A New Garden in a New City on a New Earth

January 23, 2020

The new earth has a new garden in a new city.

In the next to last chapter of the Bible, John sees a “new heaven and new earth” where God’s new Jerusalem descends from heaven to earth. In other words, heaven comes down to earth. At that moment, the whole earth is filled with the glory of God.

There is no more chaos, which is represented by the absence of a sea. There is no more death, pain, or mourning because all of that has passed away and everything has become new. As God says, “I am making all things new.” God does not make new things, but God makes all things new. God renews what God made in the beginning. And this fulfills God’s promise to Abraham, and God invites the children of Abraham to “inherit these things.”

When heaven comes to earth, heaven and earth become one. That union of heaven and earth—the union of the dwelling of God with the dwelling of humanity within the creation—is the moment when the glory of God will fill the earth. Everything within it will be called holy and the earth will know the righteousness, justice, and peace of the fullness of the kingdom of God.

This was the hope of Israel. They yearned for a time of peace and justice, of righteousness and love. They hoped for a time when the wolf and the lamb would lie down together. They expected a time when all the nations would bow before their God and learn war no more. They trusted that God would reign fully in the earth. These are the promises and prophecies that will be fulfilled when God renews the heavens and the earth and comes to dwell with the heirs of the promise on the new earth.

The new earth has a new city, the new Jerusalem. This is the city where God dwells. There is no temple in this city because God dwells there. There is no night there because God is the light of the city. The whole earth has become the temple of God as the new Jerusalem fills the earth.

This new city also has a new garden which gives life to God’s people. The tree of life is there, and there is abundant provision for all peoples.

In this new city, with its new garden on a new earth, the people of God serve God day and night. I don’t know exactly what that means. In what ways will we serve God? Perhaps we will take up our original commission to reign with God over the creation, and this means we will continue to develop it and care for it.

Perhaps we might imagine that we continue to write new songs, create new art, make new history, build new buildings, and develop new relationships with people and diverse nations. Perhaps we will finally learn to enjoy the diversity of different cultures and peoples. To serve God is to continue in the ministry God gave humanity, to function as royal priests within the creation. We will lead the creation in the praise of God, and we will care for the creation and develop its potential even further.

Exactly what will that look like? I don’t know, and I hesitate to speculate. But I am confident of this: it will be a grand adventure that exceeds all that we might imagine and more than anything for which we might ask. It will be a great adventure, and the story of God will continue and blossom into eternity.


Hermeneutics is Always Inferential

January 21, 2020

Below I summarize the point of Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible.h

Growing up in Churches of Christ, I embraced and practiced a hermeneutic that sought an implicit blueprint for the work and worship of the church in Acts and the Epistles. Through a filter of generic/specific distinctions, coordinate associations, the law of silence, and expediency (among other rules for authorization), I shifted through the commands, examples, and inferences within the New Testament to deduce a blueprint, which then became the standard of faithfulness and a mark of the true church.  And if everyone agreed upon and practiced the blueprint, we would be united! Part I of my book tells this story.

The inadequacies of this approach as well as its subjectivity (every conclusion and most steps along the way were inferences) created doubts. This is not how the apostolic witness called people to gospel obedience. They did not read Scripture or write Scripture with a blueprint lens. Something different was going on. This is described in Part II of my book.

The problem is the location of the pattern. The pattern is not found in an implied blueprint in Acts and the Epistles. Paul does not call people to obedience based on a blueprint located in the practices of the church. Instead, he calls them to obedience based on the pattern manifested in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. This is the gospel we obey—the story of Jesus—rather than a blueprint we have inferred from the text but is not explicitly there. This is my point in Part III of my book.

Hermeneutics, even a theological hermeneutic which I promote in the book, always involves inferences. We cannot escape them; every application is an inference. But here is the significant point: the pattern is not an inference. On the contrary, it is the story in which we live. It is the narrative air we breathe. The pattern of God’s work through Christ in the power of the Spirit is clear, objective, and formative. It is the story told in Scripture; it is an explicit pattern.

