Anticipated City

22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Revelation 21:22-27 (NIV)

Traveling is an enjoyable pastime of mine. I enjoy going to new cities and locations. Exploring a city where I have not previously been is exciting. There have been many times.in which I have discovered amazing aspects unknown to me. Also, since I enjoy history, I am happy when I encounter historical sites and/or learn the history of the location. Anticipating a trip, and what I may discover, fills me with great joy.

Today in our passage, we are given a glimpse of the anticipated Holy City. In John’s vision, he tells us about the city. This city has the Lord as its temple and light. The gates are never shut because there is nothing to fear. People of the nations will bring the honor and glory of the earth into the city. No one, on nothing, deemed impure by the Lord will be allowed into the city. This is John’s vision, not because he has been there but through the power of the Spirit he has been able to see this anticipated city.

Like John did so many years ago, we anticipate our arrival to the Holy City. We desire a place where fear does not exist any longer. Fear is banished because the Lord is the light which dispels the dark aspects of life that cause fear. We expect such glory and honor to be present that we anticipate being prompted to worship and praise the Lord. Nothing will hinder our entrance into this great city where the welcome sign is always on. This is a trip which I eagerly await, why not accompany me.

Any Time

Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 (NIV)

Many of us share one frustration in common, few of us are happy when the weather forecasters get the forecast wrong. The ability to accurately predict the weather into the future is a relatively new phenomenon. Humans developed the ability to notice trends in nature as signs of general weather and season changes but the accuracy was limited. With the enlightenment which opened a deeper understanding of natural science, the accuracy began to be more consistent and the amount of time into the future for the predictions grew longer. Continued advancement of scientific knowledge and the introduction of technology improved weather forecasting to the point we now know up to seven days in advance what to expect. While the forecast has a day here or there when it is not 100% accurate, if we are honest, the predictions are more often right than wrong. Yet, we crave more accurate and precise predictions.

There is another type of prediction which all believers in Christ crave. Since the time of Jesus, people wanted to know when God will fully establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians addresses this desired prediction. He echoes the words of Jesus when he tells the people that no one knows the date or time. Paul reminds them that part of the establishment of the kingdom on earth will be the return of Jesus. He indicates that many will be caught unaware. These people will be participating in all types of activities which make them unprepared. Paul tells the believers to live in the light and be alert for Jesus’s return. He says that when Jesus comes on a cloud with power and glory, the believers should stand proud for their redemption is at hand.

Our desire to know exactly when to expect the events of the establishment of the kingdom comes from a combination of fear, control, and need for preparation. We fear that we have not been acting and behaving in ways which would please the Lord. We desire to control the events in our lives. Our wish to be prepared is because of our wish to place our best before God. However, there is nothing we can or not do which will make God love us any less. Our fear is unwarranted. Yes, in response to God’s love and grace, we should strive to be our best in following Jesus’s teaching but this will not include or exclude us from the kingdom. We anticipate the kingdom fully on earth but the exact day and time is irrelevant because we are the redeemed children of God already.

Afterlife Truth

13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (NIV)

I have had the privilege to assist families and friends when someone who they are close to has died. I call it a privilege because being with individuals at such an intimate time is not something everybody gets to do. When you work with people who are grieving the death of an individual, you often see their raw emotions. A person in my position would usually get a good indication how someone perceives death, resurrection and the afterlife. Grief is a very individualistic emotion and never the same twice. Those who trust in the Lord’s promise of the resurrection and an afterlife in God’s presence grieve but you also notice a sense of hope in their response to death.

Paul writes to the believers in Thessaloniki regarding resurrection, ascension and hope. He states that he wants them to understand the truth of the resurrection so they can grieve with hope. Paul tells these believers that when the Lord shouts the command, there will be a voice of an archangel and the sound of God’s trumpet call. At this time those who have died will be resurrected and join the Lord. Then those still living will also join the Lord. Living and dead will be united in the presence of the Lord. This assurance brings hope and not fear.

There are limited details in Scripture regarding our death and resurrection. We tend to fear what we do not know or understand. However, if we listen to the promises of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, we know that our earthly life is not the only life. Death is not an ultimate ending, we continue. God has provided a way that when our earthly life ends, we begin our spiritual life fully in God’s presence. Paul speaks of the day when our earthly body becomes our resurrected body and is rejoined with our spirit. This truth gives us hope in the face of our mortality.

Not the Same

27 Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. 28 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”

34 Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’[a] 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

39 Some of the teachers of the law responded, “Well said, teacher!” 40 And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

Luke 20:27-40 (NIV)

Growing up, I enjoyed watching Sesame Street just like countless kids have over the past sixty-one years. A frequent segment on the show featured four items with three of them being similar in some way and the fourth being dissimilar. They would sing the song, One of These Things, and challenge the viewer to determine which item was not like the others. The exercise was intended to assist children in looking for commonalities. Maybe you can still sing the song just as I can if you also grew up on Sesame Street.

