Somewhere between now and January 31st, roughly 35% of us who have established a list of New Year’s resolutions will break at least one of them. By the end of the year, over 75% of us will have probably abandoned these goals altogether. Trends like this exacerbated by the constitution-decimating grind of a Chicago winter make most people in my home town already a bit less hopeful about 2012. What a difference a couple weeks can make! Remember the way things seemed back on January 1?
Twee hearts were still aflutter from Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” More macabre Batman fan-girls and boys alike were just getting excited about the promoted conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Night series this July. Alarmist cabals remained consternated by the conclusion of a 5,125-year cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar heralding the supposedly immanent end of the world–perhaps through the Nibiru collision. On the soberly optimistic side, the payoff of 2011′s Arab Spring and Occupy Pretty-Much-Everywhere suggested that my generation was finally getting a bit more politically proactive, albeit haltingly and not always productively. On the deeply foreboding side, the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 evidently suspended the Bill of Right’s protection of due process in its now infamous provision for the “indefinite detention” without trial of any American citizen suspected of terrorism.
And while grassroots politically fascinated Americans like yours truly found a legislative silver lining in the shelving of SOPA and PIPA week, most people I know didn’t have a clue what was even at stake (to hilarious albeit profane effect in the case of these Twitter users baffled by the blacking out of Wikipedia). Most of us have simply moved on from the alternatively cute, exciting, menacing, promising, and disconcerting tropes attending the birth of 2012 to the more stressful but not quite as game-changingly eventful toldderdom of 2012. Already, this New Year doesn’t feel quite so “brand” and “spanking” as was so recently the case. The best winter holidays are over. Our old habits and fears and comforts and conditions haven’t changed all that much after we’ve rubbed the party glitter from our eyes.
Where can we find a more substantial, focused source of motivation and follow-through? What can serve as our anchor? How can we pick out that north star amidst the clouds obscuring our vision to chart a course forward? I don’t know what the rest of this year will bring, but I’m convinced that one of the best shots we have at accomplishing the work legitimately requested by all those interrogatives above is the following truth:
God is making all things new.
Nothing else laying either predicative of descriptive claim upon this year means m0re than this single, deceptively simple sentence. You and I already know that 2012 will be filled with its share turmoil and fortune, but nothing amounts to a hill of beans compared to the overarching truth that the Supreme Lord of all Creation is guiding every single thing towards a purposed conclusion marked by cataclysmic, divine renewal: God is making all things–all things–new. The second to last chapter of the Bible puts it this way when we follow the New Living Translation of Revelation 21:1-8:
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
3 I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
5 And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” 6 And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. 7 All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.
8 “But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
It’s been a while since I’ve attempted some roughly hewn theology on this blog, and the book of Revelation is one of the most psychedelic ones out there, stiffly challenging sound interpretation. Nevertheless, here are five things I drew from this portion of scripture with key concepts bold-faced for emphasis. (And if none of the following makes a lick of sense or you’re just a more auditory processor, check out this message I delivered a couple weeks ago based on this text instead.)
From vs.1 – God’s very self will create “a new heaven and a new earth.” You and I can probably think of a lot of great reasons to fix up this planet given all of its problems, but why a new heaven? Because there will no longer be the same sort of qualitative separation between heaven and earth as is presently the case. A clue towards this reading is the absence of the sea. From the Ancient Near Eastern context in which the Old Testament was written through the Hellenic context of the New Testament, the sea is most typically representative of chaos (cf. Daniel 7:2-8 and also this). For any biblically scholarly fact-checkers out there, this is probably one reason why Revelation 13 describes a “beast rising up out of the sea” that wars against the forces of good. But this beast is conquered along with everything else that opposes God in Revelation 19. That there is no sea in this vision indicates that our story ends with absolute harmony between earth and heaven, the dwelling place of humanity and the dwelling place of God.
