The finish-line–Revelation 22

“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17—read Revelation 22:1-21).

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, he made a garden as the home of the first man and the first woman. In that garden grew the tree of life. But when the man and the woman ate the fruit of another tree, fruit that had been forbidden to them, God removed them from the garden. He did not want them to eat the fruit of the tree of life and live forever in their sin and rebellion and separation from him. Instead, he wanted them to pass through death to everlasting life, to be restored to fellowship with him.

God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, promising them a garden-like home in the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. To reach that land, they had to travel through the wilderness. God made a covenant with his people in the wilderness, saying, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” But the Israelites doubted God’s promise; they feared the Canaanites living in the Promised Land and failed to trust God. Therefore, they remained in the wilderness forty years, and their children crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land.

Like a shepherd searching for lost sheep, Jesus came into this wilderness of sin to rescue us. He battled the devil’s temptations in the wilderness, and Jesus won. When the time came to fulfill his promise of redemption, Jesus went into a garden to pray. He was seized in that garden and taken to trials and to the cross. But, after his death on the cross, he was buried in a garden, and in that garden his victory was proclaimed as Jesus rose from the dead.

Now the new creation is described as a garden. As rivers flowed from Eden to water the earth, so a river flows from the throne of God through the main street of the New Jerusalem. That river carries the water of life, the redeeming water that gives life to all God’s people. The tree of life grows on either side of that river, with twelve kinds of fruit to nourish all the people of God. Its leaves are for the healing of the nations. Because our sins have been removed, we are no longer barred from eating the fruit of the tree of life. We can live forever, because our rebellion against God has ended and all sin and evil has been removed from our lives.

One of the historic prayers of the Church mentions the devil, saying, “that he who by a tree once overcame might likewise by a tree be overcome.” The cross is that tree where the serpent’s head was crushed. It is a tree of life, even though nothing could be deader than a bare, wooden, fruitless cross, an instrument of death rather than life. We are all trees in the Lord’s orchard, meant to bear fruit for him. Yet apart from him we can do nothing. We might have green leaves, suggesting life, but we offer him no fruit. We are dead trees, fit only for the fire. Only Jesus of Nazareth bears fruit fit for the kingdom of heaven. But by going to the dead tree of the cross, Jesus gives us life. He makes us fruitful trees, worthy of his kingdom. His cross truly is the tree of life that makes us alive, watered by the river of the water of life, yielding fruit in due season (Psalm 1:3).

The last chapter of Revelation seems almost a scatter-shot of promises, echoing the previous chapters of the book as well as those of the other books of the Bible. Jesus speaks, and his messengers speak on his behalf. Even John becomes confused, worshiping an angel who speaks Christ’s promises, and being scolded by the angel for his confusion. The angel calls himself a fellow-servant of the apostle and of his brothers, the prophets; he tells John, “Worship God!” We also, as fruit-bearing trees in God’s orchard, can be fellow-servants with the apostles and prophets and angels; we also have the joyful privilege and obligation to share God’s life-giving Word, to bring forgiveness to sinners and hope to the victims of sin through the tree of life, the cross of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is coming soon. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. He is also everything in between. He is both the root and the descendant of David—David’s son and David’s Lord. He is the bright morning star, first-risen from the dead to promise all of us a resurrection like his on the Day he appears in the clouds.

Revelation 22 includes a warning not to add anything to the book of Revelation, nor to take away anything from the book. This warning applies to the entire Bible. “Until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Torah until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). But Jesus has fulfilled the promises of Moses and the prophets: he has done everything required to rescue God’s people, to defeat evil in all its forms, and to make everything new. Soon he will be seen in the clouds in glory, giving the command to raise all the dead, to announce his verdict on every life, and to welcome his people home into the new creation. Meanwhile, we live in his grace, redeemed from all our sins, reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrifice, and ready for eternal life in a new and perfect creation. As John writes, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”

A new heaven and a new earth–Revelation 21

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1—read Revelation 21:1-27).

The first heaven and the first earth pass away, because they are polluted by sin. Peter describes the passing away of the first creation this way: “”The Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies (or elements) will be burned up and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (II Peter 3:10-11). As the fire of judgment destroys all that was stained by sin, the saints of God are lifted out of the fire to land with Christ in a new creation.

