So, fighting in Lybia continues, protests in Yemen and Bharain, the rest of the middle east seems ready to boil over at any minute. There's earthquakes in Christchurch and Japan, Tsunamis, Nuclear accidents. Every day the list seems to get bigger doesn't it?
Then at home everything's getting more expensive, job security is getting less, and we're all wondering what the future might hold. Do you ever wonder where this is all headed? What in the world God is doing?
Well, if you've ever wondered that, then you've come along to church on a great week. If you're new or visiting, you need to know that today is the last week of a Bible overview series we've been running over the past few months. Starting in Genesis, finishing in Revelation, we've been trying to see the whole sweep of the story of God's dealings with us in human history.
So back in January we heard how it all begins with God. He created a place which was perfect. He made people, Adam + Eve, in perfect relationship with him as: God's people in God's place enjoying God's blessing and rule.
Then we heard how our first parents Adam and Eve rebelled against God's rule and broke the relationship they enjoyed with him. They had to leave God's place, and experienced curse rather than blessing. And we've heard how it's been the same ever since.
And since then we've heard about God's restoration work: throughout the Bible God is restoring God's people to back God's place, enjoying his blessing and rule. And a couple of weeks ago we were thinking about how the cross is central to that purpose, as Jesus takes the curse we deserve on himself, so that all who trust in him can come back to right relationship with God, under his rule, enjoying his blessing.
And this week we've reached Revelation. The climax of the whole thing.
Just to give you some idea of what's been going on so far. John (of gospel fame) has had a series of visions right into God's throne room. He sees the risen Lord Jesus sitting on the throne, like a conductor, as all of God's purposes in history are acted out.
So the major message of revelation is: in the end God wins - his purposes will be completed. Where is all this headed? What is God doing? Revelation 21+2 give us the answer.
So grab a Bible and we'll get going. Page X in the blue Bibles. And as we go we'll see that God's final purpose is the same as it's always been, because at the end of everything, at the end of human history, John sees God's perfected people in God's perfected place, enjoying God's blessing and rule. And that will form my headings as we go…
So first: John sees
God's perfected place
Have a look at chapter 21, verse 1:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.
So as John watches, he sees the whole of creation remade. And then in our passage he describes this new creation in increasing levels of detail.
First, he sees a city. Look at verse 10:
[An angel] carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.
In the OT Jerusalem was the place where the temple was - where God lived among his people. And now we're in a new version. This is God's place.
And what a place! The whole city sparkles like a huge diamond.
And it's not hard to see why. Look at verse 18:
The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone.
And verse 21:
The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass.
No wonder it sparkles! Not a single concrete car park in sight! The whole city is made of solid gold, so pure you can see through it. It's decorated with amazing jewels, and each gate is one single pearl…I mean that's a big oyster!
Purity and beauty seem to flow out from it. This is God's place
And then, did you notice its shape? Verse 16: it's as wide and high as it is long. It's a cube.
So we've got a cube city made of pure gold and precious stones stretching roughly the distance from London to Athens. I don't know about you but that's hard to visualise.
But actually, that's the point. Like a lot of the imagery in Revelation – we're not supposed to draw it. Rather, this tells us something important about God's place in the new creation.
There's only one other structure in the Bible like a cube: Right in the centre of the temple, the Holy of Holies - the place where God lived. The place that only the high priest went into only once a year only carrying the blood of a lamb. The place that was sealed off by the 30 foot-high curtain, as thick as the span of a man's hand, that was ripped in two the moment Jesus died. The place that Jesus' death opened up for us who believe in him.
The imagery is clear isn't it? This is some kind of super holy of holies. Not closed off this time, but open. Not just for people to enter it occasionally, but for people to actually live in. And just to really clinch it John tells us in verse 22 that there is no temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple
As chapter 21 verse 3 puts it: "Now the dwelling of God is with men...
This is God's perfected place.
So I want to ask: Is this your view of heaven? Is this what you think about when you ask what God's doing in the world?
I think often, we paint a picture of heaven in our minds that actually looks nothing like this. We kind of swallow a cartoon image that we'll turn into chubby versions of ourselves with wings, sitting on a cloud playing a harp. Then it gets worse because we mix it up with all the singing we hear about in revelation and get some kind of eternal chubby harp-playing church service. And then we try and sell it: come to my church and hear about heaven - it's going to be great!
But that's not how this goes is it? Heaven isn't even the right word for it. Better to call it the new creation. It's a physical, real place, like this one but even better (more like the real thing)..which means that when you do look at the world, hear about all the problems...all the suffering...when you experience suffering yourself, and think "this world's awful" you can look at this promise from God and know - one day he will renew it, he'll renew you and it'll be great! God's perfected people in God's perfected place.
Which brings me to my second heading. John sees
God's perfected people in God's perfected place.
Look at verse 9 with me:
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb." I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
Those of you who are husbands, I guarantee that, on the day you were married, as you turned and watched your bride walking down the aisle, looking more beautiful than you could ever have imagined, being escorted by her dad or and uncle or someone, as she reached you and you looked at her, gazed into her eyes. I guarantee you didn't say "Wow...you look like a city..."
But here John's looking for the bride, the wife of the lamb, and instead, he sees the city.
So what's going on?
Well, this is the kind of thing Revelation does all the time. We get mixed metaphor all the time. Again we're not supposed to draw it. It's not like some really huge monster bride made of gold. A sort of bride-city hybrid.
No, this is telling us something important.
