Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Fear, Dread, Sanctuary

It's around 735 B.C. The tiny land of Judah is all that is left of the Golden Age of unified Israel, which spanned from the Euphrates to Egypt (gone at this point for almost 200 years). It is but a vassal state - one of countless others - to the mighty Assyrian Empire. Judah's neighbors to the north - godless Israel and Aram - grow restless against the Empire, and begin planning a rebellion. They approach Judah to join with the conspirators, but Judah refuses. Unwilling to have an Assyria-loyal state on their southern border during a rebellion, they besiege Judah in order to replace king Ahaz with someone more friendly to their interests. The Israelite-Aramean alliance first conquers Judah's southern port city of Elath on the Gulf of Aqaba (2 Kings 16:6). The Edomites join in, attacking middle Judah and taking Judeans prisoner. Then the alliance crosses the Israelite border to the north, travels the 10 miles to Jerusalem, and besieges the city. King Ahaz sits on the throne in the city of David, but "he did not do what was right in the sight of the LORD his God, as his father David had done. But he walked in the way of the kings of Israel, and even made his sons pass through the fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD had driven out from before the sons of Israel. He sacrificed and burned incense on the high places from before the sons of Israel" (2 Kings 16:2-4). A dark day in which to live. A pagan Empire controls the world. The last place in the world to bear the LORD's name is on the verge of being utterly overwhelmed from the outside by its neighbors (and relatives), and the political and religious leadership within the little land are completely corrupt and no different from the peoples of the world. Where is the LORD? Is the only thing left of Him Solomon's Temple, now stripped of gold to offer as tribute to pagan conquerors, filled with images, shrines, and altars to false gods, and managed by a priesthood who don't even have the Law in their possession? Millennia later this situation will be called the Syro-Ephraimite War (Isaiah 7:1,2). And we think we live in tough times.

Into this situation steps Isaiah. He is given children, who are both his disciples (faithful to the LORD) and sermon illustrations (every preacher's child can identify with that!). Isaiah and his son A-Remnant-Shall-Return (whose name comes back in 10:21,22) meet Ahaz as the king is inspecting the waterworks of Jerusalem. Isaiah and son tell the king not to fear, for the threats against Judah will not be successful. The invitation to the message is given: "If you will not believe, you surely shall not last" (Isaiah 7:3-9). Is Ahaz going to listen to Isaiah? No. Not just because of Ahaz's evil nature, but because it is part of the plan communicated to Isaiah at the prophet's commissioning (6:9,10). What if God told you to do something that He guaranteed would not be popular or successful? What does that say about our modern standards of ministry success? Is it significant that Jesus (Matthew 13:14,15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40) and Paul (Acts 28:26,27; Romans 11:8) both appropriate these words for their own ministries? Ahaz won't listen to Isaiah, prophet of the LORD. So the LORD Himself speaks to the king who sits on the throne of David (7:10-16).

The LORD tells Ahaz to ask for a sign. Ahaz refuses, mocking God, for the war had made him even more rebellious against the Lord: "...in the time of his distress this same King Ahaz became let more unfaithful to the LORD" (2 Chronicles 28:22). The "you" in 7:13 is plural, so it's likely we're back in the royal court now. The LORD mentions that Ahaz has already tried the patience of men - 120,000 Judean warriors have been killed, along with Ahaz's son Maaseiah, the chief steward of the house of David, Azrikam, and Ahaz's second-in-command Elkanah (2 Chronicles 28:6,7). Like I said, bad days in this tiny country. So the LORD Himself promises a sign. A "virgin," probably Abi, daughter of Zechariah (2 Kings 18:2), will bear a child. Before the child is old enough to be morally responsible, the threat to Judah will be gone. The boy's name will be God-with-us (appropriate name seeing the boy's role as a sign from God). The boy's given name will be Hezekiah, one of the most godly kings of Judah's history. His symbolic name, given in Isaiah, also serves to begin the centuries long process of preparing the world for the birth of Jesus, Who will perfectly be God-with-us and will also be a sign of deliverance. But don't lose sight of the scene in the royal court. Soon-to-be Queen Abi has just heard that the baby she will bear will grow up in days much brighter than the ones of her engagement and nuptials.

Ahaz still refuses to believe. He will appeal to Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria, a pagan Emperor, to come save him. The Emperor will come and destroy the rebellion of Israel and Aram. He will not stop, but will crack down even on Judah to insure that the rebellion is not contagious. The LORD reveals the deliverance brought by Assyria will be oppression for Judah (7:17-25).

