Big Story - Act 5 Scene 3:
The Church at the End of the Ages
with Roger Kirby
It began, after the Creation, with a garden; it ends with a garden city in Revelation 22: 1 – 4 : “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 are two great differences between them: the garden has only 2 people in it; the city is full of people, all those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Only God walks in the garden; the Lamb walks with him in the city and the people walk by the light of the lamp, which is the Lamb. Wow! And triple Wow!
Unfortunately I find it difficult to write this chapter because there is so much disagreement about how we should understand what the Bible says about the End of the Ages. That Jesus Christ will revisit the scenes of his triumph, his death on the Cross, is beyond doubt. What will happen to us is much less clear.
The popular picture seems to be of us sitting on the clouds, playing harps, but that is an old idea from a few hundred years ago and is not the Biblical picture at all.
About 200 years ago the idea was spread about that when 1 Thessalonians 4: 17 says “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever,” means that the Lord will come halfway to earth to collect his people and take them back to heaven with him in what is called the Rapture.
But that is not really the picture here. The scene reflects what happened if Caesar visited a city in one of his outlying provinces. The people of the city would come out to greet the Emperor and then escorted him on into their city. Caesar kept going in the same direction; it was the people who reversed their direction. Yet in the popular teaching of the Rapture it is the Lord who reverses while the people keep going in the same direction! I cannot begin to unravel which is correct. Fortunately Jesus himself said: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” And we should heed that warning.
The book of Revelation is a an uncertain guide here for there are so many ways to understand its amazing images, but it is useful to illustrate what the more straightforward parts of Scripture say.
Nowhere is more straightforward than the book of Romans and there we read in 8: 18 – 23 : “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.”
This says that our final destination is not heaven, floating in the sky, but here, on earth, part of the New Heaven and New Earth.
And that is what the book of Revelation also says in 21: 1 – 3: “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.”
When John was writing he said that there would be 144,000 people there – a big enough number that all followers of Jesus might expect to be included but not so big that all might presume to be included. (I have ignored the distinction between those described as of Israel and the great multitude. In this age we, the people of God are all Israel. ) That number is 12x12x10x10x10. If he was writing today he would have needed to add 2 more 12’s and 2 more 10’s to get a number slightly bigger than 2 billion so that we might all hope to be present but not presume on it. See you there!
This is what one writer has called ‘life after life after death’. ‘life after death’ is our immediate presence with the Lord which is what Paul meant when he wrote Philippians 1: 21, 23b: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far”. Unfortunately this is what there is so much argument about.
Our ultimate goal is beyond dispute as Revelation 22: 1 – 5 says: “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.”
It will be obvious to you that I have left out many things that could be included in the Big Story of the Bible. I think the really interesting one is that last Scene where I thought about the church NOW. We should not, and cannot, replicate any of the previous scenes ourselves. We can only live now. How we behave, how we act, how we serve is inevitably bounded by the world we live in and who we are. The important thing is to worship and serve the Lord within those bounds. For many of you, many of us, that means working with Dave in the WOW church, on the Internet. The Lord is Worthy-Of-Worship indeed. Our way may well be in this very new, very different, very important development. Go to it!
The Lord bless you.
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