The Tree of Life – Rev 22:1-2

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. – Revelation 22:1-2 ESV

In the second chapter of Genesis, God plants a garden, Eden, and in the midst of the garden is the tree of life. But in the third chapter, Adam and Eve sin and are cast out of the garden to prevent their eating from the tree of life and living forever. A guard is then placed at the entrance to the garden, and this tree is never mentioned again until Revelation.

As a part of the letter to the church at Ephesus (Rev 2:1-7), Jesus tell them that those who conquer will be given the right to eat from the tree of life in God’s paradise. And now, at the opposite end of the Bible from where the tree of life is lost to us, it is once again available for us to eat from. What was lost when paradise (Eden) was closed, is restored in the Holy City (Rev. 21:2, 10), the new paradise of God (Rev. 1:7).

Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. – Revelation 22:14

Unveiling of the Bride – Rev 21:9-10

Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God – Revelation 21:9-10 ESV

The last two chapters of Revelation are primarily concerned with a description of the new Jerusalem, the Holy City. While this city is not directly linked to the Babylon that occupied chapters 17 & 18, the contrast between them is hard to miss. Babylon, the great prostitute that feeds on the blood of the saints and is destroyed by God. And Jerusalem, the bride of Christ, glorious and radiant, the dwelling place of God and the saints.

Jerusalem is described as if she were a physical city descending to the new earth, an immense and glorious city. This city is directly linked to both the prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New Testament, encompassing all of God’s people. And dwelling within the city is both God the Father and the Lamb.

But is this really a city? The angel tells John he is going to show him the Bride, the wife of the Lamb, and then shows him this city descending from heaven. I don’t believe the Lamb is marrying a city. Rather this description of the city is a metaphoric description of the church, the bride of Christ, who has been prepared and purified and is now ready for marriage (Eph. 5:27). We will not be walking on streets of gold, we will be the golden streets (1 Pet. 1:7), as well as the other living materials used to form the Bride.

Which city will you be a part of? Babylon? Or Jerusalem?

Sheltered by His Presence – Rev 7:13-17

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “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.
     “Therefore they are before the throne of God,
          and serve him day and night in his temple;
          and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
     They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
          the sun shall not strike them,
          nor any scorching heat.
     For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
          and he will guide them to springs of living water,
          and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
                                           – Revelation 7:13-17 ESV

Revelation is filled with terrifying images of punishment and wrath. But occasionally we see a more positive picture, and this is one of them. John has seen a numberless multitude from every people group, clothed in white and praising God. And one the 24 elders from chapters 4 & 5 identify them as those who have come out of the great tribulation, who have washed their robes in the blood of Jesus, making them white. As a result of their faithfulness to God and to the Lamb, they will be in the presence of God forever, serving him, and being cared for by him.

This is such an encouraging picture for those who are facing, sometimes overwhelming, difficulties in this life. Continue to be faithful because better times are coming. As Paul says in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Live your life now, looking forward to what is to come; holding on to the hope we have been given, the hope that is pictured here.

Heavenly Worship – Rev 4:9

And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,
     “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
          who was and is and is to come!”

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
     “Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
          to receive glory and honor and power,
     for you created all things,
          and by your will they existed and were created.” – Revelation 4:8-11 ESV

This is one of my favorite scenes from Revelation. God is sitting on his throne, with what appear to be the four cherubim from Ezekiel 1 & 10 surrounding him and engaged in continuous praise and worship. And surrounding them are 24 elders who join in continuous worship with the cherubim. God’s throne room is a place of continuous praise and worship; and I would guess it is not the sedate and orderly worship that many of us are accustomed to today.

Do you enjoy falling down before the throne of God and engaging in praise? Is so then you will fit right in with the heavenly court. If this kind of worship is more challenging for you, then maybe we need to practice more. Picture the cherubim and elders worshipping, and join in with them. Fall on your face before the throne of God and praise your creator and redeemer.

What I Believe . . . Last Things

I believe that Jesus will return at the end of the age and that his return will be unexpected, visible, and bodily. The time and date of Jesus return is unknown (Matt 24:36; Acts 1:7); yet it should not catch believers unaware (1 Thess 5:4-6). Jesus’ return will be highly visible to all the world; every eye will see him (Matt 24:30). And Jesus’ return will be personal and physical rather than a spiritual return. I also believe that Jesus’ return will be a singular event, not two events separated by a tribulation.