We will find unity when we confess the same pattern, and the shame of our division is that we already confess the same pattern.  Our pattern is God in Jesus through the Spirit, or our pattern is Jesus. Here we are united, and our hermeneutics (whether blueprint or theological) must not undermine that unity but provide ways to embody it.  That is the point of Part IV of my book.


Communal Life

January 20, 2020

The goal of God for human life is transformation into the likeness of God and participation in the communal fellowship of the Triune God. When humanity fully participates in the circle of God’s loving fellowship, then the reign of God has fully arrived.

This does not entail a loss of finitude or creatureliness. When glorified in the new heaven and new earth with glorified bodies that conform to the glorious body of the resurrected Lord, we will not be saved from finitude but invited, as finite creatures, to share in the divine fellowship of the Triune God. We will not become omniscient or omnipotent because we will not participate in the divine essence; we will not become little gods. But we will become Godlike, that is, full participants in the divine love.

At the same time, our participation in the divine love—because it is experienced as finite creatures—is a journey into the heart of God, deeper into the fellowship of the divine persons. Every morning God will be new to us because as finite creatures the infinite God will always have more to share with us and we will experience that love more deeply. God is like a bottomless well from which we will drink—we will experience daily filling of joy and satisfaction, but there is always more to drink. God will give us more moment by moment throughout eternity.

As community, we will grow more intimate with each other. The relationships we begin now will continue into glory. More than that, they will grow deeper, wider, and more inclusive. Our relationships will not remain static but deepen and expand. We will know not only those with whom we have relationships now, but we will also initiate new relationships with people we have never known. The fullness of the kingdom of God as a community is an interactive web of relationships which will provide opportunity for growth in the new heaven and new earth.

Moreover, the glorified community is not a static accomplishment as if we attain “perfection” and thus there is no more work, no more loving, no more growing, no more knowing, or no more connecting to be done. Rather, the fullness of the kingdom of God involves a dynamic growth into the heart of God as well as a dynamic growth among the people of God. When God recreates, just as God created in the beginning, the Triune God will create a dynamic reality that invites the redeemed community to pursue growth, intimacy, fellowship, and relationship within the new creation.

The oneness of the people of God will emerge brightly upon the new earth, and the unity of the body of Christ will be recognized as a gift of God’s gracious work. But the oneness does not entail some kind of Stepford human beings who are all identical. Rather, the oneness, like the oneness of the original creation, includes a diversity and a dynamism that reflects the reality of God who is both three and loving while at the same time remaining one.

The fullness of the kingdom, then, is a communal reality created in the image of God’s Triune fellowship. It is the experience of intimacy without fear, love without suspicion, and trust without doubt. It is love because God is love. There are no more barriers, no more ethnic bigotry, no more snobbish class wars, and no more alienation or marginalization. The kingdom of God will experience community in a way that images the community of God’s own life and participate in the community of God’s life.



Divine Judgment

January 16, 2020

As we read the story of God in the Bible, we see over and over again where God purposes to set things right, does—in fact—set things right, and promises to ultimately set everything right. God will not let evil stand; God will not let evil go unchecked; and God will not let evil win.

When people filled the earth with violence, God renewed the earth with a flood. When Egypt would not let God’s people go, it suffered divine judgment. When Israel did not care for its poor and shed innocent blood, God sent them into exile. When the Messiah came to the temple, he turned over its tables of injustice and exploitation. When the powers killed the Messiah, God judged the powers through the resurrection of the Messiah and set the world right through the exaltation of the Messiah to God’s right hand.

God’s vindication of the Messiah, and its corresponding subversion of the powers, is the revelation of God’s final goal, which is: God will set things right.

This is the essence of divine judgment. God discerns between good and evil; God destroys evil; and God ensures the triumph of good. And this is how the story of God has played out throughout the theodrama, throughout Scripture.

