REVELATION #46: FAITH-WORTHY & REALITY-DEFINING

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The words of Revelation are true, and worthy of our faith. The words of the whole Bible describe reality, and are worthy of our faith. Jesus Christ is the ultimate Word of God, and he created reality. He is more than worthy for us to put our faith in him. Among other things, that means that we believe what the Bible says, and act accordingly.

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Revelation #46.  Revelation 22:6-11

The book of Revelation ends with…(get ready… do a drum roll…) that’s right, you guessed it –   Chiastic structure! What I consider to be the last section consists of chapter 22:7-21. In these verses, we have seven different declarations made by Jesus Christ himself. I will try to combine some of them, but for now, we’ll just take the first. It know it may seem like we are dragging out the end of the book, but these are the last seven things that Jesus Christ himself said to His people, the church. It’s worth focusing on them for a while.

Verses 6-9 are a little confusing because John is conversing with an angel, and then Jesus makes his first proclamation, and then John goes on talking to the angel. I will walk us through it. It is the angel who says: “These words are trustworthy and true and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.”

The fact that the angel says it does not make it any less true or powerful. Now, at the time, John undoubtedly believed that this statement applied directly to the book we have just been reading: Revelation. However, the Holy Spirit, who inspired these words, obviously knew that the writings of the apostles would be collected together and called the New Testament, and combined with the Old Testament to be called the Bible. So, we must understand that these words apply specifically to the book of Revelation. That is the first meaning, in context. But it also good and right to apply this statement to the entire Bible.

There are pieces of these verses that come across more powerfully in Greek. So, in a few places,

I am going to give you my own rendering of this text from the Greek. For those of you who are Greek scholars, I am simply trying to convey how it comes across. I am not saying that this is more accurate. But hopefully, it provides an accurate feeling of how it sounds in Greek. Here we go:

“These words are worthy of complete faith, and they present reality as it truly is.”

It is not just that the words are accurate. They are the basis for faith. The Greek word for “trustworthy” is the same root word used for “faith” as in “put your faith in Jesus Christ.” In addition, the word for truth is not just “accurate.” It means something that defines reality. Also, the word for “word” is logos. That is the same word that John uses in the beginning of his gospel for Jesus himself:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (ESV John 1:1 &: 14)

Now, here in Revelation 22:6, the word “words” is in plural form. But I think it is appropriate to let this text remind us that behind the words of the Bible is the very Word of God, Jesus himself.

The words of Revelation are true, and worthy of our faith. The words of the whole Bible describe reality, and are worthy of our faith. Jesus Christ is the ultimate Word of God, and he created reality. He is more than worthy for us to put our faith in him.

Virtually all Bible translators believe that next, we have a statement not from the angel, but Jesus himself: “Behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” One reason to think it is Jesus, not the angel, is because Jesus is the one who is coming soon, he is the one whose return really matters. Once again, let me give you my own partial rendering from the Greek. As before, I just want to give you sense of what it feels like in the original language:

“Give me your attention! I am coming quickly. You will be supremely blessed if you guard and hold on to the words of this prophecy – this Bible.”

Yes, the Greek word for “book” is bible. Now, any time you say “book” in ancient Greek, bible is the word to use. So that, in and of itself doesn’t mean it applies to the whole Bible (as we mean the Bible). But Jesus could have just said “prophecy” and left off there. In fact, he did that, earlier on, in chapter 1:3. Or, perhaps, he could have used the word for “letter,” or “document.” I can’t help thinking that Jesus knew that much of the world would come to call one particular book “The Bible,” and so used the word to mean not only the prophecy of Revelation, but the entire book that he inspired.

This statement reminds me of what Jesus said at the very beginning of Revelation:

3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (ESV Revelation 1:3)

I do notice that here, Jesus does not use the word “book” (that is, bible). But the fact that this promise and this command are given twice means that it is important.

You may notice that for the word “keep” in Revelation 22:7, I used “guard, and hold on to.” That is because those are part of the meaning of that Greek word. To keep the words of this prophecy (or, of the whole Bible) doesn’t mean you just keep it in your house, on a shelf. It means you are actively engaged in preserving it, protecting it from harm, and making sure that it fulfills its purpose. Once again, I think it is appropriate to apply this to both Revelation, and also, all of scripture. It is good and right that we have studied and wrestled with this prophecy called Revelation. It is part of the word of God, and here in these verses, we see that Jesus highly values it.

Moving on to verse 8, John mentions that after the whole vision – that is, I think, the whole of Revelation – he falls down to worship the angel, who showed him the vision. The angel stops him: “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.”

By the way, this is one of the key ways in which Jesus claimed to be God. When people tried to worship him, he never stopped them.

Then, the angel continues:

“Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. 11 Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.”

I do not think that God actually wants people who are doing evil to continue to do so. However, this is a warning. If you are determined to do evil, and if you continue down that path far enough, you will reach a point of no return. The analogy I use for this comes from swimming.

Imagine you are in a little boat, carrying a large block of gold. Imagine that the gold falls out of your boat, and you dive in, after it, and reach it ten feet below the surface of the water. Gold is one of the heaviest metals – roughly as heavy as lead. This block of gold weighs one hundred and twenty pounds. You grab on to it, and try to swim back to the surface. However, the gold is too heavy. Instead of you dragging it up, it is dragging you in deeper. You kick with all your might, and you slow your rate of descent, but you don’t actually make any progress back toward the surface. You are still sinking. Sooner or later, if you are going to live, you must let go of the gold. If you allow that gold drag you too deep, you will no longer have enough air to make it back up to the surface before you drown. You pass twenty feet, and the thirty. How long will you hold on? Maybe eventually, you decide, it is not worth living if you can’t have the gold, so you hold on, and it drags you to your death.

I think this is something like the warning to those who are doing evil. There is a point of no return. There is a point when it is too late to turn back. Now, when it comes to salvation, this point of no return is not about how terribly you have sinned. But suppose you sin, and you know it, and you know God wants you to repent, and turn back to him. Your attitude is: “Later. I’m not going to do that right now. I want to keep enjoying this sin for a while.” The next time, it is harder to hear God’s call to repent. Several times after that, it may not even occur to you that you ought to repent. The more you say “no” to God, the more you damage your conscience. The more you say “no” to God, the harder and harder it becomes to hear him anymore. If you continue to ignore God, if you continue to go your own way, and shut out the call of God, eventually, you won’t care anymore. You will harden your heart so much that you won’t even notice, won’t even be able to hear his call to repent. I think the message is this: We have heard in Revelation all about the coming judgment, and God’s vast patience. One of the major messages is that although God is inhumanly patient with evil-doers, there will be an end to that patience – there must be an end to it, if we are to have the joy of the New Creation. Now, with all these stern warnings, if we still say, “No, I’ve got plenty of time to turn back to God. I’ll do it later.” If we continue to stop our ears against God, eventually, we will no longer be able to hear him. Eventually, we will no longer care about following him. At that time, we may be passing the point of no return. God says, “OK then. Do what you want.” He doesn’t mean that it is OK to do so. It means, that God has done all that he can to save a person who has the will to reject Him, and that person has made a decision that is final.

By the way, if you are worried that you have passed the point of no return, then, by definition, you have not passed it. When you pass the point of no return, you will no longer care about, or be interested in your relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Those who have passed that point don’t care anymore. Also, I want to make it clear, I am not talking about a Christian who struggles with a sin that they just can’t seem to beat. Such a Christian does indeed sin, but each time, that person is heartily sorry for their sin, and intends to continue on following God. They really would like to stop sinning, even if they can’t seem to find a way how. Such a person is not ignoring God. They are still responding to him in repentance, confession and receiving God’s forgiveness.