I do believe that there will be times of tribulation and great distress prior to Jesus’ return (Matt 24:4-13); there may even be a great tribulation preceding his return (Matt 24:21-22). But I do not believe that the church will escape any period of tribulation. The church will be in the world up until Christ’s visible and bodily return (1 Thess 4:16-17).

I do not believe that there will be a physical reign of Christ on this earth; whether for one thousand years or for a different period. I believe that Christ’s return will signal the end of creation as we know it (1 Cor 15:23-24). Once Christ has taken those who are his, there is no longer any purpose for a millennium reign, or for this physical realm.

I do believe that physical death is a natural part of our existence; but it is not the end. I believe that at death those who belong to Christ will immediately be in his presence (2 Cor 5:6-8); because of this it is more appropriate to rejoice for believers who have died than to mourn for them (1 Thess 4:13). And I believe that those who are not Christ’s will experience a time of punishment consistent with what they have done in their life (Luke 12:47-48).

I believe that at Christ’s return the bodies of those who have died in Christ will be raised and given a new heavenly body (1 Cor 15:51-53). God’s realm is timeless, at least as we know time, while the physical realm is bound by time. So the one who has died prior to Christ’s return has no time to wait until their resurrection and reunion with a body. Those who are alive at Christ’s return will also be transformed, receiving their heavenly bodies (1 Thess 4:17).

I believe that everyone who has ever lived will face God’s judgement. While this judgement was known prior to creation, it is executed at the time of a person’s death. We will first be judged based on whether or not we have accepted Jesus as Lord (Matt 13:24-30; Rev 20:12) and, secondly, based on what we have done in this life (2 Tim 4:1; 1 Pet 1:17). This judgement is pictured as occurring at Jesus return (1 Cor 4:5), but, like our resurrection, this judgement essentially happens at our death.

I believe that the final state of believers is an eternity in the presence of God (John 14:1-3). I do not anticipate this to be a time of reward. Rather I expect that it will be a time of service (Matt 25:21). God created the universe in order to produce the church, and I expect that the church will have some role to play going forward into eternity.

I believe that those who have not responded in faith to God’s offer of salvation will be excluded from his presence (2 Thess 1:9). I do believe that these will experience a time of punishment that corresponds to their actions in this life (Luke 12:47-48). This punishment will culminate in destruction, or annihilation (Matt 10:28; 2 Thess 1:9). While I do not believe that those who die before they can discern right from wrong will experience punishment, I do believe that they will experience annihilation since they have not responded to God in faith.

What To Do While Stuck On the Ground – Philippians 1:20-24

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.  For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.  If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me.  I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

Philippians 1:20-24 NIV

I have met few Christians who did not talk about looking forward to heaven.  They look forward to being reunited with family and friends as well as being freed from physical ailments that trouble them now.  But I have met few who were ready to go today; and most of them were weary of life here because of the ravages of age or disease.  Mostly we seem to want to enjoy life here as long as possible before facing what is for many professing Christians, an unknown and uncertain future.

An unknown and uncertain future?  Really?  While few of us would likely admit that, it does appear to be what we actually believe.  If we were convinced that it was real, and as wonderful as we say, would we not be much more eager to go; and to go now?  Instead we seem to hold on to that hope as something only to be used once we have wrung every last drop of life out of our time here.

But Paul expresses something entirely different in this passage.  Rather than something to hope for when he has used up this life, Paul expresses that leaving this life, and being with Christ, is much the preferred condition.  The only thing holding Paul back is the knowledge that God still has a task for him to accomplish here.  But even while he stays to accomplish that, his heart is in heaven with Christ.  He is yearning for that, just like some yearn for a long awaited vacation or other special event.

What is also unique about Paul, and what I like best about this passage, is his focus while he is waiting to be called home.  If he is to left here, it will be for fruitful labor, something that will be beneficial for the believers he would be leaving behind.  For Paul, the only reason he has to be stuck here on the ground is because he can still make a difference in the lives of those he has contact with.  And you can bet that was what he devoted every waking moment to; making a difference for the kingdom.  What an example he sets for all of us who call on the name of Christ.

I can just hear the Father greeting Paul when he finally stood before him: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness! (Matthew 25:21)”.

