It’s presumptuous to talk about the future of Christianity. People do so in two ways – making observations about the world around us and drawing inferences from such observations. Churches are closing in the western world, but the trend of churches and Christianity spreading in the developing world is also likely to continue.
There are smaller and more noticable trends – you’re seeing a new generation of young men and women who want to be theologically enriched, plant churches, etc. A generation that isn’t full of smart alecs – it’s a generation that wants to be mentored. The Don is far more excited about this current generation than he was 15 years ago.
Another way of talking about the future of Christianity is by looking at passages of Scripture that overtly look ahead. Will the world become better because of these Christians? Or will it become worse? The answer of course is “yes”… so in the parable of the weeds Jesus says “let both grow until the end”… the future of Christianity is that both will grow until the end – the church will multiply and go through different phases of regeneration – but there’ll also be genocide, wars, and bad stuff. That’s the future of Christianity.
If you want to have a vast futurist perspective you have to ask “How does Christianity climax?” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says to store up treasures in heaven, for where your treasure is there your heart will be also – it’s a text calling us not to guard our hearts, but to choose our treasure. Make sure you lay up treasures in heaven. What you value the most is what you fantasise about, and what you invest in. So if you aren’t passionate about the new heaven and the new earth then that’s not where you’ll invest your energy. But if you barely value it, that will not draw your heart. One of the ways you can most fully fan into flame this cherishing of all that belongs to the new heaven and new earth is by studying tonight’s passage – Revelation 21-22:5. Some people are afraid that if we’re too heavenly minded we’ll be no good for earth. Historically the most useful earthly people there are are heavenly minded.
We’re going to examine this passage to discuss the future of Christianity.
Revelation has only one explicit quotation of the OT, but is saturated with allusions to the Old Testament. There’s scarcely a verse that doesn’t allude to the OT. The better you know your Bible the better you pick up these allusions. It brings all the strands that run through the Bible together, in Christ. The Temple, etc.
One of the assignments the Don likes to give is “detail the number of allusions to the OT in Revelation 21″ – so many of the great themes end up in Revelation 21.
In the wisdom of God, the Bible is made up of various literary genres. This is apocalyptic. Nobody writes this sort of thing today. It’s a dead genre. The closest genre some people can think of, when reading it, that is like it, is science fiction. We’re not going to talk about how to interpret this form of literature.
This particular genre is peculiarly useful for talking about God and heaven. His sister was a missionary in PNG 40 years ago, it used to be very isolated. She was with a tribe that was pre-stone age in its technology. It was a very primitive tribe. Suppose one of those tribals came out and lived with you for five years, and you are a linguist, and your job is to learn their language. You work hard. And gradually you start to speak it fluently. Your job now is to go into their tribe without any illustrative tools, and explain electricity to them. Do you go in and invent a new word – electricity – and say “electricity is like a powerful spirit that travels along hard things like vines…” it starts to get very difficult to explain. It’s not that the people are thick – it’s that they have no categories to think about these things, there’s a whole world of other stuff to do with electricity that you’re not dealing with when you’re scratching the surface like this. When there are no categories you have to speak in analogies… so tell me, how do we talk about the throne room of God. Our experience of God is so abysmally and hopelessly shallow that God uses analogy the closer we get to the throne. This is what happens in Ezekiel. Apocalyptic language uses metaphors, colour, analogy, imagery and concepts from the OT so that you can begin to think what heaven is like – but if you tried to use these as concrete, physical descriptions of reality, you really won’t understand it at all…
What do we find in the text?
What is new – heaven and earth. And then almost immediately – a new Jerusalem. Isaiah speaks of a new heaven and new earth. Peter speaks of a new heaven and a new earth. Other passages allude to it with a similar description but different terminology – like Romans 8…
We’re not to think the new Jerusalem comes down and parks in the new earth – this is a mix of metaphors. One way to think of the new thing is a whole universe, another way is to think of it as a new Jerusalem. In the first place it’s a social vision. This will resonate differently for different people – people who love big cities are going to be captured by the social idea of a big city, others will be captured by the idea of being in the presence of the real king, the Messiah… it’s not a failed city, it’s the new Jerusalem with all the ideals intact. The metaphor changes again – to a bride. If you’re contemplating marriage and your bride is coming down the aisle, do not turn to her and say “my beautiful bride, you remind me of a city”… but here is this city coming down like a bride. A mixed metaphor.
So what does this newness entail? It’s almost beyond our imagination. There are some things that are said, “I heard a loud voice saying God’s dwelling place is now among the people…” This is a remarkable passage. God’s dwelling with the people is a theme used again and again and again in the Bible (eg Leviticus, Jeremiah etc). The language is being ratcheted up, and ratcheted up… God is so much dwelling among us that you have to start saying the result is there is no more sin, and no more effects of sin.
“I am sure, in a crowd this size, that some of you have lost loved ones in the last month, In the new order there is no more death. I am sure there are some among you who are so burdened that you just want to cry, there are no more tears.”
There is almost a heavy handed reintroduction of the words of God. Again, and again. “I am making everything new… write these down… he said to me” – there’s a string of introductions. While the cross represented the “finish” of something, the renovation isn’t complete until the ultimate future when God says “it is done”… Only God, the beginning and end/alpha and omega can make this statement.
The promise of water without cost and without price is an allusion to Isaiah 55 – the water is without price because God paid the price himself.