In today’s reading we witness an encounter between Jesus and a few Sadducees. The Sadducees are attempting to trip Jesus up by bringing to him a question about the resurrection using a very unlikely scenario. What is interesting is that Sadducees said that there was no resurrection so why they used this scenario seems puzzling. The Sadducees use earthly marriage laws and customs to attempt to challenge Jesus on the resurrection. Jesus basically says to them that one of these things is not like the other. Earthly situations do not apply to the resurrection life. Then he continues by pointing out the reality of the resurrection using Moses’s words and the fact that God is God of the living and not the dead.

We can be guilty of the same mistake which the Sadducees made in regard to applying earthly understands and norms to the resurrected and spiritual reality of God. In one respect can be forgiven for this mistake because we live an earthly existence which we know and understand. Our understanding of the resurrected life is very limited. Knowing this should be a warning to us though. We have to remember that one is not like the other. We cannot assume that our customs and norms apply in any way to God’s reality. When we assume God will respond in a certain way, or our resurrected self will live as we do on earth, we are projecting earthly realities on the spiritual.

God is the God of the living both on earth and in the resurrected life. However, the two are not the same. So when you are tempted to try and make them the same, remember what we learned from Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the other.

Wonderment

One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. 13 There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. 14 The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

15 The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls. 16 The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia[a] in length, and as wide and high as it is long. 17 The angel measured the wall using human measurement, and it was 144 cubits[b] thick.[c] 18 The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. 19 The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst.[d] 21 The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.

Revelation 21:9-21

One of my favorite places to go is the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. I especially enjoy being there after sunset because when the lights come on, everything seems even more magical. Cinderella’s castle, in the heart of the Magic Kingdom, sparkles in a magnificent way at night. I think one of the reasons for my enjoyment of the Magic Kingdom is when I am there at night, I am transported back to my childhood home where I watched The Wonderful World of Disney every Sunday night. The show began with Tinkerbell flying around a beautiful castle at night. That imagery comes alive for me when I stand on Main Street of the Magic Kingdom. I am in complete awe and great joy as I gaze on the beautiful, gold-accented, and sparkling castle under the lights.

This sense of awe is noticeable in the words of John as he relays his vision of the Holy City. The angel takes him to a vantage point where the city is fully displayed before him. John provides a detailed description of the city which allows us, the readers, to feel transported to the location of John and our mind’s eye is filled with the beauty described. The accuracy of the details in this vision here may be up for discussion, the emotional response which it elicits is fully intended. One cannot read John’s account without feeling awe. The described massiveness and beauty of the Holy City is almost overwhelming. When thinking about the eternal dwelling place of God, and each of us, having this imagery makes a person eager to arrive at the Holy City. I would be remiss if I failed to remind you that this is imagery intended to create a specific emotional response in the reader. This should not be seen as a factual description of the Holy City.

Each time I walk into the Magic Kingdom, the same memories and feelings flood over me. Whenever you read this portion of John’s vision, a similar experience can occur for you. Do not get caught up in the accuracy of the details. Instead, experience the wonderment and joy which these words can provide you. Let the anticipation sweep over you. Be secure in the knowledge that these words cannot fully capture what awaits us in the full presence of the Lord.

Is This It?

Seems that not a day goes by anymore which does not contain some message about death. Recently I have heard about the deaths of individuals who I attended worship alongside. There have been deaths of celebrities. Tragic deaths such as the ones occurring in California at a garlic festival and those of hikers in Canada have made the national news. Locally, living in a large metroplex, death from accidents and violent acts of humans are daily mentioned on the television or in the newspaper. At times, it seems that death surrounds us all the time. Actually, that is more accurate than we may wish to acknowledge.

I have been thinking about how we respond to death. These thoughts have included both our societal responses and the responses we have as individuals, specifically in regard to our faith. I worry occasionally that as a society we have become so accustomed to death that we hardly even notice it anymore. Yet, I also am aware that some of our apathy towards death stems not solely from the frequency of encounter but also from our unwillingness to look at it honestly. We do not wish to affirm the reality of death because in doing so we have to face our own mortality.

Facing our mortality requires us to think about what we concern regarding the afterlife. Since there is no solid proof about the afterlife, we are afraid. For a large number of people, this fear leads us to ignore or push thoughts of death out of our thinking. We adopt an attitude of if we do not confront death, we do not have to think about death. Death seems too unknown to us and the fear is overwhelming, so we attempt to push it aside.

As a society and as individuals, we often want to hide death. One example is in how we talk about death when a person is deceased. We use phrases such as, “He has passed on,” or “She has parted.” Our avoidance of using the word death is a way to lessen the reality. By reducing the finality of death, we can evade dealing with it.

I have a much different view towards death. My view of death is very dependent upon my understanding of my faith. Through my reading of the Scriptures, the development of my beliefs, and my own experiences, I see death as a transition. There is no finality in death for me. Instead, there exists a belief that at death a person transitions from an earthly existence into a spiritual realm. Since I believe in a bodily resurrection, this does not mean that a person only exists as a spirit in this spiritual realm but that the same joining of the body and spirit which occurred during our earthly birth happens within the spiritual realm. I also believe that in this spiritual realm a person experiences the fullness of God.

