Restoration – Foundations #7 (Group Questions)

Group discussion questions

Opener: What is the first thing that comes into your mind when you hear the word ‘heaven’?

Read: Rev 21:1-8; Rev 22:1-5

How does this biblical vision of the new heavens and the new earth challenge what people typically think about heaven?

What are some of the factors that might make thinking about heaven difficult for us?

Read Isaiah 60

What impresses you most about Isaiah’s vision of God’s restored universe?

How literally should we take the picture Isaiah presents?

Does this comfort you or challenge you?

How might the restoration Jesus will bring influence our church’s mission or their engagement with their local community?

With your group: some time dreaming about this restoration, and asking God to impress his vision on your hearts.

Restoration (Foundations #7)

Reading: Rev 21:1-8; Rev 22:1-5; Isaiah 60

First: some small print:

• In this sermon I will not be discussing the various views about the second coming of Jesus. In many ways these alternate views are but a distraction to the focus God’s big picture, the restoration of all things under Jesus Christ

• I will not offer any extended discussion of the intermediate state: what happens to the soul of the believer on death and until Jesus returns. Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would be with him in paradise. For now, that is enough. Anyone who trusts Jesus, even in the most simple manner, enters into his presence on death

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Sometimes when I read an exciting novel, I can’t help myself but turn to the last few pages, just to see how things are going to finish. I know it’s bad form: some would say it spoils the whole experience. I am not sure it has ever done that for me.

One thing I am sure about: if I have done that, I know that whatever happens as the story develops, whether good or bad, it will not change the result. It reminds me of how once Desmond Tutu was asked how he retained his faith in the face of so much evil. He is reported to have said “I have read to the back of the book, and we win.”

When thinking of God’s Big Picture, the great climax of all time will be God’s restoration of all things under Jesus Christ.

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We know what restoration is:

Taking something old or damaged, and bringing it back to its original condition. Last year I bought a 1925 Singer sewing machine. For several months I hid it in my shed, restoring it (as best I could) to its original state. It was a gift to my wife, and she loves it. My goal was to take the machine back to its former glory, and bring some delight to my wife in the process.

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Don’t you find yourself longing that the world would be restored? Back to it’s original condition? If you do, you’re like God. Because God is going to make all things right, restore his entire creation.

Interestingly, the idea of restoration does not seem to occupy the minds of many Christians. Most Christians talk more about their idea of heaven.

As it happens, one of the most popular books in Christian circles is a book called ‘Heaven is for real…’ This is the apparently true story of a 7yo boy who experienced heaven during an operation. He had wings, a harp, and found it a bit boring…

And fair enough. Does anyone find this picture appealing? Let’s just say someone invited you to a party, and one of the conditions was that it would be held in a public place, you would have to wear wings, play a harp, and move from one big pile of cotton wool to another while singing songs of praise. Is it a party you would want to attend?

So, are we surprised that there is a degree of ambivalence about heaven? If we’re not sure about heaven, how can we expect people to want to go?

The fact is, the Bible never talks about people in heaven having wings and harps, flitting from cloud to cloud while singing a selection of traditional hymns. So, what does the Bible say about heaven? About this restoration God will bring through Jesus?

Heaven, Restoration and Scripture

In the NT, ‘heaven’ is shorthand for the place where God rules. In the sermon on the mount, and in the NT parables, Jesus often refers to the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ as the place where the will of God is done on earth, where God’s rule is recognised:

• Where God’s commands are lived graciously (Matt 5:19)

• Where greatness is measured in servanthood and humility (Matt 18:3)

• Where justice and mercy dominate all human relationships (Matt 18:23-35)

• Where there is peace between all people (Matt 5:3-10)

The Kingdom of heaven is seen wherever the curse is undone and sin overcome (Col 3:1-17). It is seen as God’s people live his ways, announcing his good news, and living his new good.

We know that until Jesus returns, the efforts of his people to live his new life will be imperfect and incomplete. Even so, such efforts are natural and normal for those people in whom Jesus lives by his Spirit.

The second thing we note about ‘heaven’ in the Scriptures is that the emphasis is not primarily on what God’s people receive, but on God’s acts to restore of all things.
God’s Big Picture is to bring this restoration completely, powerfully, wonderfully and eternally through Jesus Christ the Lord. So much so that human rebellion, sin, grief and the fall will be completely done away with forever.

