Christian Hope: Heaven on Earth
2/15/2018 1:54:21 AM
February 11, 2018
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: Rev. 21:1-8; 22:1-6
The 2018 Winter Olympics have begun! There will be lots of Olympic watching going on in our house for the next 2 weeks. Megan wasn’t impressed with the opening ceremonies, but she thought ski jumping was cool. She and Amy are looking forward to the figure skating.
The host city, PyeongCheng is in South Korea. They spent years preparing for this event! The opening ceremonies, while not engaging for a 4 year old, were an amazing spectacle of drama, music and light. Just imagine the hours and hours of preparation leading up to them! They were an elaborately choreographed welcome and display of Korean culture for the athletes, their coaches, their families and fans in addition to many dignitaries from around the world.
In addition to the elaborate opening ceremonies, think of the hours of work and millions of dollars put into constructing the venues for the Olympic events. Think of the time and energy put into building rinks, hills and housing for the Olympic athletes. And why did they do this? Why did the people of PyeongChang put so much effort and money into this event? Because they knew the world was coming to visit! And in anticipation of the world coming to visit, they invested heavily into their city.
Compare the work put into preparing to host the Olympics with camping on a campground in tents. In PyeongChang, their anticipation of important visitors means they have invested in building things that will last (hopefully). By contrast, when you go camping, you know you’re leaving soon. You put up a tent, a temporary structure. You try to take out with you whatever you brought in. You try to leave the place looking the same as when you arrived. When you go camping, you don’t want to make a lasting change.
That’s a very different approach than to hosting the Olympics. Think of how Calgary and Vancouver invested in their infrastructure for the Olympics. Years later, other Canadian athletes are able to use these facilities to train. The Olympic tracks and rinks serve to inspire younger generations to athletic greatness. The Olympics left their mark on these cities and continue to pay dividends. I’m sure the people of PyeongChang hope for similar legacies in their future!
For the past number of weeks, we have been talking about the difference it makes if you think you’re camping somewhere or if you’re preparing for a visit from a king. We’ve been talking about the fact that our Christian destiny is not to go to Heaven for eternity, living on clouds as spirits without bodies, but our destiny is to live in resurrected bodies here on a redeemed earth with Jesus! Jesus is coming back, not to take us out of here, but to redeem here and dwell with us.
Let’s take a look at an important passage about this concept, found in Revelation 21:1-8; 22:1-6. Revelation can be an intimidating book for us to read because it is full of figurative language and symbols. But let’s work our way through these verses and then see what they have to say.
What It Says
One key to reading Revelation is to remember that most of the images are taken from the Old Testament, not newspaper headlines! But we don’t know our OT very well any more, certainly not like a first century Jewish Christian! So that means we sometimes need the help of a good commentary to connect the dots in Revelation with their OT sources.
Our passages in particular take place at the very end of Revelation. Already, sin and death have been defeated and cast into the lake of fire. Now, at the end, we see what is going to happen in terms of God’s eternal plan for creation. This is John’s vision about God’s eternal rule.
The first thing we see is that John saw a new heaven and a new earth and there was no longer any sea. The sea was believed to be the source of chaos. The Babylonians believed the god of chaos lived in the sea. Destructive storms came in across the sea. If you think of the Sea of Galilee, for instance, it was known for
sudden and violent storms. In those days, their small boats would be tossed around in those storms. When Jesus calmed the storm, saying, “Silence, be still” he actually used words of exorcism! He used words that exorcists used in those days to cast out demons! So John saying that there was no sea in the new heaven and earth means there is no chaos, no source of evil, fear or destruction in the new creation!
If you recall, Rev 4 talks about the elders “Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.” That is another reference to chaos being stilled and eliminated in the presence of God. Here, in Rev 21, it’s not even that the sea is calm, but that it no longer exists.
Next John sees a New Jerusalem. It is prepared as a bride for God. In the New Testament, the church is referred to as the bride of Christ. In the OT, Israel is often referred to as God’s bride. The prophet Hosea was told to marry a prostitute as a sign that God’s people, Israel, were acting like an unfaithful bride.
