July 30th, 2017

Revelation is not about what, when, where, why, how. It’s about Who.

Revelation 21:1-8; 22:1-5


The reality of heaven (Paul)

Maybe you’ve come to worship this morning as a skeptic, someone who’s not really sure about this whole afterlife thing. The truth is, a lot of us don’t know what we think we know when it comes to heaven. So many of the thing we think we know about heaven get destroyed when we actually read the scriptures. There aren’t angels sitting around on clouds playing harps. People don’t become angels. The pictures you drew as a kid with wings and a halo don’t line up with the Bible. When we talk about heaven, we need to talk about reality.

I think, quite often, you could categorize me as being “not in touch with reality.” Sometimes we choose to be purposefully out of touch with reality. That may be because when we read the news or watch television, we want to escape. Take Reince Priebus, for example. Right now, he’s all over the news. A week ago, if you had asked me if Reince Priebus was an American politician or a professor at Hogwarts, I probably would have guessed Hogwarts professor of the dark arts!

This morning, I want to invite you into reality – the reality of heaven. In Colossians, Paul says “set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand” (3:1, NLT). The phrase “realities of heaven” may sound like an oxymoron. How can we talk about the reality of something we can’t taste or feel or see right now? Paul is inviting us to set our mind there, so that John can entice us more with the realities of heaven.

Comparisons (Bob)

We come to the end of Revelation, Jesus’ best and final answer to why you cannot and must not live for this world. It’s not only that this world’s powers will be crushed and destroyed in the lake of fire. It’s that those who overcome can look forward to what’s indescribably better than anything you can imagine. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2:9, “Eye has not seen and ear has not heard what God has prepared for those who love him.”

I often say that describing heaven to a human being is like describing the Grand Canyon to a North Carolina spider. It’s not only that there’s nothing in North Carolina like the Grand Canyon (problem 1), but the spider does not have the capacity to grasp your words and images (problem 2). So the Bible uses comparisons to familiar things (heaven is this but infinitely better), and negatives (there will be none of that in heaven). You might say to the spider, “The Grand Canyon is like the crack in my driveway where you live, only SO much bigger. And it never fills up with rain that washes away your web.” That’s the closest you can come, but there’s no way the spider can grasp the Canyon.

Before I begin with the comparisons, here’s what C. S. Lewis said:  “There’s no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of heaven ridiculous by saying they do not want ‘to spend eternity playing harps.’ The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grownups, they should not talk about them…. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves he meant that we were to lay eggs.” These comparisons are actually more powerful and true when they are not taken literally.

Heaven is a perfect city. Most people in John’s day eked out a subsistence living in rural areas where they constantly worried about survival, dependent on just the right amount of rain. Further, nobody could build high walls around the entire farm to protect it from wild animals or thieves or conquering armies. By contrast, the city was a place to have a job and food, friends and medicine, activity and entertainment, and, perhaps most importantly, walls and armies. John presents heaven has a perfect city with a high wall, streets made of translucent gold, beautiful gems for foundations and gates made of pearl. Whatever your vision of the perfect city is, heaven will be like that, times infinity.

Heaven is a cube. A little later in the chapter John describes heaven as a perfect cube, 1500 miles wide, long, and high. That’s virtually impossible to imagine, but that’s part of the point. It’s big enough for everyone. But the cube is important too. There’s only one other cube in the Bible. The Holy of Holies in the Old Testament was the place that represented the actual presence of God, and only the high priest could go there, only once a year. This cube is big enough for all of God’s people. In Revelation symbolism it has twelve sides of 12,000 cubits. Remember the 144,000 in chapter 7? It’s all of God’s people. This city includes the names of the twelve tribes of Israel on the gates and the twelve apostles on the foundations. Everyone’s there in God’s presence!

Heaven is a perfect marriage. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as a perfect marriage – not down here on earth. But every marriage is a perfect symbol of what can be and will be when Jesus is the groom and he perfects his bride (the church). Think of the best days of your marriage, if you are married. (Singleness represents a different symbol of heaven: one of undistracted devotion.) Think of the moments when you both feel most fulfilled, closest, most loved, most deeply and intimately connected to each other. Think of yourselves looking deeply into your loved one’s eyes, thinking, “You get me. You know me. I’m yours and you’re mine.” Take those perfect moments and extend them in perpetuity and that’s what heaven is like with Jesus.