God’s Purpose in Creation

As expressed elsewhere, I am convinced that this universe, and the life it contains, is the product of an intelligent creator.  And that the creator was purposeful: the universe, and life, were created for a reason; a reason beyond his own amusement.  I believe, based on the teachings of the New Testament, that life here, along with the whole physical creation, is simply a step along the way toward fulfilling the creator’s purpose.  And that purpose seems to be the creation of offspring, children of God.  And what we are now is only a temporary, preparatory stage on the journey towards his ultimate purpose for creation; similar to a caterpillars journey to butterfly-hood.

The Present

If the future is what its all about, why not just skip this phase of life and just immediately start off in heaven, or wherever our future place is.  Since God is said to have known who would come to him before creation, it would seem like the present really serves no useful function.  But is that true?

The following passage, from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, provides some connection between my life here, and what’s to come

10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

– 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 NIV

As a believer, the foundation that I build my life on is Jesus.  I have the opportunity to build on that foundation using a variety of building materials, some good and some not so good.  I build on this foundation by the way I live my life while in this physical form.  When I live in obedience, I am building with gold, silver or costly stones.  When I act in disobedience, I am using wood, hay or straw.  At some point, as I leave this life, the quality of my work will be tested and rewarded accordingly.  What I am doing here and now is important to my eternity.  Matthew 6:19-21 expresses a similar idea using the location of our treasure.

And in the parable of the talents, Matthew 25:14-30, We find that the two servants who made good use of what the master has given them are judged, found worthy, and then rewarded with additional responsibility.  Jesus appears to be alluding to a time of accounting for us at the end of this life.  Have we been faithful with what God has entrusted us with here?  If we have proven faithful, then we will enter into the masters happiness and be given additional responsibilities.  In other words, how we respond to God here will have an impact on what we do in the life to come.

Life here would seem to be important because somehow it furthers our development, preparing us for what lies in the future.  We are not just waiting for a spot in paradise.  We are preparing for a job in the kingdom.

Am I a good steward of Gods creation?  Do I  follow the example that Christ set when he lived among us?  Am I faithfully seeking to represent the kingdom of God in the place I live and work?  God is not calling us to separate from the world, but rather to be its salt and light.

The Future

The New Testament teaches that what happens when this life comes to an end is dependent on your relationship with the creator.  Those who have walked with him in faith will continue with him for eternity.  Those who have not face destruction.  But there are a lot of differing opinions as to just what is involved in those two final destinations.

For Believers

While I have found few believers that will express in words that heaven will be whatever their vision of paradise is, it is apparent in listening to them talk about heaven that is what many are looking forward to: a time for tears to be wiped away, bodies to be made strong, families reunited, and no limit to the amount of chocolate that can be consumed.  Praising God all day and night along with the heavenly choir.  Visiting with Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, Paul and Mary.  Having all of our questions answered to our complete satisfaction.  Watching videos of our favorite histories.

But while some of that may be true, I have a hard time accepting that heaven is just a place of reward.  I know for sure that I have done nothing that deserves reward.  The only reason I have a place in his kingdom is because God has chosen me as an act of his grace.  Nor can I imagine that watching video’s, eating chocolate or chatting with all the old hero’s of the faith would be very satisfying for all of eternity.

Instead I look forward to working in the kingdom, being a part of whatever function that God is preparing me for now.  Here I am in boot camp, learning to be faithful and obedient.  Then I will be doing my real job, a job that I was created to do and am in training for now.  I cannot imagine what that job is now, but I look forward to doing it alongside my Father and creator.

For Unbelievers

What destination awaits those who are not among the elect of God, who have not walked with him in faith?  The traditional response is that they will spend an eternity in a conscious state of torment.  But I struggle with this response for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that it is not really what I understand the Bible to teach.  While it does talk about a fire that never goes out, and worms that never die, and that unbelievers will face that at the judgement, that is not the same thing as claiming the unbeliever will experience the fire for eternity.  What generally happens to something that is thrown into the fire, or eaten by worms?  It is destroyed, ceases to exist, vanishes:  the fire and worms may not die, but what is thrown into them is consumed.  And that aligns better with the more commonly described fate of the unbeliever: destruction or perishing.  A time of judgement, potentially followed by punishment, and ultimately annihilation, fits the New Testament better than eternal conscious torment, at least to my way of understanding it.

