Heavens Above - Revelation 21
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Heaven tends not have a good press these days. The writer Laurie Lee had this to say about it:
Heaven is too chaste, too disinfected, too much on its best behaviour. It receives little more than a dutiful nod from the faithful. Hell, on the other hand, is always a good crowd - raiser, having ninety percent of the action - high colours, high temperatures, intricate devilries, and always the most interesting company available.' But then again, the alternative doesnt seem that appealing either; the belief that this life is all there is and after it - nothing. So writes Bertrand Russell: There is a darkness without and when I die there will be a darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment and then nothing.' It seems to me that we as a race are in short supply of what the Bible calls hope.' Not the vague hoping against hope which breezily enjoins us always to look on the bright side of life no matter how much the odds are stacked against us. But rather the quiet, assured knowledge that the One who made this world will bring it to a good, just and satisfying goal, and that central to all of Gods plans and purposes for his entire universe is his church.
And what we are looking at this morning is one of the most stunning passages in the whole Bible which using picture laden language helps us to catch a glimpse of what God has in store for those who love him. You see, Revelation 21 presents us with the perfection of what every true church of Jesus Christ now experiences partially. The church is meant to be a place of real community; a gathering in which people experience true intimacy; a people where needs are met and there is sufficiency; a group distinguishable from the world by its purity and a folk who realise that whatever may come their way they know that their ultimate security is in God. So do turn with me to this remarkable passage as we go back to the future.
Look at v1 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.' And v 5 He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new! "
What God has in view is a brand new replacement for this universe of ours. It is still a physical universe - a heaven and earth - but it is new - a new kind of universe. To begin with, there will not be anything in it which is dark, chaotic and rebellious. That is what is meant by that intriguing little phrase: There was no longer any sea - that is not a comment on the hydrology of the world to come, its just that the sea in Scripture symbolises all the dark turmoil which characterises this present fallen order of things - the Bosnias, the Hiroshimas. Or we might think of it this way: the world as we experience it at the moment will be transfigured into something which, quiet frankly, is more wonderful, more fascinating and infinitely more intricate and beautiful than anything we can possibly imagine within the confines of our present space and time. Even the most creative novelist in the world cannot even begin to dream of one fraction of this world which Jesus Christ will one day usher into existence. That, in part, is what the following imagery is meant to communicate to us.
But what really lies behind the symbolism of this passage, is not speculation about the colour of the grass of heaven, but the heart of the nature of heaven which is all to do with relationships.
So we discover that the first promise is that Gods people, his church, will experience real community: v2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.' Now we are not to be thrown by the fact that John mixes his symbols - by speaking of the city as also being a bride. That is the way this kind of literature, called apocalyptic, works. We are dealing with pictures which convey marvellous truths, not architectural drawings, of heaven. And that we have a mixing of symbols at this point should alert us to the fact that what we have here is simply an alternative way of thinking about the new heaven and new earth in their entirety. In other words it is describing the same thing in different words - a way of thinking about the renewed and redeemed universe. So what do we see? Well, it is a city - and a city is a dwelling place for people, a community where there is friendship and activity - working together, celebrating together, which of course is also what happens at a wedding with the bride - it is a joyful family gathering. What is more this is a Holy City, distinguishable from any other city in the world - pure unsullied, with everything functioning properly. Notice too that it is called the new Jerusalem, i.e. this is Gods city, the unrivalled city of peace. What is more it comes down from heaven. And here, I think, we have a contrast to Babel which is a symbol of mans arrogance and pride in trying to construct the perfect city by himself which reaches up to heaven. When we try to do that, by cutting God out of the picture and acting like little gods ourselves, we do not create heaven on earth, but hell on earth. Hitlers Berlin, Stalins Stalingrad, Nebuchadnezarss Babylon were built on the broken backs of thousands of people signifying oppression and despair. Our cities now tend to be rather dark places, lonely places, even dangerous places dont they? But not Gods city which comes as a gift. This is full of light - v23 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 is its lamp.'. This city overcomes loneliness by bringing people together in joyous celebration. Again, the wedding symbolism is important here. It is at weddings that families and friends are brought together. As you meet its as if the years have all fallen away and you have never been apart. Indeed, its as if something of the love of the bride and groom spill over and all the guests are caught up in it. But we shall all be the bride on that day, the focus of the adoring gaze of our husband, the Lord Jesus. Do you realise what that means? It means that those whom we love and have died in Christ we shall meet again. The frustration death brings as we long to go back in time to meet with that father or husband, child or wife, just to see them again and talk with them for a few moments, all of that will be overcome in this city. The sadness of the funeral is replaced by the mirth of the wedding.