Greek philosophy imagined that all that is physical is tainted and that the ideal state is to be spirit without body or physical form. But God created the physical world and called it good. He added Adam and Eve in their physical bodies and called creation very good. After they sinned and brought evil and death into his creation, the Son of God took on a human form and lived among us as one of us. When he rose from the dead after his victory was won, he still inhabited a human body. He ate with his disciples. He spoke of the new creation as eating and drinking at a celebration, like a wedding reception. Isaiah also mentioned eating and drinking in God’s new creation (Isaiah 25:6).

The new creation will be like that which Adam and Eve saw before they sinned. It will have mountains and streams of water, forests and fields, plants and animals, all living together in peace and harmony. Probably it will have oceans and beaches as well—throughout Revelation the sea has been an image of evil covering the face of the earth, which is why John now writes that there will be no sea.

The prophets often referred to Israel as God’s Bride; the New Testament frequently calls the Christian Church the Bride of Christ. The Church has been represented in Revelation as twenty-four elders (twelve from each Testament), 144,000 saints, a multitude that could not be counted, and a single woman who gave birth to the Savior and was then protected in the wilderness. Now the people of God again appear, this time as a city wearing a wedding dress. She is the New Jerusalem, coming from God out of heaven to dwell in the new creation, as the saints in Paradise will return when Christ appears to join their risen bodies and live forever in the new heavens and new earth.

John hears a voice promising that God will dwell with man: he will be their God, and they will be his people. The old covenant was introduced with similar words in Exodus—God promised Israel that he would be their God and they would be his people. Now, through the work of Christ in the new covenant, this promise is fulfilled. In the new creation, nothing will come between us and God; nothing will keep us from knowing his love and also his plan for our lives. Because sin will be burned away on the Day of the Lord, the new creation will have no tears, no mourning, no crying, and no pain; the old order of things has passed away.

Jesus promises to make everything new. He calls himself the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. In the beginning, everything was made through him. At the time of his appearing in the clouds, he will re-create everything. He promises to give freely from the spring of living water, as he promised a Samaritan woman in John 4. He lists those who will remain outside his new creation in the second death—those found guilty of sin because they refused God’s gift of grace, loving their sins more than they loved their Savior.

John is promised a closer view of the New Jerusalem, the wife of the Lamb. As Moses saw the Promised Land from a high mountain, so John watches from a high mountain as Jerusalem comes from heaven, from God’s presence in Paradise to God’s presence in the new creation. As the high priest wore a breastplate with twelve gems to represent the twelve tribes of Israel, so the new Jerusalem is decorated with twelve gems. It also has twelve gates, each gate carved from a single pearl. Its dimensions are measured and are found to be derived from units of twelve. The wall even had twelve foundations, with the names of the twelve apostles inscribed on them.

John mentions that the city was pure gold, clear as glass; he then says the same of the streets of Jerusalem, transparent as glass. Of course, gold is neither clear nor transparent; it is a yellow metal. But it is valuable, and transparent glass would be even more valuable. The gems and the gold and the pearly gates all are meant to show how valuable the Church—the gathering of believers—is to God.

When a Christian dies, that Christian’s family and friends sometimes speak of the Christian as entering the pearly gates and walking the golden streets of heaven. But the new Jerusalem with its pearly gates and golden streets does not appear until the Day of the Lord, the Day when Christ appears in the clouds, raises, all the dead, and makes everything new. It is better to be away from the body and at home with the Lord (II Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23). At that time, the body is buried on earth, but the soul is with Christ in Paradise, in the hands of the Father (Luke 23:43, 46). The joy of the resurrection and the new creation, though, is represented by the pearly gates and the golden streets—not by Paradise alone. Our Christian hope includes the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting—there we will find the pearly gates and the streets of gold.

Of course, the pearly gates and streets of gold are figures of speech to describe the beauty of God’s people in his eyes. We are the Bride of Christ, so he adorns us with all that is precious: with gold and with pearls and with valuable gems. If a city in the new creation literally had twelve gates, each carved from a single pearl, then one would hope that the massive oysters that produced such pearls were located on another planet in the new heavens and not on the face of the new earth! But as no city ever wore a wedding dress, so I am sure that we will have no reason to fear monster oysters in the new creation.

