How are we doing spiritually in Nashville today? Right now believers in Jesus and unbelievers in Jesus look too much alike. Rather than two obvious groups, one obviously believing in Jesus and the other obviously not believing in Jesus – that’s how it was in biblical times, that’s how it is in most of the world right now, and that’s how it’s going to be on that great and final day – but in Nashville, it’s not like that. We have a bell curve with a few obvious believers and a few obvious unbelievers at each end. But all those people in the middle – who knows what they really believe?
If we understand what the gospel is saying about that first Easter Sunday when Jesus rose again, it’s not possible to respond with, “Oh yeah, sure, whatever.” A blasé response to the Lord Jesus Christ – the risen Christ did not leave that option open. He didn’t intend to. If Jesus was raised from death, nothing else matters. If he rose again, we’ve got to believe every word he said and start adjusting and changing his way, because we’re going to meet up with him again soon. If Jesus was not raised and his dust still lies out there somewhere in Israel, nothing at all matters. How you live doesn’t matter, because there is no Super-Person out there you have to answer to. Do whatever you can get away with. You don’t matter. No one matters. But if Jesus was raised from the dead and you’ve given yourself over to him and you have cancer that’s killing you, your cancer is going to lose the battle against you at your resurrection. Life, not death, speaks the final word over you. If Jesus was raised from the dead and you’ve given yourself over to him, nothing can destroy you, not even your own sin, because your sin went onto your Savior at the cross and he was raised up from it all at the empty tomb. If you’ve given yourself over to Jesus, God will not just save your soul; he will save all of you, your future is glorious, and nothing can rob you of it. And there is only one conceivable response to that – an obvious commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ right now. But if Jesus was not raised from the dead and the gospel is a hoax, then you need to oppose this fraudulent Christ and you need to start a blog and a website, and so forth, to expose the lie, and you need to stop being nice about it. If you have any love for your fellow man at all and you see people throwing away their one brief chance for happiness on a lie, then you need to shake them awake. But this nicey-nice “whatever you believe is okay” that we have now – that can’t be right. Something as audacious as the gospel demands that we decide what we’re going to do about it. Either promote Christ or oppose Christ. Whichever it is, you need to come out.
I have three points today from Revelation 21:1-8 – the promise of the gospel, the demand of the gospel, the grace of the gospel.
The promise of the gospel
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” —Revelation 21:5
Revelation 21 is the climax of the whole Bible. This is the future. This is endless eternity. This is what the gospel is promising everyone who gives himself over to Christ now. It’s this big: God will redeem his whole creation. It will be the heavens and the earth we enjoy now. But it will be new. It will feel like home. But it will be changed. In what ways? In three ways.
One, verse 1: “. . . the sea was no more.” That used to disappoint me, because I wanted to surf in heaven. I didn’t understand the symbolism. The sea is a biblical metaphor for the surging turbulence of human history, the frightening chaos of the nations with their politics and wars and upheavals (Isaiah 57:20-21; Daniel 7). The world is energized and intense not for reasons of strength but the opposite. Our world is not new; it’s like a grumpy old man. Augustine gave us eyes to see it:
You are surprised that the world is losing its grip? That the world is grown old? Think of a man. He is born, he grows up, he becomes old. Old age has its many complaints: coughing, shaking, failing eyesight, anxious, terribly tired. A man grows old; he is full of complaints. The world is old; it is full of pressing tribulations. . . . Do not hold onto the old man, the world; do not refuse to regain your youth in Christ who says to you, “The world is passing away, the world is losing its grip, the world is short of breath. Do not fear. Your youth shall be renewed like the eagle.”
The gospel promises a safe, new, everlastingly fresh universe for everyone in Christ.
Two, verse 2: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” The ideal world we’ve always failed to create will come down to us as a gift from God. It will be a community, a city, with no slums. What will it feel like? It will feel like an ideal wedding night for a bride and groom. It will be holy pleasure. Everyone in Christ will be perfectly adorned. No shame. And no more waiting. Verse 3: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” Right now you can be an atheist and hold your head high, and sometimes we believers struggle. God can seem far away. But the gospel is promising the immediacy of God, the presence of God, the intimacy of God, close friendship with God forever.
Three, verse 4: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” We see the negatives here. We see what the future won’t be like. We can’t fathom what it will be like – except this. The resurrection of Jesus 2000 years ago showed us the future of the human race. The risen Jesus was the prototype new man. We have seen within knowable history what eternity holds for everyone in Christ. At the resurrection God grafted into history a sprout of the future, so that we can take heart and move toward him in hope.
What happened 2000 years ago? At the cross Jesus took onto himself all our sin. It sank him down into death. But it couldn’t hold him down. He was buried under it all. But he rose up from it all. And the man who rose on that Easter morning was the same man he’d been before, but also new. His disciples recognized him, yet he amazed them. That’s our future too, and God has shown it to us.
God is not promising just a personal Nirvana for you and me. He’s promising a renovated universe. It’s one reason why we cannot say there is salvation in many different religions, as Tim Keller points out. If you think there is salvation in many religions, which salvation are you talking about? Which promise? Reincarnation, for example, is a different salvation. Only the Christian gospel promises the renewal of the cosmos as a safe place, a loving place where God is near, a happy place of no suffering ever again.
Let’s make this concrete. Think of the Matterhorn, but a new Matterhorn that you love to climb and that enjoys you climbing it and it cannot hurt you. There will be a wonderful spring in your step that you’ve never felt before. The breeze on your cheek will be gentle and warm. The Alpine flowers at your feet will not be harmed. Along the way you’ll meet new friends there, people whom you find fascinating, and you will like every one of them, and everyone will like you, and no one ever has to be afraid again. And if you fall down, it’s because you choose to, to roll down the mountainside a ways so that you can run back up again for the joy of it – always with God there as your God and your joy and your dear mega-friend. The Matterhorn will be the Matterhorn. But it will be new.
