Creation - Old and new 4 - Paradise surpassed - Revelation 21

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 21st December 2008.

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I want to begin this morning by reading a quote from the atheist George Bernard Shaw about his understanding of heaven. This is what he once said: “Heaven as conventionally conceived is a place so inane, so dull, so useless, so miserable that nobody would venture to describe a whole day in heaven, though plenty of people have described a day at the seaside.”

I don’t know what you make of his comments but I think he is right. Heaven in the popular imagination is not something to get excited about. We may like to listen to harps being played in the magnificent surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall but very few of us have any ambitions to play one for all eternity whilst sitting on a cloud wearing a nighty! Do you?

Unfortunately, many Christians never get excited about the future God has planned for them. Many reasons for this. The daily busyness or the daily grind can so easily take it’s toll. Sometimes the future seems so irrelevant to the routine of the moment and so we rarely give it a thought. It’s never going to be the headline story on the six o’clock news. Perhaps the biggest reason is because we have misunderstood the future that God has planned for us.

And that’s why it is such a joy to be teaching this morning from Revelation 21. Because in this section of the Bible we are given a beautiful description of what God has in store for those who love him. 

You’ll see from your handout that I’ve divided this chapter into two manageable chunks.

•    The place (Vs 1-8)
•    The people (Vs 9-27)

First of all, the place that God will create for his people. Look again at what we are told in verses 1-4.

‘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.  2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”’

Three things I want to point out about this new place that God will create.

1.    It will be physical

John sees a new heaven and a new earth because the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.

This phrase has bothered me for years. Are we really to imagine the bulldozers arriving at the pearly gates, slapping a demolition notice on God’s heavenly dwelling and proposing new architectural plans? I could understand the new earth but what was this new heaven?

As I was preparing this week I finally got it and felt very stupid. The word heaven can have different meanings – the place where God dwells or simply to the sky.

It became obvious to me that what we are being told in verse 1 is simply that in the future God will create a new sky and a new piece of land – that is, God will create a physical new world, a physical new planet for all his people to live on. Or to put it simply, God’s future place will be physical.

Here’s a question for you. Do you think that a Christian who is passionate about deep sea fishing will be slightly disappointed with life on God’s new planet? We all know the answer is no but what are we to make of the strange detail at the end of verse 1? “There was no longer any sea.”

One possible answer is to say that deep sea fishing or indeed anything else that happens on the sea is wicked and evil and therefore in our perfected state we will not crave to do things that are a waste of time and do us harm, things like deep sea fishing and Caribbean cruises.

Now before I needlessly offend anyone let me quickly say that I don’t believe this is what the future has in store for the ocean enthusiast but let me tell you why.

What does verse 1 actually say? Not, ‘there will be no seas’ but ‘there will be no sea’. It refers to something particular, the sea. What is this? In the book of Revelation, the sea is a symbol for all that is evil and chaotic. It is a not a literal expanse of water but the place where evil emerges to bring violence, pain and suffering to the human population.

But here is the good news. In God’s new physical world there will no sea. That is, there will be no evil, no chaos, no suffering inflicted on the human race.

I would love to say that in the place of all the world’s oceans God will create giant golf resorts but on the basis of verse 1 we cannot conclude there will be no literal seas, only that there will be no evil and wickedness in this new physical place.

2.    It will be populated

And we’re told who by in verses 2 and 3. First of all, verse 2, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”

Please make note of something here. If you want to understand what Revelation 21 is talking about then you need to get this right. The city and the bride refer to the same thing. They are not symbols of different things, they are two different ways of describing God’s people.

Far too many Christians have completely misunderstood Revelation 21 and concluded that God’s people will one day live in a city, and they think this city is described in great detail in this section of the Bible, with all its gold streets and precious stones. But that is not true. I have no idea what kind of physical buildings we will live in when we live on God’s new world but what I know for sure is that we cannot use Revelation 21 to prove that we will live in a city. The reason is because in Revelation 21 the city and the bride are both symbols of the same thing – they are both symbols used to teach us glorious truths about the future people of God.

I’ll say more about this when we get to verses 9 to 27 but for the moment it’s enough for us to see that God’s future place will be populated with God’s people.

But thankfully we will not be on our own because look at the astounding promise in verse 3. “The dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.”

One of the joys of Christmas is the revolutionary truth that 2000 years ago God the Son dwelt among his creatures. John 1 says that, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” We already know some of what it means for God to dwell with his people. But here the promise is even better. This dwelling is not for a few years, not even for a few millennia – this is forever!

God and his people will be in the same place. They will dwell together in the new physical world.

I don’t understand all the details of how this will work but that’s not important. God knows how it will work. But please do see the beauty of this. A new physical place populated by God and his people.

3.    It will be perfect

It’s obvious that the world we currently inhabit is not perfect. People get hurt, people go to hospital and people travel in hearses. There is pain, suffering and death. But look at what we are told in verse 4. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed.”

This truth needs to set our expectations at the right level. We currently live in the old order of things. We do live in the days when people get hurt, people go to hospital and people travel in hearses. Christians and non-Christians. When it happens to us it is no reason to get angry at God. It is right to feel emotional and death is very painful as it separates us from loving relationships but, according to the Bible, as long as the old order of things continues pain and suffering will be a feature of our world.

