January 21, 2020.
Happy (a little late) New Year, everyone! I wanted to take some time to explore a topic that has been near to my heart for the past few years, and I thought there was no time like the new year to talk about new creation! Though we will get into some significant theology, I believe this topic is more than just a fun bit of biblical trivia or academic discussion. Rather, the study of new creation gives us a picture of our future hope, teaches us about redemption and God’s plan, and calls us to live out our destiny now so that others can see the beauty for which they were made. I’ll be honest; for years I held the traditional (in the modern sense) view of heaven of some vague ideas of being disembodied souls floating on clouds, singing unending songs of praise. I had a concept of heaven, but it wasn’t very fleshed out (no pun intended). Are there actual streets of gold? Is everything a metaphor for some ethereal existence? Do we do anything other than sing? Will we be any different than angels? Though this view of heaven seemed better than hell to me, it didn’t really get me excited about going there, if you know what I mean. Sure, I could intellectually understand that the joy of heaven is just so far beyond my finite human mind; but shouldn’t the biblical picture of future hope be more… I don’t know, enticing?
Then, when I started to learn about the biblical picture of New Heavens and New Earth, I found the excitement and longing that I knew the future with God should be. That’s not to say that the truth of theology is based on our feelings about it; rather, it was the biblical witness itself that showed me this vivid picture of the age to come, and it is from this biblical picture that I draw my excitement. And it is this picture that I want to share with you.
I will warn you from the start, for some reason this topic can become somewhat controversial in some circles, and I want to be clear that it is not my intention to stir up controversy. Nor am I trying to make the claim that I have everything about the age to come figured out exactly. However, I do think there is a significant biblical thread that gives us insight into the age to come that has been lost to many of us today. I didn’t start seeing it until a few years ago with the help of others’ astute observations. I think this is more of a testament to how much our culture has influence over our theology than finding new ideas in scripture (don’t worry, I’ll address this issue in a subsequent part). It is this thread that I hope to recover here.
The point of this series is not to argue with anyone, but simply to present the biblical picture of New Heavens and New Earth in a clear and concise way (if that is even possible for me…). I have at least four parts planned, each with a different focus, and I hope that by the end of it I will have been able to present the overall thread of new creation that can be found throughout scripture, not just in a few verses. So, without further ado, let’s start at the beginning!
1. Creation is good.
“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.”
To understand the significance of new creation, first we must have a good background in the original creation. It is possible that in all our arguments and disagreements about how to interpret the opening chapters of Genesis (in terms of how literally we take the accounts), we have lost what the text is actually trying to teach us. Genesis one and two, in particular, teach us something about why we are here and who we are in relation to God. This is significant, as it provides at least part of the answer to one of the deepest questions that humans have asked themselves for thousands of years: who are we?
Genesis one and two teach us who we are by indicating God’s purpose in creation. There is a recurring refrain found throughout Genesis one that is probably very familiar. After each act of creation, we hear something to the effect of “And God saw that it was good.” This affirmation of the goodness of creation means that God has set up and ordered the creation, and it is functioning properly, as he intended. Each act seems to be preparing the way and setting up the creation for humanity (temporal space with day and night, the land to live in and vegetation and animals to sustain humans, the celestial bodies to mark days, seasons and years), whom we find as the pinnacle of creation on the sixth day (after which we hear the pronouncement that it was very good), just before God takes up his rest in his creation. Genesis two likewise gives an account of creation that focuses on humanity. Thus, we see that at least part of the reason why the universe exists and why we are here is because God wanted us to be here and made us a home to live in and dwell with him. And our home, that is this creation, is emphatically good.
We must not lose the significance of this teaching. Regardless of what happens next, with the fall and the curse that comes through sin, God’s original plan was to create this world, the spatial and temporal universe that we experience, as our home in which God can dwell with us (as God does in the garden with Adam and Eve before the fall). And he saw that it was very good. From the beginning, our place and our purpose are anchored in physical creation that is good. This will be important for later Jewish and Christian theology.
2. Humanity is set up as priests in the garden.
“So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”
When we think of the creation, we often think of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. However, that’s not actually how the story of humanity begins. Before the garden story, we find in Genesis one that humanity, both male and female, is made in the image of God and given the commission to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” The story in Genesis two might begin with man and woman in the garden, but it was never meant to end there. This is where we start getting into some concepts found in the narrative that are a little foreign to us, but would have stood out and made sense to people, such as the Israelites, who were living in the ancient near east (ANE).