All of this reminds me of something that Paul wrote to Timothy:

2 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (ESV 2 Timothy 3:12-17)

This is really another way of saying exactly what our Revelation passage says. Evil people will go from bad to worse, being deceived, and deceiving others. But we, the people of God, should hold on to Word of God – both the scriptures in general, Revelation in particular, and, above all, Jesus Christ himself. These are worthy of our complete faith. God’s Word (and his words) are not just accurate – they define reality more fully than any human wisdom.

I don’t know when Jesus will return. But I can promise you, if you are reading this, the time when you will stand face to face with Jesus is no more than one-hundred years away, almost certainly a lot less. It could be any moment now. The time is soon. No one has to wait very long. Let us live our lives accordingly.

REVELATION #45. THE TREE OF LIFE

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Virtually all human beings have a deep desire to live in a world that is perfect. All of us have to reckon with that desire, one way or another.

But here is the problem: If there was a perfect world, we ourselves could not live there without destroying the perfection of that world. If we entered a perfect world, we would bring our selfishness, our pettiness, our impure desires and thoughts, and so on, and before long, the perfect world would be just as bad as this one.

We don’t live in a perfect world precisely because we live in it.

The problem is us. So, what is the solution? What hope can we possibly have, if by our very existing, we destroy the thing we desire so deeply?

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Revelation #45. Revelation 22:1-5

1 Then he showed me the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the city’s main street. The tree of life was on each side of the river, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, 3 and there will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 Night will be no more; people will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, because the Lord God will give them light, and they will reign forever and ever. (CSB Revelation 22:1-5)

By the way, today I will focus almost exclusively on the tree of life and the water of life. Last time we talked a little bit about the part where it says there will be no night, and no need for the sun. This is not a literal description of the New Creation, but rather it is meant to tell us that God himself will satisfy every need we have, directly.

So, moving on, let me set the stage.

I’m picturing a scene from a simply amazing moment in my life. After years of wishing, then about six months of hoping, then three months of planning, through the blessing and generosity of many people, my family and I had the opportunity to take a sabbatical in Europe, Switzerland in particular. On our first full day there, we went for a hike through some woods, up a steep slope. We came out on a green meadow that was maybe five hundred feet higher than the surrounding countryside. It was sunny, and about sixty-five degrees. To our right, a lone, snow-capped mountain peak towered above us. In front, and to the left, stretched a chain of little towns at the edge of a mountain lake. Beyond the lake lay more snow-capped mountains. It was like a postcard, someone’s idyllic dream of what Switzerland is supposed to be. We all exclaimed in wonder, and took pictures, and, without even talking about it, we sat down, and decided to stay up on that meadow for a while. (One out of about two dozen pictures, above).

I found something interesting about that moment, however. I loved it. I was full of joy and wonder. And yet, even in the middle of that moment, I found myself still desiring something. I wanted to keep it somehow, to be in it. While in the moment, I wanted the moment. I longed for it. Now, this is puzzling. It does not entirely make sense. When I tried to analyze it, I realized I didn’t really want to move to Switzerland – that was not what I was desiring. I didn’t just want to stay there on the hillside forever. It’s hard to express. C.S. Lewis said something about this:

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe and it, to become part of it.

That is close to how I felt. And it was not a new feeling. I have felt it before when I see beautiful scenery. I have felt something very much like it after reading a moving book, or watching a poignant movie. On a few occasions, I have felt it with close friends and family. In fact, when we say that something deeply moves us, this is often what we are talking about – a deep, inexpressible feeling, and sometimes, part of that feeling is longing, or desire.

This is all very relevant when we talk about the New Heavens and the New Earth. I read our text today, and say, “OK, a river that flows through the city. That sounds…OK. Just like Luzern, Switzerland. Or Florence, Italy. Or, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or, the Twin Cities Minnesota.” What I’m saying is that often, we aren’t terribly excited when we read the Bible’s descriptions of the New Creation. We’ll be worshipping God forever. We’ll be in a giant, cube-shaped city that sticks halfway out of the atmosphere. The city will have a river. Sometimes, that all can sound less than exciting.

I want to remind us, however, that we are not meant to take all of this literally. I think one thing we are meant to understand is that these longings we have in moments like the one I described are actually longings for the New Creation. What I was really wanting on that hillside in Switzerland was deeper communion with God, life in the New Creation. I was wanting the river of life, and the tree of life.

I think I am correct in connecting these things to our deep longings and desires. Proverbs 13:12 says this:

12 Hope delayed makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life. (CSB, Proverbs 13:12)

I believe this is more than just a saying about how nice it is to have our desires fulfilled. It is saying that our ultimate desires are fulfilled only when we can eat from the Tree of Life. Let’s go back to the garden of Eden. Young, unencumbered by the physical problems that come with sinful flesh, Adam and Eve chose to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The result was that sin entered the world, and has been passed down to each generation ever since. The garden of Eden was lost to humanity. Even now, deep in our hearts, we know we are missing something wonderful and beautiful. We know the world is not the way it ought to be, which is a very strange thing to think, unless something very like the Biblical story is true.

There was another tree in that garden. Adam and Eve were allowed to eat from it, but they did not. After they sinned, this is what happened:

22 Then the Lord God said, “Look, the human beings have become like us, knowing both good and evil. What if they reach out, take fruit from the tree of life, and eat it? Then they will live forever!” 23 So the Lord God banished them from the Garden of Eden, and he sent Adam out to cultivate the ground from which he had been made. 24 After sending them out, the Lord God stationed mighty cherubim to the east of the Garden of Eden. And he placed a flaming sword that flashed back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (NLT) Genesis 3:22-24

God knew that if sinful humans were given eternal life, they would become like demons – living forever, but unable to be saved. If sinful flesh was immortal, by definition, sinful flesh could never die, and therefore never be redeemed. We would be stuck in sinful flesh forever. So, God sent human beings out of the garden, and protected them by blocking access to the tree of life.

In the New Creation, our sinful flesh will be destroyed, and we will be living in new, resurrected bodies that have no sin. Then, at last, we can eat from the tree of life – and the text says we will do so repeatedly.

Let me put this all plainly. I believe that virtually all human beings have a deep desire to live in a world that is perfect. Many people recognize that is unrealistic, and bury that desire, but it is there, nonetheless. All of us have to reckon with that desire, one way or another.

But if we would be realistic, here is the problem. If there was a perfect world, we ourselves could not live there without destroying the perfection of that world. If we entered a perfect world, we ourselves would bring our selfishness, our pettiness, our impure desires and thoughts, and so on, and before long, the perfect world would be just as bad as this one.

We don’t live in a perfect world precisely because we live in it. The problem is us. If we are honest with ourselves, this should be quite obvious. So, what is the solution? What hope can we possibly have, if by our very existing, we destroy the thing we desire so deeply?

That, my dear friends, is a question that only Christianity answers satisfactorily. Jesus came to take the burden of our imperfections on himself. When we trust him, he has done it. What remains still in this life is a body that has imperfection written into its very DNA. The Bible calls that body “flesh.” So, our flesh must finally be destroyed, through death, and then we can enter perfection, because Jesus has made us perfect, and death has destroyed our flesh. Our new, resurrected, perfect lives will be unable to be stained by sin and the suffering that it brings.

Then, when all that has been accomplished, we drink from the river of life, and eat from the tree of life. Our deepest, most unfulfillable desires will, in fact, be fulfilled, not by the temporary happiness that comes and goes, but by eternal, lasting joy. Our text confirms this, saying “There will no longer be any curse (v3).”