John sees no Temple in the city: the Temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb. Jesus once said, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up”—but he was speaking about the Temple of his body (John 2:19,21). A Temple is the dwelling place of a god. The Son of God became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). In the new creation, where God promises to dwell among his people, no other Temple will be needed.

Likewise, we will not need pastors and preachers, because we will all know God. We will not need police officers, attorneys, judges, or jail wardens. We will need no soldiers. Nor will we need doctors, nurses, therapists, and pharmacists. Many of us will take on new careers. Yet the things we love doing today—the things we can do all afternoon without noticing time passing—are likely to be the things we will do in the new creation for the glory of God and for the good of our fellow saints. Some will be occupied with music, others with literature, and still others with crafts. Some will tend gardens, as Adam and Eve did in the beginning before there was sin; others will care for the beasts of creation. Those things we love doing now (whether we are paid for doing them) we will do in the new creation, without struggle or strain or weariness or boredom. And we will all be at peace with God, at peace with one another, and at peace with all creation.

Without death, there will be no deadlines. Should someone want to take a vacation, he or she might walk into the forest, build a cabin, and live there for five or ten years, and then return to his or her work—and it would be less sacrifice of time than taking a weekend off in today’s hectic world.

The city (which represents God’s people in the new creation) needs no sun or moon, because the glory of God is its light and the Lamb is its lamp. This is not to say that the sun and the moon will no longer exist—merely that they will not be needed, because we will walk in God’s light. Therefore, its gates will never be shut, because no enemy will oppose it, and nothing will be able to harm it.

Nothing unclean will enter the new creation or the city of God. Only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life will dwell there. Is your name written in the Lamb’s book of life? How can you be sure?

I once taught a semester on the Old Testament in a Christian high school. Toward the end of the semester, as Christmas was approaching and the students were easily distracted, I gave them a difficult test. I warned them that they would have to do well on the test to pass the class. They all did poorly, and they all knew it. The next time the class met, I announced that one copy of the test had earned a perfect score. (It was the answer key, which I had filled out myself.) I then said that no name had been written on the perfect test. I told the students that I had taken the liberty of writing each of their names on the answer key and giving each of them credit for the perfect test.

I then told them that Jesus had done the same thing for them. He had lived a sinless life in the place of their sinful lives. He had then written their names on his perfect righteousness, giving each of them credit for what he had done. This is how you and I know that our names are written in the book of life: Jesus has written them there himself.

(taken from Revelation Unveiled, upon which I am still working) J.

 

 

 

 

Advent thoughts: December 14

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1—read Isaiah 11:1-10).

Jesse was the father of David, who became king of Israel. David was promised that one of his descendants would rule an eternal kingdom. But Isaiah foresaw a time that Jerusalem would be conquered and the king, the descendant of David would be made a captive in Babylon. Seventy years later the king’s grandson Zerubbabel would return to Jerusalem, not a king but a subject of the Persian Empire. For centuries the Promised Land would belong to other governments. The royal family would be a stump, the remnant of a tree that had been chopped down and removed.

Sometimes a new shoot comes from the living roots of a stump. Left to grow, that shoot can become another tree. Isaiah promised this for David’s family: when the time was right, a branch would grow from David’s family, and that branch would be the fulfillment of the promise God made to David, the promise that his descendant would rule an eternal kingdom.

Jesus is that branch. He was born in Bethlehem so he could inherit the kingdom of David. He grew up in Nazareth and was called a Nazarene—a name that sounds like the Hebrew word for “branch.” The Holy Spirit led Jesus—the sevenfold Spirit described by Isaiah. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Lord, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. All these qualities Jesus possesses, and he is the King who judges with righteousness as Isaiah also described.

Isaiah proceeds to picture the Kingdom of peace ruled by Jesus. Once predator and prey, now animals become friends and dwell together. Nothing in all creation is harmful; everything is at peace with everything else. This perfect peace, this Shalom, is the gift of Jesus. The new creation that begins on the Day of the Lord will be marked by that Shalom. From that time on, there will be no danger. Nothing will be poisonous; we will have no allergies. Fleas and ticks and mosquitoes will not annoy us, and we will finally learn God’s intention in creating these creatures in the first place. The balance of bacteria in us and on us and around us will be perfect; no germs or viruses will sicken us, but even the tiniest living creatures will act for our benefit.