At the same time, God does not act as quickly or as thoroughly as we like. We want it over now, and we pray for the full reign of God in the world now. When we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are praying for God’s final discernment between good and evil, God’s final destruction of evil, and God’s final triumph over evil. We are praying that God will set things right. We are praying, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

There will come a day, a judgment day, when the distinction between good and evil will become clear. We will see evil in all its stark reality, and we will reject it and acknowledge its opposition to the life of God. God will purge all evil from the creation, and evil will be destroyed and eliminated from God’s creation so that there is no more curse, no more sea, and no more evil in God’s new creation (Revelation 21:1-6; 22:3).

Judgment is that process by which God separates evil from good and separates the sheep from the goats. This separation not only identifies and clarifies the reality of evil, but it also refines and purges people so that the people of God are perfected in the love of God. Judgment, then, is the moment where evil is identified, humanity is examined, the earth is purged of its evil, the people of God are fully sanctified, and the people of God are invited into the new creation to live upon a new earth where righteousness dwells.

It often seems like God does not care about evil because God permits it to exist in such quantity with such intensity. We sometimes doubt whether God is all that concerned about evil and the trauma it creates.

The story of God, however, assures us that God does care. God examines humanity, and God discerns the difference between good and evil. God will destroy evil, and good will triumph. We see this in the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. And that is our hope. God will judge evil and exalt the good. So, we continue to pray, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”


The Resurrection of Creation

January 13, 2020

Though often neglected, salvation also includes the liberation of the cosmos from its bondage to decay and destruction. The whole cosmos groans, along with humanity, for relief from the frustration to which the world has been subjected. God saves the cosmos by renewing it, by ushering in a new or renewed heaven and earth.

This hope is rooted in God’s promise to Abraham. The land, which includes the whole cosmos, according to Romans 4:13, is the inheritance of Israel. Abraham is the heir of the cosmos. The creation now belongs to a descendant of Abraham, the Son of David, the Son of God. As co-heirs with Jesus, we, too, are heirs of the cosmos.

Based on this promise to Abraham, according to Peter, “we wait for the new heavens and new earth, where righteousness will dwell” (2 Peter 3:13). God promised Abraham an inheritance, and that inheritance is a new heaven and a new earth. The Christian hope includes a new earth.

Too often Christians have thought they must escape the creation and fly away in glory to some eternal celestial heaven. If we mean that we want to escape the “present evil age” or escape the decaying, destructive powers of death, then I understand that point. I, too, want to escape that. God will dissolve all the evil and destroy the powers that enslaved the creation. But the biblical story is not ultimately about escape but redemption. 

God redeemed the body of Jesus through raising him from the dead and transforming his death-bound body into an immortal body. This is our hope as well. One day God will redeem our bodies through raising us from the dead and transforming our death-bound bodies into immortal bodies. This is also the hope of the creation itself.

The creation groans to be “set free” or liberated from “its bondage to decay,” and it hopes to share in the “freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). The resurrection of the creation is rooted in the resurrection of God’s people just as the resurrection of God’s people is rooted in the resurrection of God’s Messiah. The resurrection of Jesus, our own resurrection, and the resurrection of the creation are inextricably tied together. The resurrection of Jesus is the inauguration of new creation, our resurrection is our participation in the new creation, and the creation itself becomes new because it is the dwelling place of the resurrected people of God with their resurrected Messiah.

In this way, the creation is like a mother about to give birth to something new (Romans 8:22). The creation presently experiences something akin to labor pains as it groans in eager expectation for its liberation and transformation. The present creation will give birth to a new creation just as our bodies will give birth to new bodies in the resurrection.

The Abrahamic promise was first given to ethnic Israel but, by faith and because of the Messiah, it includes the nations as well. Perhaps on the new heaven and new earth the redeemed of ethnic Israel will dwell in Palestine—in the land between the rivers of Egypt and Babylon—and the rest of the earth will belong to the people of God among the nations as they again reign on the earth with God. The kingdom of God will fill the earth.

The earth is the inheritance of God’s people as Jesus promised: “The meek shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). One day the reign of God will fill it from the east to the west, from the north to the south. The whole earth, unlike its present condition, will be “Holy to the Lord” (Zechariah 14:20).


