In previous articles we asked the question “Who am I?” to which we gave two answers: 1. I am primarily an embodied creature. 2. I am a teleological creature. This means that what I do is not governed first of all by my thoughts/beliefs but by my desires/loves and that my love is pointed towards something. My love moves me towards a particular vision of the good life. This good life is a social vision and therefore can be described as a sort of “kingdom.” Because we are embodied creatures we are moved by desire and because we are teleological creatures we desire a kingdom.1
Now we ask the question, “Why am I here?” We are here to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven by “imaging” him into the world. This will require a discussion of what God’s kingdom looks like and the deeds which characterize a person who is living into that vision. The former will occupy this article and the latter will be expounded in future articles when we seek to answer the question, “How then shall I live?”
Another way of asking “Why am I here?” is to ask “What is my purpose?” Or “What is my goal?” The question becomes, “Towards what vision am I supposed to live?” Insofar as we are teleological creatures we are all living towards some sort of vision. But we want to know which vision God intends for us. What end did God have in mind at our beginning? Thankfully, we do not have to guess. God revealed that vision to John almost 2,000 years ago.
Revelation 21-22 gives us a picture of what God intends for all of creation: a New Heaven and New Earth. A detailed explanation of this passage is beyond the scope of this article but I want to paint a few broad strokes so we can begin to imagine our future with God.
It Is Material
What John saw was not the destruction of the material cosmos. He saw a new heaven and a new earth (21:1). God did not make creation with the intention of throwing it into the trash bin. Earth is not a temporary holding cell to be evacuated so that we can dwell somewhere else, in an immaterial disembodied heaven. He formed the earth “to be inhabited” (Isa. 45:18) and he isn’t going to turn his back on that intention. He even gave us material bodies to accompany that material earth. Just like the future of the cosmos is renewal, not destruction, so the future of Man is not to evacuate the body (or the earth) but for the body to be renewed and resurrected. Jesus’ resurrection body was a physical body (Luke 24:39) and our bodies are to be modeled after his (1 Cor. 15:20-23; 1 John 3:2).2 How then shall we live? We ought to treasure creation. It is God’s and we are just stewards of it (cf. Ps. 24:1; Lev. 25:23). This means we care about the environment and the ethical treatment of animals. It means we take care of our bodies. We do not feed it trash and we do not neglect the necessary exercise to keep our bodies healthy.
It Is Free of ‘The Curse’
Man was made to bring order from non-order, to spread God’s love and goodness and justice and creativity into the world. After the tragedy of Adam and Eve all of creation was cursed. God’s good intention was twisted somehow. The result was hate, war, injustice, and chaos. The picture of Revelation 21-22 is the healing of creation. John saw that “the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” In Apocalyptic literature like Revelation and parts of Daniel, as well as in Ancient Near Eastern creation stories, the sea or sea monsters were associated with chaos (Rev. 13:1 cf. also Dan. 7:2-3; Ps. 89:9-10; Isa. 27:1). The non-existent “sea” of Revelation does not indicate a lack of water in the New Earth. Instead it points to the victory of God over chaos. Just a few verses later John says, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). God has overcome everything which “tastes” of Death. John describes this as God’s victory over the “curse” of primeval history. “Nothing accursed will be found there any more” (22:3). This is why “nothing unclean” will enter into the New Jerusalem. All of “the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars” who have not put their trust in Jesus will be done away with (21:8). How then shall we live? Any where we see anything tainted by the curse we fight to overcome it. We develop medicine to fight against death. We fight against the unjust systems which keep the poor impoverished. We fight against the addictions which rack individuals and ruin families. We fight against every thing which makes good men bad.