This new creation will have no sin and no death. All people will live together in harmony with God and with one another. Many of our current occupations will not be needed. We will not need doctors, nurses, pharmacists, or therapists. We will not need police officers, lawyers, judges, or prison guards. We will not need pastors, because everyone will have direct and continuous access to the Lord.

Yet there still will be occupations and callings. Some will tend the plants and others the animals; others will work in art or in technology of various kinds. People will prepare food for others to eat. People will honor God and serve each other in a variety of ways. Probably the things you most enjoy doing now, those things that absorb your attention so much that you lose track of the time, these are the things you will do in the new creation for the glory of God and for the benefit of your fellow saints.

All this is guaranteed to us by the root and branch of Jesse, by Jesus the King who rules eternally. He was once mocked as King of the Jews, given a crown twisted out of thorns, a reed for his scepter, and a purple robe that was just a scrap of spare fabric. But this mocked and abused King is the Prince of Peace, the one who brings his people into a new creation to live with him forever. Thanks be to God! J.

PS: When I got home, I found that a circuit breaker had tripped, interrupting power to the modem, computer, and a few other outlets. I turned it back on, but it tripped again, with a popping noise in the dining room. It appears that rain water has gotten into the wall of the house and is interfering with the electricity. We are leaving that circuit off for the time being and will have it examined next week. Meanwhile, I have an extension cord crossing the room to bring power to the computer and modem.

What is yet to come?–part five

When God first began to create the world, he knew all the problems that would happen in creation. He knew all the sins that would be committed. He knew all the rejection he would face. He knew all the suffering and tribulation that sin would cause in the world. He knew already how he would suffer to redeem sinners and to rescue the world from sin and death. God knew all these things, and clearly he felt that they were worth the cost. You are worth the cost to God. He was willing that sin and death might exist in order that we also might exist.

Paul wrote, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Jesus might have said the very same words, even while hanging on the cross. The few years we face tribulation are nothing when compared to the eternal glory of the new creation. No matter how much we struggle today, it pales in comparison to what God has in store for us: the eternal celebration that we call heaven.

When Jesus and his saints land on the earth on the Day of the Lord, the planet will have been changed. All sin and evil will have been stripped away, and everything will be new. We will see the world as Adam and Eve saw it before they were tempted and fell into sin. Everything God made was very good, and those very good things will be ours forever in the new creation.

Will there be animals? “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. A nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:6-9). I cannot say whether the dogs and cats we have loved in this world will be restored, but in the new creation all animals will be tame; none of them will be dangerous to us. There will be no poisons, and we will not have allergies. No longer will our lives be in danger from storms and earthquakes. Best of all, people will not be dangerous to each other. We will all get along and will live in perfect peace and harmony. We will have fellowship with God, with all the people around us, and with all of nature.

Our bodies will be changed. We will be healed of all that happened to us in this lifetime. Our eyes and ears will work perfectly; our legs and knees will carry us without pain. We will be in no danger of sickness. Our minds will be healed too; there will be no anxiety, no depression, no sorrow of any kind. Even someone born with a defect will be healed at the resurrection. We will still be diverse, as we are today, but none of us will have any kind of problem with our health or with our bodies.

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Isaiah 25:6). No wonder Jesus compares heaven to a wedding reception. There will be no starvation, no hunger, and no overeating. We will know how to take care of these bodies and will have no temptation to abuse these bodies.

Without death, there will be no deadlines. There will be work to do, as Adam and Eve had work to do in the Garden, but the work will be enjoyable. Of course, many careers will not be needed in a perfect world. There will be no police officers, no attorneys, and no judges. Doctors and nurses will not be needed. Nor will pastors; all of us will have direct access to God. There will be jobs, but they will be enjoyable. I expect that the tasks you enjoy doing today, the occupations that cause you to lose track of time, are the things you will do in heaven. Whatever you do, it will be done for the glory of God and for the benefit of your fellow saints.