The Resurrection of Humanity

January 9, 2020

The hope of the Christian faith is the transformation of human life from its present bondage to sin and death into a new humanity where the love of God is perfected in our souls and our bodies are equipped for living in the new heaven and new earth. Our future glorification is a transformation or metaphorsis into the likeness of Jesus the Messiah–the new human–in both body and soul. It is a passing from this present old way of living in the God’s good creation to a new way of living in God’s new heaven and new earth.

We are saved from death, and thus our bodies are resurrected and transformed. We are also saved from corruption, and thus our souls—our hearts—are fully transformed. Through our union with Christ, we become a recreated humanity as the image of God is renewed and glorified. This is our final state of glorification as we are united with the glorified Christ who is the new human, and he reigns over creation in a glorious, resurrected body.

This resurrected body is neither immaterial nor some kind of ethereal reality. Rather, it is material and Spiritual. What I mean is our bodies will have material substance. They will share in the materiality of the new heaven and new earth but animated by the Holy Spirit rather than by “flesh and blood.” The life of the immortal body is not sustained by food and blood as in the present Adamic world, but it is sustained by the life-giving Holy Spirit in the new creation conformed to the life of the New Adam who is the Lord Jesus. The hope of the Christian faith is not an immortal soul but the immortal body which is a part of the new creation in the new heaven and new earth. Our redemption—our salvation—includes the redemption of our bodies.

The soul—or, whatever we call our inner selves—is perfected in the new heaven and new earth. While the process of perfection began in the past and continues in the present, it is not complete until we fully participate in the life of Christ at our resurrection. Then we shall fully be as he is though we do not know what that is like because we only now experience a foretaste of that future. We, like Jesus, will experience transfiguration in the new creation. We will be permanently transfigured into the fullness of God’s image and thus become a new humanity in both body and soul.

We will be saved in the new creation to image God in the new heaven and new earth. We will be saved for eternal communion with God and to serve God as God’s image bearers in the new temple, the new creation. God will restore our original dignity and function, and God will glorify us by reinstating our dominion or reign over the creation. In this way, with transformed bodies and souls, we will co-rule with God in the renewed cosmos.


The Resurrection of Jesus

January 7, 2020

Death is an enemy.

On occasion death can be a relative good. When the quality of life, for example, is significantly diminished and there is unbearable pain, we might think dying is better than living—but only in a relative sense. Life is better than death since God created us for life, not death.

But death, the enemy, reigns. We are powerless before it. We cannot control it. We have no authority over it. Death comes when it wills. We may be able to delay it, but it still comes.

Indeed, death has a long history. Though shalom or peace once ruled the garden of Eden in which God delighted and where God rested, sin vandalized the goodness of creation and death assumed its dictatorship. Death invaded Eden, and now chaos reigns through death. In Adam, Paul wrote, all die.

Without hope, death gives way to despair. But God has a plan. Jesus the Messiah is God’s response to living east of Eden. Resurrection is God’s answer to death. God does not intend for the creation to disappear into nothingness, including our bodies. God will raise our bodies from the dead that they might live in the renewed creation, the new heaven and new earth.

God has a plan, and it is Jesus the Messiah. Jesus was not only human—authentically human in every way, but he is the new human through his resurrection. He is the first of a new humanity, one that will live forever in resurrected bodies on a renewed earth. His resurrection promises a future for humanity. In Christ, Paul wrote, all are made alive.

Jesus is the first of a coming harvest. Jesus is the first fruit of that harvest; there is more to come. The resurrection of Jesus belongs to the future even though it occurred in the past as a promise of the future.

The resurrection of Jesus is a preview of coming attractions. But this preview does not leave us wondering what the end of the drama is. Instead, in the resurrection of Jesus, we see death destroyed.

The resurrection of Jesus is the power of God that destroys all authority, power, and dominion. Death no longer reigns, but Jesus does. The empire no longer wields power, but the kingdom of God does. Satan no longer holds the keys of Hades or death, but the living Christ does.