All of recorded human history is one tiny parentheses in God’s eternal plan. He created us for perfection. We blew it. He saved us, and promises us a restoration of that perfection that we ourselves destroyed. In Genesis chapter 3, human beings had to leave the garden of Eden. In Revelation 22, we enter the brand-new, Re-created Garden once more. All that was good that was lost will be restored, and made even better. This is not the end, but rather, the New Beginning.

This is not a boring, everlasting church-service. This is the fulfillment of your truest, deepest desires in ways that we can’t even imagine right now. Now, as it happens, that fulfillment will indeed involve profound worship. But my point is, even now, your desires are pointing you toward what that will feel like when we eat from the tree of life.

So, a few questions for us, by way of application. What are some things that spark that deep desire in your life? Can you remember some moments when you were filled with both joy and a profound, unnamable desire at the same time? Is there something you can do to have more of those moments?

Second, I think that even before we reach the New Creation, we can get a taste of the tree of life, and the water of life. Jesus had a famous conversation with a woman from Samaria. He started a conversation with her about water from a well. This is how it went from there. He said:

“If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.”
11 “But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket,” she said, “and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water? 12 And besides, do you think you’re greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well? How can you offer better water than he and his sons and his animals enjoyed?”
13 Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. 14 But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” (NLT John 4:10-14)

Jesus has living water for us right now. It will be even better in the New Creation, but even now, we can recognize that our deepest thirst is actually for a true, right relationship with God. We can begin, even now, to have that thirst satisfied.

How can we use our thirst for God, and hunger for His tree of life to encourage and strengthen us right now? We can ignore the thirst. We can try and satisfy the hunger with the things we can get on earth. But how can we do the opposite? How do we seek the eternal food and drink? How can we use our desires to keep us focused on the joy that is ahead of us?

Let the Holy Spirit Speak to you now, as you wrestle with these questions.

REVELATION #44: THE CITY OF GOD

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The New Jerusalem is not a literal city. The description of it in Revelation 21 is a metaphor to help us envision God’s relationship with His people as a whole; his people’s relationships with each other; and also God’s relationship with each individual. Seen that way, we learn wonderful things about God, each other and us as individuals.

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REVELATION #44. THE CITY OF GOD. REVELATION 21:9-27

Let me be honest about this passage. At first glance, it doesn’t excite me very much. About the only thing that seems interesting to me is the size of the New Jerusalem. Most translations say that it is built in a square, 12,000 stadia per side. That means that each side is roughly 1,380 miles long, for a total area within of about just under 2 Million square miles, about 2/3 the size of Australia, and well over half the size of the continental U.S. That’s impressive. Next, take into account that the walls are as high as they are long (the 144 cubits refers to the width of the walls, not their height), and suddenly, it becomes unimaginable, since the walls would reach above the atmosphere. A massive cube, with well over half of it reaching six hundred miles higher than the space shuttle ever flew. OK, now, that just doesn’t make any sense. And that, I believe, is the point. We are not talking about a literal city, but instead, this is a picture of an important aspect of the New Creation.

Remember, the city is “The Bride, the Wife of the Lamb.” So, the New Jerusalem is a picture of God’s people, and of the kind of relationship that we have with Him. Again, it is clearly not meant to be understood literally. In short, the New Jerusalem is a kind of metaphor of God’s union with his people once they are made completely holy in the New Creation. It is a combination picture of God’s people, and also God’s relationship with his people.

Not coincidentally, there are seven major aspects of the New Jerusalem. Let’s start with the first:

10 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, 11 having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12

This is an overall impression. God’s people, and God’s relationship with his people is filled with a glorious radiance, like a rare jewel, something very precious and beautiful. Today, God’s people get sucked into sin, bitterness, ugly moods and stupid distractions. But in the New Creation the people of God as a whole (and also individually) will be beautiful and precious. None of the things that make us less than beautiful will be a part of us at that time. We will not become God, but we will shine with the beauty, holiness and radiance of our perfect, glorious God. In the New Creation, people who follow Jesus will be gloriously beautiful.

It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed— 13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates.

14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

Remember, this is not a literal city. So what do these things mean? There, among God’s people, we will understand the history and foundation of scripture. Jesus said “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (CSB, Matthew 24:35). Here, in the New Jerusalem, the people of God will shine with the fulness of God’s Word – both Old Testament (represented by the twelve tribes of Israel) and the New Testament (represented by the twelve apostles). If God’s people are a city, then the walls, gates and foundations of that city are God’s own words. God’s people are “built” out of, and on top of, God’s word. Our entire relationship with him, and our very beings, are shaped by, and based upon, God’s revealed word. The incredible thing is that we already have that word today, and we call it the Bible. I have said it before, and I will say it until I die: The Bible is God’s incalculably precious gift to humanity. It is vital to read it, to learn to understand it, to soak your soul in what it says. Who we are as eternal beings in the New Creation will be all wrapped up in God’s Word. There is almost nothing more important than learning the Bible, and letting it shape your life. Please, please, find some way to listen to audio versions, or find a good, readable translation, or have your spouse read it to you – something, anything,  that gets you into God’s Word.

15 And the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. 16 The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. 17 He also measured its wall, 144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel’s measurement.

Now we come to that weird measurement. We know this is not supposed to be an actual measurement, so what do these things mean, metaphorically? Well, God’s people are impressively, magnificently, huge. Elsewhere in Revelation, John saw a great multitude, out of every tribe, tongue and nation. So, God’s people will be a great and diverse multitude. However, though incredibly large and impressive, God’s people are not infinite. Though the city is very large, it can be measured. There is a beginning and end to it. The largeness is positive. The fact that there are limits reminds us that not everyone who has ever lived will be there.

18 The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass. 19 The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. 21 And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.

By the way, obviously, this is where we get the idea of “the pearly gates” and “the streets of gold.” Again, however, I think this is all metaphorical, not literal. These precious stones and minerals communicate that God’s people, and their relationship with Him, will be beautiful, and unimaginably precious. Also, with all these different sorts of gems and metals, I get the sense that there will be great variety in God’s people – we won’t all be the same, or look the same. We will all be beautiful, but we also retain our precious individuality, as created by God. Our personalities will be a perfect blend between union with God and each other, and our individual selves. I think this also indicates a great variety in the ways that God interacts with us. He comes to us in many different ways, and life is full of beauty and variety with Him.

22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.

Once again, this is not literal, and I am glad. I love the night, and the sun, and the moon. But the point is this: God is interacting directly with his people, and we need nothing more. Our sin, and the things that get in the way of our perfect union with God will be gone. He is all we need, and it will no longer be a strain to remember that, or live like that. It will be easy to know that he is all we need, and easy to draw all that we need directly from God, without seeking it elsewhere.

24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.

This again reminds us that it is metaphor. We will be inhabiting the New Heavens and New Earth. But we will walk by the light of our relationship with God, perfect, precious, glorious, huge, individually beautiful, with God as all we need. And all human glory will be in perfect union with Godly glory. The absence of night is not literal, but it means no more pain, suffering, sorrow or evil. The people of God will diverse -the glory of the nations.

27 But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

This is a reminder that none of this is possible unless all sin, evil, and all rebellion against God is completely removed. God will do the removing through Jesus if we let him, but if not, we will never participate in this kind of relationship with God, nor have this eternal future. He must be finally and completely King in  order for this to take place. Right now, it is not too late to put your trust in Jesus, to allow him to be the King of your life. We like having God’s help when we need it, but we generally want to run things on our own when we aren’t in trouble. That is not salvation. A saving faith puts all trust in Jesus, which means, among other things, that Jesus is now the final and true leader of your life. Unless we are willing to let him make us holy, we cannot be a part of this unimaginably beautiful relationship with God, and with other believers.