But if someone wants to take a vacation, to enjoy creation for a while, nothing will stop that person. He or she could walk to the mountains, build a cabin in the woods, and live among nature for twenty or thirty years, and then return; and it would be like taking a Saturday afternoon to rest today.

Will there be technology in heaven? Technology is not sinful. No doubt there will be room in heaven for fast cars and motorbikes and other things some people enjoy. Those who do not enjoy those things will not have to do them or be anywhere near them. I will probably ride a horse in the new creation, but if a car makes you happy, I am sure you will have a car.

The devil wants us to think that heaven will be boring. Taking a few scraps of imagery from the book of Revelation, the sinful world has created a cartoon picture of heaven with haloed people wearing white robes, sitting on clouds, and playing harps. Now if playing a harp sounds good to you, no doubt you will have the opportunity. But the new creation will be like this present creation, except that sin and all the consequences of sin will be stripped away. What you like about the world as it is now will probably be there for you in the new creation.

Best of all, we will live each day fully in the presence of God. We will know his love and have no doubts about him. We will always know what is right for us to do, and we will always want to do what is right. Should we have questions, God will have answers. We will know Jesus as well as we know our best friends today, and nothing will come between us and his love.

This is our eternal home, guaranteed to us through the work of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. To him be thanks and praise forever! J.

What is yet to come?–part one

In the long-held traditions of the Church, the month of November is a time when Christians think about eschatology—the study of Last Things. Granted, many congregations in the contemporary world create their budgets for the coming year in November and, as a result, they use November to talk about stewardship and tithing. But the older tradition is to consider Last Things. From All Saints’ Day on the first of November to the Sunday of the Fulfillment near the end of the month, readings and hymns and sermons and prayers tend to focus the congregation’s attention on eschatology.

More than many topics, eschatology tends to produce a blurring of the Bible’s clear and literal teachings and its imagery about Last Things. Some Christians tend to consult the book of Revelation first about Last Things and to use its splendid imagery to interpret the more straight-forward passages in the Bible about Last Things. The result can be highly imaginative and creative, but at the same time it is rather inaccurate. Not that this is a catastrophe; any Christian who trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation will be saved. Some Christians are in store for a few surprises when the Last Day comes, but afterwards they will be able to laugh with Jesus and the other saints about any misunderstandings.

Eschatology divides easily into personal and cosmic Last Things. I will discuss cosmic eschatology in a later post and deal today with personal eschatology, based on what the Bible says.

Some of the clearest teaching about personal eschatology—and passages I have used in hospice situations—comes from the words of Christ on the cross, written in Luke 23. First Jesus prays for sinners: “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.” The prayer could apply narrowly to the soldiers who nailed him to the cross. However it broadly applies to all sinners, all of whom made the crucifixion necessary for salvation. God the Father answers the prayer of his Son: all those who trust in Christ are forgiven. Next, when a thief beside Jesus confesses his sin and prays, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus responds, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” As his own death approaches, Jesus prays, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

From this we learn that, at the moment of bodily death, the spirit departs to be in the hands of the Father, with Jesus in Paradise. Paradise is a spiritual waiting for the resurrection on the Last Day. It is not the final fulfillment of the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Paul writes about Paradise when he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” than life in this sinful world (Philippians 1:23). He also writes, “We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord… we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5:6-8). But Paradise is not the final goal of the Christian. “Not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (II Corinthians 5:4). Paul also stresses the vital importance of the resurrection of the body in I Corinthians 15.

Christians proclaim faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Death is described as sleep from which we shall awaken. Some conclude that the soul will sleep in Paradise and will not experience the passage of time between the death of the body and the resurrection. It appears, though, that in death the body sleeps and not the soul. Revelation pictures saints in Paradise praying for the Church on earth (Rev. 6:9-11). Paul’s notion of “better” and “at home with the Lord” seems to indicate some awareness of being with the Lord, as do the words of Jesus: “You will be with me in Paradise.”

The Bible also hints of a spiritual waiting place for those without faith, those who will not have a home in the new creation. The Old Testament’s word “Sheol” appears, at least in some instances, to describe that waiting for judgment. Jesus borrows the Greek term “Hades” to describe the rich man waiting for the final judgment while the beggar Lazarus is at Abraham’s side (Luke 16:19-31).