Death is the last enemy and it will not last. Death will not win. This is what we celebrate every Sunday, and this is what we celebrate on Easter. God has given us hope in this life and through the resurrection God will give us life after death—not just life “in heaven” after death but life in the new heaven and new earth after the resurrection.

God will not abandon God’s people in the grave. Life wins. Death will lose.


Life in the Spirit – Waiting in Hope

January 7, 2020

Life in the Spirit is always filled with joy, but it is also always filled with lament.

It is both because we live in the in-between times. We live in the space of the “already but not yet.” We rejoice because we already know God’s salvation, and, at the same time, we groan over the sufferings of this present world. We are always groaning and rejoicing because we live in this moment when, though new creation has already begun, it has not yet been fully realized.

This means we must wait. Waiting is precarious. It doesn’t always feel safe. Indeed, it is perilous at times and often uncertain. Waiting is painful; it opens the door to fear. Waiting tests faith. Waiting demands endurance. Though we already experience God’s salvation through the presence of the Holy Spirit, we nevertheless wait with endurance for the full realization of our hope (Romans 8:26).

While we wait, we often suffer. But this suffering, as strange as it may sound, is something in which we boast. Paul tells that we boast not only “in our hope of sharing the glory of God,” but “we also boast in our sufferings” (Romans 5:2-3).

It makes sense to boast in hope. Standing in the grace of God, we have peace with God because we have been declared right with God through Jesus the Messiah. Therefore, we have hope. But this hope has not yet been fully realized, and, consequently, we wait. As we wait, we suffer. And we boast in our sufferings.

Still, does it make sense to boast in suffering? Wherein does the boast lie? Is suffering meaningful? What is gained through suffering?

Paul boasts in suffering because he knows what it produces. We boast in suffering, Paul says, because we know it produces endurance. The word Paul uses refers to something that stands up under pressure. It is squeezed, pressed, and molded into something; it becomes something. Suffering is a crucible, a kind of pressure-cooker. What it produces is something that has withstood the pressure and been formed by it.

We boast in suffering, Paul says, because we know endurance produces character. This is what the pressure produces. The word Paul uses refers to a tested character, or as one older translation puts it, “approvedness.” Endurance produces an approved character, one that has been tested and refined by the process. Through suffering, we grow into something; we gain something. Suffering produces a tested and formed faith.

We boast in suffering, Paul says, because we know that character produces hope. At some point, we confess that the process of suffering has produced something worth the struggle. And that value is hope. It is out of the suffering that we learn to hope, and it is because we stand in the grace of God that we are able to hope. Suffering does not subvert our hope. It produces hope, and this hope does not disappoint us.

Hope is not some kind of self-actualization as if we produce hope through our own efforts or right-thinking. On the contrary, hope is something produced through suffering because of the presence of the Holy Spirit who has poured the love of God into our hearts.

Suffering produces hope because we know the love of God through faith, and we experience the hope of the Holy Spirit in the process of endurance that forms our character. We hope because of what God does in the power and pouring out of the Spirit into our hearts, and we experience that hope through the suffering we endure. In this way, we wait in hope.


Life in the Spirit – Lament

January 7, 2020

Life in the Spirit is always filled with joy, but it is also always filled with lament.

That sounds rather strange, doesn’t it? How can it be both? It is both because we live in-between the times. We live in the space of the “already but not yet.” We rejoice because we already know God’s salvation, and, at the same time, we groan over the sufferings of this present world. We are always groaning and rejoicing because we live in this moment when, though new creation has already begun, it has not yet been fully realized.

Some think that Christians should only rejoice, no matter what their circumstances. They find no place for lament as people who live in the Spirit. While there is always a place for gratitude in our lives, even when we are suffering, there is also space for lament as well. Though, for example, Paul was filled with hope and joy, he also groaned. Even though we have the first fruits of the Spirit, we nevertheless still groan while we wait for the fullness of new creation (Romans 8:23).