The total work of Christ is nothing less than to redeem this entire creation from the effects of sin … God will not be satisfied until the entire universe has been purged of all the results of man’s fall. [Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, p.275]

God’s restoration will be universal and cosmic in its scope, including all reality, physical and spiritual.

There are some important considerations here, and the first is that when heaven, God’s restoration of all things, is in view the Bible does not speak about the removal of physical reality. This is surprise to many people in the western world.

The reason many think that heaven will a disembodied existence, with harps and wings and clouds is not because they have been influenced by the Bible, but because they have been influenced by ancient Greek thought. Greek gnostic thinking held that the closer to got to the divine, the more physical things would be left behind, and the more spirit focussed we would become.

Admittedly, we do have references like 2 Cor 5:8, which talk about being away from the body and at home with the Lord. But these refer to the spiritual state believers enter on death, before Jesus’ return.

The ‘heaven’ we are talking about today is the heaven after Jesus has returned and restored all things when all creation will sing “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13, NIV)

The restoration to come under Jesus is not the destruction and removal of everything physical, but the destruction and removal of everything sinful and fallen. So, when we read about the earth being purged with fire (2 Pet 3) we are not reading about the destruction of the earth because it is physical. We are reading about the cleansing of the earth that is opposed to Christ and his rule.

In the language of the NT, heaven cannot be a place of disembodied existence. We see this first and foremost in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was not raised simply as soul or spirit, but as a complete ‘true man, true God’ person: body, soul, spirit.

This is the truth confessed all through the ages:

I believe in the Holy Spirit
the holy catholic church
the communion of saints
the forgiveness of sins
the resurrection of the body
and the life everlasting

[The Apostles’ Creed]

NT Wright observes:

If the resurrection is an event that actually occurred in time and space, as well as in the material reality of Jesus’ body, it has implications for other events that must follow.

Indeed it does. Christ’s physical, bodily resurrection is the first fruit of restored reality. The entire universe, recreated.

Finally, the NT teaches that when Jesus returns, his restoration will involve the coming together of heaven and earth.

The Apostle John sees this vividly:

“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”” (Revelation 21:1–4, NIV)

It is nothing less than the coming of an entirely transformed existence, a new universe:

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 22:1–5, NIV)

In this restored creation, all sin is gone, the curse has been conquered, and the tree of life – once barred to humanity in Eden – is now fully available to all.

John adds:

“I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” (Revelation 21:22, NIV)

In the Old Testament, the Temple was a sign of God’s presence with his people. But in God’s restored reality, God’s presence does not need to be signified, because he is with his people at last, and they are with him.

What God started in a garden, He recreates to become a city of light. It is a glorious climax to the life restoring redemptive plan of an all loving and all powerful God – praise His Holy Name!

That the new heavens and the new earth has this physical aspect is troubling to some, and the question naturally arises whether all this physical imagery is just symbolic.
The problem with the symbolic approach is that Scripture is replete with this picture, and some of the most stunning examples are found in Isaiah 60.

We read of a place which will be visited by nations and kings,

Of seas, and boats. Of herds of livestock,

Where exiled peoples come home to a place of freedom and splendour,

Were there is such safety that doors stay open and locks are thrown away

Of glorious natural beauty and majesty

Where violence is non existent

Where the weak are strong and the insignificant are lifted up in honour.

And just in case we doubt whether this could ever happen, the chapter finishes with an eyeball to eyeball guarantee:

“…I am the LORD; in its time I will do this swiftly.”” (Isaiah 60:22, NIV)

So, God’s restoration will reunite heaven (where God dwells) and earth (where humanity dwells).

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21:3, NIV)

The enmity and separation brought by human rebellion and the fall, the alienation of humanity from God will be completely overcome! Eden is gloriously restored, and everything is ‘very good’ for all eternity.

This is where we are headed, friends! This is the great plan of God: once for all to deal with human sin and rebellion, and restore all things to their rightful place in and under Christ. This restoration is focussed on the glory of our great God and the overwhelming victory he will bring. Those who once were rebels, now raised in Christ, will rule on his new earth, and the glory of the Lord, the profound peace of God – His Shalom – will rule from sea to sea.

