Come to terms quickly

“Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:25-26).

Clearly these words relate to those that precede them, the teaching about leaving a gift at the altar and going to reconcile with a brother. Jesus seems to be illustrating the dangers of allowing a wrong to fester uncorrected for too long. In this world, punishment—such as the debtor’s prison Jesus describes—follows our sins and mistakes when we fail to get along with one another and when we do not correct the wrongs we have committed.

Punishments in this world remind us of the final Judgment of the Day of the Lord, as well as the punishment of sinners that will result from that Judgment. Perhaps this lesson of Jesus is a parable about Judgment Day. Jesus already explained that the commandment not to murder covers more territory than the simple act of taking a life. With that in mind, Jesus says, we had better consider how the lives we live measure up to the standards that he will use at the final Judgment. We must change our lives today, making sure that we are not found guilty on that Day, because hell is a prison from which there is no escape.

Most religions dedicate themselves to this proposition: we must become better people, causing less harm to one another and to our world, accumulating less guilt for that final Judgment. Goodness, though, is not only motivated by escaping punishment. Goodness is sought for its own sake, to please God, and to be the people he intended when he created us. We want to be better now. We want to turn our lives around so we walk on the paths that God has provided us.

Who will be our adversary on that Day? The people hurt by our sins and wrongdoing might testify against us, but the real Adversary is the one whose rules we have broken. We take sides against God whenever we do what he told us not to do, and we also take sides against God when we fail to do the things he commands. Our Maker, who knows what we are meant to be, has given us clear instructions about how to live. This Maker will also be our Judge. If Jesus is the Adversary and the Judge and the Officer of the prison as well, we have no hope of escaping punishment on that Day.

Therefore, we seek to be right with Jesus today. We try not to be angry at our brother. We try not to insult the people around us. We try to meet the higher standards of Jesus, but we fail. The good deeds we manage to perform cannot balance our shortcomings. Our best intentions, our worship and prayers, and our efforts at holiness all might seem to help us come to terms with Jesus quickly, before that Last Day comes when it is to late to come to terms. Left to ourselves, though, we cannot be right with Jesus. Left to ourselves, we still find ourselves facing an eternal prison sentence.

Is there no answer to this problem? The answer has already been given; the answer was found in the blessings which Jesus spoke at the beginning of the sermon. Jesus has fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. Jesus has given us a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees—Jesus has given us his own perfect righteousness. He gave it as a free gift. Now we are right with him. He is no longer our Adversary, because he has paid our debt in full. Not a penny remains to be paid.

If we are right with Jesus now, we will be right with him on the Last Day. He will not be our Adversary; he will be our Defense Attorney, reminding his Father why have a place in his kingdom, as Jesus also is doing today. On that Day, we will not be thrown into prison. On that Day we will be welcomed into the kingdom of heaven; we will inherit the earth.

If that is the case, why does Jesus spend so much time teaching the commandments of God and explaining what they mean? Jesus explains the Law to show us how badly we need his gift. He explains the commandments to open our eyes, so we will see that our righteousness is not good enough for his kingdom. Jesus does not want us to try our best and fall short. Therefore, he is brutally honest with us today, telling us how far we are from his kingdom when we try to get there on our own. Some people, when they read the teachings of Jesus, try to tone them down, making them practical and achievable. They miss the point. Jesus was not exaggerating; he really wants everyone to be as good as he describes. He also wants us to despair of reaching that goal on our own. Only then will we treasure the gift of forgiveness he gives to us.

Forgiveness is no license to sin. We still try our best to live up to Christ’s high standards. We try to be good, and Jesus tells us what “good” looks like. He even shows us what “good” looks like, because the standards he teaches match the life he lived. Because we are forgiven, because we are on the path to heaven, Jesus helps us become more like him. His love and his forgiveness transform our lives so we can bear his image. We are not doing it for him; Jesus is doing it for us. J.

Anger and murder

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the fires of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22).

All religions regard human life as sacred. All religions regard murder as a sin against the Source of life. Granted: exceptions can be found to this command. Killing in self-defense is not called murder. Soldiers killing enemy soldiers in wartime, and executioners killing convicted criminals who have been sentenced to death, is not murder. (Religious people, including Christians, sometimes debate these examples, and differing opinions are possible.) Some people distinguish between the value of a human life and the value of an animal life; others make no distinction. Some consider it sinful to kill an animal for any reason, while most people accept killing animals for food and for clothing—and many feel that hunting or fishing for sport is not sinful.