Due to my understandings and beliefs in regard to death, death is not something I fear either for myself or those whom I love. Just because I do not fear death does not mean that I do not grieve when a person dies. I grieve though not because I fear what happens at the point of death and after, I grieve because I know that for a period of time I will be separated from that person. Once fear has been removed, the grief is a little easier to bear. Once fear is removed, you can talk honestly about death and the afterlife.

Going To Hell

One of the most important realizations which I came to after spending some years studying the Bible is that the Bible is written with a lot of imagery. This is understandable for various reasons. First, the accounts which we find in the Bible today came to us from an oral tradition. Second, the telling of these experiences and stories happened when there was no such thing as a printing press, motion pictures, televisions, or computers. Third, as humans, we try to relate events, experiences, and complex thoughts to something which helps us to make sense of whatever we are discussing. Together, these lend themselves to the use of imagery. The speakers and eventually, the authors of the Bible relied heavily on imagery. This is an important fact when people of the 21st century attempt to interpret Scripture. (For more thoughts about interpreting Scripture, see my post Word by Word.) It is also important when dealing with this post’s subject matter.

Last week I wrote a post regarding my understanding of heaven. (See Is This Heaven.) I thought that it made sense to follow up that post with one on my understanding of hell. Much of what I communicated in last week’s post applies to hell as well. I do not believe hell is a physical location. Hell is not the place of eternal punishment. There is no being in a red suit with a forked tail holding a trident or pitchfork. There are no boiling pots of hot lava with stone walkways running through them. There are no endless torments designed specifically for the person who is supposed to be sent to hell. All these are images which have been created over time based on someone’s interpretation of Scripture (often the book of Revelation) or through horror stories passed down through generations.

My understanding of hell and any Scripture which may lend itself to the concept of hell is that this is truly a human construct. The details of hell and evil lie within the human spiritual and psychological components. Let me try to unpack that a little for you. For me, hell is living without God. The only way that this reality could ever be (if it truly could ever be) is because a person has totally rejected the existence of a supreme spiritual being. God is the English name given to the supreme spiritual being which Christians, Jews, and Muslims acknowledge but is not the sole name humans give to this being. Therefore, I am not saying that using a different name for the supreme spiritual being other than God is the qualifier here but instead that a person rejects that there even is such a being.

It is also important to note here that I do not believe that God (which is the name I will use throughout this post since I am a Christian) EVER rejects ANY human. Why this is important is because it means the action is taken by a human and not God. This also means that God never leaves the person but that the person lives as if God does not exist. For me, living as if God never exists would be hell.

I think it is also important to deal with the misconception that God created a location labeled hell as a place for eternal punishment. Again, imagery used in the Bible has led to this interpretation. But when you truly study the passages containing such imagery (example: Matthew 13), you see that the issue being addressed is a person or persons who have chosen to reject God. The imagery is to help people understand what the life experience would be like if a person chooses to deny God’s existence and design for life.

In summary, my understanding of hell is that it is not a place but more a description of a person’s possible spiritual and psychological state. A state which we have been fully released from by the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection if we will accept the new status which God has given freely to each of us.

Is This Heaven?

Thirty years ago, a movie was released which starred Kevin Costner and told the story of a man who built a baseball field in the middle of his Iowa farmland because a voice had told him that if he built it, all the great baseball stars would come and play there. One small piece of dialogue from the movie Field of Dreams became famous, especially in Iowa:

“Is this heaven?”

“No, this is Iowa.”

One of the “ghost players” arrived at the newly constructed baseball diamond and asks the question. Costner’s character provides the response.

I am prompted by this movie scene to consider the question, “What is heaven?” In the movie, the baseball diamond seemed to the ghost baseball player like it might be heaven. A lot of people refer to a certain setting as being like heaven. Images of golden streets and angels with harps are presented as ways heaven may look. While these images and settings my bring comfort and give us a sense of something grand, I am not certain that they truly are heaven.

At the start, I have to be honest and state there is no concrete proof of what heaven is or is not. Jesus tells stories that give us more a concept of the nature of heaven and not a physical description. People recorded in the Bible speak of visions which are often associated with heaven but are not intended to give us a physical description. I think there is a significant reason for this vagueness. In fact, this vagueness is part of what creates an image of heaven for me.

I am convinced that heaven is not an actual location. While we are accustomed to looking toward the sky when referencing heaven, this comes more out of Greek and Roman cultures and their mythology than any theological understanding. Heaven is a spiritual reality which cannot be understood fully in our physical nature. This prompts us to create images in our mind, so we are able to gain some type of grasp on the concept of heaven. Creating physical images to understand spiritual realities is common among humans.

My belief is that heaven should be understood as being present with the fullness of God. While we are physically alive on earth, we get glimpses what heaven is because we receive glimpses of the presence of God. When the fullness of our spiritual being is unbound at the time of our physical death, then we will experience the fullness of God who is spiritual. Becoming aware of the fullness of God which already surrounds us now, though we are incapable of fully experiencing this fullness, is to me experiencing heaven.

As wonderful as Iowa is and a baseball field may be, it is not heaven. Heaven is present in those places but heaven is not a place of itself.

How does this align with your understanding of heaven? How do you disagree with my understanding of heaven?