Imagine…

Marriages without arguments (I know Jesus says people will neither marry nor be given in marriage – but you know what I mean: harmonious life, peaceful relationships, no more misunderstandings).

No more depression or mental illness.

No more guns and war.

No more fear at night.

No more terror. No more hatred.

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

[John Lennon, 1971]

It’s such a deeply help human wish, that even those far from God find themselves dreaming about it.

Living in the ‘not yet’ with our eyes on God’s forever

God’s restoration of heaven and earth is the ultimate reason to live for him and praise him! This vision draws us into a rich hope, a hope which the Bible says, does not disappoint. It is the best motivation to trust God, to offer him our heart, to ask him to rule our lives!

But we are not there yet. This is why we are people of faith and hope. Following Jesus does not take us out of the world: it send us into it. Not to adopt its values, but to transform them (Rom 12:1-2).

CS Lewis once said “Aim at heaven, and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth, and you will get neither.”

What he is saying is we will only find fulfilment as the values of God’s new creation shape everything we do. As new creation we announce the good news and we live the new good.

How important for us to do this! We have seen much terrible news these last weeks. Whole groups of people, some of them Christians, gunned down by ISIS extremists.

ISIS believe their task is to extend the Kingdom of Allah by force. Use guns and swords and tanks to subjugate people. And those who do not comply, put them to death. That kingdom expands through terror, bloodshed and fear.

God’s Kingdom, God’s restoration, does not come by terror, or violence or human power. It comes by resurrection, selflessness, and the spirit of the servant, Jesus.

God’s Kingdom, God’s restoration, does not come by terror, or violence or human power. It comes by resurrection, selflessness, and the spirit of the servant, Jesus.

“…Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty.” (Zechariah 4:6, NIV)

Jesus’ rule is extended by grace and love. Through the sacrifice of the cross, and the resurrection life of Jesus coming to expression as he rules human lives. While we wait for the ultimate restoration, we live its life now. Doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven so people everywhere will see men, women, children, communities changed by Jesus.

“No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them. Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.” (Isaiah 65:22–25, NIV)

This is God’s Big Picture. This is the core message of Christianity. In Jesus, God is dealing with human rebellion, our alienation from our creator, the brokenness of our world. In and through Jesus God will restore it all. Read to the end of the book, and you will see that we win.

This is the reality we are headed toward. There are may questions. Some we can answer, some we cannot answer. The biggest question of all, however, is this: Will you be there?

Jesus declares to us and assures us that he is the way, the truth the life. Anyone can come to the Father through him.

This glorious restoration, the glory of God, is reason alone to do just that. To trust him, to honour him, to live for him.

Promise (Foundations #3)

How God answers human rebellion

Isaiah 65:17-25

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Credit: iStockphoto

So far in this series we have seen

1. How God created the universe, and it was very good.

2. How humanity rejected God, rebelling against his love and goodness through Adam and Eve’s act of defiance.

Today we will see

3. How God answers that rebellion. As we do, we may well find ourselves challenged and surprised.

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Let’s start with a promise:

I was a young boy, maybe 5 years old. My mother had to take me to the family doctor to get a needle: I suppose it was some form of immunisation. There was a problem: I hate needles, and my mother was probably not too good at dealing with freaked out children.
But she had a stroke of genius the week before I was to have that fateful appointment.
She walked me into the paper shop – that’s what we used to call the newsagent in the town I was born – and pointed up on one of the shelves. It was blue ray gun that looked something like this. It was a young boy’s dream toy. The 1963 version of a light sabre.
I looked at that ray gun, and imagined the fun I could have with it. I may even have believed that with such a weapon I could keep my older sister in line. My imagination was held with my mother’s promise: ‘if you don’t make a fuss about the needle, you will get that ray gun…’

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In that moment of parental genius, my mother did something divine: she saw a person gripped with fear and foreboding, and spoke a promise which drew them toward a better reality.

The Power of God’s Promise

This is how promises work: they capture our heart and point us to something better.

It happens when a man slips a diamond on the finger of his fiancé.

It happens when two people sit down and plan the holiday of a lifetime.

It happens when a young couple puts a deposit on their first home.

