impossible for John to get a glimpse of what God was going to do in the last days. Patmos was not a sabbatical for John; it was a school of prayer and prophecy for the apostle. Patmos is where he will see Jesus, his Lord whom he identified as “…the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). When Jesus revealed Himself to John at Patmos, He told him, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End…who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev 1: 8).
God opened the Heavens to reveal His Son as The Word of God (Rev 19:13), the same Word which was in the beginning. The same One who is the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. Hallelujah!
Heavens opened to reveal Jesus as the King of kings, the Lord of lords, and the Lamb that was slain before the earth was formed.
Heavens opened to reveal the true spiritual condition of the church at Ephesus. The church at Ephesus, where John was a leader, was known for its works, labour, patience and intolerance towards evil. It had tested those who claimed to be apostles and found them out to be liars. It had laboured for His Name’s sake and had not become weary. Yet, Jesus had found out its inner rot. There was decay inside the church. It had left its first love. It had fallen. The church in Ephesus had to quickly accept the fact that it had become a loveless church and repent before the Lord returned and removed its lampstand from its place (Rev 2:2-5).
Jesus’ analysis of the condition of the church at Ephesus was a sort of a performance appraisal given to John himself. For no man is greater than the church. If the church had floundered, will not the pastor be held accountable for it?
The four instances of the opening of the heavens happened for specific reasons. God may not open the heavens for us. But if God folds a hitherto open blanket of security, cuts a safety net or takes away an umbrella of cover from our life, it may be for a specific reason. Perhaps, like He did in the life of Peter, God is trying to give us a new perspective of life, His Word and our ministry. Perhaps, like He did for John at Patmos, God is trying to show Himself as the Sovereign God or revealing an inner decay in our spiritual condition or even getting us to trust Him more so that He can stand up to receive us when we have fought the good fight and finished the race.