[Note that the following is a lesson outline for a Life Group at McIlwain Presbyterian Church]
The Beatific Vision
The Transforming, Joy-Inducing, Infinitely Overwhelming, Frightening, Hope of all Christians
Our task is “simple.” Figure out what this passage means.
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)
Question: What is “what we will be” referencing? To what is it referring?
Question: Who is the “he” in “when he appears?”
Question: What is the stated reason or cause of our becoming like him?
Question: Why? Why would it work like that? Why would seeing him transform us so that we will be like him?
Question: Be like him how?
Question: And see him how? With our eyes? But if so, why would perceiving an image (light passing through our lens unto our retina and interpreted by our brain) transform us? As a thought experiment, what would happen if we were standing in God’s presence but covered our eyes (we didn’t see him)? Would our not seeing him mean that we wouldn’t be transformed? In other words, is the actual process of sight necessary? Or does this have in mind the notion of proximity/nearness?
Think Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Let’s compare John’s statement to similar passages of Paul, so far as the return of Christ is concerned:
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Philippians 3:20-21)
“When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Col 3:4)
Question: In what ways are these statements from Paul similar and dissimilar from John?
Where else might we look for drawing a connection between seeing and sanctification? Look up 2 Corinthians 3:18- 4:6.
Question: In 3:18, Paul says that we are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. What is the mechanism/means by which this happens according to this verse? What brings about the transformation?
Question: It says we “are being” transformed. So does that mean it is a present tense reality?
Question: What does Paul have in mind when he says “beholding the glory of the Lord?” How are we beholding the glory of the Lord? Does 2 Corinthians 4:4 and 4:6 shed any light on this question?
Spiraling Out Further
The idea of beholding or seeing something presupposes a certain nearness. Or closeness. It is in our presence (Or perhaps it would be wiser to say, as in the case of God, that we are near His presence). Thus, 1 John 3:2 intimates that if we were to suddenly come into contact with God and see Him in all His glory, unshielded and effulgent, or unfiltered, the experience would be such that we could not help but be transformed. We couldn’t help but be changed.
This seems to suggest that while God is omnipresent, and as such is present everywhere in one sense, there are degrees to His presence. In other words, proximity to God is a real thing. One can draw closer. Or one can move away. And that movement has profound implications. Even physical ones.
Question: Google in your mind various biblical concepts that draw upon this concept. For example, Adam and Eve walked with the LORD in the cool of the day, but when they sinned, they experienced separation. They were expelled from the Garden. Thus sin introduced separation.
Question: In the examples cited, how does sin and the ensuing separation that inevitably follows manifest itself in reality? What spheres does it touch? And why?
Question: Nearness to God is presented as both a gloriously transformative thing, but also deadly. For example, when Uzzah reached out to steady the Ark he was killed. Why was he killed? What did the Ark represent? What obstacle does this present for us?
Let’s Complicate Things
In the Bible we are told that no one has ever seen God (John 1:18, 6:45; 1 John 4:12; 1 Timothy 6:16). Here is how the Timothy passage puts it:
“I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.” (1 Timothy 6:13-16)
So wait a minute. How does this impact our study? Because this raises at least three questions:
- What do we say about those passages that say that some have in fact seen God (Ex 33:11, 20; Gen 32:30; Judges 13:22)?
- If God cannot be directly seen, then how are we supposed to behold God?
- If God’s glory is overwhelming, shattering we small humans, let alone sinful humans, then how can we behold God, if at all?
Let’s return to this idea of seeing God’s glory. There is something about God’s presence that is intimately bound up with the idea of glory. And this glory is inherently transforming. It either shatters sinners in a hellish way. Or it overwhelms redeemed sinners in a glorifying, transforming way. One might say that it changes them in the twinkling of an eye.
Question: But what is this glory? Is it unapproachable light? Is it unimaginable goodness? Or inexhaustible love? Is it holiness that radiates like heat? Or burns like star? Is it power that crushes? Or is it beauty that causes the heart to buckle? What is it? And why does seeing God’s face/glory change us?
Question: In what ways is this glory mediated to us? How does it work? How does it affect us now?
Question: So what do we make of 1 John 3:2? What are we in store for? How does it affect our sanctification now?
Question: Does thinking through this issue anew cast a fresh perspective on the following verses?
“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Col 3:9-10)
“And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:19-26)
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.’ And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Rev 21:3, 22-23, 22:3-5)