Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 49 - Your Will
Question 124: What is the third petition?
Answer 124: Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Grant that we and all men
may deny our own will,
and without any murmuring
obey your will,
for it alone is good.
Grant also that everyone
may carry out the duties
of his office and calling
as willingly and faithfully
as the angels in heaven.
The earth is not the same as heaven. In heaven, angels praise God’s rule. They listen intently to what he says and they accomplish his will.1 In what production plant on earth do people come close to imitating them? Church people are not angels either. They pray for the faithful obedience of an angel, but when they open their eyes afterwards, heaven seems far away. And yet — the future of the earth depends on the answer to this prayer.
People are putting in much effort to keep this planet live-able for their children and grandchildren. There is nothing wrong with that, but the ultimate restart for the earth lies in its being united with heaven.
What do we mean by “the will of God”?
We can think of it in terms of his direction. He governs the world as he wills. Prosperity and adversity come from his hand. Everything is happening according to his will. Those who call upon him as their Father in heaven acknowledge that he is in complete charge of their lives. Even a serious disaster does not go beyond this will. “People may plan all kinds of things, but the Lord's will is going to be done (GNT)”.2 People may resist or protest, but no one can oppose this will.
In addition, we have to deal with his will according to his commandments. According to the sixth commandment, for example, it is against his will if someone stockpiles loads of explosive fireworks in a busy residential area — with all the potential of a disaster about to happen. This will of God can in fact be resisted.
Which will of God (direction/commandment) are we talking about here? Is this a plea for heartfelt obedience to his laws or for willing submission to his guidance and rule? Why should we have to make a choice?3 Christ teaches us to pray that we will agree wholeheartedly with what God wants from us (according to his commandments) and what he wants to achieve with us (as evidenced by his direction of our lives). On both counts heaven has a very different attitude toward the will of God than people on earth.
The Distinction Between Heaven and Earth
How much different is heaven from earth? Are there undulating cornfields, flowering orchards, rivers, mountains, beaches, streets and gates? Is heaven in itself more beautiful than earth? Is the earth of a lower order?
What we know for sure is that God evaluated the earth as “very good” in the beginning. Nothing shows that Paradise was inferior to heaven. In Paradise Adam longed for a help that suited him, but not for heaven. Why should he? Even though heaven was God’s residence, God regularly sought out Adam and Eve. Earth was not some remote peripheral region. In Paradise and beyond, everything went as harmoniously according to God’s will as it did in heaven.
That is different today. God still does what his will ordains. In that sense his will is done just as much on a rebellious earth as it is near his throne in heaven. But the way in which it is done differs — they are worlds apart. This difference is what this prayer is about. Let not merely God’s will be done on earth, but let it be done as it is in heaven. That means that people on earth must agree as heartily with his will — both in his direction and in his laws — as the angels in heaven.
The words “be done” in this petition are again meant just as radically as the “come” and the “hallowed be” from the previous petitions. Emphatically the prayer asks, Let it actually be a reality that your will is respected also on earth — once and for all, and with immediate effect! Through us and “all men”. Convince us that “your will alone is good”, so that we will deny our own will.
The Lord’s Prayer used the plural “heavens” (Dutch translation) in the address and the singular “heaven” in this petition. Both times the same location is meant: the dwelling place of God and his angels. What Jesus designates as “heaven,” the Catechism specifies as “the angels in heaven”. We do not need to exclude people in heaven, but yet “heaven” in the Bible is still primarily the place where the angels are stationed.
Despite all the differences, the angels are apparently suited to set us a good example. Or is it easy for them to say so because they are without sin? Let us not think too lightly of their task. They too have to submit, both to God’s direction and to his commands and laws. This is also a conscious choice for them. This was evident when a rebellion broke out within their own ranks. In that crisis they had to break with colleagues who “became unfaithful to their original authority”4 That must have been a horrible experience for them. They knew these angels with whom they had worked so closely up to this point. Empty places were noted in their ranks. That was the end of a glorious beginning. It must have affected them, for after all, angels are not unfeeling robots. After that, the bad news of the Fall on earth must have hit them hard. At least they are joyful when even one sinner repents on earth.5 To this day they are going through eventful times. They wage war against their former colleagues and receive orders to bring serious judgments on the earth. It is to their credit that throughout the centuries they heartily agreed both with God’s guidance and with his commands. Unlike even Moses and the prophets, they never voice any protest. For that reason they are an example to the earth in terms of their willingness and faithfulness.