But take note of the direction of movement of the New Jerusalem. Notice that it comes down out of Heaven to earth! The city comes to stay on earth. This is important! “Throughout the entire Bible, the ultimate destiny of God’s people is an earthly destiny.” [George Ladd, Commentary on Revelation, p. 275] In Biblical thought, human destiny is not away from earth in a heavenly realm, but on a redeemed earth. This is what we’ve been talking about since January.
As a result of the New Jerusalem being on earth, we are told that God now dwells with man! This is reminiscent of the way things were in the Garden of Eden! God came and walked with Adam and Eve in the garden during the cool of the evening. Genesis 1, actually, follows the pattern of a temple dedication in the ancient world. On the seventh day of the ceremony, the god of the temple came to dwell in the temple. Genesis 1 says that the whole earth is the Lord’s temple and on the seventh day he came to dwell on earth. Genesis 3, however, describes how we ruined that arrangement with sin. God did not dwell with people again until Israel was instructed to build the tabernacle and then later the temple. Even then, God’s dwelling place was extremely small and restricted- the holy of holies in the tabernacle or temple.
Having come to earth in the New Jerusalem, God says from his throne that humanity will be his people and he will be their God. This is a repeated theme throughout the OT. 17 times, God speaks of people being his people, usually Israel, and he being their God. Now, this relationship is extended to all of humanity, not just Israel!
When God arrives in power, he will wipe away all their tears. That is, he will comfort them but also remove the source of tears- evil, pain, suffering and death.
Verse 5 tells us that the one seated on the throne speaks. From Rev 4-5 we know that the one seated on the throne is God and the Lamb – Jesus. He says, “I am making all things new.” That is, he is making a new creation, he is renovating everything. It doesn’t mean he is scrapping everything and starting again. Rather, he is renewing, redeeming and remaking creation. In 2 Cor 5:17, Paul says that anybody who is in Christ is a new creation. That doesn’t mean that God destroyed them and started again. Rather, it means they are filled with new life and being renovated and redeemed. This is the same idea as what is going on when God says he is making all things new, heaven and earth!
In verse 6 he identifies himself as the Alpha and Omega, which are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. These serve as “bookends” for the beginning and end of all of history and remind us that he is the master of everything that happens between those bookends.
God says that for those who thirst he will provide, free of charge, living water. To thirst means to understand one’s spiritual need. Remember, Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, said “blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled.” [Matthew 5:6] Also, remember Jesus’ comments to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. He said that he will give her living water as a spring bubbling up inside her!
Finally, verse 7 promises that those who persevere will be rewarded. Remember, Revelation was written to Christians undergoing persecution. The need for encouragement was real. The danger of falling away was real. John promises that those who do not give in to persecution, pressure and threats will be rewarded. By contrast, those who yield to pressure and live a life of sin, a life at odds with the life of new creation will be cast out.
Chapter 22 picks up with many of the same images. (The rest of Rev 21 is a description of the new
Jerusalem.) We see now a whole river of life! The river of life is mentioned in Ezekiel 47:1-12 and Zechariah 14:8. And it comes directly from the throne of God and the Lamb. It is the main feature of the city, flowing down the middle of the main street. In addition to the river of life, there is the tree of life- from Genesis 2 and 3! At the end of Genesis 3, after the Fall, God puts a cherubim angel and a flaming sword at the entrance to guard the tree of life. Now, in contrast, the tree of life is open to all and its fruit is for the healing of the nations. It isn’t just for Israel, either but for all nations that have persevered.
The vision continues with the throne of God and the Lamb remaining on earth. In Rev 4-5 the throne was in heaven. Now, however, after judgement and the defeat of sin and death, the throne of God comes to earth to remain.
Verse 4 tells us that God’s servants shall see his face. This is remarkable! When Moses, on Mount Sinai, asked to see God’s glory, God said he would pass by Moses so he could see God’s back, the lesser part of his glory, but that nobody can see God’s face and live! Yet here, in the New Jerusalem, all of God’s servants will see his face!