To begin, we see man and woman being “made in the image of God”. Throughout history, there have been many ideas about what it means to be made in the image of God. However, recent scholarship has shed light on what this phrase would likely have meant to the original ANE audience. When a King or ruler would conquer a land or people, he would often set up an image of himself in that land to represent his rule and to reflect his dominion over them. The image represented not only the king’s rule, but also certain aspects of the king through the statue itself. Further, temples in the ANE had an idol(s) in them, representing their own god(s), which is where the idea of the king’s image probably derived from (the king was often seen as the image of God himself). With this in mind, we see that in Genesis one, humanity in general is supposed to represent God, being made in his image. Who is humanity supposed to represent/reflect God to? The rest of creation (including the other humans that will come as part of the “be fruitful and multiply” command)! This is another affirmation of the importance of creation.
Secondly, we see this point hit on again in chapter two, as man is placed in the garden and given the task of cultivating and keeping it. These terms can also be translated as “serve” and “guard”. These two terms are later used in worship/priestly language in other passages (e.g. Ex. 3:12, Num. 3:5-10), giving us a clue to what the garden story is trying to say about humanity. This makes sense with what we found in Genesis one, as the function of a priest is to represent and mediate the presence of God. The vocation of mankind is to be good stewards of God’s creation, in a sense as Priest-kings mediating God’s presence to His creation (cf. Ex. 19:6, I Pet. 2:9 and Rev. 5:10). God made his good creation to dwell with it and set his apex of creation, his image-bearers, to be good rulers reflecting His glory to all creation while also reflecting the praise of creation back to God.
Humanity is set up as God’s priests to creation in the garden. But it was not the plan for them to stay in the garden. Rather, the garden functioned as the temple, the place where heaven and earth met (note how God walked in the garden), for the rest of the earth, which humanity was supposed to fill. God’s plan begins in Eden, but it does not stop there. Again, creation is good.
3. The tabernacle/temple is a reminder of the garden.
As we read on, however, we see that humanity fails in its vocation to serve as priests, eating from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. Much has been said about this choice and this tree, however I think the purpose of this choice was more than an arbitrary rule that God chose to prove his children’s obedience to Him. When Adam and Eve chose to eat from the tree, they were buying into the lie of the serpent who had given them a different story of what would happen if they ate of the tree. They wouldn’t die; rather, they would be like God. And here we have the true rebellion, the first of many attempts for creation to set itself up as Creator (cf. Rom. 1:25). Thus, the humans no longer accurately image God, but rather they try to image themselves. And thus, they are exiled from the garden, and access to the temple is lost.
However, all hope is not lost just because humanity fails. This point is crucial. Even when mankind falls, God does not give up on this original plan, but continues to work through his fallen image-bearers. The cycle of creation, fall and exile is played several times in Gen. 1-11 to set up the story of Israel. Abraham is called in Genesis 12 as God chooses a people to set up people who are supposed to be representatives of Him (Ex. 19:6). To these people he gives instructions to build a tabernacle (Ex. 25-31) and eventually a temple (I Kings 6), where his presence will dwell with his people. The symbolism and design elements of the tabernacle/temple serve to remind the people of the Garden of Eden, which was the original temple of the cosmos. This can be seen in the carvings of palm trees, cherubim and flowers found in the temple, as well as many other elements that were designed to call attention back to creation and the garden. They were supposed to be a light to the world, a picture of God to those who did not know him. In essence, they were to be his image-bearers.
Again, this point is crucial. At the fall of humanity (and the subsequent cycles of failure), God could have just said, “You know what, this creation thing just isn’t working out. Let’s just get rid of physical creation and do something better.” But this is emphatically what he did not do. Instead of destroying creation, he continually gives humanity a chance to regain their priestly roles in his good creation. Unfortunately, humanity continues to fail.
4. Jesus and (by extension) the church are the new temple.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
So, what does God do when Israel fails in its vocation to be priests to the world? He comes down into creation as part of creation itself. The word that is translated as “dwelt” in the passage above is literally “tabernacle”. John says that God became flesh and “tabernacled” with us. Again, this is significant. The first temple, the place of God’s presence, had been destroyed due to Israel’s rebellion and desertion of God, and even though a second temple had been built, God’s presence had not come to dwell in it as it had the first (I Kings 8:10-11, II Chronicles 5:11-14). Thus, many were looking for God to do something new to restore his presence with his people. And here we have John telling us that Jesus came and tabernacled with us. Jesus is the new temple (cf. John 2:18-22).
In the Old Testament, the temple was considered part of sacred space, the place where heaven and earth overlap. When Jesus comes as the new temple, he is bringing sacred space everywhere he goes, a microcosm of the true temple. However, this temple is different. In the old temple, people and objects had to be purified and cleansed before they went into the temple, lest they defile the temple. Jesus, on the other hand, has the opposite effect, purifying and cleansing where he goes. This is perhaps seen most vividly in the healing of the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19), though it is a constant theme throughout his ministry. Jesus himself makes his connection to the temple explicitly in John 2:18-22, which ends up being one of the charges brought against him in his trial leading to his death (Matt. 26:61). In what some might call a twist of irony, however, even his death on the cross makes his connection to the temple more emphatic, as the veil that separates the holy place from the most holy place is torn in two when he dies (Matt. 27:51). This also stresses the point that Jesus is the new temple, in whom the dividing wall between God and man, represented by the veil, is removed. Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s story, leading to a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
This theme is picked up by Paul as he teaches that the church is now the temple of God.
