Updated: May 19
I was deep in prayer last Thursday morning. The night before, we experienced in Israel more than 500 rocket attacks. We are living in Ashkelon, which is only 10 kilometers from Gaza—much different than in Tel Aviv, where we have lived for the past 20 years. Earlier that day, Wednesday, it was crazy—especially as we were coming home from a doctor’s appointment and had to stop at the pharmacy when the first barrage came. We were held up in the safe room of the large Super-Pharm with many others.
So back to being in prayer. It was the next morning. Looking out at the fog over the Mediterranean, it was like someone had painted the scene with pastels. It was so peaceful; you never would know it was a war zone. It was unusually powerful. I was experiencing God’s presence in one of the most profound ways that I can remember. I try not to bring my phone to my time with the Lord, but Elana was not feeling well the night before, so I left my phone on.
Suddenly my phone made the sound that alerts me that terrorists have fired rockets into Israel. As soon as I heard that sound, I determined not to lose the presence of God. It is only natural when rockets are fired in your direction to become anxious. But did you hear my words: not to lose the presence of God. Well, you can’t lose God like you can your wallet or keys. But there are experiences in this world, and there are spiritual experiences, and there are experiences in this world that seek to keep us in fear and anxiety or full of lust, pride, and greed. They can rob us of intimacy with God if we let them.
"The sons of Korah," King David's men, "practiced the prayer posture of stillness, as surely did David as the king of a nation in a world of tribal warfare?"  Yes, these warriors wrote the words, "Be still and know that I am God," (Ps. 46:10) as they contended with their version of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
We know from scripture that the Spirit wars against the flesh.
For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. (Gal. 5:17)
As I am writing this, my phone is blowing up with alerts of incoming rockets to southern Israel.
The believer lives in two worlds at once. This present physical world and the invisible realm of the kingdom of God. Lustful advertisements, the cares of this world, etc., are seeking to take our focus off of God and His kingdom. Temptations seek to drag us into sin and away from a vibrant experience with God. Yeshua told us that the key is to “watch and pray,” and “you will not fall into temptation” (Matt. 26:41).
Novice, I am
So we are clear, I am not an expert. I have spent most of my life, even in ministry, distracted. It is a recent phenomenon that I am having in my late fifties of finding God in this place of beautiful intimacy. And it came after a time of depression and spiritual burnout. I am not saying, look at me, the example. I am embarrassed that it took this long. But there I was as terrorists were bombing, and Israel was responding just miles away. (To be clear, if I was personally in danger, a siren in our city would alert me to get to our safe room.) I chose not to allow the stress to take hold but to keep praying and basking in God’s presence.
What I am saying is that we can enter into Paradise while physically still being in this physical world.
Where is Heaven?
We always think of Heaven as up there. It is true that Luke says that Stephen looked “up into heaven,” but I think that was more Luke adding human words to Stephen’s otherworldly experience. It would have been bizarre if he had looked down!
“But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to Heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Acts 7:55–56 (NIV)
How did Luke know this? Not from Stephen—he didn’t live to tell his story. Clearly, it was from eyewitness accounts. And they would not have known what Stephen saw had he not said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” I don’t think he looked up because Heaven is up, but he looked up into the spirit.
What sense is God’s presence?
On Earth, we have five senses, right? Sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. But when you feel the kingdom of God, how do you feel it? I know what emotions feel like, how to be angered or moved to tears. God’s presence is not that—it transcends human emotions and the five senses. People do drugs to have an unnatural high, but God has something that is also unnatural to this world and so much better. When I am enveloped with God’s presence, I have no human experience to compare it to. It is otherworldly. But where is that world?
Personally, I think this is what Yeshua meant when he said, “Nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21). In other words, Heaven or Paradise is not a million miles away, it is right here—all around us, but in a different realm, the spirit realm. If God opened our eyes in the spirit, we would see angels at work.
