The Joining Together of Heaven and Earth (Revelation 21:9-11)
Sunday, May 12, 2013
As I thought about ways for us to hear and understand Revelation 21-22 and to do so in a way that might build us up as we follow Christ and represent him in the world, the idea of reversal stuck out in my mind. Specifically, I appreciated the way several Bible scholars developed the theme of reversal relating to Genesis 11 and Revelation 21:2, 9-10.
As I reread Revelation these verses, 2 and 9-1o, pay very close to the direction of the movement. Who is initiating things? Who is the giver and who is the receiver?
“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
“One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”
Hold in your mind these verses. If you have your Bible, keep Revelation 21 marked.
Now, look at Genesis 11:1-9:
‘Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
3 They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’
5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’
8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”
In both the Genesis and Revelation accounts, we’re paying special attention to who initiates the actions. We’re watching to see the direction and the motivation.
In Genesis, the people have stopped migrating and settled down in the plains of Shinar where the begin work on a tower that will reach to the Heavens. They plan to build a city. “Come, they say, let us build for ourselves a city … so that we may make a name for ourselves” (v.4).
Building is a good thing. We were created to be creative. Made in the image of God, the ultimate creator, we are made to make things. However, God had a method and the new city the people were growing at Shinar was directly the opposite of God’s instructions.
Genesis 9, right after the flood, God tells Noah’s family to be fruitful and multiply and increase in number on the earth (v. 1a, 7). The instructions given immediately after Noah comes out of the ark permanently re-establish humans God’s special creation who may rule over the earth and eat animals for food and exist in a relationship with God. God sets it up all the while knowing humans will continue to sin (Gen. 8:21). At the end of the Noah saga, we see that his descendants have indeed “spread out over the earth” (10:32).
However, the next move, the gathering and building at Shinar, shows a group of people who were in direct opposition to God. He said, spread out. They said, let us build ‘otherwise, we will be scattered.’ The direction of the action was upward. Humanity wanted to become God, or like God, through human achievement. We think this is all new because we live in the computer age. Genesis 1-11 is the recounting of stories told orally for centuries before they we written. This comes from prehistoric times. Even then, they thought they could achieve the things God wanted to give. They would blatantly disobey God if need be. The absolutely would not live in faithful dependence. Nothing has changed from the very dawn of civilization until now.
The initiative was on the human side, rejecting the plan of God. The action was done by humans reaching up when God said the spread out. The motivation was to be self-sufficient and independent of God instead of living in faith and living in relationship with God.
Atheism – the notion that there is no god – is a worldview that permeates every thought in someone’s life. There is no innocent concluding that God does not exist and thus I will strive to be a good person. People do that. I am friends with a lot of people who take this approach in life. It does not work for two reasons. One God does exist.
There is a lot of evidence, but the best is the resurrection. Historians who specialize in studies of Israel from 30BC-100AD have to deal with the invention of the church. Some of these scholars are committed naturalists who have determined that the dead do not rise. But even those most insistent that Jesus did not rise still, assessing the available data, acknowledge with certainty that the very first Christians believed to the point of death that the resurrection happened. If they believed this, then why?
Why believe something that was completely unexpected and completely without precedent? What could cause so many to give their lives to a movement that was so thoroughly different from their own previous worldview? Historians have scrambled to explain this phenomenon, often just ignoring Occam’s Razor and taking the most obvious route. The church was born because the Resurrection of Jesus really did happen. Any other explanation for the rise of Christianity requires the historian to throw out probability and to make ridiculous statements about mass hallucinations that sustained to the point that people accepted the cross rather than reject Jesus.
The resurrection happened. Who but God could do that? If God then, is real and has called the world to himself through Jesus, his own appearing in human form, then any worldview that denies God is not just opting for indifference. God is God and thus has claim on us. To reject that claim is to be in rebellion.
For that reason, a second reason that atheism fails as a worldview is that it is a worldview in direct opposition to God. The builders of the tower of Babel thought they could achieve the things only God can do. They failed because God exists and to act as if God does not exist is to be against Him. There is no sideline in this. God is real. God chose to come to the world through Israel and then through Israel God came in person, in Jesus. Either one is a Christ-follower, or one is alienated from God and destined for frustration.
How does Revelation 21 show God’s undoing of the tower of Babel rebellion. In Revelation 21, God is the actor. John is in Heaven because God has summoned him. John had gone to prison because he had been trying to obey God by spreading the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire. He try to reach up to Heaven. He reached out to the world in Jesus’ name. He only went to Heaven when God initiated that action.
He’s experiencing things that exceed our sensory abilities. Words like “up” and “down” may or may not accurately describe the spatial considerations of Heaven and Earth when seen from God’s perspective. But those are the words John had and his descriptions do help us understand our own standing and what is appropriate and good for humans in relating to God.
Unlike the humans rejecting God and acting on their own initiative, John and his friends in the early church lived at God’s initiative. He was in prison and then in a vision he went to Heaven by God’s power. He does not see humans going “up to Heaven,” as we so often see. Look again at Revelations 21:2 and 10. The holy city came down.
The New Jerusalem was the bride of Christ. We won’t spend significant time deeply exploring all the imagery John used to depict the holy city in these last two chapters of the Bible. Worthwhile as that would be, it requires a whole additional talk.
Know this. John intends his readers – us – to see our future, our eternity. We will be together with all who have followed Jesus in a place where there is no grief. No fear. No injury. No death. The city’s gates are always open. God is present bodily. I love my relationship with God the Spirit, but I long for the closeness of the Father and the Son. And that is what we are promised. As sure as Jesus rose from the grave and Christianity is the way to God – he did and it is – the promises of Revelation 21-22 will come to fruition.
It is a city and a garden. It is worship and vocation. It is joy and it is unending.
Recall that the people who built Babel incited their rebellion against God for two reasons. They aspired to exalt themselves and they feared isolation. “Let us build or else we will be scattered.” Their efforts resulted in them being brought low and forcefully scattered.
Now Revelation 21: “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
All that has been scattered is gathered in Jesus’ city and all people are one people in His name. The kings of the nations come, forgetting their own glory and giving all glory to the Lord. And we are there too.
Until the day comes when we are called there, we live here. We catch a glimpse of the gathering of that holy city whenever we let God be God. We let God determine who’s in and who’s out. We do our best to love everyone as much as Jesus loves them. And we go out in His name. Spreading out, we see Him over and over in the people we meet in the world. And we carry the good news of His salvation to those who have not heard. We’ll be finally gathered when God decides it is time to bring Heaven to Earth.
His timing is perfect and our lives are blessed when we do things his way.