On Earth as it is in Heaven!
The first three petitions are about the same length, if you leave out the phrase “on earth as it is in heaven” for a moment. So far all three are parallel. In terms of structure and content they form a unity. Therefore the phrase “on earth as it is in heaven” also refers to the first two petitions.6So all three are under the same tension: in heaven, God’s name and kingdom and will are already fully acknowledged. This is an encouraging reality. The situation in heaven is a shining example in each of the three petitions. In the third, all the emphasis falls on a profound inner agreement with what God wants. Heaven sets the right example. In fact, that is not enough. The people on earth are not in a position to pull themselves up to the merits or abilities of the angels. That is why they pray: grant that we perform his will. Grant us that we obey your will only. Grant us to deny our own will. Make us as faithful as the angels. How should we imagine this?
Heaven is not a static entity where time is standing still. The angels, too, are constantly faced with new challenges. Heaven is a place where history is being made. After Christ taught this prayer to his disciples, the situation there changed drastically again. This happened when he ascended.7 At that occasion the devil was hurled down from heaven. Up to this point he could still come up there and accuse the believers. That is no longer the case. The great accuser was removed by Michael after a war in heaven, while our great Advocate Christ received the highest place of honour in heaven, at God’s right hand. That was a great and glorious day!
Then a loud voice in heaven could declare: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God.” This “now” “seals the gigantic reversal in the history of the world, of heaven and earth”.8 Since then, the kingdom of God has been fully established in heaven.
Meanwhile, heaven does not isolate itself from the earth, where the battle continues in all its intensity. In heaven, a scroll is opened with “an abundance of measures taken by God for the continuing establishment of his kingship.”9 Therefore, the outcome of the war in heaven on Ascension Day, as mentioned, means also good news for the earth.
To some extent a comparison can be made to the good outcome of the “Battle of Britain” between the British and the German air forces in the early years of World War II. In our occupied Holland, all hope was focused on a free England. From there they expected their liberation. Therefore, the victory in this aerial battle held the promise that sooner or later Holland would also be liberated from the Nazis.
To an even much greater extent the good outcome of the battle in or near heaven guarantees that the earth will also be liberated. For the elimination of the devil from heaven was not an isolated event. That he should be removed from there was not primarily due to Michael and his angels. Above all, it was the brilliant result of Christ’s victory on Golgotha. There he defeated the devil. It is for that reason that Michael could conquer him. Satan having been hurled from heaven guarantees that this already defeated devil will sooner or later also have to be eliminated from the earth. God’s name and kingdom and will receive the same recognition on earth as they already have in heaven. That is what makes this prayer so promising.
To Each His Task
Who, while he is working or relaxing, is thinking of heaven? Who actually realizes that he or she — like the angels — is engaged in a task commissioned by God?
The Catechism speaks of duties to which everyone has been called. That indicates an assignment from on high, involving the “duties of one’s office and calling”. That applies to all honest professions. God is as much the employer of all men as he is of the angels. Whether one steps onto the work floor or goes to school, or whether one takes a seat at his desk, each one is given a task to perform to which God calls him or her.
What profession you perform or pursue is irrelevant. The only condition is that you respect the will of God in your work or leisure. John the Baptist was radical in his call to repent, yet soldiers and tax collectors did not have to resign from their office to become bakers or carpenters.10 From here on in they were to be obedient to the will of God in their duties — as soldiers or as tax collectors. That was the task to which they had been called.
The Catechism is not talking about a pleasant or well-paid job, but a duty. That does not have to be a job. You also have a duty when you are sick and in bed, or when you enjoy retirement and even when you are unemployed. A person can become unemployed, but he is never without a duty. Therefore, the apostle Paul does not consider it at all important what kind of work a person is doing. It may be that you are a slave. His advice is: do not worry about that. You are always a slave to Christ and are therefore in his service, whatever you do.11 You may be involved in retail, or you have a specific task at a manufacturing company. The phone is red hot all day long. Do we then think of heaven? That will come again on Sunday. Christians rightly feel closer to heaven during the church service. There it is already somewhat “as in heaven”. On Monday they are once again fully involved in their job. Is heaven then suddenly not so important anymore? If all is well, they also pray in the middle of the week: your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Even on a weekday/ workday they think — however briefly — of the example of the angels in heaven.