This is why Paul himself was slightly confused when he was “caught up into the third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:3). He didn’t know if we still in his body or not (v. 3). By the way, one of the reasons I give very little credence to those who published books and give interviews about going to Heaven and what they saw, is that Paul (a man far more humble than your average minister today) was embarrassed to talk about his visit to Paradise (see 2 Cor. 12:1). And he said, “he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” I am very leery of anyone who claims to make regular visits to Heaven and then to comes back to boast about it.
But if one did have such an experience, I don’t think we go to Heaven, but we simply have our eyes opened to the spiritual reality all around us. And by eyes, I mean a set of senses that transcend the five we have here. I have never “seen” an angel or heard the audible voice of God. Others have. But I have been so overwhelmed by an otherworldly presence that was so pure and clean that I could barely stand. I have had moments of joy that were so powerfully intense.
I think that is what happens when we feel God’s presence. We are sensing Paradise in the spirit world. That is why there is no human event to which we can compare it. When I have had a heavenly visitation, the hardest part is to explain it in human words. If it is easy to explain, it may not have been real.
Why did I need it?
…because this world thrives on stress, anger, war, and hate. We live in a world that the disciples would not recognize. No other generation has been so distracted. There is no such thing as silence. Elana and I had dinner the other night at a restaurant. There was a woman sitting at the bar. She was obsessed with her phone, going from app to app with aggression. When her food was not to her liking, she barked at the waiter like it was nothing and then went back to her phone.
We can’t just sit alone anymore without checking Facebook or watching YouTube videos. We have to constantly be entertained, and we feel like we are suffering. If Jesus had taken some of us to the Garden of Gethsemane, he would not have found us sleeping but on our phones! Our lives are so full and busy that there is often no room for God. We suffer but are so distracted that we are unaware of our malady.
I was listening recently to a message by Tim Mackie, co-founder of the Bible Project. He talked about the thief next to Yeshua. As he humbled himself, the crucified Messiah converses with the criminal.
Then [one of the criminals] said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:42-42)
The word for Paradise in Greek is paradeisos. Our English word is merely a transliteration of the Greek, which is a transliteration of the Hebrew, Pardes, or orchard. We think of Paradise as Heaven. The garden of Eden in Hebrew is Gan Eden. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, they chose the word paradeisos to refer to gan (garden). When Yeshua spoke to the thief, he was no doubt speaking Hebrew or Aramaic, not Greek. The Aramaic is very close to gan.
In other words, it is highly likely that Yeshua said, “Today I will see you in the gan (garden).” What garden was he referring to? There could only be one—the Garden of Eden. When I moved to Israel, I was puzzled to find that when Israelis refer to the place of eternal bliss in the afterlife, they do not use hashamayim (Heaven) but Gan Eden—the Garden of Eden.
Thus, Yeshua is saying to that man, “When we die in a few hours, I will be with you in the Garden of Eden.” Mackie calls this Paradise now, meaning that in eternity there is no time and space as we measure, but the “perpetual present” or the “eternal now.” Where is it? It is not in another place, but another realm, where there is no time or space as we understand it.
When Paul talked about the afterlife, he said that to be absent from our bodies is not to be dead but to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). Even while we are in our bodies through prayer, silence, fasting, communal worship, mediation on his word and service (to name a few ways) we can experience both worlds at once. In fact, this was God’s intention for the follower of Yeshua—that we would not just be dual citizens of Heaven (Phil. 3:30) and Earth. In context, he is contrasting the believer who has a heaven-on-earth experience with those who are fixated on their earthly appetites.
Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. (Phil. 3:17-19)
Yes, we can enjoy God’s presence on Earth, but we must long for it and embrace the disciplined life of spiritual formation to walk in it. Those who experience God’s presence without a disciplined life often fall into deep moral decay because they excuse their sin by the fact they experience God’s presence. Their glory is short-lived.
May you enjoy God’s presence, touching into the spirit realm while living for Him here.
 Tyler Staton, Praying Like Monks, Living Like Fools: An Invitation to the Wonder and Mystery of Prayer (p. 40). John Murray Press. Kindle Edition.