Isaiah's second son Swift-is-the-Booty-Speedy-is-the-Prey is born nine months after Isaiah has an intimate evening with his wife the prophetess (she must be able to hear from the LORD directly to agree to name her son Maher-shalal-hash-baz, right?). Men, I think our lives would be more interesting if we started referring to our wives as "the prophetess." Isaiah's wife serves in ministry with him, faithful to the LORD. She doesn't have to preach. The children she bears in her relationship with her husband are the prophecies. I think we can see both of them living Deuteronomy 6:7. So the boy is born and the prophecy is given (8:1-8).

All of this great story has been introduction to the point that seems to be relevant to Christians today.

Isaiah issues a challenge to the entire world to throw their best plans and obstacles at the small remnant of the faithful of God (8:9,10). What is Isaiah's confidence? Immanuel. A godly king will be born and rule in the house of David again, but that's only a sign of the true power. The true power and true source of confidence is "God is with us."

Isaiah is told "with mighty power" by the LORD "not to walk in the way of this people." Ahaz ignored the LORD. Isaiah and his disciples, his family - they will not ignore the LORD. Will we?

"You are not to say, 'It is a conspiracy!' in regard to all that this people call a conspiracy, and you are not to fear what they fear or be in dread of it. It is the LORD of hosts Whom you shall regard as holy. And He shall be your fear, and He shall be your dread. Then He shall become a sanctuary" (8:12-14).

The LORD doesn't call them "My people," but "this people" (6:9,10; 8:11,12; 9:16) - the distancing between Himself and Judah reflects their unfaithfulness. He identifies Himself as "the LORD of hosts," or armies. Not just the heavenly armies, but all the armies of the world, be they pagan-earthly or angelic-heavenly. He is in utter control as mighty Sovereign over all. This is His name throughout this section. We are not to focus on the conspiracies of man, the little motes of dusts swirling around the pieces on God's chess board. We are to fear, yes, even dread the One Who is holy (set apart, transcendent, radically removed and different and above us and all the powers of the world). When He becomes our fear and dread, that stripped-down, watered-down, thoroughly syncretized religious symbol of yesterday's glory (Solomon's Temple) is vastly overshadowed by the LORD Himself, Who Personally becomes "a sanctuary" to His people. Even the future generations of the faithful, forced into Exile when their homeland was destroyed, knew Him as "Sanctuary" (Ezekiel 11:16), even with the great Temple completely wiped off of Temple Mount. Why are we obsessed with the conspiracies, the truth of which no human will ever know? We are we so distracted? Where is our Fear, Dread, and Sanctuary?

Because the peoples have their eyes, ears, hearts, and minds focused on the conspiracies of man, they are shocked by the LORD, Who breaks them (8:14,15).

Isaiah speaks now, and every time I read this I want to stand up and roar! "Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples. And I will wait for the LORD Who is hiding His face from the house of Jacob; I will even look eagerly for Him. Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are for signs and wonders in Israel from the LORD of hosts, Who dwells on Mount Zion" (8:16-18). His disciples/children become the ark of the covenant to the remnant, for they hold the testimony and law of God within themselves. "Mount Zion" here is not the physical hill with that dilapidated building, but heaven itself (Isaiah's seen the intrusion of heaven into that place...he's had a vision of the Real in 6:1-7). Even with God bringing massive judgment on the land, God's people stand firm and wait on their King. On one hand we are so distracted and fearful of what the great powers of man might do to us; on the other hand we love this world so much that we're afraid our comfort, entertainment, and pleasures will be threatened. Isaiah and family (disciples) stand alone in a great roiling sea of unfaithful humanity, but their eyes are on the LORD of hosts.

They consult false spiritualities and walk in darkness (8:19-22), but Isaiah stands in contrast: "To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn" (8:20).

Let us stand firm, waiting on the King, refusing to lower our eyes to the games of the bugs crawling at our feet. Children of the King, prophets and prophetesses of the land, FEAR, DREAD, SANCTUARY!!

"Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, Who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory" (Colossians 3:1-4).

Monday, December 28, 2009

doing what rats do.

Well, I scurried out to watch the sunrise in the glory of all lands this morning, and lo! I had cactus mail, delivered from the mysterious ether.

"What of Ezekiel chapters 40-48 and the temple? Different in several ways to any other temple, no mercy seat, no ark, no high priest, etc. In your replacement theology, how do you 'figure' these truths away? What of the eternal promise to the sons of Zadok? And what part of the church is in the house of Israel and what part is in the house of Judah?"

