No More Tears in God’s New Heaven and New Earth

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Jan van Eyck, c. 1390-1441

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Jan van Eyck, c. 1390-1441

From NT Wright’s commentary, Revelation for Everyone, he says this about Revelation 21:1-5:

When has there been a moment in your life when you have said to yourself, ‘This is new’? I don’t just mean a car with a few new gadgets, or a meal with a different combination of sauces and seasonings – though these, too, may point in the right direction. I’m thinking more of major life-experiences in which we think to ourselves, ‘Everything is going to be different now. This is quite new. This is a whole new world opening up.’

Such experiences might well include some major life-events: birth, marriage, full recovery from a long and dangerous illness, the experience of someone new coming to live with you. All these, interestingly, feature in the list of images which John uses as he builds up this breathtaking picture of the new heaven and new earth. ‘I will be his God and he shall be my son’ (verse 7): a final new birth. The holy city is like ‘a bride dressed up for her husband’: a wedding. There will be ‘no more death, or mourning or weeping or pain any more’: the great recovery. And, central to this whole picture, and indeed explaining what it all means, is the great promise: ‘God has come to dwell with humans.’ The new, permanent guest.

There may be mystery about God’s new creation, but what we do know is surely good news. What a hope we have in Jesus Christ.

Trying to Empathize with Lamentations

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, Rembrandt, 1630

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, Rembrandt, 1630

In reading Lamentations I wondered how much we could empathize with the weeping over a destroyed Jerusalem. We are so less rooted to our geography in this culture and see it as a point of pride to be well-traveled. For some the goal of growing up is to get out of the small town you grew up in. Even the US taken as a whole isn’t all that old of a country and our history is hardly anything compared to the longstanding nations elsewhere in the world.

So if we were to imagine a hometown or an iconic city like Washington, D.C. or New York City destroyed, how would we react? Could our sorrow even begin to match that of what is read in Lamentations? Jerusalem was not only a civic center or place of worship, it was both those things and more. It was where that generation’s ancestors had worshiped the living God who made his dwelling place there, among all the places on earth.

Surely that destruction would cause questions and doubts. Where is God if his habitation is destroyed? Where is he if he would allow his people to be exiled? Who are we if we do not have our home or a place to gather and worship?

As we read Lamentations, take the time to imagine the devastation the author must have felt. Only once you have tried that then move toward the jubilation you can imagine when God’s people are returned home and this city is rebuilt. You can’t grasp the hope that comes in places like the end of Isaiah, dealing with Israel’s restoration, without first understanding the depth of despair that met the people as Jerusalem burned.

Prophecy Fulfilled Against Assyria in Isaiah 37

There were a number of prophecies against Assyria and their fall and in Isaiah 37 we see those prophecies fulfilled. In chapter 31 we read:

And the Assyrian shall fall by a sword, not of man;
and a sword, not of man, shall devour him…

In chapter 37, after Sennacherib, the leader of the Assyrians, mocks the God of Israel in his dealings with Hezekiah he leaves to attend to an uprising in the south by the king of Egypt.

Sennacherib from palace in Nineveh

Sennacherib from palace in Nineveh

Sennacherib has been very successful in his rule, as he notes to Hezekiah. Assyria has been used by God to bring his judgment on the land and Sennacherib says, “Behold, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, devoting them to destruction. And shall you be delivered? Have the gods of the nations delivered them, the nations that my fathers destroyed…?”

Hezekiah must be in great fear, for himself, his people, and Jerusalem. But he knows that those other gods were no gods at all. He goes to the temple and prays for God’s deliverance, and does so with the purpose that the kingdoms of earth may know that Israel’s God is truly God.

As I said, the prophecy is fulfilled and Hezekiah’s prayers are answered. In going to fight off the Egyptians, Sennacherib is dealt a grew blow, loses thousands of men, and retreats back to the capital of Ninevah.

There is an interesting comparison between these two leaders. Hezekiah goes to the temple and is heard by God and is spared. Later, after backing down following the loss of so many of his men at the hand of God’s angels, Sennacherib goes to his temple. There he is not delivered, rather he finds his end as his own sons kill him in order to seize power for themselves.