Jesus does not address these matters in this sermon. He speaks of the commandment not to murder, and he carries it a different direction. Any harm we cause to another person—even the emotional harm of an insult—is a sin, violating the commandment not to murder, according to Jesus. He even seems to equate anger with murder—but we must be careful to understand Jesus correctly. Jesus himself expressed anger against people who were doing wrong. At times he used the energy of his anger to overturn the wrong. Anger in itself is not sinful. Anger is a temptation to sin. Anger offers opportunities to sin. Anger becomes sinful when it results in other sins. Anger is sinful also when we become angry for selfish reasons—because something has hurt us or has been inconvenient to us. On the other hand, when anger comes from seeing sin, from seeing that God’s will is not being done, from seeing others suffer due to sin, that anger is not necessarily sinful.

Jesus offers two examples of sinful anger. First he uses the general term “insults”; then he quotes a specific insult. Jesus says that people who are angry enough to insult one another deserve punishment; God will regard them as murderers, both at the time of the insult and at the Last Judgment.

This teaching is a frightening teaching. Only a few people of the world are guilty of murder under its narrow definition. All people have been guilty of selfish anger and even guilty of insulting the people who made us angry. We can hardly live a week among sinful people without sinning this way several times. We might even accuse Jesus of going too far. The best of us is not good enough to keep our tempers at all times. The best of us is in danger of the fires of hell.

Jesus wants us to understand that point. He is quite serious about this teaching, about this interpretation of the commandment not to murder. Even the smallest harm we cause to another person is a sin against God. Despite our good intentions and our best efforts, we cannot escape our guilt. For this reason, we need a better righteousness, the perfection of Jesus, credited to our account. Only through his blessing, his gift, can we escape the judgment we deserve. 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.

Peacemakers

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

When the Great War ended in 1918, people hoped and longed for peace. The horrors of that war seemed to make future war unthinkable, which is why the Great War was described in the United States as “the war to end all wars.” A League of Nations was created, but the League could not prevent a second World War. The Cold War came quickly on the heels of that war. Even when the Cold War ended at the end of the twentieth century, peace was not established on earth. Hatred and warfare and violence continue to be the pattern humanity follows in the twenty-first century.

Peace is not as interesting as war. If a fight breaks out, people want to know who won. They do not ask whether anyone tried to keep the peace and prevent the fight.

For all the world’s rhetoric about peace, the peacemaker receives very little respect. Even though the Nobel Prize Committee awards a Peace Prize every year, few people acknowledge the individuals who live from day to day trying their best to stay out of fights, striving to get along with other people. Like the person who is meek, the peacemaker is either mocked or ignored in the world. The fighter who wins gains respect and admiration; the peacemaker who avoids a fight is forgotten.

Jesus Christ calls us to live lives of peace. He wants us to be peacemakers. Jesus wants us to imitate him. He entered the world on account of the war between good and evil, and he won the decisive battle for the side that is good. Even so, Jesus did not come to destroy all that is evil. He came to rescue evildoers like us and to claim us for the side that is good. We were enemies of God, but Jesus came to make us God’s friends—and more than friends: Jesus came to make us sons of God.

God has only one Son. Jesus is God’s only-begotten Son, begotten by the Father outside of time and existing with the Father for all eternity. Although the fact that God created us might make us his children, our sins against God have broken the family relationship. We have run away from home; we are no longer worthy to be called God’s children.

Still, God calls us his sons. Because his only-begotten Son gave himself as a sacrifice to pay for our sins, we are reconciled to God. We are now right with him. The death of Jesus pays the cost of our adoption into God’s family. Because the payment was a Son, we are now sons—able to inherit all that Jesus left to us in his death?

What did Jesus leave us? Not money or property in a worldly sense: the only property Jesus owned was the clothing he was wearing, and the soldiers claimed that clothing. What did Jesus leave us? He left us the rewards of a perfect and sinless life: the blessings of God, the guarantee of eternal life in a perfect world, and all the help we need for our lives in this world. Because Jesus died for us, we will inherit the earth. We do not deserve this inheritance. We have not earned it by being meek, or even by being peacemakers. Our inheritance is a blessing: it is God’s gift to us.