Well, I've got to be honest. I had no idea anyone ever read these sermons to the rocks and cacti, mountains and sky. And a fellow believer, no less, just as put off and offended by my holistic view of the Bible (including eschatology and ecclesiology) as I am of his/hers. Sarcasm is a really bizarre phenomenon...but while it is the lowest form of wit, it is the funniest (while being the lowest form of wit, it is the highest form of intelligence!). I'll try to keep it to just the barest of answers (though there is no frivolity in that!). Oh, and I'm a lousy debater, so I'll answer the question, cast it carelessly to the ether, and end it here. That way you, dearest fellow disciple, can claim a victory in defeating any challenge to the reigning eschatology in pop-Church America.

I love Ezekiel, and have for a long, long time. One of these days I'll lead a group through a study of it, which in my mind will be akin to group bungy-cording with collected shoelaces. It'll be great! At that time I'll do a verse-by-verse exposition of Ezekiel 40-48, and maybe I'll put some of it online. I've always thought it very interesting that Ezekiel dates the vision as "fourteen years after the city was taken" (40:1), and then describes the visionary Temple as "a structure like a city" (40:2). He's also told to "see with [his] eyes, hear with [his] ears" (40:4), while giving a prophecy to a people who probably won't believe him - the prophecy itself is to be a sign to them of their own disobedience (2:1-3:11). What makes us think 40-48 must be built? Perhaps it's a monument to the way things could've been if obedience had been present, but instead 40-48 is a sign of their disobedience.

The futurists' (this includes you Dispensationalists) last stand is Temple Mount. Every aspect of your eschatology must have a fourth Temple (after the Temples of Solomon, Cyrus, and Herod). Without it, you're on indefinite hold. Sigh. I wish this would shut up the speculators, the endless parade of experts saying the end is just around the corner. What edition are we in with the "Late Great Planet Earth"? Oh well. To throw Matthew 24/Mark 13/Luke 17 & 21 into the future rather than the A.D. first century you have to have a Temple, so anti-Christ can desecrate it. We'll ignore the fact that it happened almost 1,940 years ago. No worries. I have no doubt there are a lot of Dispensationalists financially supporting those fringe loony Jews in Israel (a very small minority with no political power in that secular State) who are breeding red heifers and drawing up schematics based exactly on Ezekiel 40-48.

I call the second Temple Cyrus' since he claims it by decree, mandates its construction, and provides the finances (2 Chronicles 36:23; Ezra 1:2-4).

The plans to the Temple are conditional (I'm trying to speak your language!). In 43:11, Yahweh tells the great prophet, "If they are ashamed of all that they have done, make known to them the design of the house, its structure, its exists, its entrances, all its designs, all its statutes, and all its laws. And write it in their sight, so that they may observe its whole design and all its statutes to do them." Remember in Cinderella when the evil step-mother says, "if"? That's how I typed it. They had two chances to build this very Temple, didn't they (Cyrus' and Herod's)? Ezekiel writes out these plans in their presence, three or four decades before they'll have a chance to build them. They don't. There is no ark mentioned in Ezekiel's plans because the ark disappeared with the destruction of Solomon's Temple, never to be seen again (unless you can break into that warehouse in Area 51). Don't ever forget that the heart of Cyrus' Temple and Herod's Temple was empty.

I would suggest to you, fellow disciple, that the plans in Ezekiel 40-48 are conditioned on the people's shame. Apparently there was not enough shame! OR Ezra-Nehemiah, in building Cyrus' Temple, did try to build Ezekiel's Temple, but the people's concern with resettling the land proved more important (they are constantly tearing clothing in leading the people to repent, and a few decades later in Malachi we see things have degraded already). Zechariah-Haggai did, after all, have to twist their arms to get them to even finish the thing.

The presence of God leaves Solomon's Temple in Ezekiel 10. The last verse of Ezekiel promises that the Temple of 40-48 will have God's presence. When does it return? Not for Cyrus' Temple, or Herod's. When does God's presence return in a way similar to the event at the dedication of Solomon's Temple? Pentecost, when God returns to His Temple, so much more than a building. His glorious and beloved Church. Stephen, in the most incredible God-perspective giving of Jewish history, quotes the O.T. as they're picking up stones, reminding them (with their own Scriptures) that God can't be contained in a building (Acts 7:46-50). Are we really going to argue, given the trajectory of the N.T., that God's plan is for another building? Do we wink knowingly at each other over Jesus' naivety in insisting that the Father wasn't looking for worshipers in Jerusalem, but worshipers in Spirit and in truth (John 4:21-24)?