Also-in reading about this passage I found two accounts of how the 185,000 of Sennacherib’s camp were put to death. One is an account of some pesky mice that came out in the night to gnaw away at the bows and the straps of Assyrian shields, leaving that army weakened. The other is not as exciting, and records disease as the tool used to bring about their destruction.

As a Hen Gathers Her Brood

When I was on vacation after Christmas I went to church and heard a sermon that was on Matthew 23, with great focus on the image that comes at the end. Jesus laments for Jerusalem saying:

How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

The preacher referenced a mosaic that depicts this, so I wanted to track it down to share it with you. It is found at a church called Dominus Flevit, which means ‘the Lord has wept.’ It is located on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus wept over Jerusalem, and its architecture designed to resemble a tear drop.

It is humbling to think of the care Jesus has for us and how it extends even to those who reject him. He is brokenhearted over Jerusalem and only desires to protect and love its people.

Dominus Flevit Mosaic

Nehemiah’s Mourning

In the opening of Nehemiah hears the sad news of what state Jerusalem is in and in response he weeps and mourns for days. I think if we saw this godly sort of grief happening we might think something was wrong–not with the situation of Jerusalem being in ruin–but rather with Nehemiah. Days of mourning? We might try to tell him to think about something else. Do something to get if of your mind. Don’t be so glum.

But this is not a mourning that bears no fruit. He is deeply affected by the news he has heard and it leads him to action. His sorrow leads him to put everything on the line, going to the king and asking leave to return to Jerusalem. Once there it leads him to repent with his countrymen. It leads him to give generously from his wealth to sustain the building projects. And this is not just a simple construction site. It is full of danger. Nehemiah is moved at this news and does not just write a check and send it off, while staying in safety. He goes to the city and together with the people stands guard against his enemies who intend to attack. To rebuild the walls is not an easy endeavor and it is a dangerous one for all who are involved. God used Nehemiah’s mourning to him to action and sacrifice in order to accomplish God’s will.

Paul and Barnabas Split Up

Barnabas Curing the Poor, Paolo Veronese, 1566

As I mentioned yesterday, the early church struggled over what laws still apply to converts to Christianity, and we see that in the first chapter from this week’s readings from the book of Acts, chapter 15. Some among the Pharisees thought the Gentiles needed to first be circumcised, or in other words, the Gentiles had to become Jews first, to be followers of Jesus. The council in Jerusalem took time to decide matters and believed God was taking away any distinction between Jews and Gentiles and that all are saved by God’s grace, not the law.

The believers sent out delegates to bring this news to the early church, and this group included Paul and Barnabas (v.25). The news was met with rejoicing in the churches and Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch to continue teaching and preaching the word of the Lord.

Having just made a proclamation of unity to the churches that signified that the council was of one accord and that two groups who had been at odds were now being brought together, a sharp division arises. Paul and Barnabas intend to return to the churches they have ministered to, but Barnabas wanted to bring along John (called Mark), and Paul is not pleased by such a choice. Paul’s objection is that John has left them previously (Acts 13:13), so it would be better to choose another. We are not told explicitly why John left, but perhaps he returned to Jerusalem because he was uncomfortable with the mission Paul had to the Gentiles. This causes “sharp disagreement” between Paul and Barnabas, causing them to separate–Paul goes with Silas, and Barnabas with John.

Do we lament that division followed such unity? I don’t think that needs to be the response.

This was not a break over what the council had just decided. They do not disagree on their mission, just on the manner in which they will carry it out. Certainly it would have troubled these men to part over such circumstances, but even though they were divided, they still shared unity in their purpose. They both were committed to bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ wherever they went and continuing to care for his church. God may have even been able to use them for a greater good given that these two esteemed disciples divided their time and energies to reach different geographic areas. It also gave opportunity for Paul and Barnabas to take on new partners with whom to serve.

God is given glory in the unity brought about in the work of Jesus Christ to break down barriers that had once separated peoples. That good news is heard by the churches as the Jerusalem council sends word and the people rejoiced. But I do not think God’s glory is diminished when two faithful servants of the gospel part ways and divide to spread their ministries in new directions. God still worked great deeds in and through these early missionaries, and the story even has a happy ending. Paul’s letters reveal reconciliation with John (Mark), and he has changed his view of his role in the ministry. In 2 Timothy 4 Paul calls for him to be brought back because he believes that John is of great use to the work of God.