But all are waiting to stand before the throne of Jesus and receive his Judgment. The announcement of Judgment will be a verdict, not a trial with evidence produced and weighed. The spirit’s presence in Paradise or in Hades already indicates the verdict for each spirit.

The saints who have departed this earth are not yet walking the streets of gold. They have not yet entered the pearly gates. Those belong to the new creation, not to Paradise. But the saints are with Jesus, in the hands of the Father, and that is a better place than this sin-polluted world.

And next comes the cosmic eschatology. J.

What will be

“Jesus is coming back to take us to heaven.” The sentence looks and sounds correct at first, but at best it is sloppy theology, and at worst it is packed with doctrinal errors.

The words “coming back” suggest that Jesus has left and is currently not here. But he promised his followers, “I will be with you always, to the end of the ages,” and, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.” Jesus will not come back because he has never left. The Greek word “Parousia,” generally translated “coming” in Matthew 24 and in Acts 1:11, has a more complex meaning of “arrival” or “appearing.” It has no sense of returning, but more of an unveiling, a revelation of what already exists.

One passage of Scripture could be used to defend the idea of Jesus coming back—John 14:3 says, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” Although some scholars apply this verse to the ascension and Parousia of Jesus, its context refers instead to his arrest and execution, his burial, and his resurrection. Jesus is not busy now preparing a place for us in his Father’s Kingdom; Jesus prepared a place for us by his death on the cross, his burial, and his resurrection. He came back Easter morning after spending the Sabbath with his body in the tomb and his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. Through the work of his Church he takes us to be with him, even as he is with us as he promised.

Other scholars suggest that the divine Jesus is with us now, but the human Jesus will return at the Parousia. This thought conflicts with Biblical Christology. The divine nature of Jesus and the human nature of Jesus cannot be separated; he is one Christ, always fully divine and always fully human. The Son of God was born and learned how to talk and how to walk, even though as God he can do anything and knows everything. The Son of God was hungry, thirsty, in danger from storms and enemies. He was arrested, tortured, and killed—the Son of God died and was buried, and he rose to life again. Likewise, the Son of Mary is present everywhere in the universe. He knows everything and can do anything he chooses. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. When we pray to him, he understands our needs and desires, because he is like us in every way, except that he never sinned.

Likewise, the words “take us to heaven” distort the Bible’s description of the Parousia. I Thessalonians 4:13-18 describe what Jesus will do on the Day of the Lord. He will appear in the sky, seen by every person on earth. All the angels of heaven and all the saints in Paradise will accompany him. Believers alive at that time will meet him in the air (the “Rapture”), but that meeting in the air is a brief event. It is like the officials of a city meeting a king at the city gates to escort him into the city. It is like children seeing their grandmother’s car arrive and rushing out the door to meet her in the driveway. They do not stay in the driveway with her, but they accompany her into the house. I have often considered the Rapture to be our Shepherd’s sorting of the sheep and the goats, described in Matthew 25:32-33.

When Jesus announces his Judgment, unbelieving sinners will be sent away from this world to the devil’s prison. Believers will remain in this world, but we will be changed. All the dead will be raised, and the bodies of all believers will be restored to the original plan of the Creator. Injuries and sicknesses will be removed, never to return. Even birth defects will be canceled. As our bodies will be changed, so also the world around us will be changed. It will be restored to its original perfection, the very good world inhabited by Adam and Eve before their sin brought death and decay into creation. Will there be dogs and cats in heaven? Undoubtedly, for they were part of the first perfect creation. Will they be the same dogs and cats we have known and loved in this lifetime? I don’t know, but I cannot find a verse in the Bible that says that our beloved pets will not be with us in the Kingdom of God.

“The meek will inherit the earth.” Jesus did not describe eternal life as spirits sitting on clouds playing harps. He described eternal life as a wedding reception, an unending celebration of his victory over sin and evil and death. Jesus ate with his disciples after his resurrection; he also spoke about eating and drinking in the kingdom of God. The Old Testament prophets also spoke about the heavenly feast—consisting of the finest foods and the best wine. The new creation will be as physical as the first creation, and it will be on this same planet we inhabit today. Jesus is not going to take us to heaven—he is going to bring heaven to us, making this world perfect so it can be our home with him forever.

