THE FINAL CONNECTION (Revelation 21:1-7)
When we say, “I hope to go to heaven one day,” what does that even mean? Do we know? Do we really comprehend what it means to be in heaven? It is the goal of our Christian life to ultimately “go to heaven” but most of us haven’t thought much beyond mansions and streets of gold, or maybe a reunion with our loved ones. What happens in heaven? What will we be doing for ever and ever? Do we know? Does the Bible tell us?
While we make speak of our fondest goals, to get to heaven, have we given any thought to what God’s goals for us might be? What exactly is it he has in mind? When he created us, before sin spoiled things, why did he create us in the first place? Did he have a purpose in mind and will he resume his plans when all of the sin problems have been finally overcome? I rather think the answer to the last question is yes. And for us to understand what God has in mind for the future we need to consider some of the hints we find in the Bible.
First, many of us think of eternal life only in terms of length. Eternal life is living a very long time! But length, duration, is not what the Bible says is the most important aspect of living. In his famous Good Shepherd sermon, Jesus said that the purpose for which he came was that we might have life, and that we might live it to the full (John 10:10). Although eternal life is very long life, it is the quality of that life that Jesus came to establish. It’s not just living a long time that counts, but the quality of living that counts the most as far as God is concerned. The Bible has very much to says about the quality of life we are invited to live as Christians, including its godliness, righteousness and service to God and others. But in this context we want to consider what might make it fulfilling and worthwhile from the perspective of what the Bible says. What is it about eternal life that might make it life worth living?
Part of the answer to that question is bound up in purpose for which God created us originally, to image him in his creation and to rule it in his behalf (Gen. 1:26-28). This is still only part of the answer to the question of what makes eternal life life worth living. In God’s stated purpose for creation of man, male and female in his image and likeness to rule over creation, is an implied partnership. Adam and his race are to rule over God’s creation in his behalf as God representatives, and to engage in a partnership with him in the enterprise of subduing all of creation under the rule of God (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20-28). In the words of Paul, Christ as the resurrected Son of Man and of God will bring all things under the rule of God, so that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). He will ultimately accomplish through his death and resurrection what Adam failed to accomplish because of sin. That man is in partnership with God in the enterprise of creation and his rule over it is clear, and that Jesus came to fulfill God original mandate where Adam failed is equally clear. But what we often do not realize is that in although in Adam we were all plunged into sin, through faith in Christ we have been restored to God to share once again in the great enterprise of "putting all things under his feet” so that God will be all in all (cf. Rom. 5:12-21). Jesus has restored us through morally transformation salvation to a partnership with God. Jesus, through God’s grace has brought us to eternal life, life which has something to do with being reconciled to God and at peace with him once more (Rom. 5:1-2). Adam was always God’s servant, and so are we, but as Jesus once remarked our servanthood has been greatly elevated through the incarnation so that he calls us friends and has made us partners with him in the enterprises of God for creation and his purposes (John 15:13-15). So although we will always be God’s servants, like Adam in the garden, the relationship involves the warmest and most intimate kind of fellowship and love.
One of the first prominent aspects of the partnership between Adam and God that appears in Genesis is the habit of God coming in the cool of the day after the work had been done to fellowship with Adam (Gen. 3:8). An integral and foundational element in the partnership between God and Adam was their fellowship with one another, the genuine and free exchange of love through relationship. We cannot know how it must have been before sin ruined it, but God and Adam, although Adam was material in body and God spirit (John 4:24), had no problem walking together, communicating with one another and understanding each other. The uncrossable gap which we now wrestle with between God’s world (the spiritual realm, what Paul calls in Ephesians the heavenlies) and our material world was not a problem before. Indeed, the two worlds or realms seemed to overlap and coexist in such a way that the two could freely engage in communion with one another. It was this fellowship with God that gave Adam meaning and purpose, and God great pleasure and joy (Ps. 37:27; 147:11; 149:4; Prov.3:12; 11:20; 12:22; Isa. 5:7; 62:4-5; 65:18-19; Zeph. 3:17). Love is the focus of our efforts on someone else, so that God who is love focuses his efforts on us (cf. John 3:16), and to focus our attention on him and one another (cf. Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18).
Sin ended that comfortable and life-giving union and set up strife and rebellion against God and toward one another. Banished from the garden, life became harsh and difficult and the free fellowship that once existed between Adam and God came to an end. The writer of Ecclesiastes would latter complain that without God everything is vanity, empty and meaningless (Ecc. 1:1-2; 12:8). Without God to do it for and without God to fellowship with life is empty. Sin has robbed us, the human race, of the quality of life, and left us with just length of existence that comes prematurely to an end without delivering ultimate satisfaction and meaning.
In the Old Testament, in the context of his relationship with Israel, God states over and over that his purpose in choosing them was that they might be his people and he might be their God. In fact, God told them that he would walk among them and be their God and that they would be his people (Lev. 26:12). To walk among his people is an idiom for God conducting his business among his people in partnership with them. So from the the very beginning, the calling of Abraham as the progenitor of the nation (Gen. 12:1-3), God stated that his purpose was to establish a people with whom he could partner for the work he wished to do in the world, and in the context of that partnership to engage in close fellowship with them (Gen. 17:8; 29:46; Deut. 7:6; 26:18). Abraham was called the friend of God (2 Chron 20:7; Isa. 41:8; James 2:23). But as with any partnership, where one party is represented by another, they must represent one another well and accurately. So Israel was called up to be holy because God is holy (Lev. 11:44-45). The relationship between God and his people was conducted through the law, the temple and the glory or presence of God among his people, so that he was seen as enthroned among them as their king (1 Sam. 4:4; 2 Sam. 6:2; Ps. 9:11; 22:3;80:1; 99:1; Isa. 37:16). The temple and tabernacle were the throne room of God, and the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant his throne (mercy seat, between the cherubim) God was enthroned in heaven, but the footstool of his throne was in the temple so that he ruled in heaven and on earth among his people simultaneously (1 Chron. 28:2; Ps. 99:5; Isa. 66:1; Matt. 5:25; Acts 7:49). His people were to represent him in partnership to the world with the good news that salvation is on its way, even for the nations (Isa. 42:6; 49:6).
