Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “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. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:1-4
What scenario comes into your mind when you think of heaven? What comes immediately into my mind is clouds and massed choirs and harps. Two problems with that. One, my image of heaven isn’t biblical. Two, my image of heaven isn’t anything I’d actually enjoy. Have you ever longed to join a choir in the clouds forever? Many of our concepts of heaven are wrong, and not exciting, and not helpful when everything is on the line, and not relevant to the problems of the world today. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis said it well:
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next world. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this one. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”; aim at earth and you will get neither.
But we cannot aim at heaven as long as we think of it in ways that neither the Bible nor our own hearts desire. I noticed this week in Roget’s Thesaurus that the word “heaven” is linked with the categories dreamland, lotus land, fairyland, Never-Never-Land, and Utopia – and the English word “Utopia” actually means “Nowhere.” It may be that our idea of heaven has more folklore mixed in than any other part of our gospel. The truth is better than our cartoonish thoughts.
So let’s think today about heaven. Jesus said, “I will come again” (John 14:3). History is not drifting along out of his control. He will return to conclude history with dramatic judgment, and he will establish his own kingdom for eternity. Jesus also said, “I will take you to myself” (John 14:3). He was talking about heaven. But let’s think of heaven his way. It’s where you’d love to live forever.
The Bible says that heaven will be earthly. Heaven will be filled with people like us, thriving in a place like this, but all perfected by the grace of God. The Bible says that his renewed human race will be “a great multitude no one [can] number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). There is plenty of room there for you, with your culture and your race and your story. You don’t have to go to hell. You don’t belong in hell. It wasn’t made for you. Jesus said hell was prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Do we deserve hell? Yes. But Jesus came down from heaven to give us the heaven we have no right to. He said, “I will come again and take you to myself” (John 14:3). He wants us around. He can’t wait. He’s sitting on the edge of his seat, eager for the Father’s signal to come for us. He likes us. He likes our humanity. He likes our individuality. If we will accept Jesus, all we stand to lose is our damnation, and we stand to gain our perfected individualities forever. That’s why the Bible calls Jesus our Savior.
But heaven will be more than new individuals. Heaven will be a new community. Heaven will be a gospel culture, where all we’ll experience forever will be nothing but the love of God. And that great hope has direct relevance to us as a church today. Every gospel-centered church is a model home of the new neighborhood Jesus is building. A church is where people can come in and see what human flourishing is starting to look like, so that they can buy in now, they can come into safety now, before the final judgment. So much is at stake in the quality of our life together as a gospel culture. By God’s grace, we can feel a little bit like heaven on earth.
Realizing how glorious it is for us to gather in the presence of the Lord, let’s turn our eyes to heaven and get some cues from above on how to live here below. Here in Revelation 21 we gain three insights into the gospel culture called heaven: creation, community, comfort.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. Revelation 21:1
This verse worried me for years. No sea? No surf? No beach? That doesn’t sound like heaven. But John is using metaphorical language, especially images that go back to the Old Testament. And the Old Testament compared the angry, volatile nations of the earth to the raging sea, storm-tossed and furiously dangerous. Isaiah wrote, “But the wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up mire and dirt” (Isaiah 57:20). John is using that image from Isaiah. So yes, we’ll surf in heaven! But we’ll never fear another 9/11. That’s what John is saying.
But his main point is obvious. We see these words, “a new heaven and a new earth,” and we think of the very first sentence of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” At the end of time, God will not destroy this broken creation; he will renew this creation and bring it to its original beauty, but better than the Garden of Eden. Nothing will wear down ever again. Everything will sparkle. And we who love Jesus will be there in our glory, ruling over an amazing universe (Romans 8:18-21).
This biblical promise of a better future takes us deep in the grace of God. Here’s what we learn. God’s grace is not above nature in the sense that he’s too “high and mighty” to touch this material world and us with our bodies and breath. No, God’s grace will renovate the creation. We will finally be all that God made us to be, and the universe will rejoice at our touch and sing at our command. The Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, who lived about a hundred years ago, said this:
The essence of the Christian religion consists in this, that the creation of the Father, devastated by sin, is restored in the death of the Son of God, and re-created by the Holy Spirit into a kingdom of God.
I am grateful for that. You should be too. Here’s why. Everything we love in this world, including the treasures of human culture – God’s grace will not delete it; God’s grace will restore it. The Bible says that the kings of the earth – the culture-shapers – will bring the glory and honor of the nations into the holy city (Revelation 21:26). Not even we, in our destructive folly, can so destroy all local cultures, with every fascinating little artifact of human creativity that’s being poured into the blender of modernity and turned into grey mush – the Bible says, God will give it all back, fresh and new. And we will know there’s a Savior in this world.