Careless and sloppy sentences (such as “Jesus is coming back to take us to heaven”) distract us from the clear message of the Bible. They prevent children from learning what they need to know about Jesus, about salvation, and about the Day of the Lord. They weaken our efforts to share with mission prospects the hope that we have in Jesus our Savior. Those nine words require nine hundred words to clarify and  correct. The real promises of the Bible are far better than our casual summaries. May God grant us firm faith and correct understanding of all that he has told us. J.

Waiting for the shadow of the moon

I’ve never made a bucket list. I am much more inclined to live in the moment, to take one day at a time. However, if I had composed a bucket list, right at the top would be viewing a solar eclipse like the one happening next Monday.

I’ve been fascinated by astronomy since I was a boy. I watched the Apollo space program on television and wanted to be an astronaut. I learned about the planets in our solar system (back when Pluto was still a planet) and read about comets and meteors, stars and galaxies, quasars and supernovas, and all the other fascinating things to be found in the heavens. Part of the appeal of Star Trek and Star Wars is the dream of interplanetary travel, although the reality is likely to be far closer to 2001: Space Odyssey. I have seen a comet, experienced several partial solar eclipses, and watched lunar eclipses from beginning to end. I’ve gotten out of bed at 4 a.m. to watch meteors. The coming eclipse will round out years of watching the sky and marveling at God’s creation.

No doubt many Christian writers and speakers are trying to find spiritual metaphors in the eclipse of the sun. A few are even making apocalyptic predictions based on this perfectly ordinary event. Aside from the classic contrast of light and darkness, I don’t see that the eclipse has much to tell us about redemption or new life in Christ. On the other hand, such an eclipse does speak of the wonder of God’s creation. Our Earth is the only known planet whose moon appears to be the same size as does the sun from the surface of the planet. An eclipse with a much bigger moon or with a much smaller moon could never be the marvel that this eclipse will be. The entire arrangement is beautifully planned.

Needless to say, I have long since been sure to be on vacation for this event. I will have to drive several hours, but I am blessed with family living right in the path of the totality. My room there is already reserved. The only problem is the question of the best location for viewing the eclipse. Some of the family is content to relax in the back yard; after all, the sun and the moon will be overhead—what else would anyone want? My father and I already understand one factor that the other members of the family are missing—the arrival of the moon’s shadow will be dramatic as it soundlessly roars across the landscape at a speed faster than sound.

Every shadow has two components—the entire shadow, and the core of the shadow. Generally we see shadows projected across a surface that is near the object causing the shadow. Therefore, we do not observe the two components. When a more distant object casts a shadow, the blurred edges of the shadow are outside the core, but they are still part of the shadow. The moon is about 239,000 miles from the earth. A dramatic difference exists between its entire shadow and the core of the shadow. A partial eclipse happens outside the core, in the rest of the shadow. At ninety percent or more, the partial eclipse can still be spectacular. But as the core of that shadow arrives, everything changes. My father and I want to be sitting where we can see that shadow tear across the landscape toward us. Yet we do not want to oversell the experience (or give away too many secrets), so we are looking for a compromise that will give us some chance to see the shadow approaching without straying far from the property.

Thinking about shadows, and light and darkness, leads me to another random observation. We see with our eyes. In the back of our eyes are two sets of receptors, called rods and cones. With rods we sense light and darkness; with cones we perceive colors. The cones require more light to work than do the rods. Therefore, in dim light we see things in black and white and in shades of gray. In brighter light, we are able to make out more colors. As the Moody Blues remarked (“Nights in White Satin”), in the nighttime and early morning, “red is black; and yellow, white.” Or, as I tease my children, one sees many yellow cars on the road during the day, but hardly any yellow cars are noticed at night. Do people who own yellow cars only drive during the daytime?

