Thursday, September 19, 2013

When heaven and earth have become one creation

During my recent trip to South Africa to get the new truck (again let me say thank you, thank you, thank you to all who contributed!), our three year old, Katie, accumulated a large pile of books for us to read together upon my return.  Some of her recent favorites are just plain silly and fun: the adventures of a snowman and a little girl and another one about a love bitten cat named Splat. But, one book that I’m glad has consistently found its way into Katie’s stack is called What about Heaven? by Kathleen Long Bostrom and illustrated by Elena Kucharik.  It’s part of the “Little Blessings” series of books.  A lot of Christian children’s books unfortunately have pretty bland theology but this set is really, really good.  Here is my favorite page:

Recent popular and more scholarly reflections on the topic of heaven have given more attention to the promise of a new heaven and new earth, and it’s encouraging to see this idea show up in books written for toddlers.  The perception seems to be shifting away from thinking about heaven as a place that we hope to escape to after we die and towards viewing heaven as the redemption and transformation of this world into the fulfillment of God’s intention.  One of my former professors, John Mark Hicks, says that “this has been God’s intent from the beginning.  He created an earth to be inhabited and filled by human beings who would image him and who would also share fellowship with him (Isaiah 45:18).”

Heaven shouldn’t be seen as the great getaway, fleeing to another realm up above.  Instead, heaven means the renewal of this one, down below.  It’s the answer to Jesus’ prayer for God’s will to be done here on earth as it is in heaven.   At the end of all things, we are told that “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21 NIV).  In 2 Peter 3 we see that in order for that liberation to occur, the earth will be need to be purified by fire - not consumed, but cleansed and rid of impurities.  And this teaching is a source of hope - “in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of the righteous” (2 Peter 3:13 NIV).

One of the most dynamic, and perhaps misunderstood, passages is 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18 where we learn that at the end of all things we’ll ‘meet’ the Lord in the air.  Rogers notes that “this word had a technical meaning in the Hellenistic world related to the visits of dignitaries to cities where the visitor would be formally met by the citizens, or a deputation of them, who went out from the city and would then escort him back into the city” (p. 479).  So, Paul tells us that after a joyous reunion in the air, we’ll accompany Jesus back down to earth as he takes his throne here on the renewed world.  It would be unfortunate if we focused so much on our going ‘up’ that we missed the point that God’s focus has been on coming ‘down’.

At the end of the Bible, we see again this beautiful picture of heaven coming down, crashing down, on earth (Rev. 21:1-5).  While this idea is painted in various ways (it’s a city, it’s a bride, etc.), the point is that God’s dream will be fulfilled and the Creator will dwell with his people (Rev. 22:1-5).

Certainly, we won't be able to understand everything on this side of eternity.  But ultimately, no matter how everything shakes out regarding ‘where’ we will be and ‘what’ the nature of heaven really is… the important question, the thing I want to make sure that Katie understands, is the ‘who’ - that in our promised eternal dwelling will be in the presence of the King.

Grace and Peace,

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