God Is There
With the New Heaven and New Earth John sees a New Jerusalem descending from heaven to earth. This city is pictured as being in the shape of a cube whose “length and width and height are equal” (21:16). In all of the Bible there is only one other cube mentioned: the holy of holies in King Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:19-20). What John sees is the entire city become the place of God’s presence. “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (21:22-23). How then shall we live? We live in God’s presence in the here and now, which is another way of saying that we should acknowledge God’s presence. David knew that he could not escape the presence of God. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7-10). The angels sing, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3). So in our lives we should acknowledge God’s presence instead of “kicking God out.” We invite him into our homes, our marriages, and our work place. We acknowledge his presence at the dinner temple as well as the bedroom. He belongs everywhere.
In the New Jerusalem God is on the throne, as well as Jesus the Lamb. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb … But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him” (22:1, 3). How then shall we live? We acknowledge God’s authority. God presence is a ruling presence. Everything that we do is under his command. Everything I do ought to serve God and his purpose.
We Rule With God
“[God’s servants] will see his face … and they will reign forever and ever” (22:3-5). Though God is in charge he always intended to run the world through Man (cf. Psalm 115:16). We were created as his vice-regents (cf. Gen. 1:16-28; Psalm 8:4-8). How then shall we live? Even though God is in charge we do not just sit back and let him handle it all. God intends his purposes to be worked out in the world through human beings. The Eternal Word became a human being for this very reason. He now reigns as Man–without ceasing to be God–over the world (1 Tim. 2:5). So Jesus, who has all authority in heaven and on earth (Mat. 28:18), delegates that authority to human beings. We continue God’s project in the New Heaven and the New Earth.
We Develop Culture
John writes that “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it … People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev. 21:24-26). Here John pulls from the imagery of Isaiah 60. This helps to explain what it means that the kings will bring “their glory” into the heavenly city. Isaiah uses the phrase “wealth of the nations” to describe the “glory” that is brought to the LORD (60:5). All the best that each nation has to offer is brought into the New Jerusalem. “A multitude of camels” along with “gold and frankincense” (60:6). “Silver” also (60:9) as well as the “glory of Lebanon … the cypress, the plane, and the pine” (60:13). In the New Creation the development of culture does not stop. Kings and nations continue to bring their best into New Jerusalem. How then shall we live? We develop culture here and now. We involve ourselves in the advancement of art and technology. God cares about sculpture and dance and mathematics. He is intensely interested in science and music and economy. Government, agriculture, and architecture, all of this is important to God. So we practice it here and now.
It Is a Multi-Ethnic Kingdom
John’s vision includes the “nations” (21:24, 26). People from all walks of life, all colors and stripes, are included in God’s New Creation. How then shall we live? If we are going to be with people of all races and all cultures then we have to learn to live together now. Racism, classism, sexism, and every sort of “-ism” is excluded from God’s Kingdom. We honor all people as equally precious in God’s sight. That is the vision we live towards.
What we hope for tomorrow determines how we live today. When Peter pictures the purification of the cosmos, resulting in a New Heaven and a New Earth, he concludes, “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holines and godliness … But, in accordance with this promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Pet. 3:11, 13). We do not simply wait for God to bring the New Age. That New Age has already begun in Jesus Christ. His resurrection body was the first “bit” of New Creation (Col. 1:15-20). That part of the future has invaded the present. So we live out the future now. Day by day we pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” (Mat. 6:10). This is what we were made for. This is why we are here. This is what it means to be human. So join me in being simply human. Because you were born to.
©M. Benfield 2016
1. This is the reason that James K.A. Smith entitles his book Desiring the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: BackerAcademic 2009).↩
2. The best objection to a physical/bodily resurrection is from 1 Corinthians 15:44 which says that the body is sown a “physical body” but is raised a “spiritual body.” The answer to this is that the adjectives “physical” and “spiritual” do not describe the “stuff” from which the body is made but the thing that animates that body. The word “physical” is psuchikon which describes those who “do not have the Spirit” (Jude 19; cf. also 1 Cor. 2:14; James 3:15). While the word “spiritual” (pneumatikon) often describes men in physical bodies who have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them and are thus “animated” by the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:15; 14:37; Gal. 6:1).↩