I don't see the "eternal promise to the sons of Zadok" in the Bible. The post-exilic priesthood was certainly to be led by the Zadokites, but "eternal" doesn't enter into the discussion. Zadok was high priest under David. Zechariah and Haggai's emphasis on Zerubbabel (the governor) and Josiah (the high priest, a descendant of Zadok) certainly point to a restoration of a Davidic ruler and Zadokite priesthood. So at least that part fits pretty good with Ezekiel's instructions to the Exiles. There were high priests from the Zadokite line at least until the Maccabean period. By the way, great resource book: "From Joshua to Caiaphas: High Priests After the Exile," by James C. VanderKam (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004). It's scholarly, and not written from the viewpoint of either of our eschatological camps, so it's actually worth reading (yes, there are topics aside from eschatology that are important).

There was no "mercy seat" or "ark" in either Cyrus' Temple or Herod's Temple, since the ark of the covenant disappeared with the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. So I don't think we can say Ezekiel's visionary Temple is "different in several ways from any other temple." With this criteria, Solomon's Temple was the oddball.

Just because Ezekiel doesn't mention a high priest doesn't mean one wasn't intended for this Temple. Besides, what was the role of the high priest? Isn't the primary role entry into the Holy of holies on the Day of Atonement to pour blood on the mercy seat? With no mercy seat/ark, this became a largely political/symbolic role in the post-Exilic period.

This is not "replacement" theology. Jesus, the perfect Israel, contains the people of God in Him (read Galatians some time). He became the remnant. In Him all the promises and blessings of Abraham are fulfilled. I'd mention Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:11-22; Colossians 3:11, but I know the counter-arguments of Dispensationalists very well. Sophistry.

And I know the last question of yours wasn't serious. But in case it accidentally was serious, the goal of God is a restoration of His people in Ezekiel 37.

I used to be a Dispensationalist. I had the Clarence Larkin book with all the charts, the Walvoord compendium, the Left Behind series. I loved it. Dispensationalism cuts up the Bible in a scrapbooking theology that re-arranges events separated by centuries, throws 90% of them into the future (the Church is just a place-holder in the middle of the really cool story, Yahweh and Israel), and creates a fantasy world with all the drama and narrative of Narnia (without - sigh - the talking animals). Then the rat heard his pastor one night after Bible Study mention Acts 2:16, where Peter applies Joel to the events of Pentecost, not with double-meaning, not with a gap of millennia, but to his day. I quietly starting re-reading the Bible after that, throwing away (in some cases burning) my Dispensationalist stuff, leaving the safety of the charts and the psychotic excitement of imminent eschatology. I left behind (haha) the double-covenant and the insistence on imposing hyper-literalness on Hebrew poetry and thought. Most of all, I stopped believing this current day and time are the most important in all of the history of the world, things can't get much worse, and the anti-Christ (what a sham) is about to take over the United Nations with his charisma...of course, anti-Christ is not mentioned in Revelation or any "prophetic" material, so he is only a ridiculous straw-man for the end-times experts.

You can insist on two returns of Jesus (the rapture and then the end, separated by the seven-year Tribulation), but if I suggest a coming in A.D. 70 to judge God's enemies (so-called "Second Temple" Judaism of the A.D. first century) and an unknown coming the future, I'm unorthodox. I remember an issue of "The National Liberty Journal" (which I used to read) about five years ago that declared a person heretical if they didn't believe the modern State of Israel played a role in God's eschatological/soteriological plan ("The New Last Days Scoffers," by Dr. Edward Hindson, May 2005). I embraced heresy proudly at that point (at least heresy as defined by Dispensationalists). We can both point to different Church Fathers who seem to support our views. We aren't going to convince each other. So I suggest we both just walk away at this point...not stopping in 10 paces for a duel, but just keep walking.

Well, back to the quiet (and cold) desert. I'm harmless out here, so don't worry about it, okay? Do say a prayer for those small congregations who must endure the rat's teaching...

"Dear, damned, distracting town, farewell!
Thy fools no more I'll tease:
This year in peace, ye critics, dwell,
Ye harlots, sleep at ease!"

"A Farewell to London," 1715
Alexander Pope

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Glorious Church, Part 1

What's heaven going to be like? Gold streets, celestial buffet lines, mansions on hilltops? Who told you these things? Where in the Bible are these things promised or described for you? Maybe not where you've always thought...

Prophetic books like Revelation very often gives us the keys we need to make correct interpretations (so we don't have to rely on the imagination of specialty teachers or today's newspapers). In the case of the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21-22, the keys help us understand not a future heaven, but a present reality for Christians: "And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away'" (Revelation 21:2-4). What do these verses tell us?

  • The New Jerusalem is not heaven, but comes down from heaven.

  • It is compared to a bride adorned for her husband.