The Angels As Our Example
We have probably never even caught a glimpse of an angel. We do not know anyone in the wider area who has seen one. There are a lot of ancient and more recent stories about encounters with angels. At the very least, they are unverifiable. Remarkably, modern man often speculates in all seriousness about life on other planets, “about beings who might want to interact with life on earth”. He does not consider such aliens as inconceivable, although he believes that their existence is unproven.12 One day the moment will come when their existence will be established. Within a second, all of humanity will be convinced. That will be when Jesus returns with his angels, sounding a loud trumpet call.13 For the time being, these angels do not show themselves or make themselves heard. Yet they are shining examples for us every day of the week. How should we picture them? They are without sin and — apart from that — so completely different. They do not marry, raise children, eat bread, or are employed and so on. What do they understand about our problems? Their task is not comparable to that of Christians on earth. No one will ever ask: what would Gabriel do in this case? Yet we know enough about their service or duties to be inspired by their love and faithfulness.14 They are part of the heavenly entourage serving and paying homage to God. They are the executors of his judgments. They are the heavenly army that fights against Satan. They watch over the faithful.15. These are flashes of angels-in-action. The Bible does not give us a complete picture, but it does give us a real and vivid idea of their activities.
Do the angels go their own way? Are they at best examples of obedience for us on earth? Do we continue to do our duties separately, they in heaven and we on earth?
The answer is surprising. We should not only take an example from them, but may work in unison with them. They are our colleagues. This is an important point that deserves closer attention.
Angels as Colleagues
The apostle John was not just anybody. He was the disciple “whom Jesus loved”.16 In all likelihood he had outlived all the apostles when he was exiled to the island of Patmos. No doubt, partly because of his advanced age, he enjoyed great authority. Yet on Patmos he was so deeply impressed by an angel that he fell down at his feet to worship him. This even happened at two occasions.
Both times the apostle was told: “You must not do that! I am (only) a fellow servant with you.”17 The angel does not mean that he also happens to be a servant of the same God. He calls himself a fellow servant, that is, a colleague. John and he together are serving God and Christ.
The angel goes one step further. He also calls himself a colleague of John “and of your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus” and “of those who keep the words of this book”. “This book” is the Bible book of Revelation. John is at that time writing this book. It will be published soon. This book is connected to all of Scripture with all of its roots. So the angel, in fact, calls himself the colleague of all who take the book of God — the Bible — seriously.18
A fine example of cooperation between a man and an angel is given in Daniel 10. It is the time after the exile. With the permission of the Persian authorities many Jews have returned to Jerusalem. Their position becomes precarious when the Samaritans are doing everything they can to stir up the Persians against them. As a result no progress is made with the rebuilding of the temple. For a period of three weeks Daniel is praying for relief from this “great distress” (v. 1). And what is revealed to him? For exactly the same three weeks, two angels are fighting for precisely the same cause. They do so very effectively. The two of them attack a particular devil. That devil (the “prince of Persia”, v. 13) was in a position to stir up the Persian authorities against the Jews behind the scenes. After a fierce fight lasting three full weeks, this devil had to give up. He lost his grip on the Persian officials who were in charge of Jerusalem. While Michael and another angel were fighting him, Daniel was praying: a wonderful example of cooperation between man and angel!
God calls all people to their tasks. Some carry it out so willingly and faithfully that the government praises them with a ribbon, or their boss presents them with a gift. It is even better when each one fulfills his duties as faithfully as the angels in heaven. Christians, too, are busy, from Monday to Saturday, carrying out their duties on earth. Generally their thoughts are not preoccupied with the angels. It would be rather challenging for that to be reality, yet even in such a hectic day of work people make time for this petition. That is the golden moment in which they can receive the handshake from a heaven full of very sympathetic colleagues. That handshake keeps them preoccupied with their actual duties. Moreover, they do not feel so lonely anymore. They are not alone. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them”.19