However, there is a future day coming when God will create a new physical place for his people to live and it will be perfect.

Some people could accuse us of wishful thinking but in verse 5 we are told why we can be so certain about this future reality. God says, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And why? Because they are the words of God. And God can be trusted.

What do we base our lives on? Feelings? Emotions? One word is all you need – it’s the word promise.

Will this happen? Yes it will. And we can be confident because God has given us his word.

This leaves us with a very personal question and it’s this: Will you and me be there? God will create this physical place and people will populate this physical place but will you and me be included in their number? Look at what God says in verses 6 and 7.

“He said to me, ‘It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.’”

I want to focus on how to inherit all this. He who overcomes. He who triumphs in the Christian life. He who preservers to the end.

What will be our normal experience as Christians? Yes we have great joy now but life is tiring. Water at the end. But we must overcome. We must persevere and if we don’t we will show that we were never fully those who belonged to Christ in the first place.

The Bible does teach the truth of once saved always saved but not as it is frequently believed by Christians. It is not a belief that says as long as you made a profession of faith, regardless of what you do from that point onwards you are fine. It is a belief that says those who truly belong to Christ will never be lost. We have a responsibility to persevere and keep on going.

It should be a great joy and a reassure to us when we show the fruits of conversion but it really does matter when we don’t show the fruits of conversion.

When someone stops going to church and acts as an unbeliever what are we to assume? They are an unbeliever. Their eternal future will not be in God’s new place.

What does this mean for us? The future is worth persevering for but it is our responsibility to keep on persevering as Christians.  So do not give up meeting together, do not give up battling with sin, do give up putting the word of God into practice. Do not give up my friends. Be an overcomer! Stay faithful to Christ until the end and you will spend eternity in God’s new place.

The people (Vs 9-27)

Let me finish by telling you something about the people who will be there with you. Look at what we are told in verse 9.

“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.” And he 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.”

No mistake has been made. John doesn’t tell his angel guide, “Look mate, you promised me a bride but you’ve shown me a city. Better check your Tim Tom to see if it’s malfunctioning.”

No mistake has been made. The bride and the city are symbols for the same thing. They are both ways of talking about what God’s people will be like in the future.

If we are to understand this section of Revelation 21 then we must never forget that this is the case. The city is not where we will live as Christians but is another way of describing what God’s people will be like in the future.

Why is the city such a good picture to use for God’s people? Cities exist when lots of people are present.

Let me point out 6 truths about God’s people that we discover from this section of the Bible.

1.    God’s people will be transformed (Vs 11)

“The city shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a precious jewel, like a jasper, as clear as crystal.”

The people shone with the glory of God and they looked beautiful. I long for this day. The bible promises it. When I will be transformed to be completely Christlike. It’s what the bible calls glorification. It will be a beautiful sight.

2.    God’s people will be limited (Vs 12-14)

We’re told the city had 12 gates and on the 12 gates were written the names of the 12 tribes of Israel. This makes sense – Israel are known as the people of God. But look at what we are told in verse 14, “The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were written the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”

These two descriptions are a way of telling us who these people are. The Old Testament people of God and the New Testament people of God. God’s complete people together.

The OT number is now complete but the NT number is still increasing. But it will be limited to those who follow the Jesus proclaimed by the apostles and now recorded in the Bible.

3.    God’s people will be numerous (Vs 15-17)

Everything about this description says it is huge. It’s a perfect cube that is about 1,400 miles in all directions. The walls are about 200 feet across.

Remember this is not a literal city but a way of describing the future people of God. We are being told that when all of God’s people are gathered together there will be a great multitude that no one can count.

4.    God’s people are precious (Vs 18-21)

“The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundation of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone.” Then a list of precious stones. Then in verse 21 we discover the 12 gates are 12 pearls and the streets are pure gold.

Remember this is not a description of a literal city but a way of talking about the people of God, OT believers and NT believers. What we are being told is that these people are precious in the sight of God.

People look for a sense of their value in all sorts of places. Their achievements, their work, what their friends think, or maybe their family or their spouse. All of these are changeable.

But what a joy to know that God thinks I am precious. Not because of what I have done or even because of who I am but despite who I am he values me and treasures me.

5.    God’s people will have personal access to God (Vs 22-23)

“I did not see a temple in the city because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are it’s temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb it’s lamp.”

There is no need of a temple. Access to God in a special way is not restricted to a special place or to a special person.

Remember the city is a perfect cube. Just like the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle and the temple. God dwells perfectly in this city - ie. with his people.

6.    God’s people will be multinational (Vs 24-27)

Verse 24, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it.”

Verse 26, “The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it.”

Verse 27, “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those who names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”

Here is a truly multicultural community, brought together by their love of Jesus and the salvation that he has won for them on the cross by dying in their place as the perfect Lamb of God.

This sermon was called ‘Paradise Surpassed’ and I hope you agree that this is the case. The end of the Bible story is not the same as the beginning. The end is much better and much greater than what we read in Genesis 1 and 2.

Yes there are similarities. There is a beautiful new place to inhabit and it is populated by human beings. But at the end it is also populated by God and the humans who are present are now praising God not simply for his creation but for his salvation. And if we overcome then we will be one of the crowd praising God and giving him the glory he rightly deserves.

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