  • It fulfills the promise of God's presence with His people.

There are elements in these verses that sum up everything God has ever promised in all of Scripture.

A few verses later the apostle John says, "one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and spoke with me, saying, 'Come here, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb'" (Revelation 21:9). He's going to show us "the bride, the wife of the Lamb." Who is called the bride throughout the New Testament? The Church (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:22-33; Revelation 19:7,8)! So, as we go to the next verse, we are told we are going to see "the bride, the wife of the Lamb." What do we see? "And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God" (Revelation 21:10,11). The "holy city, Jerusalem," is the Church, which has the glory of God and is given from heaven (not created or built by men). In all the descriptions that follow, we are not being given a picture of heaven, but a highly figurative picture of "the Church of God which He purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28).

So why the architecture and all the physical details (Revelation 21:11-22:5)? Remember the original recipients of Revelation (it wasn't written primarily for us). A.D. 1st-century Christians faces incredible opposition from the religious establishment of Jerusalem, which spread its desire to eradicate Christianity all over the Roman Empire (read the book of Acts). In addition to this, the Roman Empire got in on the action in the years leading up to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the descent of the Empire into chaos in A.D. 70. The Church is described in such glorious terms of unmatched architecture to show them who had the real Temple of God: the Church. If you think the New Jerusalem is a literal cube with 1,500 miles per side (21:16), you've been watching too much Star Trek (most of it would extend into the vacuum of space and need to be pressurized; no problem for God, but do we seriously think He would communicate this to comfort persecuted A.D. 1st-century Christians?). By the way - it's literally "12,000 stadia." 12 x 1,000. Every number in Revelation is symbolic. All of this figurative architectural detail is to assure the Christians that no matter what is built on Temple Mount in Jerusalem or on the various hills throughout the Roman Empire, there was one Temple of God, and it was them.

  • The Church has both the authority of the apostles (Revelation 21:14; cf. Ephesians 2:19-22) and the blessings promised to the patriarchs of Israel (Revelation 21:12; cf. Galatians 3:14,29).

  • There is no need for a Temple cult: the only sacrifice ever needed has been made (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10; 1 Peter 3:18).

  • There is no need for the lights of heaven to signal feasts and rituals (Revelation 21:23; cf. Genesis 1:14): it is all accomplished in the work of Jesus Christ, and the only sign we need is His glory.

  • We have all the light we will ever need, "for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb" (Revelation 21:23). This glory, this lamp we were given out of heaven on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the Church, never to depart (Acts 2:1-4,16-21). This Spirit is the Spirit of truth, Who teaches us, reminds us of Christ's words, and guides us (John 4:23,24; 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 John 4:6; 5:6). We have no need of other light that the Spirit and truth (the Bible).

The apostle Paul gives us another witness to this assertion of Revelation. Paul never uses the term "Temple of God" or "House of God" unless he is referring to the Church (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21). Even his warning of a "man of lawlessness" in God's Temple makes more sense in the original context of the letter if we realize he is warning that Church of an apostasy that will arise within it, not of the violation of a distant Temple that has no personal significance for his largely Gentile audience (2 Thessalonians 2:3-9). Jesus Himself refers to His own body as the Temple (John 2:14-22). Not to add another metaphor, but...the Church is that body (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 1:22,23; 4:12).

The bride's job is to clothe herself in the works of God (Ephesians 1:10; Philippians 2:12,13; Hebrews 13:20,21). "Let us rejoice and be glad and give glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready. It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints" (Revelation 19:7,8). How has she made herself ready? By clothing herself in that which was given to her. She doesn't create her own righteous acts, inventing them out of her own creativity, marketing plan, morality, or business model. They are given to her (clearly in the letters of the apostles). By the way, the marriage feast is the destruction of God's enemies at the hand of Christ, the bridegroom - not a the Church (Revelation 19:11-21)...I'm sure there's an unimaginable celestial buffet, but that's not what Revelation speaks of here!

Consider: "And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him Who fills all in all" (Ephesians 1:22,23). Jesus is head over all things, and head over the Church. The Church is Christ's body, and Christ fills everything. These verses are stunning to me. Twice Paul calls the Church "all things." What does that mean? Maybe I should digress a moment. In other places Paul says that all things belong to believers, even things we may not want, like death (Romans 8:32; 1 Corinthians 3:21-23). This means that even the unbelievers have a purpose in God's plan for believers (Proverbs 16:4; Romans 9:22,23). All of reality exists for one purpose, to bring about God's purpose for the Church. What is God's purpose for the Church? Conformity to Christ (Romans 8:28-30). God loves His Son more than anything in the entire universe. I would even say that God loves only His Son, and we experience God's love solely by our place in the Son (Romans 8:38,39; Ephesians 1:4-6). The apex of this creation is the Church, because it is being made into the image of Christ by the work of God the Holy Spirit. Even the things outside the Church exist as contrast to what the Church is and the character of her Lord.