So, what does all this mean for us on Thursday afternoon? I can think of several applications. I don’t know how to urge you all strongly enough to find a way to connect with the Word of God (the Bible). This is our future: not Netflix, not our careers, not our next travel adventure, not our next relationship. Our future is in the Word of God. If at first, you can’t connect with it, please don’t give up. Pray for help. Ask for help. Find a good, readable translation like the Christian Standard Bible (CSB – it used to be the HCSB); or the ESV, or even the New Living Translation. Have someone else read it to you. Get it on audio. Talk about what you are reading (or listening to) with your spouse, your friends, your family. When you read, DO NOT just flip it open and start somewhere random. Start reading at the beginning of one of the books. If you are new, start reading in John, and keep going, however long it takes, until you finish the book of Jude. Maybe do a chapter a day, maybe a little more, maybe a little less. Then go back, and do it again. Then, maybe start mixing in some Old Testament books, like Genesis. For something different and refreshing, try reading a psalm each day. Please, just do it. Please contact me, if you want more help with this.

Another application, that strikes me, is that my fellow Christians will shine with this amazing beauty and glory – like precious gemstones. Right now, we are gemstones in the rough, covered in dirt, uncut, unpolished. But we are precious, and we ought to treat each other that way.

Perhaps some of you need to remember that Christianity is a global religion, and that there are far more Christians who do not look like you, or even speak your own earthly language, then there are people like yourself. God’s people will be glorious with all nations represented. Speaking specifically to Christians from European-based cultures, I want to say that most of us (“us” being those who follow Jesus) are not white, and don’t speak English. That should affect how we treat people who are different from us culturally and ethnically. Our glorious brothers and sisters in Christ will be from everywhere.

I also mentioned that we will need nothing more than the presence of God – we won’t need sun, moon, or anything but God himself. In a way, that is already true, but it is hard to grasp. If we have Jesus, everything else we have is from and through Him. It is good to trust him more and more, because this text tells us the reality that will be, and, in a way, already is: God is all we need.

With those thoughts, let the Holy Spirit continue to speak to you today.

 

DESIRE, HOPE & THE RESURRECTION

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What if our deepest desires – and our deepest disappointments – are really signs that we were made for something more? Jesus, by letting Lazarus die, was trying to get the attention of his loved ones. He wanted to reconnect them with their deep, unfulfilled desires, so that he could show them that He himself can and does fill them. He wanted to show them both, the depth of their desire for a world without death, and also, how completely unrealistic that desire is – apart from Himself

 

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RESURRECTION SUNDAY, 2019

John 11:1-53

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central truth on which all Christian theology depends. If Jesus wasn’t really raised from the dead, then he was a madman or megalomaniac, or maybe a demon. But if he was truly raised, then what he said was true; and he said he was God the Son, come into the world for our salvation.

I have talked before about the theological implications of the resurrection. I probably will do so again in the future. I have shared with you substantial evidence that supports the claim that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. I’ll do that again in the future also. But this year, I want to talk about the resurrection in a personal way. To do that, I want to consider a different resurrection: the resurrection of Lazarus, recorded in John chapter 11:1-53. Don’t get me wrong, this is also about the resurrection of Jesus. However, I think by considering what happened in this incident, we can learn some things about Jesus’ resurrection, and the eternal life he offers us.

Jesus was at least two days of traveling away from his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Lazarus became seriously ill, and so the sisters sent word to Jesus. What John says next is pretty strange:

Now Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. So when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was.

John connects two things that don’t seem like they should be connected. He says Jesus loved Lazarus, so when he heard Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was. What kind of sense does that make? I can see John writing, “Jesus loved Lazarus, but when he heard he was sick, he stayed where he was anyway.” Or it would make sense to say, “Jesus loved Lazarus, so when he heard he was sick, he hurried to his side.” But John very deliberately connects the fact that Jesus loved Lazarus to the fact that he didn’t go to him, and allowed him to die.

Now, of course, that isn’t the end of the story. Jesus does go back – after Lazarus has died and been in the ground for four days. He speaks to Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This is actually a statement, but implied here is a question: “Why did you let him die? Why didn’t you come when we called?”

Jesus, typically, doesn’t answer her unspoken question. Instead, while their brother is still rotting in the tomb, he asks them to put their faith in him. You see, Jesus had bigger plans for Lazarus than merely healing him from a deadly disease. He had plans for resurrection.

We want to restore things as they were. Jesus wants to let things “as they were” die, so that he can resurrect something better in its place. In order for resurrection to occur, death must occur first. In other words, Jesus cannot resurrect something unless it dies first. To go back to the point I made earlier: Jesus loved Lazarus, therefore he let him die. This isn’t necessarily a pleasant thought. Usually, we want to skip the dying part, and go right to the resurrection; but death is a part of the equation. Jesus said:

24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  (John 12:24, ESV)

This is an obvious truth when it comes to seeds. When you plant a seed, you destroy it, as a seed. But the destruction of a seed results in something new and wonderful, something that is actually much greater than the seed was. In the same way, resurrection requires death. This truth is all over the bible:

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?  (Matt 16:24-26, ESV)

When Jesus says “take up his cross” he means quite simply, “be willing to die.”

2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  (Col 3:2-3, ESV)

20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  (Gal 2:20, ESV)

Ultimately, this means our physical death. It means that death is not something to fear. It leads to resurrection. But even now, before physical death, there are things that Jesus would like us to let go. There are ambitions, hopes, values, material things, perhaps even relationships, that we need to allow to die. [By the way, when I say “relationships” I don’t mean marriages. As always, we need to consider the whole scripture, and the Lord has made it clear that he considers marriages to be permanent in this life. Please do not interpret this message in any way that contradicts some part of the bible].  We might feel like letting go of our rights, or our dreams or material things is a terrible thing. And it might indeed be very difficult and traumatic. But there is a resurrection waiting, and sometimes the only thing holding up the glorious new life is the death that must come first.

You can’t fault Martha and Mary and the disciples for failing to see this, when it came to their brother. It is so much bigger than anything they have thought of hoping for. They are thinking of this life. They are thinking of what seems possible, given their level of interaction with Jesus. But they are not thinking like Jesus.

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”  (John 11:23-27, ESV)

I identify with Martha and the others. I usually hope for what seems somewhat realistic. Considering how they had themselves seen Jesus heal people, it was reasonable for them to hope for healing. But resurrection was outside their experience. It was outside their paradigm. So often, we are like that. We want healing and continuation of this life. Jesus wants to give us resurrection. We want what seems possible, even if unlikely. Jesus wants to give us what we haven’t even thought of yet.

Before we are too old, we learn that life is full of disappointments. We find out we can’t fly. Animals don’t talk. Mom and Dad are really going to stay divorced. Work is hard, as is managing money. The odds against winning the lottery really are one-hundred million to one against it (or even worse). My marriage isn’t perfect. I can’t make a living doing what I love to do. You know exactly what I’m talking about. So, we adjust our expectations. We adjust them radically downwards. Chocolate cake is doable. I can dream of having chocolate cake, and I think I can make that dream happen. I can’t be fulfilled in my work, but I think I can manage to be pleasurably distracted by TV, or computer games.

But what if our deepest desires – and our deepest disappointments – are really signs that we were made for something more? The great philosopher, Blaise Pascal wrote:

What can this incessant craving, and this impotence of attainment mean, unless there was once a happiness belonging to man, of which only the faintest traces remain, in that void which he attempts to fill with everything within his reach? (Pascal, Pensées)

When we get honest with ourselves, we know that the world doesn’t seem right. We have a deep restlessness. As I said, we cover it up with things we think we can realistically get for ourselves, like work, entertainment, shopping, sex, food, adventure, relationships – the list is endless. But if we would just stop, and be still, we would realize that there is a deep emptiness in us. That’s probably why we so seldom stop and be still. We often blame the emptiness on ourselves; and it’s true we certainly don’t do ourselves any favors. But the problem is not only just with us. It is that we are out of place. We were made for paradise, and instead we are living on the outskirts of hell. C.S. Lewis writes:

Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object. (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

Jesus, by letting Lazarus die, was trying to get the attention of his loved ones. He wanted to reconnect them with their deep, unfulfilled desires, so that he could show them that He himself can and does fill them. He wanted to show them both, the depth of their desire for a world without death, and also, how completely unrealistic that desire is – apart from Himself. As we follow Jesus, he sometimes asks us to let some things die, so that he can replace them with that which is far better.