The other problem I have with the traditional view of hell is that I can find no purpose in it.  I do not deny that God has a plan that is beyond my understanding, and as God, he can do whatever he wants.  But if his purpose in creation was to produce the church, the body and bride of Christ, and then the creation can be destroyed, what purpose is served by also preserving the damned in a place of torment.  For the life of me I cannot see what that would accomplish.  Just let them disappear with the rest of this material universe.

Just to be sure that there is no misunderstanding, I do not believe everyone is ultimately saved; far from it.  Nor am I swayed by those who claim an eternal conscious punishment of unbelievers is immoral.  God is God, and I am not.  I do not question his right to do what he will with his creation.  But, based on the scriptures, and my own understanding of his purpose, the traditional view of hell just doesn’t fit.

In Short

In short, I believe that all of this creation was for the purpose of growing the Bride of Christ, the church.  And that when that purpose is accomplished, this creation will cease and his church will continue in whatever role he has created us for.  And further, while I am here, I will do my best to be prepared for the future he created me for.

Maintaining a Proper Focus – Colossians 3:1-4

At the end of the second chapter of Colossians, Paul talks about the futility of being able to control our passions with law or rules.  No matter how comprehensive the rule set, they do not change a person, and have minimal value in restraining our sensual natures.  Fortunately he does go on from there to share with us how we can be transformed: and it’s a matter of focus.

1 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Colossians 3:1-4 NIV

In this passage Paul tells us two very important things.  The first deals with our position: we have died and then been raised with Christ and are now hidden with Christ in God.  While I physically continue to live on this earth, and am subject to all of its pleasures, temptations and struggles, there is another part of me.  That part is tightly connected to Christ, and where he is, I am also.  Christ is described as seated at the right hand of God.  And my life is hidden with Christ in God.  While my flesh is still here, my spirit is already with God in heaven.

The second thing Paul has to tell us in this passage is possible because of the first, my position in Christ.  Paul tells me that, because I am raised and seated with Christ, I need to set my heart and mind on things above, where Christ is, and where I am.  Rather than thinking about how to get ahead in this world and valuing the things of this life, I should be thinking about life in the kingdom and valuing the things of God.

And if I will do that, focusing my heart and mind on things above, the appeal of the things in this life will be diminished.  I will have no need of the legalistic rule list to tell me what I should or should not do.  Instead I will begin to naturally live in a way that honors God, loving him as well as those around me.  Changing my focus from this temporary world to the real one, the world that is eternal and is my real home, will make a dramatic difference in who I am and in how I live.

A Taste of Heaven

Riley Wilson opened his eyes to a most breath taking sight.  There before him, standing at the gates to a very large and beautiful walled city, was the most majestic person he had ever seen, reaching out and beaconing him to approach.

“Well done, good and faithful servant!” he said, “Come you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”

And as Riley came forward he was embraced by his Lord, given new garments to wear, garments that were impossibly bright and clean, and then led through the gates and into the city.

The first thing Riley noticed upon entering the city was that everything was very bright and cheerful.  The city was well lit although there was no apparent source; it was just light everywhere without a single visible shadow.  And the city was full of sound, not the oftentimes loud and overpowering noise of an earthly city, but the sounds of music and praise; it was a joyful sound.  The atmosphere of the city was welcoming and drew him in.

All around him were people busily engaged in one activity or another.  The purpose of their activity was not readily obvious at first, nor, initially, were any of the people known to him.  But as he watched them he became aware that somehow he knew each one of them, although he was sure he had never met any of them before.  And it was not just the casual acquaintance one might share with a friend, but he actually seemed to share a bond with them that exceeded anything he had ever experienced before; he really knew them.  It was as if they were each somehow connected together.

And as he watched the activities they were engaged in he slowly came to realize that though they were many and varied, seemingly conducted in a random fashion, they were actually highly related and coordinated.  It was as if a single mind was directing each of these activities toward a common purpose.  No one got into anyone else’s way, there was no competing for space, time or resources, no voice of dissent or anger; everything just flowed together in harmony.

As he watched he became aware that he was not alone; Jesus stood beside him, waiting patiently as Riley took in his surroundings.  Finally he turned to Jesus with a look of wonder, and asked who all these people were, how he knew them all and what it was they were doing.

“This city that you are now in is the capital from which I rule,” he replied, “and those who live here are the redeemed who rule and serve along side me.  This city, in a sense, is also my bride, made up of the ones I have given my life for and who have in turn submitted themselves to me.  And you are each greatly loved.