A promise will meet us where we are and direct our vision toward something better.

The greatest promise of all happened in Eden. Humanity was trapped in their own rebellion from God. Overcome with fear, they hid from God instead of trusting him.

What was God’s core reaction to that rejection? By core reaction, I mean the response which best expresses the character of the Lord? Our answer is seen in how God spoke right into that rebellion, and challenged it with a promise:

“…I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”” (Genesis 3:15, NIV)

Yes, human rebellion has its consequences. Grief, tears, pain, death and separation from God. What we need to see is how in the thick of all that, this gracious God set about his work of restoring his people and his world.

If you want to understand anything about God, this is where you start: God’s most basic inclination, his most basic response to human fall and rebellion is to draw people out of chaos and into his love life and grace. His promise draws a fearful and fallen humanity toward a better reality. He would send a deliverer, a Messiah, to crush the head of evil once and for all.

God’s most basic inclination, his most basic response to human fall and rebellion is to draw people out of chaos and into his love life and grace.

The Bible is really the story of God bringing this promise to fulfilment. The ancient writings of the Old Testament tell us how God opens the eyes of humanity to their own need and how he started to bring this rescue about.

We learn how he chose a relatively weak and insignificant people and formed them into the nation of Israel. Their call was to show what life was like when people lived in relationship with this God of promise.

We hear the manifesto for this fledgling nation in Ex 19:

“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” (Exodus 19:5–6, NIV)

The distinctive character of this nation living with God would be expressed as they lived by his commands (Exodus 20).

Israel’s history however, shows how they failed in their task. Despite his doubtless grief and anger at his people’s sin, God keeps working to bring his promise to reality.
He keeps calling his people back to life. While it is true that he meets them where they are, he refuses to leave them that way. He draws them into change and transformation. Despite their continued failing, and times where they are exiled and disciplined, he never breaks his word. He remains faith to his promise to deal with their rebellion, to restore them and their world.

The question that really interests us today is ‘What sort of restoration would this be? What does this promise entail?’

The Old Testament has many different voices and a rich texture of answers to that question. The most breathtaking vision of how this promise would come to fulfilment is found in the book of Isaiah.

Writing some 700 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, Isaiah presents such a vista of hope and transformation that we can scarcely believe it. This is not because it seems untrue, but because it is so all encompassing and universal in its scope. Isaiah mentions three contexts in which God’s restoration will be seen.

First: God will act to reconcile humanity to himself. He will do this by dealing with the core problem of humanity: the rebellious disposition of the human heart.

“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18, NIV)

How will that happen?

Isaiah says this rescue will come through one identified as ‘The Servant of the Lord.’ This servant will become a sacrifice. He will take on the form of an abject, innocent man who willingly suffers for the wrongs of his people (Isaiah 53:3-6).

Second: Not only does God promise to reconcile people to himself, his act through his servant will have such magnitude that it will will impact on human relationships and reconcile people to each other. Relationships will be healed and the human heart transformed to such an extent that evil and injustice and violence will ultimately be overcome (Isaiah 61:1-3).

Third: (as if the first two contexts were not enough) Isaiah’s panorama of promise widens to something absolutely stupendous. How? Well, we know that creation groans with the weight of sin and the smell of the fall. We see this in natural disasters, in animal predation and environmental imbalance. We see it in unjust societal structures, in broken communities, abusive institutions, in warfare and genocide. Isaiah, however, points us to a new day when the servant’s actions will not only change human hearts and human relationships, his work of rescue will transform all created reality (Isaiah 65:17, 19, 25).

This is what Isaiah is saying: People will be reconciled to God. People will be reconciled to one another. People will be reconciled to their environment, society will be healed, and the brokenness of our universe will ultimately be overcome.

There’s the promise: God will act – through the servant – whom Christians understand to be Jesus – to rescue people and their world from their rebellion and all its consequences.

The scope of the promise

What are we to make of all this? If we are trying to come to terms with the core realities of Christianity, with the central truths of who Jesus is, what does Creation – Rebellion – Promise mean?

The first implication is that God – and his plan of salvation – is as concerned with physical realities as much as spiritual realities. In fact, they cannot be separated. One is not more important than another.