Ultimately when the Israel failed to live up to the responsibilities and rejected the covenant in favor of a shallow and futile life on the plane of this present age, God rejected them and departed (Ezek. 8-10). He left his temple, and withdrew his fellowship from his people, and for centuries they were without the closeness of that fellowship. The glory of God no longer dwelt in Israel. Ezekiel and Jeremiah in particular looked forward to a day when God would restore his people and reestablish a covenant with them. Jeremiah said it would be a new covenant and the character God was looking for in his people would be written into their hearts and minds, not on tables of stone (Jer. 31:31-34). Ezekiel said that God would remove the heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh, tender to God, and he would give his people a new Spirit by purifying and cleansing them by sprinkling them with clean water (Ezek. 36:22-29). When that day came, God said he would once again be their God and they would again be his people (Ezek. 36:28). God would restore the partnership and fellowship to his newly pardoned and morally transformed people.
But all of that was still future when the Old Testament closed some 400 year before Jesus was born. One day God returned to his people and was seen by an unlikely prophet baptizing people in the Jordan River. When John saw him he cried out, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). John said that the Word, Jesus the eternal Son of God, became flesh and dwelt among us,” literally tabernacled like he once did in the Old Testament (John 1:14). With the arrival of Christ God set about reestablishing his fellowship with those with whom he wished to partner in his great enterprise of creation and bringing about his kingdom. Jesus came to die on the cross to pay the penalty for sin so that anyone who believed in him could have eternal life (John 3:16).
During his ministry Jesus spoke of abundant life, by which he meant a quality of life that was full, real, purposeful satisfying and marked by joy (John 10:10). He wanted the joy of his disciples to be full (John 15:11; 17:13). The opening of the gospel of John describes life as the light of men and that the light has shone in the darkness (John 1:4-5). This light is actually Jesus who had come to reveal God, to make him known full of grace and truth, so that we might in him truly know God (John 1:6-13, 14, 18). To know Jesus is to know God (John 14:8-11). Life is knowing God, not merely existing. Life is living in fellowship and communion with him, where intimacy grows over time and understanding of and about God deepens more and more. In his high priestly prayer, Jesus prayed that “this is life, to know God and the the one he has sent” (John 17:3, 25-26). In John 17:3, Jesus actually states that eternal life is not about length and duration of existence, but about knowing God and knowing him, the Son that he sent into the world to secure eternal life for all who believe (John 3:16-17). Eternal life is more about ongoing fellowship and relationship with God than duration or length of existence. So when God speaks about being the God of his people and his people having him as their God, he is speaking of what it means to truly live. To really live means to be in fellowship and partnership with God!
So what about heaven? How does the Bible describe going to heaven? In Revelation 21:1-7, John describes a new heaven and a new earth which somehow are conjoined with one another so that they overlap and interlock (N. T. Wright). The new city of Jerusalem is a “four-square” city, with equal measurements in all three dimensions (Rev. 21:16). This is symbolic of the reunion of God with his people. No temple is needed in the New Jersualem because God will be in full communion and fellowship with his people. His glory is not behind a veil, but illuminates all of create through his presence with those who has created for fellowship with him. The old order, where sin had forced a separation and resulted in a fractured relationship, rebellion and enmity with God will have passed away. God will dwell among his people and be their God and they will be his people. The emphasis is not on streets of gold and mansions, but on the glory of walking with God and serving him in partnership with him and one another. The “distance” that we are so conscious of now will evaporate and we shall be with the Lord forever (1 Thess. 4:17). The Lord will wipe away the tears, and the misery of sin will be gone. Pain and death will have been swallowed up in victory, and there will be no more crying and mourning (Rev. 21:4). In other words, with the coming of Christ and the fulfillment of God promise for a new heaven and new earth, God will usher us into a new life of fulfillment, satisfaction, purpose and service in which we will be in fellowship with him throughout eternity. It will be a life where the love of God will be conferred upon us with the full bounty of his grace and we shall freely give to God our devotion and worship as we serve him. This is the abundant life with the full joy Jesus had in mind. It is to know and to get to know God more and more.
John once said God is light and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). If there is no sin in God, those who walk or conduct their lives in habitual sin can raise not claim to fellowship with God (1 John 1:6). We can only claim to have fellowship with God if we walk in the light, that is in the cleansing and forgiveness of our sins, resulting in righteousness and godliness of character worked in us through the Spirit. God is seeking that fellowship now through salvation in order to establish it permanently one day when the old order of things passes away and everything becomes new. When we say we hope to go to heaven, we shouldn’t mean live forever, although eternal life will certainly not come to an end! We should, however, mean that we are anticipating living a full and satisfying life in fellowship and communion with God, serving and worshipping him. As the Westminster shorter Catechism says, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.”