In addition, there will be no more night in God’s presence. Why? Because God will be the light of the city. This is based on the blessing in the OT that God “would make his face to shine upon you and give you peace.” When God turns his face towards you, there is shining light and peace as a result.
God’s servants will also rule forever. What will they rule? Well, back in Genesis 1, God put humankind in charge of the earth to rule it and be stewards of it. It seems that in the new creation God’s servants will have a similar role of taking care of the renewed creation, having authority over it and responsibility for it.
What It Means
So what does all this mean? We’ve worked through some of the images. We’ve seen many of the OT links. Hopefully we have some more understanding of the figurative language. But what does it mean for us?
Well, first and foremost, it states that our destiny is not to spend eternity in heaven with God! Rather, our destiny is to spend eternity on earth with God. What difference does this make? Lots! First, all of creation belongs to the Lord. He created it all. He wants is all redeemed. So that he redeems all of creation is part of his victory over sin and death. If God didn’t redeem creation, it would mean there was at least a partial victory of sin.
Remember, I mentioned a minute ago, that Genesis 1 describes God’s creative activity in terms very similar to pagan temple dedications in the ancient world. At the end of that dedication, God came to dwell on earth with humanity. Genesis 3 describes how we screwed that up. God withdrew his presence among us because of sin. When God fulfills his victory over sin, when he brings it to completion, he will come again to dwell among us and enjoy the intimate fellowship with us for which we were created in the first place.
All of Scripture is building up to this relationship with God! In the OT, God dwelt among Israel in the tabernacle and then the temple. In the NT, God dwelt among Israel in the form of the incarnate Son, Jesus. After Pentecost, God dwells in the church- that is, in believers- through the Holy Spirit. Now we live by faith, not sight. [2 Cor 5:7] After judgment, God will dwell on earth physically and directly. Then we will see directly, face to face, not by faith, but by sight! [1 Cor 13:12]
Second, it shows us that when Christ returns our destiny is to be in intimate relationship with him. That is, relationships matter! They will matter when Christ returns, which is why they matter now. The New Jerusalem is described as a bride. That’s a relationship image. The dwelling of God will be with men. That’s another relationship image. We will be his people and he will be our God. That’s another relationship description. He will wipe the tears from our eyes. That’s yet another relationship image. Those who overcome will inherit and be God’s sons, another relationship image. “Direct, unmarred fellowship between God and his people is the goal of all redemption.” [Ladd, p. 277]
It also says that the present age of sin, with its pain and rebellion, will pass away. This is where that diagram is so helpful of the two overlapping ages. The Kingdom of God, the New Age, the Age to Come, will continue in the New Jerusalem. The Present Age, the Age of Sin, will pass away. The lifestyles described in Rev 21:8 are incongruent with life in the New Jerusalem. They have no place in the Age to Come, in the Kingdom of God.
New life in Christ, however, is exactly the life of the New Jerusalem. Life keeping in step with the Holy
Spirit, life producing the Fruit of the Spirit, is the life of the New Jerusalem. The life of agape love, divine, self-giving love primarily concerned with the well-being of others, is the life of the New Jerusalem and the eternal Age to Come.
We who are Christians have the Holy Spirit at work in us. This is the sign post, the deposit, pointing to the future. The power that raised Christ from the dead is at work in us now renewing us, renewing our character, preparing us to live in the renewed creation, the New Jerusalem. And we can be certain that the New Jerusalem will come, that all this will happen, because God is the one who is lord of all creation, the Alpha and Omega, the eternal one. [Ladd, p. 278]
So how, then, do we apply this? What use is this for us as Christians?
First, it defines for us what matters. Creation matters. Our bodies matter. Relationships matter. It tells us that we are not trying to escape this world, but rather are anticipating the renewal of this world.