Let’s continue with the story:

28 Then she returned to Mary. She called Mary aside from the mourners and told her, “The Teacher is here and wants to see you.” 29 So Mary immediately went to him.
30 Jesus had stayed outside the village, at the place where Martha met him. 31 When the people who were at the house consoling Mary saw her leave so hastily, they assumed she was going to Lazarus’s grave to weep. So they followed her there. 32 When Mary arrived and saw Jesus, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled. 34 “Where have you put him?” he asked them.
They told him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Then Jesus wept. (NLT) John 11:28-35

Jesus himself understood that this life is deeply troubling. Even though he knew what he was about to do next, he wept. It is entirely good and appropriate sometimes to grieve, to be deeply troubled – even when we have the hope that Jesus gives. This life can be terrible and tragic. Jesus did not pretend that a future resurrection meant that you should never cry here and now. We are indeed living in a place where we were not made to live. Continuing on:

36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him! ” 37 But some of them said, “Couldn’t he who opened the blind man’s eyes also have kept this man from dying? ”

And there it is: If God is so powerful, why does he let bad things happen? If he is good, why would he allow evil to exist? I think the full answer is beyond our understanding, but one reason is this: if God were to destroy all evil, he would also have to destroy all of us, because none of us is without some evil. Only those who trust Jesus to do it for them can be made holy without being destroyed at the same time. God is patient, waiting for more people to enter through the only door. I know, however that that particular answer, though correct, is not complete. There is more going on with that question than we can understand. I know that Jesus calls us to trust, even when we can’t understand. That is certainly what he was saying to Martha and Mary. Let’s finish this story:

38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 “Remove the stone,” Jesus said.
Martha, the dead man’s sister, told him, “Lord, there is already a stench because he has been dead four days.”
40 Jesus said to her, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God? ”
41 So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you heard me. 42 I know that you always hear me, but because of the crowd standing here I said this, so that they may believe you sent me.” 43 After he said this, he shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out! ” 44 The dead man came out bound hand and foot with linen strips and with his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unwrap him and let him go.” (CSB) John 11:36-44

Now, as amazing as this is, I want to point something out: today Lazarus is dead again. His resurrection was not THE resurrection. It was a miracle that Jesus did to show who he is, and what is coming. But it is important for us to realize that it was temporary, because far too often, what we think we want is for Jesus to fix this life, and what Jesus wants to do is give us an entirely new life that will never be broken again. We want Jesus to raise things that will just have to die again anyway. We get so focused on this life, and the things in it. But the resurrection that Jesus offers us is not just a restoration of what we have right now. That was Lazarus’ resurrection, but it is not the resurrection that Jesus promises, and ultimately that Jesus himself had.

The apostle Paul describes both the resurrection that Jesus had, which is also promised to us, when we trust Jesus:

When you put a seed into the ground, it doesn’t grow into a plant unless it dies first. 37 And what you put in the ground is not the plant that will grow, but only a bare seed of wheat or whatever you are planting. 38 Then God gives it the new body he wants it to have. A different plant grows from each kind of seed. 39 Similarly there are different kinds of flesh—one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish.
40 There are also bodies in the heavens and bodies on the earth. The glory of the heavenly bodies is different from the glory of the earthly bodies. 41 The sun has one kind of glory, while the moon and stars each have another kind. And even the stars differ from each other in their glory.
42 It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. 43 Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. 44 They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. For just as there are natural bodies, there are also spiritual bodies.
45 The Scriptures tell us, “The first man, Adam, became a living person.” But the last Adam—that is, Christ—is a life-giving Spirit. 46 What comes first is the natural body, then the spiritual body comes later. 47 Adam, the first man, was made from the dust of the earth, while Christ, the second man, came from heaven. 48 Earthly people are like the earthly man, and heavenly people are like the heavenly man. 49 Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like the heavenly man.
50 What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever.
51 But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.
54 Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
55 O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
56 For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. 57 But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58 So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. (NLT, 1 Corinthians 15:36-58)

Are you willing to let temporary things die so that you can receive something that will never die? Are you willing to believe that our deepest, most unfulfillable desires might be signs that we were made for Resurrection life? Especially, are you willing to trust Jesus to be the true Resurrection and Life, to be patient until he brings that Resurrection Life to us? When we are so willing, as Paul writes, nothing we do for the Lord is ever useless!

22 For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. 24 We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. 25 But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.) (NLT) Romans 8:22-25

Let us look forward with hope, because the One who called us is faithful. He has risen!

He has risen indeed.

REVELATION #43: GOD HIMSELF

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If you have the treasure, you don’t need anything else, because the treasure will provide you with everything. And that is the promise of Revelation 21:3 – that we will have the Ultimate Treasure – God Himself. Anyone is welcome to receive this treasure, by walking through the Door – Jesus Christ.

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Revelation #43  Revelation 21:3-7

Last time, we looked in depth at the first two verses of this passage. Because the New Heavens and the New Earth are such a precious gift, I want to take a bit more time to meditate on what we are promised in this passage. Let’s look at verse three:

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.

This is a very ancient promise, one which was given through Moses to the people of Israel:

6 Say therefore to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. 7 I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’” (Exodus 6:6-8, ESV)

In Revelation 21:3, we are witnessing the ultimate fulfillment of that promise. God will be our God, and he will bring us into the perfect New Creation that has been promised to us. However, the center-point of this promise is not the land, but rather, God himself. God is the best, highest good in the entire cosmos. There is nothing better than Him. And so, he gives us the best thing in existence: Himself. Earlier, he said to Abram:

​Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward. ” (Genesis 15:1, NIV. This translation is, in my opinion, the most literal rendering of the Hebrew in this particular verse. It implies that the great reward is God himself.)

When we read the promises in scripture, all of the stuff we really want, deep down – like  love, peace, joy, meaningfulness, fulfillment, adventure – these are given to us as by-products of having God himself. When we have God, we have love, joy, peace, adventure, fulfilment, and so on. When we don’t have God, our experience of those things is doomed to be both temporary, and corrupted. When we have God, we have everything. If we think we have something, but we have it apart from God, we really don’t have it. That is why Jesus told these two little parables:

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (ESV, Matthew 13:44-46)

If you have the treasure, you don’t need anything else, because the treasure will provide you with everything. And that is the promise of Revelation 21:3 – that we will have the Ultimate Treasure – God Himself.

The next several passages in Revelation are describing what it means for God to be our God, and us to be His people in the New Creation. This is what we hope for. This is what makes our present sufferings bearable. This is why we can have joy in even the hardest situations.

Verse 4 tells us that God Himself “will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” In the New Creation, we will have New Bodies which never get sick, never feel pain. Our new bodies can’t get hurt, or be killed. Death itself will be “dead.” We will have no reason to cry or mourn.

Some people may have questions about that last part. What if some of our loved ones are not there? What if they reject Jesus, and so go into the lake of fire? Won’t we cry and mourn for them?