Some may be surprised about this. They have focussed so long on heaven and ‘spiritual things’ that there is hardly a thought to this world or the crying needs of people in it. The truth is that the kind of spirituality which elevates spiritual above physical, soul above body, heaven above earth, does not have its roots in the Bible, but in ancient Greek philosophers like Plato. But because western culture has been built on this foundation, people almost automatically understand that ‘spiritual’ things are more valuable to God than physical. Isaiah’s words challenge our assumptions as much as the work of the servant will transform our culture.

We do need to take care, however. We do not know all the detail of what the new heavens and the new earth will be like. And we should take great care with the symbolism and imagery employed by Bible writers. Will lions really eat straw like an ox? We don’t really know, but we do understand Isaiah’s intention: the sort of animal violence typified in the lion’s hunt will be a subject of a beautiful and radical transformation in the new heavens and the new earth which the servant will bring.

There are simply so many passages in the Bible which speak of a new world, a recreated and transformed reality where heaven and earth are reunited, that we cannot ignore them.

A second implication follows from the first: Christian ministry and mission is one of word and deed. Christians cannot seek to address spiritual matters while at the same time ignoring the physical needs of the world around them. Similarly, Christians cannot simply address physical needs of their world without also addressing the spiritual situation of people and society.

We observe this very clearly in Jesus’ ministry, where he not only taught the crowds who followed him, and saw them as sheep without a shepherd, he also fed them. Jesus addressed then whole person in his ministry. His church should do the same.

This is why when Jesus opens his ministry he not only talks about pardon from sin and rebellion, but of transformation of people and their world.

““The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”” (Luke 4:18–21, NIV)

This is why James the apostle says:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14–17, NIV)

And it is why Paul sees the work of Jesus on the cross as not merely impacting the human soul, or matters of faith, or religious ideas. He sees Jesus’ work as impacting the entire cosmos:

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:15–20, NIV)

The Impact of Promise: We Are a People of Hope

Perhaps the greatest implication is that God’s people are people of real hope! Christianity is a world affirming, creation redeeming faith. Christians are people who are not just thinking about the Bible, but because they are thinking about their world and the community in which they live.

Christians are people who don’t just have faith in their head and their hearts, they have faith in their hands. A Christian is not simply someone with religious ideas, or someone who has made some deep commitments. A Christian is someone who is active in living out their faith. Someone in whom the transformational work of Jesus is coming to increasing expression in their behaviour, their actions, their words.

This is why at Gateway Community Church we have three core areas of our vision and mission: we want to grow transformed disciples, we want to build a new community of people, and we want to take the positive and transformational change of the gospel into our local community. If we fail on any of those three counts, we actually fail the mission of God and we fail to be his people of promise.

Christians are not simply people who believe the bible, but because they believe the Bible they are also deeply troubled that

there are 30 million slaves in our world today

average life expectancy of indigenous people is some 10 years below that of other Australians

some of the most vulnerable people have no right to legal support or process even in our own courts

• there are people in our own community who struggle to heat their homes and put a square meal on the table

So, yes, we look at our world and it is not hard to sense the fall all around us. But God’s promise in Jesus meets us where we are and draws us toward a more glorious reality. It is a promise expressed in the Christmas Carol “O Holy Night”

A thrill of hope! The weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Did you know that? Because God is faithful to his promise, a new day is dawning!

Did you know that this is how God answers human rebellion?

Yes, there are consequences to this rebellion, and those consequences are dire. But God’s promise of a new and glorious morn is greater and more powerful than any threat of death or any penalty or curse of sin. This promise tells us One will come who will redeem us and our world from the curse of the law and from the ugly stain of our own rebellion.

There’s the promise, right there! And we are thrilled to hear that at the core of this God’s heart there is not retribution or anger or the rage of a despot, but something wonderful:

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:9–10, NIV)

Here is the miracle: through the lens of the Old Testament, we see God’s first promise in Genesis 3:15 narrow, and come to sharp focus on a nondescript stable. A young mother had just laid her baby in a manger for his bed. And sharper still, thirty years later, as this son, naked again, is laid on the rough timber of a cross, and then suffers hell for his people and their world.

Why?

Because our God keeps his promises. And when his world is broken, he must act according to his nature, and get to work putting it all back together again.