Get this scriptural teaching firmly in your mind, and it will radically change your view of the Church and how gullible you are to the "end-times experts," i.e., snake-oil salesman (I think reading Revelation 21:9-11 as it demands to be read requires that we re-visit our interpretations of all of Revelation...and the New Testament...and the Old Testament!). God's presence is here, now, and real in the Church with His people. Instead of trying to re-create the "good old days" or investing all our hopes in tomorrow, we have God Himself here and now - maybe we should stop insulting Him by wishing for so much more. Maybe we should stop ignoring Him by staying away from the entity where He has promised His presence. Maybe we should stop treating the Church like it belongs to us or our denomination, or like it is something we have built for ourselves with our own ingenuity and efforts.

Thank God for His glorious Church!

The Glorious Church, Part 2

What about Revelation 21:1, where John sees "a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea"? What does this mean in light of my assertion that the Church is the keystone for the entire universe? Aren't we just sitting here waiting for something better than all this to come along?

The term "heavens and the earth," when spoken in poetic language by either psalmist, prophets, or Jesus Himself, refers to the Temple (or by extension, Jerusalem), and the system of rituals/sacrifices there. I'll demonstrate this thesis by illustrations from Scripture and from Jewish writers contemporary with the writers of the New Testament. First, though, I'd like to describe one of the most important skills to have while reading the Bible.

Let me talk about the way the Jewish writers of the Bible expressed their thoughts. The most important aspect of Hebrew thought pattern and expression is the parallelism. If you don't understand parallelism, you won't properly understand most of the Bible. We thinkers/writers of Western Civilization think sequentially. We categorize. We write lists. We tell things in a linear, logical order. The Hebrew writer/thinker does not do this. To be a great writer according to the Hebrew tradition represented in the Bible means to say one thing as many different ways as possible. The biblical writers construct parallelisms at virtually every level, in both poetry and often prose. This same cultural literary phenomenon shows up in the New Testament, as well. I usually begin an explanation of parallelism with the illustration of train tracks. Our parallel lines of tracks represent ideas in Hebrew-minded writing. The train moving over the tracks is the meaning carried by the ideas. Two or more ideas, one meaning. Let's look at a biblical example: Psalm 19:7-9. We take these six statements about Scripture and want to start making lists and charts: the different names, their nuanced meanings, and their quality. This is the point the writer is making! He's giving us a single, multi-faceted view of the glory of the Word of God, and we're deconstructing it so it will make a better "how to" manual! Psalm 119 is a giant example of parallelism, as the psalmist comes up with more "pet names" for his love (Scripture) than Shakespeare in all his sonnets! So when reading every part of the Bible, we must look for parallel statements that mean the same thing, and often shed complementary light on each other. I cannot over-emphasize this point. Adele Berlin wrote a fantastic and annoyingly horrible book about parallelism exquisitely and painfully detailing the pervasiveness of parallelism in Hebrew writing called The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism (published by Eerdmans). Every seminary student and Bible teacher should be beat half to death with this book until they agree to never again read their Bibles or pretend to teach without applying Berlin's magnificent torture device to themselves while exegeting. Again, without mastering parallelism as a literary concept, you will not understand the Bible. Let's get back to the thesis: the "heavens and earth" language of psalmists, prophets, and Jesus refers back to the Temple and its system of worship, not the universe or cosmos in which we find ourselves. Let's start looking at examples from the Bible.

  • "And He built His sanctuary like the heights, like the earth which He has founded forever" (Psalm 78:69). There are at least two sets of parallelisms in this verse. Do you see them? First is the parallel between "sanctuary" and "the heights...the earth." The second is in the verbs "He built" and "He has founded." The Temple of Solomon is figuratively described as being like the heavens and the earth. In this example, it's easy to understand because of the repetition of the word "like" - God sometimes gives us obvious similes to introduce us by baby-step to more subtle parallelisms.

  • "I have put My words in your mouth and have covered you with the shadow of My hand, to establish the heavens, to found the earth, and to say to Zion, 'You are My people'" (Isaiah 51:16). God's work of creating the heavens and the earth and His work of speaking His people/Zion into existence is the same. His people, gathered at Zion, are representative of the heavens and the earth. They are the reason for Creation, and are figuratively "the whole world" to Him.