I think we are dealing with matters that we cannot fully understand. I think that’s why we have verse 5, where God says, “The former things have passed away. Behold I making everything new!” Things won’t operate the same way they do here. We will live in an entirely new and different “system,” one which we cannot understand fully at this present time. In present terms, yes, the loss of loved ones to the lake fire would make us grieve. But the New Creation is entirely new. The old ways of looking at things may not apply there.

I have an additional thought about that question, also. I imagine that when we are fully engaged with God, with no sin in the way of our experience of Him, His Joy will fill us so completely that there simply isn’t room for grief. Everything will be so “right,” that even things that might have made us grieve cannot touch us, because then we will fully accept all that God does, and be able to wholeheartedly affirm it as right and good.

Verses 7 and 8 do not seem so positive. I am quite sure that this is referring back to the judgment before the throne in 20:11-15. The Lord is reminding us that these promises are not universal. The only way into the New Creation is through Jesus (John 14:1-6).

Many people say that Christians believe in a mean, narrow-minded God, who only saves those who believe in Him specifically. But the truth is narrow minded. The answer to 2+2 is 4, nothing else, not even 4.0001. Truth, by definition, excludes everything that is not true. That means truth is always “narrow.”

However, actually, everyone who wants to enter the New Creation may do so. The Bible says there is a door in, and that door is Jesus Christ. Anyone is welcome to use that door. But there is no other door, no other way. If someone refuses to come through the only door, then, yes, they will be kept out, because there is no other way for them to get in.

5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (ESV, John 14:5-7).

40 For this is the will of My Father: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (HCSB, John 6:40)

10 Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (ESV, 1 John 5:10-12)

7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture (ESV, John 10:7-9)

No one is kept out because God is mean, they are kept out because they don’t want to come through the door. It humbling to come through the door. We have to admit that we are sinful, and we cannot save ourselves (1 John 1:7-9). We have to turn away from our sins, and from living for ourselves. We have to die to ourselves, and to our own sinful impulses, so that Jesus can live through us (Galatians 2:20).

Now, why should this be? Why is it that we must come through Jesus? Why is there no other way?

In the first place, only Jesus makes us truly holy, so that we can be in the presence of a Holy God without being destroyed. Every other religion says that you must make yourself holy, in one way or another. But  a flawed person cannot make themselves flawless. It is a logical impossibility. So, the Bible says, “Let Jesus take care of that, because it is not possible for a flawed person to be flawless.” The Flawless One is our only hope.

Second, this New Creation is described as perfect, and incorruptible. Nothing can go wrong here. No evil will be here, and none of the sorrow and pain that is brought about by evil. If there is to be no evil, there cannot be any person who is less than perfect. If there was, then the New Creation would be no better than this one. Therefore, if a person will not allow Jesus to change them, if they reject the forgiveness that brings holiness and the salvation that leads to perfection, then they cannot be in the New Creation without changing it back into the old creation.

Revelation 21:8 lists some specific kinds of people who refuse to come in through the door. The first is, cowards. Right before this, it says, “those who conquer, will have this heritage.” This refers to the battle of faith here on earth, before we stand in front of the judgment throne. The picture is that one the one hand, we have those who fight the battle of faith with courage and perseverance. Now, this doesn’t mean we fight our own way into heaven. But there is a lot of opposition to faith in this world. The attacks against Christianity are relentless. There is constant pressure to compromise, to give in, and even to give up. Jesus told us it would require that we surrender our very lives to him that we die to ourselves (Matthew 16:24-26). Now, it is his strength that works in us to persevere but there are some who will choose not to, because it is easier. Paul explains that we allow God to work, but it is His strength which works:

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (ESV, Philippians 2:12-13)

So, here in Revelation, those obey by allowing God to work in them, and by pursuing his work in them, these are recognized for their courage.

Cowards are the opposite of this. There are some people who may be tempted to say of the Christian faith: “This is hard. I’m not getting enough out of it.” This is a warning to those who are so tempted. In addition, I believe this refers to Christians who are pressured and persecuted by human culture. Particularly in John’s day, Christians may have been tempted to deny their faith in order to avoid persecution and being excluded from non-Christian social circles. God is reminding those that this is a coward’s choice. It is a rejection of Jesus himself. To do so is to refuse to come through the door, because the door costs us everything in earthly terms. But the reason we have to let go of earthly approval is so that we can receive everything through God’s approval.

I am troubled by this today. Many so called “Christian celebrities” seem unwilling, when asked, to make a public statement affirming what the Bible says about human sexuality. If they are afraid of speaking the truth because they might lose their popularity, how much more are they likely to deny Jesus when they might lose their freedom, or even their very lives? I believe this should warn us that being a Christian in a non-Christian culture is always difficult. Cowardice is easy.

I want us to circle back around. It is important to remember that we must come through Jesus, and those who refuse to do so cannot enter the New Creation. But anyone who is willing to come through Jesus is welcome. And the reason for that one door, is so that the New Creation will be a whole new order, with no death, no sorrow, no decay. Instead, we have God himself, and in Him, everything our hearts truly desire, all the treasure of the universe, and more.

Let us hear what the Spirit is saying to us today!

REVELATION #42: THE NEW CREATION

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We are promised a new world that contains the beauty, but not the fragility. It contains the excitement and wonder, but not the mortal danger. In our perfect bodies, exploring the wilderness will be a joy. In Earth 2.0, humans will not corrupt or threaten the environment. The New Creation will hold the people of God, but not their garbage, because garbage will no longer exist. These promises, and the hope they bring should affect how we live here and now.

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SERMON NOTES

Revelation #42. Revelation 21:1-8

 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. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

We are in the second-to-last major section of the book of Revelation, which I call “The Seven-Part Victory of Jesus.” The first part of his victory was the destruction of the beast and his followers. Next, came the thousand-year reign. The third victory was the ultimate destruction of Satan. The fourth part of his victory was the judgment of all people who have ever lived, where those whose names are in the book of life are invited into eternal life, while those who rejected Jesus are sent to the lake of fire. Today, we consider the fifth part of the Victory of Jesus, which is the creation of the  New Heavens and the New Earth. We have taken a great deal of time in other parts of the book of Revelation, in order to understand it better. We have come to some areas that are less difficult to understand, but they are wonderful, delightful promises. I want us to feast our soul on these promises today.

Last time, I speculated that when we die, it is possible that our spirits (or souls?) go to be with Jesus for a temporary period. Some people call that “heaven.” But the real “heaven” is actually a physical place. John explains it:

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.

God’s plan is to destroy this mortal world, and then to remake it in perfection. Some scholars would say that God will not absolutely destroy it, but will transform it, much in the same way that our earthly bodies will be transformed into resurrection bodies. Either way, this idea of new Creation (brand new, or transformed) is found in many places in the bible.

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:10-13, ESV)

17 “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. 20 No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, (Isaiah 65:17-20, ESV)

22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain. 23 From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord. (Isaiah 66:22-23, ESV)

Our eternal future will be spent in physical bodies, living in a physical place – the New Creation. The New Creation, will be perfect, even as our new bodies will be perfect. It will not be subject to frustration because of our sin:

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility — not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it — in the hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. 23 And not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits — we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 Now in this hope we were saved. (Romans 8:18-24, HCSB)

I love this world we live in. I love the ocean, and the mountains, the forests and the plains. Being in places with beautiful scenery moves me deeply and powerfully. But our amazing planet is indeed “subject to frustration” in various ways. Many of the most beautiful places on this world are also the most dangerous. A one-thousand-foot cliff is wonderful to look at, and to stand on top of one is awe-inspiring. But one miss-step, one ill-placed falling rock, and that beauty will end your life. The mountains are gorgeous. But it takes a great deal of physical effort and stamina to go into the mountains and explore, and if you go unprepared, there are seventy-three easy ways to die there. So, our beautiful world is also very harsh and difficult.