Lament, grief, and protest have their rightful place in hearts filled with the Spirit of God. Jesus himself lamented upon the cross, wept at the grave of a friend, and protested the unjust of economics at the temple. Indeed, we might say that the presence of the Spirit gives us voice in such laments, griefs, and protests.

It is because we are filled with the Spirit and enjoy the fruit of the Spirit in our lives that our voices are raised in lament. We groan over the suffering and evil in the creation, and we raise our voice to God whom we ask to end this suffering and rid the world of its evil.

It is because we are filled with the Spirit and enjoy the fruit of the Spirit in our lives that we weep over death, violence, and injustice. We weep at the graves of family and friends, though we weep as those who have hope. We weep over the violence that fills the earth, including our schools and homes.

It is because we are filled with the Spirit and enjoy the fruit of the Spirit in our lives that we protest the injustice in the world. We protest against evil in all its forms, including racial, economic, and gender injustice. We raise our voices in complaint, and we ask God to do something about the injustices that surround us.

Life in the Spirit means that we groan, and our groanings take the form of lament, grief, and protest. We groan, in part, because the Spirit beckons us to a future where there is no suffering, death, and injustice. We groan because the Spirit moves us to acknowledge the frustrations of a creation bound over to decay. We groan because the Spirit has instilled in us a hope and a longing for the fullness of new creation.

When we lament, grieve, or protest, we join our voices with the voice of the Spirit who laments, grieves, and protests with us.


Perfected Through Suffering

December 30, 2019

Why does God permit suffering in God’s good creation? Everyone from the small child to the career philosopher and theologian has asked this question. But I have answer, which, for me, is the only honest answer. I don’t know. I simply don’t know. Whatever reasons God may have for permitting evil and suffering, I not only don’t know them. Further, though the story of God does not leave us totally clueless, even if I had some sense of the depth of God’sreasons I would never understand them. My intelligence is too shallow; my perspective too limited; and my heart too self-interested to fully understand God’s rationale. In other words, my brain is too small to accommodate the fullness of God’s wisdom.

At the same time, the theodrama, the story of God, is not silent about suffering. In fact, it provides the most astounding response to suffering the world has ever heard. It is the story of Jesus.

God became a human being; God became flesh. As a human being, subject to the pains and struggles of the present creation because of that flesh, God suffered alongside of us. God suffered with us. Prior to this incarnation, God had never experienced hunger, thirst, or death. God had never experienced the temptations of the flesh. God became one of us so that God might know us from the inside out as one who has walked in our shoes and fully experienced the human condition, particularly our suffering.

But that is only the beginning. The preacher in Hebrews describes this reality with shocking language. Jesus, the incarnate God, was perfected through suffering (Hebrews 2:10; 5:8-10). But what does that mean?

In part, it refers to the process of spiritual formation that matures our character through the trials of life. Jesus certainly experienced this in the wilderness as well as throughout his life. He grew in wisdom, and he learned obedience by the things which he suffered. In this way, God does use suffering to bear the fruit of righteousness in the lives of the disciples of Jesus (Hebrews 12:11).

But I think we can say more. Jesus, as God incarnate, followed us into our suffering not only to share in it but also to lead us out of it. He came to defeat it, overcome it, and liberate us from it. He followed us into death and pursued us into the grave. But Jesus suffered in order to create a path out of suffering so that he might bring others, along with himself, to glory. He led captivity captive and forged a path through suffering into glory. He was perfected through suffering so that he might perfect us.

In this way, Jesus not only shares our suffering, but we also share his. When we suffer, we suffer with Jesus just as he suffered for us. When we follow Jesus into his ministry, our discipleship shares in the affliction of Jesus, and by this we know the fellowship of his suffering. And if we know the fellowship of his suffering, we will also know the power of his resurrection—not just in the future but even in the present (Philippians 3:10). We know if we suffer with him, just as he suffered with us, we will also be glorified with him, just as he was glorified in his resurrection and exaltation (Romans 8:17).