Which brings us to the second heart melting feature of the nature of the glorified church - perfect intimacy - v3 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. 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. " Do you remember the promise of Jesus: Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst? That is a reality whenever Gods people meet together on earth as church. But that is also the ultimate reality we shall all experience in heaven. We shall be the dwelling place of God. God will be with his people - that was his original purpose when he created the universe. It was God who walked with Adam in the garden of Eden, talking with him, sharing with him - but on that great day the intimacy we shall experience will be much deeper than anything Adam could ever have dreamt of. They will be his people, he will be their God again, it is the language of marriage - covenant talk, wholehearted commitment of the One flesh variety - God in you and you in God. Just as the Father, Son and Spirit are wrapped up in each other, one yet distinct, embracing each other in a wonderful dynamic of love, we too shall be caught up in what C. S. Lewis described as the great dance of heaven. That is your future if you are a believer.
And just look at what God will do: Wipe away every tear from our eyes.' The picture is a maternal one, like a mother tenderly lifting up her heartbroken child and dabbing away the tears streaming down their cheeks. Why tears? Well, apart from the fact that Christians like everyone else are bound up in this fallen world of death and suffering, which in heaven will be a thing of the past, they are also the objects of special suffering inflicted upon them because of their faith. So let me tell you about a 22 year old girl called Perpetua who lived in North Africa in 203 A. D. With a baby at her breast she was martyred in the city of Carthage. Before her death she managed to write down her impressions. Her father had tried everything to make her renounce her faith. First he was rough with her. Then he appealed to his grey hairs, her mother, her baby who would not be able to survive without her. Nothing would cause her to flinch. Then she was killed. What was the first experience of Perpetua as she was ushered into the presence of God her true Father? Tender comfort - hearing the words Its all right Perpetua. You are safe now. You are home - home with your family, home with God.' Even in heaven, as on the cross, God still stoops down in holy humility to care for the needs of his children.
And as God sees to the needs of his people, heaven is a place of complete sufficiency v6 - 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.' And then again in vv22 - 26 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its 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 is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it.'
Even in heaven we will have needs. In paradise Adam had needs and God provided, in the new paradise we shall have needs and it is God will provide through His Son. He is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end as his people we are encircled by his omnipotence. To those who are thirsty comes the invitation to drink from the spring of the water of life. Now here on earth we experience the rivers of life which we are told in chapter 22 flow from the throne of God, in heaven we shall experience the source itself - the spring - for we shall be that close to Gods throne that we shall be able to touch it. The majesty of Gods love is something we shall not simply look upon in adoring wonder but something we shall be drinking, taking deep draughts of that love which will cause our souls to sparkle with unrestrained joy. Someone has put it like this: In a sense we already enjoy his love, even in the present life. But here it comes through the filter of providence, mixed with adversity and sorrow and distorted by the currents of demonic and human hatreds. There, it comes unmixed and undiluted, directly from its source in the very heart of God Himself.' Isnt that a marvellous thought? The most exhilarating service you have ever attended, the richest, most moving time of prayer you have ever known will be but a memory of drab bleakness compared to the bathing in the divine love we shall know then.