“You know them all because you have become one with them, they should be as familiar to you as your own self; there is nothing about them hidden from you, or of you that is hidden from any of them.  You all are a part of one body, this city, my bride, and so all of you know each other and depend on each other to carry out your task.”

“But how can we be one when we seem to be so many?  How can we be this city that we are in?”

“Look at this city.  Do you see all of the individual parts that make it up, the gates, walls, streets, buildings, and the people?  Each part appears somewhat unique and individual.  But it is only when they are joined together and functioning, each in their own way, that the city is truly alive and serving its purpose.  These people you see in this city, yourself included, actually are the city.  You each have a unique and specific role to fulfill, one that your life on earth has prepared you for.  The short time you spent there, although it seemed long to you, served to prepare you for this time, a time that will never end.”

“But what are you ruling over?  And what help could we possible offer to you?”

“My Father’s kingdom is immense and contains many other lesser cities and peoples.  You all, as my bride, are laboring alongside of me, for the effective working of the kingdom.  The task you perform as a part of this city will reach out into the rest of the kingdom, to care for it, to prosper it, to make it ever more wonderful, and to rule over it.”

“And so Riley, dearly beloved, come into the service of the bride in the kingdom of my Father, ruling alongside of me.  May your service be blessed, fruitful and rewarding throughout all of eternity!”

What is Heaven Like? – Revelation 21:21

Mansion Over the Hilltop

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop, in that bright land where we’ll never grow old.  And some day yonder we will never more wander, but walk on the streets that are purest gold

I love this song and enjoyed singing it as a part of a quartet in a small church years ago.  It really brings back fond memories.  Unfortunately it’s just not true, at least as far as I can tell.  This song, and many others, paint a picture of heaven as a place where we can kick back, stroll streets of gold and live in a mansion on a hilltop, probably with lots of servants to wait on us for eternity.  An eternity of bliss as a reward for accepting Jesus as savior.  But that really doesn’t make sense to me (after all I did nothing to deserve it), nor do I really find that sentiment supported in the scriptures.

Ones answer to the question about what heaven’s like is, I believe, shaped by their view of God’s purpose in creation.  Why did he create a habitable universe with at least one planet populated by intelligent beings?  I can’t help but believe that if the previous statement is true, and I believe it is, that he must have had a reason for doing it.  And that reason must include our current existence as a step in the process.  If life here is nothing more than a time to determine who the believers are that will be rewarded with paradise, and he already knew who they would be prior to creation, then why not just jump to the end game and skip this messy and often painful part?

So it seems to me like life here is playing some part in the long term future God is working us toward.  There are at least a couple of passages in the New Testament that give support to the thought that my life here, as a believer, has an impact on my future in the Kingdom of God.  The first of these are the parables recorded in the gospels (Matthew 25:14-30 & Luke 19:11-27) of the king who entrusted possessions to servants, goes away for a while, and then returns for an accounting of their stewardship.  There is praise, and more responsibility, for those who performed well and condemnation for those who failed to satisfy the king.

The second passage is in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 where Paul talks about building on the foundation of Christ. There are a variety of building materials that could be used, some of value and some not.  If the life I build on the foundation of Christ has value, there is reward to come.  But if I build on that foundation will lesser materials I will be saved because of the foundation, but will experience a lesser, or no, reward.  There is no mention of what that reward is, although in the gospel parables the reward was two-fold, sharing in the Master’s happiness and additional responsibility.

These passages tell us that what I do now in this life will have an impact on the life to come.  How successful I am by human standards will have nothing to do with it.  Rather how faithful I am to the God who called me and equips me for his service will be the key.  We need to serve God here as if our future depends on it, because to some extent it does.

So, what is heaven really like?  I must confess that I really don’t know.  I do believe that my future though will not just be a time of kicking back, swinging in a hammock and having fair maidens drop grapes in my mouth for eternity.  Rather it will be a time (time will likely have no real meaning) of serving alongside our creator in carrying out whatever purpose he created us for.

BTW, the streets of gold?  That comes from Revelation 21:21, part of a description of the New Jerusalem, specifically identified as the bride of Christ (21:2, 9-10).  We will not be walking on streets of gold.  We will potentially be a nugget in the street. 🙂