Not only that, but it is fragile. Human activity seems to be reducing the forests of the world in a significant way. In places like Europe, where humans have lived for many thousands of years, most of the wild animals are gone. Even the most remote shores of islands far from civilization contain garbage washed up from the sea, where millions upon millions of people throw it.

However, we are promised a new world that contains the beauty, but not the fragility. It contains the excitement and wonder, but not the mortal danger. In our perfect bodies, exploring the wilderness will be a joy. In Earth 2.0, humans will not corrupt or threaten the environment. The New Creation will hold the people of God, but not their garbage, because garbage will no longer exist.

Some of you may wonder about the fact that there will be no sea. That would disappoint me, because I love the ocean. Actually, if you remember, the beast came from “the sea” (Revelation 13:1). The prophet Daniel also had visions involving evil beasts, and these too, came from the sea (Daniel 7:3). So, here, “the sea” doesn’t mean “the ocean”  or anything like that. Instead, “the sea” represents the source of rebellion against God, the place from which comes chaos and evil. What John means to say is that the New Creation will have no place from which evil can come. It will not be threatened by rebellion or spiritual darkness.

Folks, that’s just the first verse! Here’s the next:

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

The city is “as a bride, adorned for her husband.” Many scholars take this to mean that Jerusalem represents the people of God, made perfect by Jesus, coming to meet him in the New Creation. That might indeed be the correct interpretation of this verse. It might also be that God’s people will have a new, wonderful, absolutely perfect home. I think, however, there are layers of meaning we might get from this.

Look at it this way: John was a Jew, who grew up thinking of Jerusalem as the spiritual center of the universe. Before he met Jesus, he probably believed that God made his home in the temple in Jerusalem. You might say that Jerusalem was the home of his heart, though he had never lived there permanently. In 70 A.D., the Romans brutally crushed a Jewish rebellion, and utterly destroyed both the temple, and the city, and caused the deaths of an estimated one million people. The Jewish historian Josephus, who was there at the time, records that the Romans left part of one wall standing, to provide  shelter for the soldiers, and to show how big were the other walls that they destroyed. But he records that the rest of the city was absolutely annihilated:

…But for all the rest of the wall [surrounding Jerusalem], it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it [Jerusalem] had ever been inhabited. This was the end which Jerusalem came to by the madness of those that were for innovations; a city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all mankind.

And truly, the very view itself was a melancholy thing; for those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judaea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change. For the war had laid all signs of beauty quite waste. Nor had anyone who had known the place before, had come on a sudden to it now, would he have known it again. But though he [a foreigner] were at the city itself, yet would he have inquired for it.

(Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, as quoted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Jerusalem_(70_CE) Accessed, 3/23/19)

That was Jerusalem at the time John recorded the book of Revelation: unrecognizable even to those who had once lived there, not even recognizable as having once been a city. Jerusalem, as John knew it, was no more; it was lost forever. It was a mark on a map, and a pile of rubble in reality. But now, John sees the New Jerusalem, the city of God, coming down from heaven.

Here is what I hear from this verse today: Whatever is good that seems to have been lost forever will be made perfect, and restored to us. Something in your heart might seem utterly destroyed. You may have no hope of ever recovering it. Yet, in the New Creation, it will be made new, and even better than before. Just as the creation is made new; just as we ourselves remade, new and better; so our hopes and aspirations are renewed and fulfilled, but even better than before.

Now, you may be tempted to say, “But I want my hope to be fulfilled in this life. I want all this now.” I understand that sentiment. But, that is a bit like a child who wants to go to a McDonald’s playland area today, rather than waiting a week, and then going to Disneyland. Any hope that we have fulfilled in this life is temporary, and it is infected with that same corruption that sours everything in this life. If your hope is only for this life in the first place, then perhaps it needs to be refined and purified. If what you really want cannot be found in heaven, perhaps what you are hoping for is not good. Our hopes in the New Heavens and New Earth are far better than anything we could imagine here and now.

These promises, and this hope should affect how we live here and now. Peter says that, in the verses I quoted above (2 Peter 3:11-12). Because we have this hope, we can be patient here on earth. Because we have this coming treasure in heaven, we can give of ourselves to others here and now. We know that the best is yet to come, so we can endure suffering in the meantime. That’s what Paul meant when he said this present suffering is not worth mentioning compared to the glory that is coming. I am reminded again of one of my favorite verses:

Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is wasting away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary, light, affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary. But what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Meditate on these two hopes right now: the New Creation, and the Great Restoration. Let the Holy Spirit speak to your heart.

REVELATION #41 HEAVENLY REWARDS

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The entire New Testament teaches us to invest in heaven, to put our hopes and desires there; our treasure. The Lord sees the things you do that no one else sees. He knows the  battles you have fought alone; the things you have done for which others got the credit. And his grace is such that he not only gives us a salvation that we could not earn, he rewards us for treasuring him.

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Revelation #41. Revelation 20:11-15 Part B.

Before we move on, let me make sure that we have a solid foundation on which to do so. If we trust Jesus, our names are written in the book of life. If our names are in the book of life, we are not thrown into the lake of fire, which I believe is what we normally call “hell.” We do not escape hell, and enter eternal life, based on anything that we have done or not done. Our basis for being saved from hell is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As someone once put it: “When I look at myself, I do not see any way that I could be saved; but when I look at Jesus, I do not see any way that I can be lost.” This is exactly what Revelation 20:11-15 is telling us. If you want to depend on your own works, on your own goodness, then you will be judged based on what is written in the books of deeds, and unless you are totally perfect, you will fall short. On the other hand, if we depend entirely upon the righteousness of Jesus, upon the suffering of Jesus on our behalf, upon the power that raised Jesus from the dead, then we will find that our names are written in the book of life, and we have nothing to fear from what Revelation calls “the second death.”

In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells the story of the master who hires workers for his vineyard. He pays the people he hired for an hour the same amount that he agreed to pay those who worked all day. I believe this parable is about salvation. Even if you trust Jesus late in life, you too, receive the same salvation as those who have faithfully followed Him for their entire lives. Salvation is not earned. It is not a reward for being good. It is the free gift of God.

I’m going to cover some new ground now, but if, at any point, what I say next appears to contradict what I have already said here, then please ignore it, or ask me about it. I stand by what I have just said, and I have no intention of undermining it or contradicting it.

There are two additional pieces to this passage that I didn’t cover last time, and about which I think many people have questions. After my first sermon on this text, a number of people had questions about the relationship of death, Hades, Hell, and the lake of fire.

Remember that the book of Revelation is very picturesque and metaphorical. There are some things which we certainly ought to take literally. With other things, we ought to focus more on the general idea, rather than get bogged down in specific details. Let me lay out what I believe, and then explain why.

First, I do believe there is a literal hell. Virtually all Christians throughout history until recently also believed it, for the very good reason that Jesus clearly considered hell to be a real place where those who are not in the book of life suffer torment forever. (Mark 9:43-48; Matthew 5:22; 5:29; 10:28; Luke 16:19-24). The New Testament clearly teaches it, including a significant passage from Revelation, that is, 14:9-13. If you have not listened to my sermon on that Revelation passage, I strongly, vehemently, urge you to do so:

https://clearbible.blog/2018/08/07/revelation-31-hell-and-the-love-of-god/

All right, so we have hell. In our passage today (Revelation 20:11-15) hell is represented by the lake of fire.  Sometimes, the New Testament also talks about Hades. Mostly, in the New Testament, Hades is just another word for hell. But, in the book of Revelation, it is sometimes used as simply “the holding place for everyone who has died.” That second concept comes from ancient Greek culture, not from the Bible, but some of the verses in Revelation could be interpreted that way, including those here. Since Revelation was written to people who were part of ancient Greek culture, it could very well be that John is using it to say first, that every single person who has died, no matter where they were waiting after death, now appears before the throne. So even if they were in a place called “Hades,” they will be brought before the throne. And, as far as Hades being thrown into the lake of fire, he is saying, “Look, even the holding-pen for the dead will be destroyed. The day will come when you are either in the Lake of Fire, or in the New Heavens and new earth. There is no middle ground, no neutral place, after you die.”