Notice too there will be no need of a temple, that is the meeting place between God and man made possible by sacrifice - why? Because the Lord God and the Lamb are the temple - the Father dwells with his children because of the sacrifice of Jesus the Lamb. We shall have immediate contact with God. Also there will be no need of sun or moon. Why? Because God himself will be all the light we need - the insecurities of the night - the time when thieves break in or wild animals attack - will be things of the past. In other words, no longer will God provide for us second - hand, as it were, but immediately and personally, for such is his love and commitment towards his church.
Which brings us on to the next aspect of heaven - absolute purity - v8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars - - their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death. " and then v 27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life.' Tell me, what are the main concerns regarding our cities today? Are they not these: violence, theft, curb - crawling and prostitution, drunkenness, wanton damage to property, family breakdown? Why then should Laurie Lee extol these hellish features into virtues as if to make heaven out to be dull and dreary by way of contrast? Who would not want a city in which everyone spoke kindly to each other and delighted in each others company? A place where women and children could walk the streets at night in complete safety? Well, that is exactly what this city will be like - wholesome, clean, shining with absolute goodness and love. Far from this being the place for sad losers, an insipid, inane purgatory as the opponents of Christianity like George Bernard Shaw and Laurie Lee would have us believe, it is the very place men and women have dreamt of for centuries. Thomas Moore called it Utopia - but he made the mistake of thinking that it is an island we can build, rather than the paradise God restores and offers as a free gift to those who love his Son.
But finally, it is a place of complete security which is what vv 9 - 21 convey with this vivid description of the dimensions and composition of the city. For a start this city is a perfect cube which is reminiscent of the holy of holies of Solomons temple (1 Kings 6: 20). In other words, it is all temple. The shekina glory which only occasionally appeared in the temple is absolutely everywhere, there is not one single moment when you are out of the presence of God, therefore being guaranteed his full and undivided attention and protection. As his people are covered with his presence, nothing evil will harm them, no temptation will lure them. We talk of sanctuary dont we, where a criminal can flee and not be molested by his pursuers - the holy city is all sanctuary, ensuring total protection for those who flee to Christ.
Secondly, this is a city that cannot be shaken because it is built upon the unshakeable and abiding word of God - his truth as proclaimed by the apostles v 14: The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them where the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.' For centuries the truth of the Gospel has been under attack. It happened in this country under the Marian persecutions of the Reformers who gave us our Prayer Book, it happened in Nazi Germany under the might of the Third Reich, it happened in Russia under Communism and still it goes on. Yet the church has gone on from strength to strength as the truth of Gods Word stands firm and does its work - leading people to Christ the Lamb. And so on that day we shall see that not a single one of Gods children will be missing who have embraced the message of the apostles. It is the truth of the Gospel which is the very foundation of heaven - so lets keep on believing it and proclaiming it.
But thirdly, this is Eden restored. Did you realise that all the components of the city are mentioned in Genesis 2 in the description of Eden - the gold, the precious jewels? Also that they were used in the building of the tabernacle in the wilderness, the forerunner of the temple in Jerusalem? All that is precious, of value and beauty given for our delight will be there, what was lost by our rebellion will be restored in our redemption.
So let me end with an alternative description of heaven to that with which I began, one written by another great writer of English literature - C. S. Lewis. It comes at the end of his book The Last Battle, the last in the Narnia series in which the Lion, Aslan represents Christ and the children - Lucy, Peter and the others, Christians who in this world have been in a train accident. They enter into the final days of Narnia, when Aslan creates a New world. We read: Aslan turned to them and said, "You do not look as happy as you should be. " Lucy said, "We're so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often." "No fear of that, " said Aslan. "Have you not guessed? " Their hearts leaped and a wild hope arose within them. "There was a real railway accident, " said Aslan softly. "Your father and mother and all of you are - as you used to call it in the Shadowlands - dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning. " And as he spoke he no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover of the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter 1 of the Great Story which no on one earth has read: which goes on for ever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.'
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