So the first thing you must see is the grandeur of the promise of the gospel. God will make all things new. Now, the demand of the gospel.
The demand of the gospel
The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. —Revelation 21:7
What does it mean to conquer or overcome? It doesn’t mean we’re sinless. To conquer means we choose Christ over all this world. New hearts choose Christ. Here’s how practical it gets. William Borden was heir to the Borden Dairy fortune. He was a millionaire in high school. But he gave himself to Christ with this life motto: “No reserves, no retreats, no regrets.” When he died, Samuel Zwemer said this at his funeral:
Borden won the victory over his environment. By some the victory has to be won over poverty, . . . but Borden won the victory over an environment of wealth. He felt that life consisted not in the abundance of things a man possesses but in the abundance of things that possess the man.
God is saying here in verse 7, “I want to be your God, and I want you to be my child. Is that what you want? I desire you. Do you desire me? I offer you my heart. Will you give me your heart? You are more evil than you ever feared, and much more loved than you ever dreamed. In all your sin and sadness, just let me love you.” The demand of the gospel is a wholehearted Yes to the love of God in Christ. If you don’t feel that way about him but you wish you did, ask him and he will help you. If you don’t feel that way about him and you don’t want to, don’t worry. You won’t. You’ll give your heart to this world, which is passing away.
What keeps us from all-out love for Christ? A big part of it is fear. In verse 8, the Bible tells us who ends up in hell. What kind of people go to hell? There’s a list in verse 8. Guess who’s first? “But as for the cowardly . . . .” We think sexual immorality is the big sin. It is big. But it’s not first in the list. You don’t need to be a big bad sinner. You can get into hell by timidity. We men especially don’t want to be cowards. God made us to lead, to be valiant, to strive. The thought of disqualifying cowardice strikes at the core of what we are. Okay. So let’s lead spiritually in our homes and in our church. Men of God are eager. Men of God take risks. Men of God are the first to step out in faith. They’re easy to read. But what is this cowardice? It’s when we can’t stand being disliked for the sake of Christ. It’s when we need human approval too much. But look. Newness has come to us. It began in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God spreads it to our hearts by his Spirit. Let’s own it and stand up for it, because leading the retreat in the opposite direction are the cowards who value momentary popularity over eternal life. We don’t have to be supermen. We do have to love Jesus more than this world. I wonder how much of the hard-to-read middle of the bell curve in Nashville is explainable in terms of cowardice? But there’s no joy there, because Jesus isn’t there. Jesus said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). The cowardly here in Revelation 21 are nice people who shove Jesus into the background of their lives, so that the difference between them and the enemies of Jesus isn’t clear.
Jesus demands that we love him more than this world. So, where do we go for the strength to conquer at that deep heart-level? What more do we have going for us than our own good intentions?
The grace of the gospel
To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. —Revelation 21:6
The words “without payment” are the grace of God. He gives himself freely to all who are thirsty for him. That’s all you need. You don’t have to be heroic. It’s better to be needy, because God gives himself to the thirsty. Jesus said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” Jesus said, “Whoever drinks of the water I give him will never thirst again.” The Bible says of all who come to Christ, “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more.”
So let me speak to those of us who are unbelievers. A few months ago I was deer hunting and a man came by as I was loading my deer into the back of my pickup. We struck up a conversation. Everything was going along smoothly until I told him I’m a pastor. He was obviously uncomfortable – we pastors do that to people – and he said, “Well, we’re good people around here. We’re God-fearing people.” So I knew two things about him. One, he was not a good man. Two, he was not a God-fearing man. The only people who trot out their virtues are guilty people who won’t face it. Jesus said to the God-fearing men of his day, “Truly I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). Why? Because there is only one way to enter into the promises of God, and that is the grace of God. Are you thirsty for God’s grace? You can have it. He wants you to have it.
Here’s all he asks you to do. You hold out the empty hands of faith and receive his forgiving grace through Jesus Christ crucified. His cross is a spring of the water of life for unqualified people. Will you receive Christ right now? If you will, God promises to be gracious to you forever and ever. If you’d like to take that step toward God, but you just can’t, you can say to God, “I’m struggling with indecision. I’m paralyzed. I need you to move toward me. I need you to come get me, come catch up with me and turn me around.” If you’ll ask him to, he will.
But if you’re convinced the gospel is a lie, then you need to oppose it openly. You cannot be neutral. The gospel demands a response. Jesus has always made dear friends and bitter enemies. Which will it be for you?
Finally, if you’re a believer, here’s what God has for you today. The Bible calls it “rejoicing in hope” (Romans 12:12). It’s works like this. A homeless man is living under a bridge in a cardboard box and picking his meals out of dumpsters. But one day a big limo pulls up and out steps an attorney with a letter for that man. His long lost uncle has died and left him a fortune. The check is on its way, and it will arrive any day now. What’s the immediate impact of that letter on that man right then and there, before the check arrives? He starts rejoicing, even in his poverty, because of what the future holds for him. His cardboard box doesn’t look so bad any more. He can spend a few more nights there, no big deal. The future is bringing a change, and the change starts feeling real right now, because it’s the truth. That’s rejoicing in hope. And that is how the gospel makes an obvious difference today.
Will you receive Christ today? Or will you oppose him today? Whatever you decide, make it obvious. This is the gospel we’re talking about.