  • "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things will not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem for rejoicing and her people for gladness" (Isaiah 65:17,18). The language of "new heavens and new earth" from Revelation 21 is an allusion to Isaiah 65 (very little of Revelation is totally original - understanding the O.T. is key to interpreting Revelation...throw the newspaper away!). What does Isaiah mean by it? Well, we handicapped Western Civilization thinkers/readers are given a little help by the repetition of the word "create." We are told what the "new heavens" and "new earth" are; they are "Jerusalem" and "her people."

  • The prophet Jeremiah gives us a little background on why Isaiah 65 needs to speak of "new" in relation to "the heavens and the earth." You see, the original "heavens and earth" were undone for a time. This happened in 586 B.C. by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, when his army utterly destroyed Solomon's Temple, Jerusalem, and Judah (this was the hand of God for Judah's unwillingness to be faithful to God alone). Jeremiah, in writing of this event, says, "I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light" (4:23). Read the whole chapter and you see the prophet is describing the destruction of Judah as being the undoing of creation itself - which it was, to the Jewish mind. The language of "formless and void" and darkness come from the Genesis account of creation.

  • Fast-forward to the New Testament. Jesus sits atop a hill teaching His followers, and He makes a statement about the Law of Moses that leads Christians into theological trouble to this day: "For I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished" (Matthew 5:18). "Pass away" is paralleled with "all is accomplished," and "heaven and earth" is paralleled by "the Law." Jesus is speaking of the destruction of Herod's Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70, the utter and complete end of Temple Judaism. It was a conclusive statement by God accomplished 40 years (a hugely significant number in the Bible) after the death of Christ for sins.

  • In Matthew 24:4-25:46, Jesus gives an extended teaching about the destruction of the Temple that was to occur 40 years later. Wait...someone told you this was about the end of the world? Read it again. What prompts Jesus to give this teaching? The disciples, in Jerusalem with Jesus, admiringly point out the great buildings of the Temple complex to Jesus. The Lord responds, "Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down" (Matthew 24:2). This is too much for them. Later, in a private moment on the Mount of Olives, they ask, "Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" The teaching from 24:4-25:46 answers this question. It is totally inexcusability and shameful self-centeredness on the part of the modern reader to believe that Jesus ignores the questions of the disciples and proceeds to warn them about events not to happen for millennia! Back again to our thesis...Jesus, in this discourse, says, "Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away" (Matthew 24:34,35). The future tries to redefine "generation" to fit their charts and cut-and-paste approach to the Bible. Read it for what it says and the O.T.-saturated language the Lord uses.

  • What about the apostle Peter's language? "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with an intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:10-13). The apostle, in writing this last letter to the Church, continues the language of the psalmists, prophets, and his Lord. Without a holistic understanding of biblical language, this dramatic-sounding end of the world was useful fuel to the Bible-teachers of the 20th century as they shepherded flocks under threat of global nuclear war. Do you see now what Peter is pointing to, what was less than a decade away as he penned these words? There is a slight variation to the language we've seen so far. What is it? The word "the elements." To understand Peter's variation from the other biblical language we've seen, we're going to look at similar uses of this exact word written decades earlier by another apostle. Paul doesn't write with the same Hebrew stylings, but his use of the word "element" will be very helpful to us. Writing about the Law, Paul says that we "were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world" (Galatians 4:3). He then asks, "now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years" (4:9,10). To another Church Paul says, "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ" (Colossians 2:8). He then asks, "If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 'Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!' (which all refer to things destined to perish with use) - in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?" (2:20-22). While the apostle Peter speaks of the "elements" of the old heavens and earth being undone in fire, and a new heavens and earth built on righteousness, Paul describes the Law followed by the Temple and its worshipers and being "elements," obsolete under Christ. Peter and Paul are speaking the same ideas with different cultural language.

I told you I'd give you some examples from Jewish writers contemporary to the writers of the New Testament:

  • "As for the inside [of the Tabernacle], Moses parted its length into three partitions...this proporation of the measures of the tabernacle proved to be an imitation of the system of the world: for that third part thereof which was within the four pillars, to which the priests were not admitted, is, as it were, a Heaven peculiar to God; but the space of the twenty cubits is, as it were, sea and land, on which men live, and so this part is peculiar to the priests only..." (Flavius Josephus, A.D. 37-100, The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 3, Chapter 3.4).

