You must be perfect

“You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

The perfection Jesus demands includes loving our enemies. It expands, though, to include every commandment from God. If we are to be saved from sin, evil, and death by obedience to God’s Law, then our obedience must be perfect. Any failure, any shortcoming, leaves us falling short of perfect. For each of us who has sinned, even once, we deserve no blessing from God. We deserve only punishment.

Poison is measured in parts per million. God’s Law is stricter yet; his Law has zero tolerance for sin. Obedience to most of the commandments is like a chain with one or two weak links. If we break the Law at any point, we have broken the entire Law. Our obedience is like a toy balloon filled with air. One tiny hole, the point of a pin or needle, destroys the entire balloon. Even the smallest sin makes each of us imperfect, unable to deserve anything good from God.

A human tendency wants to receive credit for trying our best, for having good intentions. We want to do some good things that might cancel all the wrong we have done. Jesus denies this path to us. If we are to be saved by obedience, we must be perfect. If we are going to find our own way to God, we are not allowed a single mistake. Once we have fallen short of God’s standards, even in a little way, we have lost any chance of earning anything good from God. We deserve only anger and destruction.

Jesus declares God’s Law in all its purity and all its power so we will lose hope of saving ourselves. All we can do is throw ourselves on God’s mercy. None of us is perfect. Our righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. We need the righteousness of Christ. We need him to fulfill the Law for us. We need his blessing—his gift—which makes us acceptable in the sight of God by erasing our sins, replacing them with the good works of Jesus.

Jesus died on the cross to pay the full price for our sins. His blood washes away our sins. Because of the blood Jesus shed on the cross and the life he sacrificed, the water of Holy Baptism cleanses us from all sin and unrighteousness, giving each of us a personal guarantee that Jesus died for us. In Baptism we are clothed in Christ. His good works are credited to our accounts. God the Father looked at his Son on the cross, saw our guilt, and treated Jesus as we deserve. Now he looks at each of us, sees the goodness of Jesus, and treats us as Jesus deserves. In this way, we have become the children of God.

In God’s eyes we are already perfect. We will not see the perfection God sees in us until the Day of the Lord, the Day of Resurrection, but God sees it today. What God sees and what he promises has already begun to shape our lives, making us more like Jesus. We are glad for that transformation, and we are eager for it to be completed, but our hope is not in our imitation of Christ. That imitation is a result of our hope, not its cause. The only source of our hope is Jesus himself—his perfectly obedient life, his sacrifice, and his resurrection. J.

The greater righteousness

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

The scribes and Pharisees were not wicked men, not even by any worldly standards. Because they opposed Jesus and because he called them hypocrites, we tend to think of scribes and Pharisees as bad people. The truth is that the scribes and Pharisees studied their Bibles, sought the commandments of God, and tried to obey every commandment they found. They were good husbands and fathers, good neighbors, good workers, and good citizens. Everyone in the Jewish world looked up to them and respected them. Some Jews disagreed with the Pharisees about interpreting the Bible, but no one said they were bad people.

No one said scribes and Pharisees were wicked, but Jesus said they were not good enough for God’s kingdom. They knew their Bibles well, and they were trying their best to be good people, but they still did not measure up to God’s standards. Sometimes people say of a virtuous person, “If she doesn’t deserve to go to heaven, nobody does.” This precisely matches what Jesus means; no one deserves to enter the kingdom of heaven. No one is good enough for God. No one meets God’s standards.

If the best is still not good enough for God, how do we become better? Certainly not by trying harder; that route already has failed. We become good enough for God when we acquire a righteousness that did not come from our lives. We measure up to God’s standards when a perfect life is substituted for our flawed lives.

In most cases, such an exchange would be considered cheating. Shouldn’t we get what we deserve? God loves us too much to give us what we deserve. Therefore, God blesses us, giving us what Jesus deserves. Jesus in turn goes willingly to the cross and accepts the punishment we deserve.

For more than thirty years, Jesus lived among us. He was one of us. During those years, he obeyed the rules we should be obeying. In the entire history of the world, his life is the only example of real righteousness. Only Jesus achieved pure moral perfection. His righteousness is credited to our accounts as Jesus takes the blame for our sins and pays our debt in full. We have a better righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees: we have the righteousness of Jesus, which is perfect and pure. When God looks at us, he sees the sinless life that Jesus lived. For that reason, God calls us his sons. For that reason, he gives us the rewards Jesus earned. For that reason, he invites us to enter the kingdom of heaven. J.

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.