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.

 

DO MIRACLES HAPPEN TODAY?

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EXPERIENCING LIFE TOGETHER #6.

AWE & WONDERS

Acts 2:43 “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.”

We have examined the four things that the first Church was devoted to. I hope you’ll agree that any church and even any Christian ought to be growing in devotion to the Word, Fellowship, Intimacy with Jesus (characterized by the Lord’s Supper) and Prayer. These things are essential to what it means to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. They are therefore also central to the community life of those who know Jesus. The first Church was also characterized by living for a single purpose. This too is part of the core of Christian discipleship. In addition to these, however, there are a few other things that characterized that very first Christian church. These other things are also meant to be characteristic of all Christians and all churches. The first of these that the text mentions is a sense of awe, which is accompanied by “wonders and miraculous signs.”

The word translated as “awe” in the NIV Bible is actually the Greek word “phobos” from which we get the English “phobia.” In other words, the word means fear. I think that we in modern American culture are afraid (no pun intended!) to use this word in connection with our experience of God. It sounds like the dark ages somehow – “they were filled with fear.” However, it is a Biblical word, and it is used many times to describe people’s relationship with God. A God we fear is not an altogether comfortable God. He is not the kind of God we can control. Now I don’t believe that this whole concept of “fear of God” is meant to be negative. Perhaps the best rendering of the concept I ever heard comes through the children’s books written by C.S. Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia. In these stories there is a character called Aslan, the Son of the Great Emperor-over-the-Sea. Aslan was intended by Lewis to be a picture of what Jesus is like. And one more thing – Aslan is a lion. In the stories, people who haven’t met Aslan want to know what he’s like. Upon hearing that he is lion, one character asks about him:

“Then, isn’t he safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

I think that Lewis has really captured what the fear of God is about. God is out of our control. He is powerful, and, dare I say, even a little wild, like a lion. He isn’t quite safe because of his great power and his complete otherness. But he is good. This was the kind of “fear” that everyone was filled with in Acts 2:43 – the fear of God who is not quite safe, but is good. We Americans are not usually comfortable with this (which is sort of the point). We like to think that we can respect anyone who is worthy of it, but that we fear no one. But when we try to reduce the fear of God to mere “respect” we have lost part of the true Biblical understanding of who God is. Now the “fear of God” is not the same as being afraid of Him. We do not need to fear that He won’t love us or forgive us. But at some level the thought of what God can really do – how completely at His mercy we are – ought to give us a kind of thrilled fear. He is God and we are truly nothing in comparison.

The first Christian church was characterized by this sort of “fear.” I think it probably influenced how they worshipped and prayed in very positive ways – they did not take God for granted. I think this sense of “fear” also made the miracle of their salvation even more wonderful and incredible to them. The fruit of their fear was altogether positive. Their fear of God only led to a greater wonder that He would consider them worth loving and dying for. Personally, I think it heightened their joy at knowing Jesus as well as their thankfulness to him.

Accompanying this very positive fear, were wonders and miraculous signs. I have no doubt that these manifestations of supernatural things helped them to continue in this positive sort of “fear-of-God.”

Perhaps three main questions can help us to dive more deeply into the question of wonders and miracles: What were the signs and wonders? And, Do signs and wonders still happen today? And, Are we meant to experience them as well?

First, what were they? There is no doubt among any serious scholars that the text is referring to God’s supernatural working. The specific things that He did supernaturally remain somewhat vague in this passage; but we can infer what they were from other passages, with a high probability of being correct. In Acts, we see two primary supernatural manifestations of Gods power: healings and exorcisms. You can bet that these two things were part of what is being referred to in Acts 2:43. In fact, in the passage immediately following this one, the apostle Peter was used by God to heal a crippled man (Acts 3:1-10. For an example of exorcism, see Acts 16;16-18). But Acts also records other things. The great outpouring of the Holy Spirit was accompanied by the miraculous sign of tongues – people from all over the world heard the apostles speaking in their own languages when they preached (Acts 2:5-12). In Acts chapter 12 Peter was miraculously freed from prison. The Holy Spirit gave a word of prophecy to the congregation at Antioch in Acts 13. Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake but suffered no ill effects (Acts 28:3-5). The rest of New Testament also records other sorts of miracles, signs and supernatural workings apart from healings and the driving out of evil spirits. The important thing is not really what the specific events entailed – instead the point is that God intervened in ways that were clearly supernatural. Another significant point is the choice of the words “miraculous signs.” The effect of these things was to strengthen the faith of the believers, and to help in bringing unbelievers to faith. Even today, the fastest growing churches worldwide are those where God is doing supernatural things. The first Church clearly viewed the miracles and wonders as portents of God’s presence. The supernatural events gave them opportunities to preach (Acts 3) and often helped convince unbelievers (Acts 8:9-13).