We are changed by this gift. God’s blessings shape our lives. Because God calls us his sons, we have peace with God, peace with each other, and peace with the good world God made. Living in the confidence of this promised peace, we also bring that peace to others. We become peacemakers when we refuse to fight over the petty problems of the world. We become peacemakers when we seek peace with others rather than victory over others. We become peacemakers when we share the good news of what Jesus has done, the good news that brings peace. Because God calls us his sons, and because God’s only-begotten Son is the Prince of Peace, we now are peacemakers. J.

The merciful

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

No one earns God’s mercy by first being merciful to others. God always goes first. Likewise, no one earns God’s forgiveness by first forgiving the sins of others. God always goes first. He forgives our sins, and his forgiveness gives the power to forgive those who sin against us.

God’s mercy is a gift. He is merciful to us, even though we do not deserve it. In fact, the word “mercy” requires it to be an undeserved gift. Being kind and generous to people who deserve such things is not mercy; it is justice.

We do not deserve God’s kindness, generosity, and mercy. Even the best of us on our best days falls far short from God’s plan for our lives. We are meant to love God with our whole hearts. We are meant to love everyone around us as much as we love ourselves. When we follow the path of selfishness, greed, envy, hatred, and cruelty, we are failures. We deserve to be punished by God. We deserve to be cast far away from him, condemned to an eternal existence without his love and his help.

God is merciful to us. Although we do not deserve to be forgiven, he forgives us. Although we do not deserve to be rescued, he rescues us. Jesus came to live a perfect life for us, crediting each of us with his goodness and sharing with us the rewards he earned. Jesus took away our guilt, paying our debt in full on the cross. God is too holy to ignore our sins, but in love he transfers them to Jesus, who pays the penalty we never could have paid. On the cross, Jesus gives himself for us. He also fought and won a battle on our behalf—a battle against sin, against evil, and against death. He won the victory single-handedly on the cross; the war against all evil—including the guilt of our sins—was finished that Friday outside Jerusalem (John 19:30). Jesus announced his victory Sunday morning of the same weekend by rising from the dead.

Mercy transfers our guilt to Jesus. Mercy transfers his rewards to us. Mercy makes us able to share His victory, in spite of the fact that he won that victory alone. Mercy renews forgiveness and Christ’s victory in our lives every day, even though we continue to sin every day.

God’s mercy changes us. Because he loves us, we can love others. Because he forgives all our sins, we can forgive those who sin against us. Because he has mercy on us, we can be merciful. If it were necessary for us to love first, to forgive first, to show mercy first before God can bless us, his blessing would never come to us. Because God has already blessed us, we now have the power to be like him. Those who are truly merciful, Jesus says, are the ones who have already been changed by the mercy with which God has blessed them. J.

The meek

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).

To be meek is not to be weak. A weak person might be weak because he or she has no other choice, but one who chooses to be meek is probably not weak. It takes great inner strength to be meek.

To be meek means to be willing to let others be in control. Meek is the opposite of brash: a brash person is always trying to be in control and to make people do things his or her way. Various insults characterize people who are brash and not meek, because brash people are not well-liked. Yet other people have coined insults for the meek. In this world, people are urged to assert themselves, to demand their rights, and to refuse to be pushed around by others. Those who do not behave this way are sometimes called spineless wimps, lacking in self-esteem, and deserving to be victims since they do not demand the respect they deserve.

It takes great inner strength to be meek when one is strong. Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was tried by the Sanhedrin and by Pilate and Herod, he was mistreated by the Temple guards and by Roman soldiers, and he was mocked while hanging on the cross. At any step along the way, Jesus could have freed himself and taken revenge on his enemies. He chose not to fight or to seek revenge because he had a greater plan in mind. He was working to free sinners. Because he was meek to be our Savior and our Redeemer, Christians now are called to imitate Jesus; we are called to be meek.

Forcing people to do things our way and taking revenge on those who don’t is not the path chosen by those who follow Jesus Christ. We are called to exercise self-control rather than trying to control others. We are taught by God to be strong enough to be meek.