Revelation 21 and 22 also include images of a life-giving river, a tree of life, a perfect orchard, and more. These are all images deeply rooted in the Bible that represent joy and peace, and provision. We misread Revelation if we take them literally. How can a city be dressed up like a bride? How do trees grow if the whole city is made out of gold and jewels? That’s not the point! The point is to take the best of life you know and say that heaven is that times infinity. It doesn’t bother me when people have images of heaven like a baseball game or a golf course or a family gathered around the den fireplace or a fishing trip or a shopping mall or walk through nature hand in hand with the one you love or climb up a mountain or a glass of wine while gazing at the sunset or a bubble bath or an ice cream shop or travel to an exotic resort. When do you feel most alive, most connected to God and others, most yourself, most at peace, filled with joy and strength? Heaven is like that, only SO much better!

Negatives (Paul)

In addition to what heaven is like, John gives us a list of negatives. Why would John describe what is not in heaven? What’s the point of saying what’s not going to be there? It seems silly at first, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Think about the joy-stealers of the things you like. Maybe you’d say that you like camping, but you hate mosquitoes or rainy weather. Imagine camping without mosquitoes, or without getting wet. Imagine work without sweat or toil, only satisfaction. It’s kissing without bad breath. Heaven is taking out all that diminishes joy; everything that sin has tainted and destroyed is gone.

No sea. Scripture says there will be no sea in heaven. In the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, the sea represented a place of chaos. They had nothing but the stars to guide them and the wind to send them. They weren’t in control when they were at sea. The sea was a place of confusion and danger and chaos. Time and time again, there are mentions of the unknown of the sea, including creatures like Leviathan. That’s what’s missing from heaven – things that cause chaos and confusion and unrest and losses.

No death or mourning.  There also won’t be any more death or mourning in heaven. We all know that grief takes something from us. When someone dies, we feel a gulf that is left from that person’s life. Sometimes it’s a physical gulf – when you reach out and that person is no longer there. It’s that feeling – that vacuum of knowing someone was there and now they’re not – that doesn’t exist in heaven. Imagine the fact that there won’t be any more mourning or tears. I love the fact that we had a time at youth camp last week when we gave all our seniors a chance to share some wisdom with the younger students, and then the younger students had a chance to tell the seniors how they had impacted them. There were a lot of tears shed that night. But they weren’t tears of pain; they were tears of love and affection. I don’t think there will be only dry eyes in heaven. I think we’ll be overwhelmed with joy and love, but the tears won’t be from mourning ever again.

No temple. Scripture also tells us there won’t be a temple in heaven. God himself will dwell with his people. All those measurements indicate that there will be a perfectly-sized city that will be one giant, perfect, Holy of Holies. I think this is kind of like when you’re first in love with someone. When you’re first in love, everything you see or hear or smell or taste reminds you of the person you love. Maybe you’re driving in the car and hear a song, and it’s about them. Maybe you walk into a restaurant and smell the food you had on your first date. You see and feel connections to that person everywhere you go, even when you’re not looking for them. That’s what heaven is like. There will be no temple, but there will be an effortless intimacy with God the Father, where everything there will turn our thoughts to him.

 No sun. And the one that I think is probably the most amazing is that there will be no sun or artificial light. God created the sun to reflect the light and the glory of himself, and the sun serves to tell us what time it is, and which direction to go. We’re getting ready to go to a place where our journey has ended and time is no more, and God himself will literally light up all eternity as we’re in His presence. There’s not going to be any need for a sun. Light-skinned people like me wonder if I’ll get God-burned in heaven. Imagine being so close to God that there’s no need at all for any other light.

These things that are not going to be in heaven are also broadening our mind to how complete heaven will be. It will lack nothing except those things that detract from life itself.

Why Revelation matters

Why does Revelation matter? People struggle with Revelation when they ask the wrong questions:  “What is going to happen?” “When is it going to start?” “Where will it be located?” “Why is this happening to me?” and “How is it all going to unfold?”

