Read Romans 8:18-25
We will meet Him in the air
And then we will be like Him
For we will see Him, as He is
Then all hurt and pain will cease
And we’lll be with Him forever
And in His glory we will live
There is a joke in the music group that I generally only choose Fellingham/Getty/Townend songs. There is an element of truth to this because they write good singable and biblical worship songs. I enjoy listening to the song by the Fellinghams I quoted, but don’t entirely agree with the theology it expresses – that we will be zapped off the planet into the air. It does reflect 1 Thessalonians 4, but Paul is talking about the transformation of resurrection when Jesus returns. Going through this series on the creation you will have gleaned that I don’t accept an interpretation of end times that writes off the world created by God through Jesus, and which was pronounced very good. So what is the destiny of the world?
End times theology is notoriously difficult and controversial. In some circles to reject the interpretation that we are going to be zapped off the planet is to call into doubt whether or not you are a true Christian. Well I’m in good company. Martin Luther is reputed to have said,
“If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.”
It’s very similar to a Jewish saying,
“If you have a sapling in your hand and they tell you that the Messiah has arrived,
first plant the sapling and then go out to greet him.”
What is this saying? What we do today has eternal significance. The end times are not a rupture, but a continuance. I’m also in good company because the instigator of the Reformation in Europe had no time for the book of Revelation. Calvin, whose theology is the foundation of many a Christian’s beliefs, never preached from Revelation. Well I don’t avoid Revelation and I have taught a series on it in the past – but it is not a straight forward book to understand. However, the foundation to the message today is from Revelation. The picture painted in Revelation 21 is amazing and full of hope for the continuity in God’s plan for creation. What has gone before? The groaning of childbirth, as Paul describes it in Romans 8.
The outcome of childbirth is not something for the scrap heap, but new life and hope. The goal of creation is moving towards ‘thy Kingdom come’ and the will of God being done on earth as in heaven. The picture painted in Revelation is the fulfilment of that prayer following the groaning of childbirth as heaven and earth become one under the rule of Christ. The picture is one of new birth and not destruction. Notice also that in the vision heaven comes down to earth in the form of the heavenly city. This has already been pointed to in Revelation 11:15
The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven,
‘The kingdom of the world has become
the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,
and he will reign for ever and ever.’
Look at the picture painted in Revelation 21. First of all, chaos and disorder are removed because there isn’t any sea. Secondly , God will be dwelling with his people and will be their shepherd. Thirdly the place gleams with the glory and presence of the Lord and fourthly, it is solid and secure, represented by the walls, gates and foundations. John in his vision is creating a clear image of the coming together of heaven and earth under the authority of Jesus.
Throughout this series I have argued that we are stewards of God’s creation not consumers. That in our care of the world and all that is in it – including people – we are to be bringing in the Kingdom of God, being the hands and feet of Jesus on the earth. If we treat the earth as disposable because we are going to some disembodied heaven, then we treat the whole story of God in creation and God’s interaction with creation and the people God made in God’s image, as so much preamble before the real action of Jesus’ return. In the same way we often treat the gospels as preamble to the real business of salvation, when what the gospels tell us is that Jesus’ living among people was not to prepare them for death but life in the Kingdom.
God pronounces creation as being very good. When Adam and Eve are banished from Eden, the garden is not destroyed but protected. The covenant with Noah in Genesis 9 is one with every living thing on earth and the promise is not to destroy completely life on earth again. The covenant with Abraham is one of land and a future through a multitude. This is brought about through new birth from an old couple, promising a new future. The prophecy of Isaiah 11 is of the righteous rule of God on earth and the knowledge of God filling the earth and transforming it. Throughout the Bible creation is not treated as a mistake, but integral to life in God. In the prophecies and in the New Testament there is a looking forward to the renewal of creation and people’s relationship with God their creator. And I don’t believe this takes place in some vague place in the sky.
Paul describes the intervening period between now and the complete rule of God on earth as being the pains of childbirth. This is a vivid picture. I have never really subscribed to the ‘isn’t birth such a beautiful process’ view of things – I haven’t been through it! It is amazing and incredible and the description of growth and birth in scientific terms doesn’t do it justice. The birth process is not all beauty, though. There is pain, there is danger, there is tragedy, it is not always straight forward. But what emerges? New life, new hope, new future, new joy. It is something most parents and relatives look forward to. This is the picture Paul uses as he anticipates the coming in of God’s Kingdom on earth.
Coming back to the passage in Revelation, the new heaven and earth emerge after the birth pangs described prior to chapter 21. The purpose of John’s writing is to encourage and spur on the Christian believers who are having a hard time within the Roman Empire. He wants them to keep on keeping on and not to abandon the faith they have in Jesus Christ. He wants them to keep their focus on Jesus Christ, because he is the centre of all things, the beginning and the end. He died for the world brought into being through him. He is the centre of creation, the centre of the Kingdom. A British Christian theologian has said,
‘The Spirit has been given as the first fruits and the hope of full liberation, and we
are stretched between the two.’
As we live in the now but not yet of the Kingdom, we feel that stretch and at times it is painful. But we look forward with hope and we bring a message of hope, because Christ the centre of creation came to redeem the world and all that is in it. We are co-workers with Christ in the mission of the Kingdom. Justin Welby has said in relation to our stewardship of creation,
‘As people of faith, we don’t just state our beliefs, we live them out. One belief is
that we find joy and purpose in loving our neighbour. Another is that we are
charged by our creator with taking good care of his creation.’
In Colossians 1, Paul talks about the centrality of Christ in the whole of creation.
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in
him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Here Paul declares Jesus as the source of creation. About this passage Tom Wright says,
‘Paul has insisted on holding together redemption and creation…[we have] the
remaking of creation having dealt with the evil which is defacing and distorting it…it is accomplished by God in Jesus Christ, through whom it was made in the first place.’
Surely Jesus didn’t die to redeem the world, to have it then thrown out with the rubbish. That doesn’t make sense of the big picture of the Bible and contradicts the amazing step taken in Jesus to redeem the world.
We are resurrection people, a new birth people and we believe that Jesus is the one who has made this possible. We declare our belief in the bodily resurrection as we put our faith in Jesus who was physically raised from the dead. The ancient creeds of the Christian church declare our faith in the resurrection of the dead when we will all be judged. It is faith in Christ Jesus that deals with the sin of humankind, of each one of us. Bringing in the kingdom means proclaiming the redemption of God in Jesus Christ. For us as followers of Jesus it means living like him in our daily lives and in the way we treat people. It doesn’t mean writing off the world and waiting for our wings, but being living signposts of the new kingdom described in Revelation 21.