Here is my spiritual take on light and darkness. We see and comprehend many things about creation now, but as the Bible says, we see in a glass dimly. In the new creation, we will see and know things more fully. Other bloggers that I follow have been speculating about heaven in the last few days. I think that the contrast between the lives we live now and the lives we will live then resembles the contrast between what we can see early in the morning before sunrise and what we can see when the sun is high in the sky. Much more will be revealed to us in that new creation than we are capable of perceiving today. What puzzles us now will make sense then, and the harmony of creation will resonate in our lives in ways we cannot even picture or describe today. J.

Four heavens

A more accurate title for this post would be “four meanings for the word heaven,” but that struck me as unwieldy. As used in the Bible and among Christians, the word heaven has four distinct meanings, and when people confuse those meanings, their concept of heaven becomes muddled.

The first heaven is the sky—where the clouds are, where birds and airplanes fly. It could perhaps to considered equivalent to the Earth’s atmosphere, although sometimes it is said that the orbit of the moon marks the boundary between the first and second heaven.

The second heaven is the vastness of the universe beyond the Earth’s atmosphere or beyond the moon’s orbit. The sun and all the objects orbiting the sun are part of the second heaven, as are the other stars in our galaxy and whatever objects orbit around them. The second heaven also includes the other galaxies and everything they contain. Whatever physical objects exist outside of galaxies are likewise part of the second universe.

The book of Genesis starts with this sentence: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The two heavens—the immediate sky and the vastness of the universe—are included in that sentence.

The third heaven is the presence of God—a special presence, since God is present everywhere in the universe. Paul wrote of being caught up into the third heaven (II Corinthians 12:2). In Revelation, John saw a door in the sky (the first heaven) and, moving through that door, entered the third heaven (Revelation 4:1-2). When we speak of a believer who has died and now is in heaven, we are referring to the third heaven. Jesus mentioned the third heaven twice while on the cross. When a criminal being executed with Jesus said, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” Later, he prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Therefore, we can describe the third heaven as Paradise, the Father’s hands, being with Jesus, or—in the case of one of Jesus’ parables—in Abraham’s bosom.

The fourth heaven is a shortening of the expression “new heavens and a new earth.” This new creation is promised to Christians as a future reality. On the Day Jesus is seen in the sky, with all his angels and all the believers who have died, he will restore creation. Everything in creation will be new—it will be like the world Adam and Eve experienced before they sinned. Everything that was very good then will be very good again, and it will remain very good for all eternity.

Unbelievers mock Christians as if we believed that the presence of God—the third heaven—was somewhere in the sky—the first and second heavens. They describe Christians as picturing God as an old man with a long white beard sitting on a cloud. The third heaven cannot be found by traveling anywhere in the universe. Instead, one could think of it as another set of dimensions overlaying the familiar dimensions of height, width, and depth. (Time has dimensions too, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Christians sometimes mix together the third and fourth heavens in our minds and our conversations. The third heaven is an ongoing reality. God, his angels, and the saints who have died are in the third heaven now. The fourth heaven is a future reality. It is the new creation established by Jesus on a Day that has not yet occurred. The Bible says many more things about the fourth heaven than about the third heaven. Therefore, Christians sometimes make the mistake of describing the saints in Paradise as having the blessings of the new creation. They are guaranteed those blessings or they would not be in Paradise; but they are waiting for the new creation even as we are waiting.

Eternal life in the new creation is the ultimate Christian hope and God’s firm guarantee. Heaven will be like Paradise because we will always be in the presence of God and always experience his presence. Yet heaven will also be this planet—and the rest of creation—restored to perfection. As Adam and Eve had tasks in Eden, so we will have things to do for God and for one another. None of them will be burdensome or boring. Each of us probably will do the things we love doing most in this world—singing, gardening, woodcraft, or many other possibilities. Yet many vocations will have disappeared. We will not need legal professionals, health care professionals, military professionals, and the like, because the world will be perfect. Deadlines will no longer be a problem, because there will be no death. Nothing in all of creation will be harmful or dangerous. Best of all, we will be with the Lord forever.

We are looking forward to a new creation, the home of righteousness. Our faith includes the guarantee of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. When Jesus spoke of heaven, he did not say much about white robes or harps. Instead, he compared it to a wedding reception—a joyful party with food and drink, music and dancing, and people celebrating the glory of a loving relationship. This is our future, and no power in all creation can take it away from us, for Jesus has already paid the necessary price to make this new world our home. J.