In my last post, I ended with this thought: "This final image in Revelation is not of God’s people escaping the world floating on clouds. It is of a City with God himself at the center, we as his worshipping, resurrected family, and a glorious renewed earth. If this is our future, what does that mean for the present?"
The Christian hope in the resurrection and the Kingdom stands in stark contrast to the typical escapist images of life in heaven for eternity. We will inherit a "limitless" body, a bustling City, and creative, fulfilling, beautiful work without the curse that makes our work now often so frustrating. These are powerful, challenging images, but they beg the question: "how do we live now if that is our destiny?"
This is not a new question. The New Testament was written primarily to small communities who were trying to make sense of how to live in a confusing, changing world. They had the same questions we do. Why is there so much suffering? How should we respond to evil in the world? How can we live in the world, but not be of it? How can we see people come to faith in Jesus? What does the future hold and when will Jesus return?
The apostolic writers directed these communities back to the heart of Jesus' message of Kingdom come. They envisioned small groups of people singularly committed to the Way of Jesus. In these groups, there was at the same time an incredible challenge to the self-righteous and an incredible invitation to the broken. The lavish, unfathomable love of God destroys religious achievement and blazes the trail for even the worst sinner to experience the riches of the Kingdom.
Dallas Willard describes what this will look like in practice: “We should, first of all, find ourselves constantly growing in our readiness and ability to draw our direction, strength, and overall tone of life from the everlasting kingdom, from our personal interactions with the Trinitarian personality who is God. This will mean, most importantly, the transformation of our heart and character into the family likeness, increasingly becoming like “children of our Father, the one in the heavens (Matt 5:45)." - The Divine Conspiracy
Yet it is still tempting to slip back into a vision of our future that only values individual decisions. Transformation is wonderful, but are you choosing an eternity in heaven or hell? This, of course, gets right to the heart of the matter. What is salvation for? Why are we being saved? What is the ultimate purpose of salvation? Is it just to avoid hell?
This is where our friend Tom Wright spells it out clearly: “As long as we see salvation in terms of going to heaven when we die, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future. But when we see salvation, as the NT sees it, in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share in that new and gloriously embodied reality - what I have called life after life after death - then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence.” - Surprised by Hope
So we are being saved to participate in something much larger than ourselves and certainly something greater than to just avoid punishment. We are, in the words of Willard, training for reigning. So our life and work now as the church takes on new meaning. We are hope-filled, joyous, peaceful, excited, wonderfully creative, and constantly aware of the power we live by. It is important to say that we do not build God's Kingdom. As Wright says, we build for God's Kingdom.
Returning to my question above, in light of our future, how should we live now? To begin, I think we need to revise our expectations. If your vision of the future amounts to hell-avoidance, then your expectations for the present will be very limited. At best, you will hope to convince a few of your family and friends to say the sinners prayer before you go to be with Jesus. But if your vision is of a new heavens and earth brimming with hope and resurrection power, you will want to see that manifest in the present as much as possible. You will expect God to act in a way that is consistent with that future. And you will want to join in on the fun however you can.
Sunday, September 14, 2014
“In my vision, the man brought me back to the entrance of the Temple. There I saw a stream flowing east from beneath the door of the Temple and passing to the right of the altar on its south side...Fruit trees of all kinds will grow along both sides of the river. The leaves of these trees will never turn brown and fall, and there will always be fruit on their branches. There will be a new crop every month, for they are watered by the river flowing from the Temple. The fruit will be for food and the leaves for healing.” - Ezekiel 47:1,12
Ezekiel saw this vision in captivity. Israel had been removed from the land, the temple (and Jerusalem) had been destroyed, and the Israelites were decimated as a people. Ezekiel's words made it clear that this would not be a short visit, but there was hope. God would restore what was lost and be present with his people. At the center of this restoration would be a temple (God's presence – the name of the city would be YHWH-Shammah or “The Lord is There” - Ez. 48:35), a river (literally bringing life back to the land), and green fruit-bearing trees (providing fruit for food and leaves for healing).
I spent some time researching the properties of fruit leaves. It turns out that all the common trees that grow in Israel have leaves with healing properties. Apple tree leaves and bark have powerful astringent and antiseptic qualities. Mulberry leaves can be made into a tea that is packed with vitamins and minerals. Olive tree leaf extract can lower blood pressure and is full of antioxidants. Pistachio leaf extract has anti-fungal properties comparable to nystatin. Fig leaves have even been used to treat diabetes! Of course, the leaves must be green to extract these health benefits. So the promise that the river keeps the tree bearing fruit every month also keeps the leaves green and God’s people healthy.
This beautiful image of presence, provision, and healing has important parallels in the biblical story. For Ezekiel, this vision was not just about imagining a renewed Israel. He was pointing back to the beginning of the story, to the Garden:
“Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there he placed the man he had made. The Lord God made all sorts of trees grow up from the ground—trees that were beautiful and that produced delicious fruit. In the middle of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flowed from the land of Eden, watering the garden and then dividing into four branches.” - Genesis 2:8-10
The “four branches” describe what historically been called the fertile crescent, or the cradle of civilization. Right from the beginning, God intended Eden to be the head waters for the rivers that would populate the earth with life. Also present were the fruit-bearing trees bringing provision (and sadly, disobedience).
Ezekiel's vision did not get fulfilled as he thought. The people returned to the land, the temple was rebuilt, but the other promises delayed. It was within this climate of hope deferred that Jesus spoke these words:
“On the last day, the climax of the festival, Jesus stood and shouted to the crowds, “Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’” - John 7:37-38
So now, instead of the life-giving river coming from the heart of the temple, the living water (God's Spirit) would come out of our hearts! Jesus, playing off the river imagery, draws a straight line from Eden, through Ezekiel, intersecting his own ministry, and points forward at the promise of the Holy Spirit (Joel 2:29).
But the line does not end there. As Paul declares in Ephesians 1, the Spirit is God's guarantee of a future inheritance. This inheritance, when “he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth,” (Eph. 1:10) is not our “heavenly reward.” It is not paradise, rest, or disembodied bliss. It also is not a return to Eden. Our inheritance is not a garden, but a City:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” - Rev. 21:1-2
Yet there is no temple in the middle of this city. It has been replaced with the throne of the King. Issuing from this throne is something very familiar:
“Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.” - Rev. 22:1-2
Now we get the full picture; the culmination of thousands of years of prophecy, hope, and expectation. The river flows straight from God's unrestrained presence right down Main Street. Now there are two Trees of Life bearing fruit and providing leaves. Lest the impact of that last part be missed, the leaves are still “for medicine to heal the nations.” If this does not blow your mind, it should. There is something so profound about this idea, but John can only give us hints. Somehow, in the new heavens and earth, we are still involved in God’s healing and restorative project. John is quick to clarify, “No longer will there be a curse upon anything.” But it still does make one wonder.This final image in Revelation is not of God’s people escaping the world floating on clouds. It is of a City with God himself at the center, we as his worshipping, resurrected family, and a glorious renewed earth. If this is our future, what does that mean for the present? I think it means that everything we do now empowered by the Holy Spirit is pouring living water into this world. Whatever we do, big or small, that bears fruit provides food and sustenance. And if our trees are bearing fruit, our leaves are green and healthy and becoming tools of healing for everyone around us.