How is it possible to be meek like Christ? Holy meekness results from the blessing promised by Christ, the assurance that we will inherit the earth. A Day is coming when the world will be melted in fire and remade (II Peter 3:10). The world will be restored to its original perfection. Only those who are right with God through Christ will be citizens of that new creation. The new creation is his kingdom; because of his loving generosity, it will be our home as well.

We do not earn a place in the new creation by being meek. Jesus describes our reception of the world as an inheritance. His blessing is a gift, guaranteed to us through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He bought the world with his blood and with his life; but through his death on the cross we inherit what belongs to him. Knowing that we possess this inheritance changes us today. No longer do we care to be involved in the petty disputes of the present world. Our minds are on higher things. We do not mind being meek today, even if our meekness causes us to suffer today, because a better world already belongs to us.

Being meek, though, does not mean that we do nothing. We hunger and thirst for righteousness, and we are peacemakers: we are active in this world, active on the side of good. We fight for what is right. We defend the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We do not fight for ourselves. Like Jesus, we are willing to be meek today because of the greater victory that has already been won. J.

Those who mourn

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

We want to be happy. That desire is natural. Mourning is our reaction to things that have gone wrong; when we mourn, we are not happy. The world will not trust any teacher who connects mourning with blessings; the two are opposites and might cancel each other, or at least be incompatible, as far as the world is concerned.

Christ’s blessing, though, is comfort. People who are always happy do not need comfort, but Jesus promises the blessing of comfort. He knows that we will not always be happy in this sin-polluted world. We face our own sins and the sins of other people and the results of sin in this world. If we can be happy about the world the way it is today, we are not like God. God is displeased with sin and evil in the world. Sin and evil cause God to grieve.

Jesus taught people to “repent and believe the Gospel.” To repent is to seek a change. Martin Luther wrote, as the first of his Ninety-Five Theses, “When our Lord Jesus said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” We cannot repent once and be done repenting. We do not repent only on special occasions. Every day we sin, and every day we are sorry. Every day we need a Savior. Every day we want to change ourselves and the world around us, making ourselves and the world better.

We are not satisfied with the condition of the world. That is good: God is not satisfied with the world either. We try our best to change things, to be like Jesus, but we always fall short of his standards. For this we are sorry. For this we repent. For this we mourn. Christ’s blessing belongs to us, though, because his comfort has already entered our lives. “Believe the good news,” Jesus says. He came to change us, to pay for our sins and remove our guilt, to make us his forever. His life and death and resurrection bring us comfort, good news, the guarantee of a better life today and forever. These are the promises of Jesus, promises that he delivers to us every day.

We do not earn comfort by mourning. We do not earn forgiveness by repenting. Comfort and forgiveness are gifts from Jesus, bought by his blood and given to us free of charge. Without his love, we would have to lower our standards—we would have to accept our sins, accept evil in the world, accept eternal condemnation. We would have to despair and live without hope. Because of the work Jesus has accomplished, we have hope and comfort. Now we can mourn without despair; now we can repent every day, because we turn to God and receive his blessing of comfort every day. J.

Christ’s Sermon on the Mount

“Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them” (Matthew 5:1-2).

Today teachers generally stand to lecture. Preachers stand to preach their sermons to the congregation. When Jesus taught, he sat on a mountain (probably more of a hillside), and his listeners spread out around him. As Moses received the word of God on Mount Sinai and shared it with the people of Israel, so Jesus shared his word with his disciples on a mountain.

In this outdoor classroom, the closest disciples sat at the feet of the teacher. They had committed time to follow him; they wanted to hear every word. More casual followers and the merely curious were in the back of the crowd. If they had made no commitment to Jesus but were just stopping by to hear him for one day, they could not be as close to him while he taught.

Customs have changed. People from the first century, if they could visit a twenty-first century American congregation, would be astonished to see the back pews filled and the front pews empty. They would think that most American churchgoers have only a shallow commitment to the Lord, a passing interest rather than true discipleship. I know one pastor who even rotated the hymnals, moving the worn volumes to the front pews and putting the pristine hymnals taken from the front in the back pews of the church.

