Let us take some examples of this “opened heaven” from the experience, first of Christ, and then of His disciples.
First comes the opening of heaven, which took place at Christ’s baptism. Here no details are given as to what He saw. The fact only is recorded that “when all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also being baptized and praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, “Thou art my beloved Son, in Thee I am well pleased” (Luke 3: 21, 22); and that, as an almost immediate result, He was specially tempted of the devil, a voice from hell at once questioning the truth witnessed by the voice from heaven, and saying again and again, “If Thou be the Son” (Luke 4:3, 9).
All this is surely still fulfilled in Christ’s members. What they see may not at first be clear. They may see no more of that spiritual world which is opened to them than a new-born babe sees of the outward world which it has come into. They may even mis-see the things around them, as we do for years on earth: they may for awhile “see men as trees walking” (Mark 8:24). They may as yet have no words to speak of what they see: the very meaning of it may be altogether hidden from them.
Yet heaven is opened to them; other eyes can see this, for the Spirit like a dove now abides on them;–no longer “the mark of the beast” (Rev 13:17), whether of the serpent, dog, or fox, but “the spirit like a dove,” of steadfast love and gentleness;–and (what they cannot forget) a voice has sounded in their ears, “Thou are my beloved [Son-#5207=Huios]” Till now, though of God’s elect, “to whom,” while even in the flesh, “pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises” (Romans 9:4), because as yet but [children-#3516=nepios] in the faith, we may have differed nothing from servants (Galatians 4:1-3), though we are called in Christ to inherit all. But now we have heard the heavenly witness, “Thou are my beloved son,” sealing the truth of our baptism, that our Father loves and is well pleased with us. Now we know we are sons: a voice from hell may challenge this truth, tempting us to prove that we are sons by what we can do, rather than by the fact that as children we can in all things trust our Father. But the voice from hell cannot prevail. Heaven is opened to us; and, that glimpse can never be forgotten.
As a second example of “opened heavens,” – take the scene commonly called the Transfiguration, which also shows what Christ’s members may attain while in this present life. For Christ’s transfiguration is as surely a stage of Christian experience as His baptism, fasting, or temptation; not perhaps so early a stage, for the transfiguration only very shortly precedes His death; yet one which may most certainly be known, if we follow on to be partakers of His sufferings. For it is not in the Gospel which shows Christ as the Eternal Word, but in those which reveal Him as Abraham’s seed and Son of Man, that this scene is recorded, to teach all Abraham’s sons, yea, even all the sons of Adam, that they may reach, not to opened heavens only, or to the voice saying, “Thou art my beloved son,” but to a communion with saints, such as is recorded here, to speak and walk with those, who, though they passed hence ages ago, are yet, like Moses and Elias, very near, even caring for, and talking with, us.
And indeed may we not ask whether this transfiguration was a change in the Beloved Son, so that He appeared as He was not before; or was it not rather in His disciples, so that they now saw Him as He had always been; living in two worlds, both in the seen and unseen; walking on the earth, and yet, “the Son of Man who is in heaven” (John 3:13); talking with men, yet communing with the departed, in the very light of God? Whichever view we take, the lesson is the same. We may come, and indeed “have come, to the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb 12:22, 23).
I almost fear to speak of what is opened here. Yet the Gospels declare these things; and, as a stage of Christ’s life, they must, sooner or later, be a stage of our experience, if to us to live is Christ. For He is the same, yesterday, to-day, and forever. If therefore He lives in us, we must, like Him, be begotten of the Holy Ghost; and then, like Him, be men of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. If He lives in us, men will esteem us stricken and smitten of God: we must, if like Him, be numbered among the transgressors (Isa. 53:3, 4, 12).
But there are other things which come with this experience, and among them is this foretaste of the glory, which is to be revealed in us; that as we pray, with some of those who love us most, the appearance of our countenance shall change, and heavenly companions be seen communing with us, speaking of the Exodus (Luke 9:28-30) which we must accomplish, from that city which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified (Revelation 11: 8) when through the strait and narrow gate of death [to the flesh-mdw] we shall go out for ever from the house of bondage. Surely it is a wondrous scene, that man, while yet on earth, and still clothed with the body of humiliation, should in spirit hold direct and conscious communion with the saints of ages past who are within the veil. Yet this too is part of the promise: “Ye shall see heaven opened, and angels of God, ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
But this blessing, like all things spiritual, is not without its peril to imperfect disciples. We see this in Peter and the two brethren who were with him. That opening of heaven and communion with the departed, which is safe and blessed for the Perfect Man, awakens thoughts in imperfect disciples, which, if followed out by them, would give to creatures a place and honour which belongs to God alone. For while the Perfect One calmly communes with the departed, touching His departure out of this world unto the Father, the imperfect disciples are saying “Let us make here three tabernacles,” not only “one for Thee,” but “one for Moses, and one for Elias.” (Luke 9:33). They would give a place to the departed, for which is not rightly theirs. And that this is a peril ever attending the first opening of communication with the spirit-world, is seen not here only, but in the other cases recorded in Scripture, where even the beloved John, once and again, when heaven opened to him, fell down to worship before the feet of the angel who spake with him; and was corrected by the words, “See thou do it not, for I am thy fellow-servant, and of thy brethren which have the testimony of Jesus: worship God.” (Revelation 19:10 and 22:8,9). The Church’s history is full of examples of this.
That Church, above the rest, which claims peculiarly to be St. Peter’s has practically repeated Peter’s words as to making tabernacles for the departed. But the Church of Rome could not have erred here as she has, had she never had visions akin to that set before us in the Transfiguration. Men do not worship the host of heaven unless they see them. Such an error shows how near the saints have been to some; how truly their presence has been felt as a reality. But spite of their presence we are called back to “Jesus only” (Matt. 17:8), by the voice which says, “This is my beloved Son: hear ye Him.”