Let’s unpack that. Creation matters. Our world matters. It is where God is going to dwell. So we need to take care of it. God created us in Genesis 1 with a job to do- to care for creation. That job didn’t end when we were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, it just got harder to do. Think of the Olympic venues. It isn’t just the opening ceremonies that matter. But imagine if all the organizers only focussed on the opening ceremonies. Imagine if they neglected or even vandalized the venues where the athletes were going to compete! That would be ludicrous! It’s in the venues that the actual Olympics take place!
Yet, as Christians, do we take care of the venue in which the Kingdom of God will last forever? We need to be taking care of the environment, not because we are trying to stave off annihilation from environmental catastrophe, nor because the environment is “mother earth” from whom we draw life, nor to “become one” with the universe. Rather, we need to care for the environment because it matters to God and he’s coming back to live here! If the Queen of England was going to retire and come live in Guelph, what do you think that would mean in terms of caring for the city? Well, God’s coming to live here on earth forever!
The earth has an eternal future, and we have an eternal relationship with God on earth. We are not just here living on a campground in tents! We are here for the long haul. Let’s treat our world like it.
In a similar vein, our bodies matter along with what we do with them and in them. God loves our bodies, he made them and is going to redeem them and glorify them in the future. So it matters what we do with them and in them. This is why it is important to feed the hungry, to clothe the poor, to provide health care to the sick- because all their bodies matter to God too! This is why it is important to keep sex within marriage- because, as Paul tells the Corinthians, the Holy Spirit lives in our bodies and has turned them into a temple. So it matters what we do in our bodies. Our bodies are not a shell. They are not a “husk” to be discarded or escaped. Our bodies are us and need to be treated with the respect they deserve because God will glorify them in the future.
As citizens of Heaven, our lives serve as outposts of God’s rule in the world, pointing forward in anticipation to his arrival in the future. Paul tells the Philippians that they are “citizens of heaven.” They were already citizens of Rome. But that didn’t mean they were going to go live in Rome when they retired. Quite the opposite in fact! They were supposed to live in Philippi to bring Roman culture and Roman law to the city and the surrounding region. They were an outpost of “Romanism” on the frontier. So when Paul says we are “citizens of Heaven” he doesn’t mean we are going to retire to Heaven. Rather, he means we are an outpost of Heavenly rule, an outpost of Heaven’s “culture” in this world, on the frontier, so to speak.
The overriding characteristic of live in New Jerusalem, in the Age to Come, is going to be love. That is, the divine, self-giving love primarily concerned with the well-being of others. This is the love used to describe who God is. And it will be the primary characteristic of life with God in the New Jerusalem, on the redeemed earth. So now, when we love others, when we are concerned with the well-being of others, including our surroundings, we are practicing for life in the New Jerusalem. We are preparing ourselves for life in eternity.
What does that mean? It means when we work for justice in Jesus’ name, out of agape love, or when we feed the hungry in Jesus’ name, out of agape love, or clothe the poor, or provide health care to the sick, or provide education or share the good news of Jesus, out of a sincere, self-giving concern for the well-being of others, we are actually working for the Age to Come. We are doing something that will last into eternity!
But it doesn’t have to be big things we do. Even small things we do in Jesus’ name, in the power of the
Spirit, will matter in the Age to Come. Jesus said that even giving a cup of cold water in his name will reap eternal reward, will have an eternal effect.
This gives us tremendous hope! What we do matters, even if we are not important, influential people. Christian living is eternal. I can do something that matters, something that will last! That gives us hope when times of trial come. That gives us hope when we face opposition or affliction or even persecution. Every time we resist temptation, every time we overcome evil, every time we stand up for what is right, speak out for another person, we are living out the new life of new creation. Every time we reach out to another person in the character of Jesus, we are doing something that matters in eternity. We are building something for the arrival of God to dwell on earth. Every time we are patient with someone, kind to someone, gentle with someone, every time we exercise self-control or delight in joy, we are living out the life of the New Jerusalem and it will last into the Kingdom of God. Why? Because the Kingdom of God is coming on earth as it is in Heaven. The Alpha and Omega has said so. We have the early deposit of the Holy Spirit living in us bringing the new life of Jesus and the new life of the new creation to us already. And that is a wonderful thing! Amen.
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