But wait a minute. If the creation is going to be restored, then why does verse 1 say that “the first heaven and the first earth had passed away”? Why does verse 4 say, “the former things have passed away”? What is it about our present world that won’t make the cut when heaven comes down and takes over? What is it about this present world that will pass away, never to return? I’ll tell you. Everything sad, every hard place, every street here in town you don’t want to drive down because it triggers painful memories, every song you hear on the radio that takes you back into something you don’t want any more, everything that wounds your heart with shame – it will all pass away, and you will finally be free. Forever and ever you will experience only peace and rest and joy. Why? Not because of nature itself, but because he will be there. The Bible says, “He will lead his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom” (Isaiah 40:11). We turn on the TV today and are assaulted by what we see. In one of his movies Mick Jagger says, “The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness.” That is our world today, and it’s hard on us. But God says, “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:9).
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Revelation 21:2
We will never build our own heaven on earth. FDR promised “The New Deal.” John Kennedy called us to “The New Frontier.” But only God can give the new heaven and the new earth. It will come down from above.
And here’s the part that almost breaks my heart, it’s so wonderful. Heaven will feel like romance, like the perfect wedding day forever. We will not only be good, we will also be beautiful. We will be “prepared,” the verse says. We will be capable of receiving his love and enjoying him fully. We will be holy, fully presentable, with nothing to hide from his loving eyes – no shame, no fear, only joy. And we’ll all share this together as a community, a culture that feels like a wedding celebration not for a day but forever, all of us together with him. There’s a cheesy old hymn that says, “And the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known.” That is not biblical. I will not have a private experience of God that you can’t have. The Bible says we will enjoy him all together. You see how the images flow together here, as the bride is also a city, a community.
That’s amazing. Heaven should not be a city. Maybe the ultimate Garden of Eden, but not a city. Here’s why. Who invented the city? Cain, in Genesis chapter 4. Why did Cain invent the city? Because he didn’t want God in his life. He created this social reality we call the city, to shield himself from God’s curse. A city is more than a collection of buildings. A city is a place where people don’t have to depend on God. The city is a man-made world of human self-sufficiency. But what does God do with our device for avoiding him? He doesn’t send it to hell; he turns it into heaven. That’s what a Redeemer does. He takes our place of blaring sirens and fast food and graffiti and trash and crime and smog and danger – God turns it into his own presence, with us happy and safe there, as we’ve never been in the cities we’ve created.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “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. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:3-4
You might not be valued by some people right now, especially the top people in the cities created by man. But you are dear to God. You might be overlooked by them. But you are noticed by him. On that eternal day in his presence, he will look into your eyes. And your tears from this life – he will gently, tenderly wipe them away, so that you won’t even remember why you were sad. And if there is something you do remember, it will only be to increase your eternal happiness in him. The thought might even cross your mind, “If my tears brought me to this moment with him, it was worth it all.”
Who but Jesus can promise you eternal comfort of that magnitude? What government program can promise that? Not even the most loving parent can give it. But Jesus died and rose again to wipe every tear from your eyes. Put your hope in him. Aim your hope that high, and you’ll get it. Settle for anything less, and you’ll lose even that.
Creation, community, comfort – that is the gospel culture we’ll have forever. Heaven will be very human, fully shared, overwhelmingly moving. But we’re not there yet. So for now, here’s what God wants us to do here at Immanuel. God is calling us to be something of heaven on earth, so that people can see that Jesus really counts for something. That’s our calling. How do we live up to that high calling? We believe the gospel. We believe the promises of God, so that his promises overrule our selfish impulses, moment by moment. We treat his promises as real, so that we relax and rejoice and love and serve.
If heaven is real, and it is, then this present existence is not life. This existence is a living death, and we are on our way to life. So many people around us here in the Bible Belt think they’re Christians. But what they really believe is that this existence is their only chance at happiness, and how they live proves it. They have no logical reason for not freaking out when their little swing at life doesn’t go their way. They’re like John Wesley before his conversion. He thought he was a Christian. Then in 1735 he was sailing from England to America, and on board his ship was a group of real Christians. They were from Germany. One day they had a worship service on deck. But a storm suddenly broke out. Wesley later wrote, “A terrible screaming began among the English, but the Germans looked up and without intermission calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Were you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’ I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’ He replied mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.’” Wesley realized they had something he knew nothing of. God used their culture of calm in a storm-tossed world to open Wesley’s eyes to the real Jesus. Whatever happens in our world today, God’s promises help us to sing on. And he will use us to stir up the next John Wesley who is living in our city right now but blind to the real Jesus.
Heaven will be worth it all. The Bible says:
As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. Isaiah 62:5
As we have borne the image of Adam, the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of Christ, the man of heaven. 1 Corinthians 15:49
We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 1 John 3:2
The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Isaiah 35:10
The wicked will be no more; but the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace. Psalm 37:10-11
You shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Isaiah 55:12
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Romans 8:18, 21
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Luke 12:32
The kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever. Revelation 11:15
Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Hebrews 12:28
See, everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast. Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. Matthew 22:4; Revelation 22:17
Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come? These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Revelation 7:13-14
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. Romans 11:36