The next words need explanation. The original language is of sonship. In the ancient world, if your father was a baker you became a baker. Your identity as the son was bound up with your genes and your vocation. Your father trained you to be what you were. Your identity is bound up with the fact that your father has taught you, and passed something on. Your identity has been stamped on you by your father. This language has generated all kind of metaphors in Scripture. So Jesus in the beatitudes links peacemaking with being the “sons of God” – in so far as being a peacemaker you’re being sonlike when you act that way. When a king becomes a king he has become God’s son in the reigning axis… obviously there are some attributes of God we can not duplicate, and we should not try. There are communicable attributes – which we can share, and non-communicable attributes – so we can’t be omnipotent, but we can be holy. The ultimate goal of the Christian is to be the son of God in the thickest, richest, way it is possible to be. We will be as much like God as we can be, without having the incommunicable attributes of God – we were made in God’s image – that image will be fully restored, but also completed. The contrast – the cowardly/unbelieving/vile/murderers – will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur.
It is not popular today to talk about Hell – the person who talks most about Hell, in the Bible, is Jesus, and you should not say less than Jesus. There’s another thing about Hell that is sometimes overlooked. There is not a single passage of Scripture that suggests there is a lot of repentance in Hell. Think of the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Somehow the rich man sees Lazarus and Abraham – he’s been completely callous to Lazarus in life, and now the tables have flipped. If you saw Lazarus in heaven don’t you think you’d apologise? And yet the rich man doesn’t. He doesn’t even address Lazarus. He still acts as though he is the centre of the universe. Then he contradicts Abraham and God when they say that a post-death visit won’t convince his relatives. Hell is a place where people are still justifying themselves and shaking their fists at God. Forever and ever they love shaking their fists at God and rejecting him. That’s the alternative to the new heaven and earth. And apart from God’s grace it’s what we deserve.
What is symbolic about the New Jerusalem
Of course, in one sense, everything in these verses is symbolic.
One of the things apocalyptic literature does is mix its metaphors. The best example is in Revelation 4-5. Revelation 4 is to Revelation 5 what a setting is to a drama. The mix of lion and lamb is a series of mixed metaphors. The lion is the lamb. You can do that in apocalyptic. This lamb has emerged from the throne. He’s slaughtered. He has horns. He’s a perfection of kingly authority. He’s the warrior lamb.
“I’ve been in cathedrals in Europe where there’s a picture of a kind of half lion half lamb. It’s supposed to be some picture of this. It’s bizarre.”
You can’t draw apocalyptic imagery. It’s all so mixed. Lambs don’t have brides. They just go out in the field and do it.
The mixed metaphors give spectacular insight about what happens at the last day.
This imagery, especially of marriage, means apostacy can be spoken of in terms of adultery (see Ezekiel 16 and 23 (though The Don said Exodus). The only way we can make sense of the imagery is if we understand that marriage as it should be is a picture of the relationship between Christ and his church.
Some of you are single, and sometimes you feel you’ve been robbed. Let me tell you. An hour or two into eternity in this spectacular unity Christians will have with Christ, that is not compounded by any disgust etc or sin – you will never again think that you have been robbed. The greatest intimacy is still to come. For all of God’s people.”
This is something God himself brings in. It’s not something we can do ourselves.
There’s an array of symbolism – there’s no more sea at the start of 21, you only understand what that means when you understand that the sea was bad in ancient Israel. The sea is bound up with chaos and destruction. It’s not a happy place of adventure and the expansion of the empire. This is not talking about the hydrological features of the new creation, it’s saying there’s no chaos.
The numbers in apocalyptic literature are symbol laden. The numbers here draw allusions to the OT and the gospels. This city is a cube. 1,400 miles long. You’re not going to plop it down literally. The dimensions aren’t in issue – it’s the 12s. All the Old Testament and New Testament people of God will be there. In the OT there’s only one cube – the Holy of Holies. This city is the most holy place. It’s the temple of God. There are no priests who do things for you. This is the very presence of God.
We must see what is missing
We’ve already seen that there’s no sin or death. But in 21:22 there are several things said to be missing – there’s no temple. There’s no need for mediation. There’s no need for a veil. We have access to the most Holy place. There’s no sun or moon – this isn’t talking about the astronomical features – it’s making a symbolic point that the cyclical nature of the old world have past away – night is dangerous, and the gates get shut – but there’s no need for that anymore. There’s no danger. Above all, there is no impurity. Nothing impure will ever enter it.
Have you ever imagined what that would be like? To have no negatives – to never do the wrong thing. Or to have only positives – to be able to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength.
The basis of our acceptance is what Christ did on the cross – it doesn’t just exchange our guilt for his righteousness. It begins the process of transformation that is eventually finished at the new creation. That’s why Christians throughout the generations have said “come Lord Jesus.” We ong for that purification. The Puritans used to pray that God would make them as holy as a pardoned sinner could be, this side of the consumation.
What is missing is sin.
What is central…
Once you’ve got by the lion/lamb vision, the rest of Revelation speaks mainly of the lamb. The water that gives life comes from the throne. The free flow of the water of life has been secured by the Lamb.
The last detail – what is central? The beatific vision – the vision of God. We will see his face. Christians often look forward to heaven, especially when we’ve lost friends and family who are Christians because we are going to see lost loved ones. There will be renewal of friendships – but none of that is mentioned in these chapters. The consumation is “they will see his face”… even the highest order of angels dare not look at God’s face, they never have, and never will… we will gaze upon his face, and reflect his glory – he will say “look on me and live”… suddenly we get a whole new grasp of the profundity of the truth when we sing that we will be face to face with God our saviour.
And so the church cries “yes, even so, come Lord Jesus.”
Small wonder then that this book of Revelation, in the closing verses, depict the Spirit and the Bride crying out “come” and those who hear crying “come”… The Spirit and the Church still cry “come, and let him who is thirsty, come” – and for all of us – lay up treasure in the new heavens and the new earth.
He who testifies to these things says yes. I am coming soon.