As people, we are so stubborn. I could share story after story of people in my life whom I would consider to be stubborn (and, indeed, we probably probably all thought of someone), but here I really want to focus on our relationship with our Lord. We believe, for instance, that God wants to do a great work in us, yet we do not want to change as He does that work. We desire that things get better, but we refuse to let go of that which holds us back. We understand that, in some cases, things need to be different as long as they don’t require us to be different. We say with our mouths that we want to honor God, yet we declare with our actions that we only desire to hold on to what was or is.
Here, I want to pose a simple question as we conclude our current study of the book of Revelation: If we are called to surrender and sacrifice, and if God is constantly doing this sanctifying work within us, should there ever be a time when we are trying to hold on to what is or was? Should we ever come to a place where we have become complacent in the faith that we share in Christ?
Revelation 21:1-8 HCSB
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea no longer existed. I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.
Then I heard a loud voice from the throne:
Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity,
and He will live with them.
They will be His people,
and God Himself will be with them
and be their God.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Death will no longer exist;
grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer,
because the previous things have passed away.
Then the One seated on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new.” He also said, “Write, because these words are faithful and true.” And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give water as a gift to the thirsty from the spring of life. The victor will inherit these things, and I will be his God, and he will be My son. But the cowards, unbelievers, vile, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars — their share will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
The old earth passes away
As we think about this specific passage of Scripture, I would like for us to think about it in the context of trends we see on this earth. In John’s day (remember he is the human author of Revelation), there was great persecution. There is still great persecution today. People in the world do suffer because of their faith. When someone disagrees with someone else, there is a type of persecution as one person, or both, try to assert their dominance. Some in this world try to force others into doing certain things or even into doing those things a certain way. There is persecution in the world today. This may even carry over into the organizational church when we care so much about our way of doing things or about our preferences that we end up persecuting someone who doesn’t agree with us. In this world, people are in the circumstance of sinfulness and this sinfulness drives us to assert our own dominance and our own preference and it causes us to look down on others who may not agree with us.
Second, sin abounds. Even in this passage, John shares that those who still live by their sin will not even have a place on the new earth. Their share will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.
Third, people in this world experience distress. Whether it is because of persecution or because we are sometimes wrong or because we try so hard to have our own way that it just stresses us out when our expectations are not met.
As John is describing what will take place at the inception of the New Earth, he describes that the old earth will pass away. No more will there be persecutors! No more will sin be a bother to God’s people! No longer will there be distress! In fact, John goes on to describe that the sea will also no longer exist!
Okay, I’m not sure that the non-existence of the sea is causing us to jump for joy like it may have the church in John’s day. Because of persecution and the testimony of Christ, John had been exiled to an island. This island was separated from the mainland by miles of water. John is separated from the churches to whom he is writing by the Aegean Sea (the same sea that Odysseus wrestled to get home in Homer’s Odyssey). If John is writing that there will be no more sea, he is telling his friends, brothers and sisters in the faith, that there will no longer be anything whatsoever that can separate them.
The things of this earth: grief, crying, pain, dominance, persecution, distress, and even separation will all pass away!
If God will do away with all of these things, I have to wonder why we, in our stubbornness, try to hold on to them as we strive to follow Christ. Why is it that we desire to become more like Christ, but we hold on to ourselves? Why do we desire to love others but speak in condemnation about them or to them? Why do we desire for God to do a great work in our midst, yet hold on to the way that we think things ought to be done? Why do we say that Christ is sufficient, and still look for something more to please us (music style, a preacher, a topic, a husband or wife, children, a job, a ministry, food, money, possessions)? Why do we say that God’s Word is our authority, yet live and operate by other devices (preference, by-laws, human rules, tradition, zodiac signs, worldly advice)? If God is the one who will do away with all of the things of the current earth, might it be that to follow any other way than the way that God has given would be to invest in things that will one day perish?
If a church, for instance, chose to operate according to its own by-laws or tradition rather than according to Scripture, and with every decision, the church referenced its own by-laws rather than looking to the text of Scripture for guidance, it could be the case that the church is investing in the ways of the world rather than in the ways of God. If a youth group or a children’s ministry drew in students or children by playing games and the Gospel was secondary, it would be the case that the ministry is investing in the ways of the world rather than in the ways of God. If fathers exacerbate anger in their children rather than raising them up like a shepherd would guide his sheep, it is the case that they are investing in the ways of the world rather than in the ways of God. If we do anything according to ourselves instead of according to our Father in Heaven, we have invested in the ways of the world.