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
(1 Corinthians 3:16)
Paul’s logic is not hard to follow here. The temple is where God dwells, an overlapping of heaven and earth. Since Christians are given the Holy Spirit to dwell within them, we become the temple of God, both corporately and individually (cf. I Cor. 6:19). Peter also makes this connection when he calls us a “royal priesthood” (I Pet. 2:9), echoing the original call of Israel (Ex. 19:6), that we may proclaim the redemption of Jesus to the world. Here we see again God rescuing his creation not by destruction, but by redemption through the people of God at work within his creation.
5. The age to come is consistently pictured as New Heavens and New Earth.
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.”
All these threads that we have explored to this point culminate in the picture of the age to come presented in the prophets and especially in the New Testament. We will likely explore this more in depth in the next post, but this is a good place to begin the discussion. The picture of the age to come presented in Isaiah is one of New Heavens and New Earth (see Isaiah 65:17-25). This is one of the few passages in the Old Testament that actually gives a clear picture of the afterlife, and it is telling when compared to the modern notions of heaven. In this beautiful passage, we get a picture of a renewed creation operating as it was always intended, filled with peace and security, joy and life, and without the curse of sin, evil and sadness. Obviously we don’t want to push this passage too far and make it absolutely literal (e.g., the phrase “the young man shall die a hundred years old” does not imply that there will be death there, but rather quite the opposite); however, the picture is profoundly anchored in a good physical creation. There are cities and houses, vineyards and animals, activities and enjoyable labor. All is again as it was meant to be from the beginning.
This makes sense, right? When we follow the storyline of scripture, I think this picture logically follows. Remember, God makes creation so that he can dwell with and have a relationship with mankind. Even when sin enters the creation at the fall of man, God’s plan is not thwarted, but rather he works within his creation to bring about redemption, ultimately taking on flesh himself to redeem us. It makes sense that redemption brings restoration of the original plan, back to Eden. But remember what we learned about Eden; the plan wasn’t to stop at Eden, but rather for the image-bearers to fill the world, in a sense expanding Eden to all the earth.
There is a very interesting section in Ezekiel that highlights this point. At the end of the book (Ez. 40-48), Ezekiel is given a vision of the New Temple (keep in mind the connection of Jesus to the new temple). This section can be very boring if you don’t understand the meaning and significance of this vision (I didn’t for many years, which is how I know it can be very boring). The New Temple is a vision of restoration, particularly situated in a picture and language that Israelites would understand and resonate with, and thus a picture of the age to come. Towards the end of the vision (Ez. 47), we get this odd picture of water that is flowing out of the door of the temple, getting deeper the further it gets from the temple. Ezekiel is told that this water brings life wherever the river goes. On the banks of the river grow all kinds of trees for food (sound familiar?), whose “fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.” This image is directly alluded to at the end of John’s vision in Revelation 22:1-5, where we see the river of life flowing from the throne of God, watering the tree of life, whose leaves were for the healing of the nations. Thus the picture in Ezekiel takes the temple and the garden imagery, but expands it to go beyond the temple. Revelation makes this explicit, that in the new creation, Eden is expanded to fill the whole earth.
Exactly what the plan of God was from the beginning.
In fact, in the vision of new heavens and new earth that John sees (Rev. 21-22), we are explicitly told that there is no temple in the New Jerusalem. This is because God is the temple, and the dwelling place of God is with man, with his people (Rev. 21:3-4). Remember how Jesus is the new temple, as also are the people of God? Also, remember how Eden functioned as the temple for all creation? The parallels and fulfillment here is extremely satisfying. In the beginning God made a physical home that physical humanity could live in, separate from the spiritual realm in which spirits dwell (though there is certainly overlap between the two), and it was good. Humans were told to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, bringing Eden to all creation. Mankind fell and brought a curse on creation, making room for death and destruction. God then worked through his creation to redeem it and bring restoration, ultimately becoming part of creation in the man Jesus. And in the end, God’s plan of redemption and salvation prevails as the good creation is restored and renewed in the new heavens and new earth. And in this new creation, Eden is indeed expanded to fill the whole earth as the light of God lights the path for the nations and kings of the earth, so that it can truly be seen that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Hab. 2:14)
This is the overall narrative of scripture. And what a beautiful picture that is.
Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.
Stay tuned for part 2!
The love of God, and the God of love, calls out to you.