John's picking up on a Biblical theme that describes God's people as his bride, his wife. It's there all the way through – for example, in the OT when God's people are unfaithful and worship other gods, they are described like and unfaithful wife, committing adultery. Then into the NT Jesus comes to give his life to purchase a people for himself, and describes himself as a bridegroom. And Paul, in Ephesians 5 describes marriage as a big visual aid of Jesus' relationship with his bride, the church.
So it's not just that the city is God's perfected place that houses God's people. As well as that, in some way that only the book of Revelation could pull off the city is God's people.
So with all its beauty and splendour, gold so pure you can see through it, dazzling jewels and massive pearls, this city tells us something about us!
It's an image of God's perfected people.
You can see that by focusing more closely on the detail John tells us. This isn't here to fill in gaps in our imagination – the numbers involved here are another bit of the symbolism, which I don't have time or space to fully unpack here - but maybe there'll be chance to study some of this passage.
So verse 12:
It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.
And verse 14:
The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
12 tribes of Israel, representing the God's OT people, and 12 apostles, representing God's NT people. This is God's perfected people united even across OT and NT boundaries.
And did you see how often the number 12, which represents the complete whole of God's people, comes up?
For example, the city measures 12000 stadia long, and 12000 wide. It's area is 12000 by 12000. 144 thousand thousand. John's seen the number 144000 before. Back in chapter 7 it represents God's people from every nation, tribe, people and language.
So this is God's perfected people united across any boundary you can imagine. Jew and Gentile, Male and Female, Geordie and Maccam, Aussie and, well, the rest of the world. God's perfected people.
So again I want to ask you. Is this your view of heaven? Is this what you think about when you wonder what God's doing in the world?
Because this is where you're headed if you trust Jesus. That's where we're headed - together. To be God's perfected people in God's perfected place.
Which throws an important light on our relationships now, don't you think? I mean, how does it make you feel to think that you'll be spending eternity with the rest of us if you trust Jesus? Excited? Or maybe a bit more uneasy?
If you've walked through Gateshead town centre recently then you'll know it's been looking something like this. A mess. But then, let's face it, I've never seen a building site looking tidy. If you didn't already know you could stand there all day and never guess what it's going to look like. Unless you take a few paces back and hold up the artists impression. Which looks like this. And suddenly you can say, "yeah - I can see what it's going to look like." Then over the next few months as building starts you can look at the artists impression and slowly you can see the building taking shape.
That's what's happening in Revelation 21. God gives us something like an artists impression of what he's building - God's perfected people in God's perfected place.
Which means, church isn't just the club we sometimes think it is. It's not just another thing you juggle alongside your other commitments. Family, work, exercise, admin, church. No church, is God's people getting together to share their lives together as they prepare for the New Creation.
So, are you sharing your life as part of the community God's put you among? Are you part of a small group, a home group, or women's fellowship, where you can do that. If you are, how do you view that group. Is it just another activity you slot into the week, or is it a central part of how you relate to the rest of God's people?
Yeah, at times the church might look a complete mess. It's a building site. But when you see the difficult things: frustrations, people you find hard to get on with and so on, you can look at Revelation 21 and say: this is what God's building. This is where we're going. And then, as we work hard sharing our lives together, genuinely living out unity as God's people, we'll see that slowly but surely we're beginning to look like the finished city. Slowly God gets us closer to being God's perfected people, in God's perfected place.
Which brings me to my final heading: John sees
God's perfected people in God's perfected place enjoying God's rule and blessing.
Because next, John zooms in one more time: Have a look at chapter 22 verse 1
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
So right in the centre of the city John sees what? A throne. The throne of God and of the Lamb.
You see, for all the wonder of seeing God's perfected place. For all the wonder of seeing God's perfected people, the thing that really makes the new creation wonderful, is God himself. He is central. The Bible begins and ends with God.
We need to get our thinking right on this: The thing that makes heaven wonderful, isn't what it will be like, or what we will be like, although those things are wonderful. It's that God rules unchallenged and we serve him as he intended.
And that means such blessing! Do you see it? The river of life gushes from the throne. God is like a fountain just pouring forth abundant life. The river flows through something like a city park, maybe even a garden. And the tree of life stands either side.
As someone has said, the Bible goes Beginning-middle-beginning.... We're back in the garden of Eden aren't we? Only somehow much, much better. Since Genesis 3, the way to the tree of life has been barred. Until now. Since Genesis 3 creation itself has been under God's curse. We experience it when we find relationships difficult, bringing up children hard, or work hard and frustrating.
But now...in revelation 22 verse 3:
No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.
The way to the tree of life is open. The way to the throne of God is open.
What blessing this is! Did you hear how John describes that access to God? verse 4
They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.
Since our rebellion, the Bible asserts again and again: no one can see God's face and live. So God's face turned towards people becomes an expression for abundant blessing. The great priests blessing in Numbers chapter 6 for example:
The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.
God's face looking towards people equals blessing. How right that we sometimes sing that when Jesus died on the cross "the father turned his face away." Because on the cross as Jesus took the punishment we deserve, God turned his face away from him and towards us. Jesus took the curse, so that we might enjoy blessing.
We will see his face. And his name, his mark of ownership will be on our foreheads. We will be completely his people. And he will be completely our God. No more challengers.
So I'll ask a final time: Is this your view of heaven? Is this what you think about when you wonder what God's doing in the world?
Do you really truly believe that the most wonderful thing about heaven isn't what it will be like, or what you will be like. Not even that you might be reunited with lost loved ones. Do you really truly believe that the most wonderful thing about heaven is that Gd is there in all his fullness? Is he that important to you? Is he truly God to you - the most treasured thing in your life?
What's God doing in the world? He's completing his restoration work, that God's perfected people might be in God's perfected place, truly enjoying his rule and blessing.