If the ways of the world bring grief, crying, pain, dominance, persecution, distress, and even separation; then they are not things that I want to invest in! God is the only one who has promised to, one day, do away with these things. There will come a day when this old earth, and everything on this earth that we have invested so much in, passes away.
The new earth is established
In this moment, God will establish a new earth and a new way of existence. No longer will we bring grief and pain upon ourselves by acting selfishly, but God will wipe every tear from our eyes and provide everything we need beginning with eternal life. This is a cause for great celebration and is also a challenge for us not to grow too connected with things the way they have been or the way they are. If God is making all things new, then it actually hurts us when we try to hang on. If we experience a high level of frustration when things begin changing, it may be evidence that we are not trusting our Lord.
Everyone experiences a degree of frustration when new things begin happening because we have to figure out how to adapt. A high degree of frustration, though, comes when we try to fight to keep things the way that they are or the way that they have been. A higher level of frustration leads us to a higher tendency to look down on others or to lash out at others. We become more edgy and we end up, ourselves, being the cause of grief, pain, persecution, distress, and even the separation of God’s people from one-another. This separation happens most prominently in our day ethnically and generationally. If there is a generational disconnect, it is our own fault. If there is an ethnic disconnect, it is also our fault, and it hurts us as the body of Christ in this world.
This is why so many people, in every age group and ethnicity, get stuck: We have idealized a certain part of our lives and we try desperately to hold on to it. When we do this, we move against God’s work of making all things new. In our hearts, we reject God’s sanctifying work in our lives. In the process we cause damage in our own lives and in the lives of those to whom we are connected. If, for some reason, we find ourselves saying something to the effect of, “We’ve always done things this way,” or “I wish I could go back to this time in my life,” then we are investing in the ways of the world rather than the ways of God. The ways of the world will pass away, and the ways of God will be established forever and ever!
The new Jerusalem is adorned
The coming down of the New Jerusalem out of heaven is my favorite part of this passage in Scripture. Jerusalem is described as a bride, who is adorned to be received by her husband. Jerusalem, here, is representative of the true church; for Christ’s bride is not a material city but a kingdom of priests that He has built (Revelation 1:6). At this point, the church is adorned and she is brought before the God of the universe. He will dwell with us and we will be His people, His bride forevermore.
This sanctification that we talk about culminates in our glorification, when the accomplishment of our sanctification is celebrated and each one receives his or her reward from God Himself. When the ways of the world pass away and the earth is made new, the people of God will receive a new resurrection (or a second resurrection) and be adorned for God with the very glory of God forever.
For those who do not believe, who are not saved, who are not being sanctified by our Lord; they will also not be adorned or glorified. For the cowardly, who do not profess the name of Christ; for the unbelieving, who trust in themselves; for the abominable; for the murderers, who take the lives of God’s people; for the immoral, who have denied God’s law; for the sorcerers, who trust in spiritual powers other than God; for the idolaters, who invest in the ways of the world rather than in the ways of God; and for all liars, who convince others of the world’s ways; their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.
In Revelation 22:17, we find a great invitation for those who are a part of the world and who invest in the ways of the world. “Both the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ Anyone who hears should say, ‘Come!’ And the one who is thirsty should come. Whoever desires should take the living water as a gift” (HCSB).
The Spirit of God invites all to partake in the gift of God. It is not a shallow gift that requires us to be anything special. It is not a step-by-step guide to receive a place in paradise. It is an invitation to receive a gift from God. Christ bride, the church, offers the same invitation. Anyone who hears this great invitation should also invite all others. This is evangelism! Those who desire to take part in God’s great gift of eternal life, anyone who desires to be with God forevermore, should accept this invitation and come. It is not about lights. It is not about games. It is not about entertainment. It is not about ‘how-to’s.’ It is not about preference. It is not about human ideologies or traditions. It is not about ritual. It is not about church government. There is nothing that we can do. This is a gift, an invitation. Will we accept this invitation and come? Will we have a place with God and in the community of faith? Will we then worship God by devoting our time, energy and resources to inviting others and participating in the community of faith in a genuine way?
- In the case of church by-laws, they are necessary for an organization in light of the civil law of the United States. The by-laws of a church, though, should only reflect the Biblical mandate for the local church: nothing more and nothing less. A church should never be so attached to its by-laws that it is unwilling to change them in light of Scripture.