So, this is how I think it goes:

1)When you die, if your name is in the book of life, your soul goes to be with Jesus, and awaits the time that your body will be resurrected. Not all Christians agree with me on this. Some would say that you are unconscious of anything until the resurrection. They may be right, I don’t know. I do know, however, that in some way, Moses and Elijah were present at the transfiguration of Jesus. I know that John saw the souls of those who had been martyred, waiting for the final judgment. I know that Jesus told the thief on the cross: “Today you will be in paradise with me.” That all suggests (but does not absolutely confirm) some sort of afterlife before the final resurrection.

2) If your name is not written in the book of life, perhaps you remains entirely unconscious, or perhaps you goes to some sort of “world of the dead” (Hades). Consider 1 Peter 3:18-19:

18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring you to God, after being put to death in the fleshly realm but made alive in the spiritual realm.
19 In that state He also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison 20 who in the past were disobedient, (1 Peter 3:18-20, HCSB)

So, perhaps there is a Hades, where those who reject Jesus await judgment. Or perhaps they are unconscious of anything until the resurrection. The Bible isn’t exactly clear; except to say that after the final judgment, there are only two destinations: the lake of fire, or the New Heavens and New Earth.

3) At the resurrection, we have the scene described in our text today. Those whose names are in the book of life are resurrected to eternal life in the New Heavens and New Earth. Those whose names are not, are thrown into the lake of fire. At that time, there will be only two alternatives: the lake of fire, or the New Heavens and New Earth.

Another question many people have is about judgment. Our names are written in the book of life, and that saves us from hell, and gives us a place in the new heavens and the new earth (more about that next time). Does this mean that we are not judged in any way at all? I’m not talking about the judgment concerning salvation and hell. But these verses do seem to imply that every single person – even those whose names are in the book of life – seem to go through some process of judgment.

This is a question about which good Christians have disagreed. Therefore, if you think I am wrong in what I’m about to say, I don’t mind terribly much, and I hope we can continue in Christian fellowship together. However, the New Testament does seem (to me) to teach that in addition to being in the new heavens and the new earth with Jesus, there are rewards for the things that we have done as we follow Jesus. Consider the following verses:

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matt 6:6)

What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. (Matthew 16:26-27)

But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. (Luke 6:35)

Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. (Ephesians 6:7-8)

I could quote many more verses that say something similar. These rewards cannot be heaven or salvation, because, we have already seen that to earn our salvation is impossible. We’ve already said that if we are judged by the books of our deeds, we will fall short. The entire New Testament teaches over and over again that we are saved by grace through faith, and this is not of ourselves, it is a free gift of God; not of works, lest anyone should boast (Ephesians 2:8-10). Therefore, these verses must be talking about some sort of reward in addition to being with Jesus in the new heavens and new earth. The apostle Paul describes it like this:

For no one can lay any other foundation than what has been laid down. That foundation is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on that foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, each one’s work will become obvious, for the day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire; the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. If anyone’s work that he has built survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, it will be lost, but he will be saved; yet it will be like an escape through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:11-15)

So, we have the foundation of salvation in Jesus Christ. There is no other salvation, there is no other foundation. We do not earn it. But it also seems that as we build on the foundation of Jesus Christ, there is the possibility that we will receive, in addition to eternal life, some sort of reward. And there’s also the possibility, that if we do not build on the foundation of Jesus Christ, or if we build poorly, that though we are saved, it will be “like an escape through fire.” Now, certainly, the new creation itself is far more than any of us deserve. But God’s goodness is such that he offers us even more than that. He gives us far more than we could ever earn or deserve – and that is just the beginning. He also gives us (I believe) an opportunity to see that our work and faithfulness is indeed noticed.

Now, at first this might dismay you. Perhaps you are worried that you might feel jealous of someone else’s reward, or disappointed in yours. Remember, this takes place as you are being made perfect. Jealousy and envy won’t be inside you anymore. You will be able to honestly rejoice when others are rewarded. You will be able to whole-heartedly accept your own reward.

I meet a lot of people who say something like this: “That’s all fine, but all I care about is being there at all.” I understand that, and it’s true, in one sense. But too many people twist that. They seem intent on just barely squeaking in to eternal life, trailing fumes of booze and cheap perfume. What I mean is, they aren’t really interested in the rewards of heaven. They are primarily interested in enjoying life on earth, and then avoiding hell. I don’t know, but I often wonder if such people really do understand all that Jesus has done for them, or, if they even truly care, beyond their own self-interest.

All throughout the New Testament, we are told to invest in heaven, not on earth. Now, frequently, investing in heaven means showing love to people on earth. Serving the poor, praying, giving, ministering, taking the gospel to people oppressed by fear and false religions (or giving toward that end) – all of these make a difference on earth. But we don’t get anything tangible back from doing them. By serving the people around us, we store up heavenly treasure. Jesus himself told us to store up treasure in heaven.

19 “Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:19-21

You see, if you are not really interested in storing up heavenly treasure, I wonder where the treasure of your heart truly is. If heavenly treasure makes you go “meh,” then perhaps your heart is fixed on earth, not heaven. And if that is the case, again, I wonder if you really grasp, or even care about, God’s grace to you. The apostle Paul urges us to also live our lives with a heavenly focus:

23 Now I do all this because of the gospel, so I may become a partner in its benefits.
24 Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. 25 Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. However, they do it to receive a crown that will fade away, but we a crown that will never fade away. 26 Therefore I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. 27 Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:23-27, HCSB)

3 Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in the concerns of civilian life; he seeks to please the recruiter. 5 Also, if anyone competes as an athlete, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. 6 The hardworking farmer ought to be the first to get a share of the crops. 7 Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (2 Timothy 2:3-7, HCSB)

Now, a lot of people who are faithfully following Jesus are never noticed, while many who appear to be charlatans get fame and fortune. You may have heard of Albert Schweitzer. He was a medical doctor who won the Nobel prize in 1952 for his humanitarian efforts in Africa. In previous generations, people revered Albert Schweitzer the same way we honor Mother Teresa. Now, contrast that with my  former neighbor, Henry Farrar. Henry was a doctor who did incredible things for the people of Nigeria. I’ve met other medical doctors who have visited both Henry’s hospital, and Schweitzer’s, and told me that Henry did far more than Albert Schweitzer. On earth, no one knows Henry’s name. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. But I believe that his work did not go unnoticed in heaven. All those things that Henry did without complaining, without recognition from others – they were recognized in heaven, and he will know it on the last day.

C.S. Lewis wrote a book about heaven called “The Great Divorce.” It has nothing to do with divorce or marriage, but anyway, it’s a terrific book about the joy of heaven. One of the characters visits the edge of heaven, and sees a woman there who is surrounded by a magnificent triumphal procession. The character inquires breathlessly if it is the virgin Mary. His guide says, “No, that is Jane Smith. No one on earth knew her, but she is quite the hero here, because she blessed so many children with love and service.”

I think heaven might be a little bit like that. God sees you. You may labor in obscurity. No one may notice how you quietly serve others here and now. But God notices. And he will reward you for it. Your reward is not salvation – no one can possibly earn that. But the injustice you suffer now is not unnoticed. Your quiet labor is gloriously trumpeted in heaven.

Let the Holy Spirit Speak to you today.