Now, do these things still happen today? I must be fair and tell you that there are people who genuinely know and love Jesus, who believe that God no longer does miracles like these. For theological support, they point out that in this passage, it only mentions the apostles as those who did the miracles, and since the apostles are now with the Lord, there are no more miracles. They claim that these supernatural actions were merely intended to help the very first church establish itself. Now that the church worldwide is no longer in danger of not being established, miracles aren’t needed. I believe that these people are sincerely misled. There are plenty of other New Testament passages (including some in Acts) that demonstrate that supernatural things are done by God through people other than the apostles. In 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14, Paul clearly expects non-apostolic, ordinary Corinthian house-church members to exhibit miraculous gifts of various sorts. In John, Jesus said this:

“I assure you: The one who believes in Me will also do the works that I do. And he will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in My name, I will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. (John 14:12-14, HCSB)

Jesus expected that the kinds of things he did, would also be done by his Holy Spirit-empowered disciples. The truth is, the church needs to be re-established in every generation. The Christian message is no more secure now than it was in the time of the apostles – the gospel needs to be communicated again and again to each generation, or it will be lost. There are plenty of local churches that are closing their doors, precisely because they have not done this. We are certainly not in any less need than the first Christians for supernatural power to assist us in our efforts to introduce people to Jesus.

In addition, the evidence demands that we take seriously the premise that God still works supernaturally. As G.K. Chesterton points out,

There is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural.

The fact is… the believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you would believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder.

Recent studies have even confirmed that hospital patients recover more quickly, with fewer complications and have an better overall chance of recovery, when they are prayed for. The studies included people who were being prayed for, but were not aware of that fact. They included people who do not believe in the power of prayer. It is indeed accurate to say that God’s supernatural power is alive and still active in our world.

I think part of the difficulty that many people have with miracles is that they seem so unreliable. Let’s be honest. Sometimes, it seems like the perfect situation for God to do a miracle, and yet, he does not. Other times, he may do something that even seems almost unnecessary. I mean, Jesus didn’t have to feed the five thousand. They might have gone hungry that day, but no one was going to starve to death. They would have made it home and found something to eat the next day at the latest. Also, He certainly didn’t have to walk on water. So we hear about miracles that happen for others, and think, “I need a miracle even more than that.” And yet, we don’t get one.

This problem of miracles being unreliable is hangover from our scientific world view. We think if anything is real, we should be able to reliably duplicate the results. But if you think about it, this lack of “reliability” is exactly what makes a miracle miraculous. It can’t be duplicated, because it is an instance of God’s intervention – it isn’t “normal.” In addition, we can’t duplicate it, because we cannot control God, who is the main variable in the experiment.

I suffer from chronic kidney stones. They are extraordinarily painful, and usually, they do not pass for many days. One time, I developed a kidney stone just as I was about to start speaking at a retreat. The people there prayed for me, and within seconds, the pain disappeared. The kidney stone was gone, as quickly as that. I’ve never personally experienced anything like it, before or since. I feel like I sound foolish, sharing this. But it really happened. About six months later, I developed another stone. This time it was a Sunday morning, right before I was about to preach. It was basically the same situation as before. The same group of people prayed for me, and nothing happened. I went home and spent three days of misery until that stone passed. There is no doubt that God healed me from the one stone. There is no doubt that he did not deliver me from the next one. To this day I don’t know why. What I do know, is that God does do miracles, and also that we cannot control when and where he does them.

So, what is our part in all this? Does God want us to be involved in these kinds of things? If you feel a little thrill of fear at that thought, then you’re on the right track! The answer is of course, YES! God wants to do incredible things through us. Of course sometimes we want to “move in the supernatural” all the time and never “come back to earth” – that is not God’s plan either. God uses the supernatural for three main purposes: to set people free (either from sickness, emotional pain or demonization); to strengthen the faith of believers; and to help unbelievers come to faith. He doesn’t work supernaturally simply to give us another cool experience. He wants his children to grow to the point where we walk by faith and not by sight. So the first part of allowing God to work miracles is to release control to Him. Many of us who have had some supernatural experience try to control Him by attempting to arrange things so he’ll come do it again. But we can’t make Him do a miracle. At the same time, we should not try to prevent his working because we are afraid. Primarily what he wants from us in the arena of miracles is an openness, a willingness to be used (or not used), and a sense of fear and awe, that at any time He can come and do whatever He wants.

If we are willing for God to work in ways that might inspire holy fear, what is our part in making that happen? We need to ask him to act, invite him to work. Do we want him to set people free, to strengthen and encourage our faith, and to bring unbelievers to faith? Well, then ask him for a miracle. Ask him to physically heal someone. Ask him to deliver your friend from addiction to drugs or alcohol. Ask him to encourage someone who is struggling. Ask him to find a job for someone who has lost his. The result is up to God, not to us. He is not a machine that we can manipulate. Sometimes he WILL do a miracle. Sometimes he won’t. But, for whatever reason, God has chosen work through us as we are open and as we ask. he best way I know of to PREVENT miracles, is to not ask God for them. So go ahead and ask.

If you are in a house-church, I want to remind you that you are in the perfect context for God to do awe-inspiring things. It was a house church that prayed for the release of Peter when he was imprisoned by Herod. Even so, they did not believe at first the miraculous release that occurred. It was in a house church where a young boy fell out of a high window and died, and Paul prayed and he was made alive again. Prophecies, and the Lord speaking, came often in those first New Testament house-churches. I personally know a man who was instantly delivered from addiction to cigarettes when his house-church prayed for him. I was there when it happened, and frankly, I didn’t believe it at first, but the man hasn’t had a smoke since that night, fourteen years ago.

I encourage you to be open to these types of things that the Lord does. If the thought brings a little thrill of fear, then you are probably on the right track.