Now, when Jesus taught, Matthew was one of the front-row students. He would be named as one of the twelve apostles, which means that he would be sent out to tell others what he had heard Jesus say. He memorized the preaching of Jesus and repeated it often, so we can trust his account to be accurate, a true record of Jesus’ sermon. To be a disciple means more to love Jesus: being a disciple means listening carefully to Jesus and repeating what he says for the benefit of others. Disciples learn by imitating. Even today, God calls us to imitate Jesus.

We have a problem: the standards Jesus sets are too high for us to achieve. We can sit and listen, we can repeat his words, but we cannot fulfill them. Only Jesus can fulfill the Law. Only Jesus can offer the promises of the Gospel. In the end, “repent and believe” is the genuine reaction a disciple has to the words of Jesus. Anything more is really less. When we struggle to be like Jesus, we fall short. When we repent of our sins and believe his promise to rescue us, we are rescued.

More than rescued, we are transformed, being shaped to resemble Jesus. We will not resemble him in height or skin color or any outward appearance; in those, we remain diverse, just as God created us. But in mindset, in attitude, in behavior, we become more like Jesus—not by the power of his commandments, but by the power of his forgiveness. As we see his blessings at work in our lives, we know the truth about Jesus and about ourselves. That truth sets us free. J.

Down dooby-do down down (semicolon)

Breaking up is hard to do. That’s not just a song from the Bubble Gum Era of rock music (the early 1960s); it’s also a fact, one that is hard to deny.

This summer would be a bad time to end a relationship. I say that because of the ubiquitous song “Be Alright,” written and sung by Dean Lewis. (“I know you love her, but it’s over, mate….”) If I were dealing with the aftermath of an ended relationship, I would probably want to destroy my radio the next time that song began.

That’s unfortunate, because most of that song contains good advice. Alright: the “bottoms up to forget” is bad advice, because drinking only increases the pain; it doesn’t make it go away. But the rest of the song is fitting: breaking up does hurt a bit for a while, and after a while things do get better.

I have experienced ended relationships, and I have not forgotten the pain. But I survived—life goes on, and new joys replace the old. I have encouraged others when they were grieving ended relationships. Being the supportive friend can be difficult—you see the light, but they only see the darkness. You know there is hope, but they don’t want to hear about hope. For a while, it seems that they want to cling to the pain, to coddle it, to make it the center of their lives, the meaning of their existence. For most people, that stage also ends, and life goes on.

What would I add to Dean Lewis’ words of wisdom? It doesn’t rhyme, but it’s still worth saying: love makes us vulnerable. When we love someone, our love makes it possible for us to be hurt. That is true of more than romantic love: family relationships can be painful, and even friendships can be painful. But the possibility of pain—even the reality of pain—is worth bearing because of the immense, immeasurable value of love itself.

Even the Almighty God has made himself vulnerable to the pain of rejection. He loves his fallen creatures. He grieves when any of us turn away from him and reject his gifts. The lover whose loved one chooses someone else has a taste of the holy, divine grief of God. The lover whose loved one wants to end the relationship knows how Christ felt when Judas betrayed him for money, when all the disciples ran away, and when Peter said three times that he did not know who Jesus is.

Love is central to God’s nature. Love flows among the Persons of the Holy Trinity outside of time and space. Creation happened as a gift of love from the Father to the Son. We are created in God’s image, meaning that we are created so we can love God and so we can love one another. When God speaks of our relationship with him in terms of family—even in terms of marriage and romantic love—he is not taking an experience we know and using it as a metaphor. He is speaking a truth that is not metaphor: he is saying that he loves us with all the passion of human romantic love.

The cross proves that God would do anything for us. Perhaps God allows us the pain of broken relationships in this lifetime so we can look at the cross in a new light. Our minds might not grasp the connection, but our hearts can feel the love of God that would bear a cross and accept its pain and suffering, all for the sake of love.

Breaking up is hard to do. God does not want to break up with his people. Through the message of the Bible and in the life of the Church, God nourishes our loving relationship with him—our faith—so we remain in a proper relationship with him and are not in danger of breaking up with him. For all the messy complicated problems of the Church on earth, it is valuable as a link to God, who pours his blessings into our lives through his Church. J.

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!”