  • "...if anyone does but consider the fabric of the tabernacle, and take a view of the garments of the high priest, and of those vessels which we make use of in our sacred ministration...he will find they were every one made in way of imitation and representation of the universe. When Moses distinguished the tabernacle into three parts, and allowed two of them to the priests, as a place accessible and common, he denoted the land and the sea, these being of general access to all; but he set apart the third division for God, because heaven is inaccessible to men. And when he ordered twelve loaves to be set on the table, he denoted the year, as distinguished into so many months. By branching out the candlestick into seventy parts, he secretly imitated the Decani, or seventy divisions of the planets; and as to the seven lamps upon the candlesticks, they referred to the course of the planets, of which that is the number. The veils, too, which were composed of four things, they declared the four elements; for the fine linen was proper to signify the earth, because the flax grows out of the earth; the purple signified the sea, because that color is dyed by the blood of the sea shellfish; the blue is fit to signify the air; and the scarlet will naturally be an indication of fire. Now the vestment of the high priest being made of linen, signified the earth; the blue denoted the sky, being like lightning in its pomegranates, and in the noise of the bells resembling thunder. As for the ephod, its showed that God had made the universe of four [elements]; and as for the gold interwoven, I suppose it related to the splendor by which all things are enlightened. And the girdle which encompassed the high priest round, signified the ocean, for that goes round about and includes the universe. Each of the sardonyxes declares to us the sun and the moon; those, I mean, that were in the nature of buttons on the high priest's shoulders. And for the twelve stones, whether we understand them by the months, or whether we understand the like number of the signs of the circle which the Greeks call the Zodiac, we shall not be mistaken in their meaning. And for the miter, which was of a blue color, it seems to me to mean heaven; for how otherwise could the name of God be inscribed upon it? That it was also illustrated with a crown, and that of gold also, is because of that splendor with which God is pleased" (Flavius Josephus, A.D. 37-100, The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 3, Chapter 7.7).

  • Moses "chose the materials of this embroidery [of the veil], selecting with great care what was most excellent out of an infinite quantity, choosing materials equal in number to the elements of which the world was made, and having a direct relation to them; the elements being the earth and the water, and the air and the fire. For the fine flax is produced from the earth, and the purple from the water, and the hyacinth color is compared to the air (for, by nature, it is black), and the scarlet is likened to fire, because each is of a red color; for it followed of necessity that those who were preparing a temple made by hands for the Father and Ruler of the universe must take essences similar to those of which he made the universe itself" (Philo Judaeus, 20 B.C.-A.D. 50, On the Life of Moses II, XVIII).

  • "...the dress of the high priest...is a copy and representation of the separate parts of the world...and our argument will be able to bring forth twenty probable reasons that the mantle over the shoulders is an emblem of heaven" (Philo Judaeus, 20 B.C.-A.D. 50, On the Life of Moses II, XXIV).

  • "The high priest, then, being equipped in this way, is properly prepared for the performance of all sacred ceremonies, that, whenever he enters the temple to offer up the prayers and sacrifices in use among his nation, all the world may likewise enter in with him, by means of the imitations of it which he bears about him..." (Philo Judaeus, 20 B.C.-A.D. 50, On the Life of Moses II, XXVI).

Fred Asaire, in the 1951 film "Royal Wedding," dances around his hotel room singing "You're All the World to Me." He compares His love to Paris, New York, the Swiss Alps, Cape Cod, Lake Como, Sun Valley, a museum, a Persian palace, Christmas, and a tropical sea. The Jews of Jesus' day could sing that song, too, about the Temple, the Law, and the priesthood.

We don't get to read the Bible with our definitions and understanding in mind. The Bible tells us how to read it. The results may not conform to our self-centered worldview, which says, "there's never been a time like this" and "this is what the Bible means to me," but the results will be accurate to the message God desires for His people to receive. The destruction of the heavens and earth language of the Bible refers to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, first in 586 B.C. and second in A.D. 70. In both instances, the people bearing God's name and Word in the world had rejected Him, and re-created was required. The Church, free from centralized worship, human-efforted sacrifices, and ethnic homogeny, is the new heavens and earth (see the first essay again for elaboration on the grandness and all-encompassing nature of the Church).

Time to read our Bibles again!

P.S. "No longer any sea..." Don't worry, you beach bums. I'm sure heaven will be acceptable to you; but this speaks of the Church. Revelation has already defined the symbol "sea" for us: "The waters which you saw where the harlot sits, are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues" (17:15). I don't think it's necessary to look much further. In the Church, there is no "us and them" from an ethnic standpoint, as in the Old Covenant, where the people of God were marked out first by ethnicity. In Christ that barrier is broken down (Ephesians 2:11-22), so in the "new heavens and the new earth" (a term symbolizing the New Covenant), there is "no longer any sea."