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Big Story - Act 5 Scene 3:

The Church at the End of the Ages

with Roger Kirby

There is a marvellous unity to the Bible story even though it was written by many different people over many hundreds of years.

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.”

 

So what?

This is the promise for all of us that believe in Jesus and seek to follow him. It is hard to get your mind round how the New Heaven and New Earth could possibly be. Sitting on clouds is far easier to think about, but this is what Scripture and therefore the Lord tells us.

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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Big Story - Act 5 Scene 3:

The Church Today

with Roger Kirby



Yes, I know! The church today is not really part of the Biblical story in any direct way, but there is another chapter to come on the Church at the End of the Ages and it would leave rather a long gap to say nothing about the in-between times. All of church history could be here but that would be far too much so I will only say anything about one previous event: the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, of some 300 years ago that has affected so much of our present Western culture. More of that later.

We live in an amazing and very exciting period of church history. There are more Christians of every sort alive today than ever before; in fact, more alive now than all that have ever lived and died; one third of all the people on the earth. This is mainly because of the recent huge growth of the church in Africa, South America and, to a lesser but increasing extent, in Asia. At the same time the old core areas of the Faith in Europe and North America have declined somewhat, so the centre of gravity of the World-Wide Church has moved south and east. At last the glorious vision of Isaiah 43: 6, 7 “I will say to the north, ‘Give them up! ’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back. ’ Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” is being fulfilled as the followers of Jesus now make “disciples of all nations”.

One other remarkable factor is worthy of note. For the first time since the days of the Roman Empire there is one language understood through nearly all the known world. Then it was Greek; now it is English. It is not the language spoken by the most people as their mother tongue but, thanks to the Internet, it is the most widely understood language. And hey! – you guys and girls out there and listening to this are at the very forefront of this great development. Congratulations!

Of course, being a partly human institution not everything in the World is perfect. Obviously, resurgent, militant Islam is a concern. How is an essentially peaceful faith (in spite of some bad mistakes such as the Crusades) to react to an aggressively warlike one? That dilemma has never been satisfactorily resolved in these nearly 2000 years of the church.

How deep in spirituality and knowledge are all those billions of Christians? In one country I was in I was reliably told that there were so called ‘Christian villages’ where not one single person in the village knew who Jesus was! Where were all the people from the better developed Christian world who should have been out there teaching them?

Then there are all the deep problems in Europe and North America that stem from the Enlightenment. 300 years ago in Europe, men, fed up with the interminable religious wars of the previous century, turned to human reason as the best judge of what is right or wrong. From that move has come the modern Western idea that each person is autonomous, that is - able to make up his or her own mind about how to live, whether to believe or not, and what to believe. The result has been apathy to faith in Europe and consumer oriented churches in North America. Both have led to a sad decline in true faith and personal commitment.

So what?


That is a hard question to answer when these words may be read or heard in so many different places by people in so many different cultures and circumstances. Let me repeat what I said before to try and hammer it home (!): we, Dave Roberts and all his band of helpers, are trying to use the new opportunities that world wide interconnections and the use of the English language open up so effectively in the service of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Make sure this is made as effective as possible. Tell other people how to connect to Dave’s sites. Share what we say and write with other people. Translate as much of it as you can into your local language, if that is not English, and then spread it as wide as possible. By all means and in every possible way join in this great enterprise of the World-Wide Church and our little corner of it. May the Lord bless you as you do so.



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April 25, 2015

The Big Story - Part 10

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Big Story - Act 5 Scene 2:

The Church of the Ages - Temple and temples

with Roger Kirby



We traced through the story of the decline of Israel before Jesus appeared in terms of their loss of a place where God dwelt. If we now pick up the story of the great Temple in Jerusalem in the days of Jesus we find some fascinating things. John, in his gospel, tells the story of the cleansing of the Temple at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (the other gospel writers put it much later in his ministry which may be because Jesus cleared it twice or John was more interested in the theological meaning of the event than its timing). Mark’s account is even more interesting. He tells the story in the middle of another story, clearly relating the two. The other story is about the fig tree, which as Jesus and his disciples walk into Jerusalem they see is barren which is no surprise because it is the wrong time for figs. Jesus curses it, which seems a very odd thing to do unless it is for some other reason than its lack of fruit. Then the next time they pass it, the day after Jesus cleared the temple, they see it has completely withered away, much to the disciple’s puzzlement. Two interlocked stories like this are a fairly common device in Mark’s Gospel. The story of the fig tree is clearly saying that the Temple is now no use, like the tree with no figs, and will therefore wither away.

The extent to which the people of Jesus’ day centered life on the Temple is amazing. We read that: “Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom.” In a mixed family party that was probably 5 days walking each way – a considerable time not to be working and earning. John in his Gospel records Jesus going up to Jerusalem on several occasions. Life in 1st century Israel revolved around the Temple building to an astonishing extent. They clearly thought that God was there, and more accessible there, than anywhere else. It was what some people would call a ‘thin place’, that is a place where it feels much easier to get close to God than most places because heaven and earth have only a thin gap between them (which isn’t really the case but it can feel that way if we are somewhere where we have often met with the Lord).

Put those two things together – what Jesus did to the fig tree and the centrality of the Temple – and we see that he was striking at the very centre of all that they believed in. That is why the main accusation against Jesus at his trial was “this fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days” and that was the basis on which he was condemned. It was when Stephen said, “the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands” that he ran into serious trouble and his death. The whole Jewish system, priests, sacrifices, forgiveness of sins etc. depended on the Temple.

In fact the Temple only lasted less than 40 years after Jesus cursed it before a Roman army destroyed it in AD 70. Various groups of zealots had risen in revolt in such a disorganized way that they fought each other on the steps of the Temple while the besieging Romans watched in amazement. Eventually the Romans broke through into the city and the Temple precincts and there was a horrendous massacre. The prophecy of Jesus was fulfilled quite terribly.

What then was to replace the temple? Paul answers that question in Ephesians 2 when he says, “you are fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” A better temple built of human beings – you and me – has replaced the physical Temple, built of stone. WOW!

Elsewhere Paul says, “we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people’” quoting Old Testament passages. Paul is using the plural. It is the people of God together who are the temple but, of course, it has to apply to each one of us individually as we live and walk around. So the ‘thin’ places where people can come close to the Lord now are the presence of the Lord’s people – you and me! Double WOW!



So what?

Can we live up to the challenge that presents? We could never do so by ourselves and of ourselves. This is where the work of the Holy Spirit comes in to the experience of every one of us. Fortunately Jesus made promises to his disciples, and to us through them. Linking together some of the things recorded that he said in John chapters 14 – 16 we get, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. When he comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you and when I send him to you he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.”

That has been the challenge to the people of God for nearly 2000 years now. How well they have lived up to that challenge has been a mixed story down through the centuries. Sometimes the whole idea that there is a great resource for those who profess to follow Christ has been all but lost. Sometimes it has been found and used to the great enrichment and growth of the people of God both corporately and individually. We, I think, live in one of the better periods, looked at world-wide.

Are you, am I, a good temple, a thin place, where earth and heaven come close together?



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