Revelation matters when you ask the Who question:  “Who’s on the throne?”

Most of Revelation is a series of messages from Jesus and angels (his messengers). Before this study, I never noticed that God the Father speaks only twice in the book of Revelation. Don’t misunderstand me. God is very much at the center of the book. Remember Revelation 4 – lightning and a sea of glass and four living creatures and 24 elders and myriads of angels all around. The Lamb (Jesus) is at the center of the throne. Most of the activity in the book emerges from the throne and indirectly or directly comes from God. Worship of God and of the Lamb is what Revelation is all about.

Only twice in the book does the One on the throne speak. In 1:8 he says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” Now you have no doubt who’s in charge. Don’t miss that when you study Revelation and delve into all the details of the visions, whether you get them or not. I determined in teaching Revelation not to take positions that would create a wall among believers or tempt you to tune me out because I don’t agree with your positions. I wanted you to get the heart of the book, which is an answer to the Who question.

The second time God speaks is here in 21:5-8, and I almost missed it. We almost stopped reading at verse 4 of chapter 21 until a couple of my commentaries pointed out that this is the voice of God himself on the throne at the end of the book. If you’re reading Revelation and the whole book is about Who’s on the throne, and that Who finally speaks, don’t you think that might be the point of the book? Don’t you think whatever he says is why Revelation matters? The good news is, these words are not coded in strange symbolism. This is about as straight forward as Revelation gets.

First, “I am making everything new.” Is anyone here tired of old things – old clothes, old cars, old houses, old problems, old arguments, old pains, old diseases, old bodies? He’s making everything new!

Second, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Do you weary of fake news? Or those who call real news fake? We live in a world where the truth is twisted by politicians, media, marketing, bosses, employees, and even family. When the One of the throne speaks, you can trust him!

Third, “It is done.” Don’t you hate unfinished projects, laundry washed but never folded and put away, addictions you can’t overcome, weight goals you never reach, kids that won’t grow up, sins you never can conquer. When Jesus said from the cross, “It is finished,” he was talking about the work of justification. When the Father says, “It is done” in Revelation, he’s speaking of sanctification, glorification, re-creation, and restoration. Everything will be finished for all of eternity.

Fourth, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” He started everything and he will be there when this world passes away. In between the beginning and the end, he sovereignly rules over all that happens.

Fifth, “To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.” Is anyone here parched and dry, feeling yourself crawling through the hot sands of life in search of a drop of water on your tongue? The Father pours rivers of free, living water on your soul.

Sixth, “He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my Son.” This is what Revelation is all about. Don’t be a quitter. Don’t give up on God and don’t give up on God in you. You’re constantly pulled between what feels real in this life – its systems, its values of money and power and sex and pleasure and self-fulfillment. What’s real is what’s true and life-changing – the Gospel of Jesus that makes you his and promises you eternal rewards.

Seventh, “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars- their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” You may not think that sounds like hope, that it seems out of place here. It sounds more like the message of last week on hell. But hell is hope, I tell you, because in heaven you’re not going to have to keep your doors locked or a gun in your nightstand. There will be no terrorists, no molesters, no drug dealers.

You say, “Well, what if I’m one of those things – cowardly or unbelieving or a liar?” Revelation’s answer is first of all to get off the fence. You can’t try to look good before the world and get ready for heaven. But second, and more importantly, this is why heaven is such great news. If you struggle with any of those things here but you give yourself over to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, when he takes you home he will take all of that away. You will no longer be spineless or skeptical or idolatrous. None of those things exist there. No sin, no evil, no resentment, no deception. He’ll make you perfect.

So get on your feet, Corinth, and shout your praise to the One who’s on the throne –

He’s the One who is making everything new! HE IS WORTHY!

He’s the One who always tells the truth! HE IS WORTHY!

He will finish what he started! HE IS WORTHY!

He’s the Beginning and the End of all things! HE IS WORTHY!

He gives the water of life to everyone who is thirsty! HE IS WORTHY!

He will be your God and you will be his child! HE IS WORTHY!

He will be sure evil never wins and never enters his eternal city! HE IS WORTHY!

That’s why Revelation matters. Amen!

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