From vs.2 - God will achieve this harmony between heaven and earth by overtly bridging the gap that presently exists between them. And we’re not talking about a miracle here or a vision there, nor are we discussing a sort of rollback to some idyllic, Eden-like state of nature alone. Rather, there will be a ”holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” Among other things, this means there is a God-given dignity to life in the city now. Medieval Christian hermits and romantic transcendentalists made the same mistake; when we attempt to flee the corruption of society, we abandon the opportunity to function as its salt and light as God has called us to live and do (cf. Matt. 5:13-16). By departing from this mission of redemption between God and the world, we step out of the very stream of divine life that renews and sanctifies us, too. Ironically, it is a type of corruption to merely flee corruption without doing anything about it; it is stereotypically “worldly” in the pejorative sense of that term to merely abandon the world–we are called to engage it with God’s love. And while there is certainly a God-given dignity that obtains to other physical stations, there are fewer places on earth where one can as readily commit oneself to such loving engagement of others as robustly as in the city. As the seat of humanity’s political, commercial, and cultural vitality, its idolatry is particularly deprave, and its violence particularly dark (cf. Ez. 7:23 & 22:3). The city is but a shadow of what will ultimately come, but there is meaning and hope in that shadow, too. Indeed, while Genesis locates the Tree of Life in a garden predating any city, Revelation locates this Tree whose “leaves are for the healing of the nations” right in the center of the city God’s very self will establish in the end of days (cf. Gen. 2:9 & Rev. 22:1-2).
From vs. 3-4 – This unified harmony between heaven and earth is not depicted by a bunch of people lazing around the clouds, plucking harps whilst bored to tranquilized oblivion. Rather, the upshot of God making everything new is this: “God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” This makes protracted just and compassionate action possible. If we commit ourselves to declaring and living our lives according to this truth, we can do so optimistically but also soberly. We do not retreat to mere mysticism; we are not drunk on delusions but wide awake, gazing upon the shattered, filthy parts of our world as they truly exist right now with an unwavering eye, a kindled heart, and a readied hand. Until God’s very self effects that future state of harmony, suffering persists–and not just among people but throughout all nature. As Paul puts it in the New International Version’s treatment of Romans 8:20-21, “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” It is ultimately the activity of God’s very self that will remove all injustice, yet we are called to participate in this process now. We comfort the heartbroken courageously, and we do battle directly with death, neither purgatively aggrandizing pain nor timidly fleeing its grizzled visage. We are protected from disillusionment when we encounter severe difficulty because we have abandoned the merely illusory as a first principle predicated on the substantive reality of God’s ultimate home being with us, of God’s wiping our tears from our eyes to obliterate sorrow and crying and pain in the end.
From vs. 5 – The source of definitive commentary on all of this comes from God; it is God who commands the author of Revelation to “write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” When we embrace or communicate such a message to others, we do so confidently yet humbly; neither this event nor its proper description have come from us. We are scribes, we are messengers of the One who has spoken. We are not the Author of this story; it is news to us just as much as to anyone else.
From vs. 5-8 – God possesses generative and rectifying sovereignty over everything. The divinity of God envelops what is limited by time and space within externally unlimited eternity; as Acts 17:28 puts it, it is in God that we “live and move and have our being.” God’s commentary on new creation promises supreme restoration and justice from the basis of all-encompassing sovereignty. (“It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End.”) God freely welcomes and will slake the thirsts of any who so desire. (“To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life.”) God will surely reward those who have righteously persevered–chiefly, through blessing wrought by dwelling in unity with God. (“All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.”) God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, imploring those bent by their evil ways to turn and live (cf. Ez. 18:23). God wants everyone to be saved from corruption, coming to a knowledge of such truth (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4); in fact, our present circumstances lacking perfected justice are a part of God’s plan to save as many as possible from perishing due to their wickedness (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). Nevertheless, there are those whose unrighteousness will staunchly remain despite God’s appeals, those who will persist in rejecting God’s ways to embrace corruption in its various forms. And by rejecting the source of all life, they will embrace their inevitable fate. (“But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”)
To shift from a more devotional reading of this text to an applied reading, one that directs us towards specific action on the individual and collective levels, I learned the following by comparing this passage of scripture with other texts:
1. We should base our individual identity on God’s creative renewal - What is most fundamental about our identity is not our collection of individual achievement, our ethnicity, our preferred forms of media consumption, our political affiliation, our right versus left brained-ness, our socioeconomic status, our relative level of physical beauty, all the stuff we accumulate, or anything else. As the Egyptian church leader, Clement of Alexandria, wrote circa 195 C.E., “We have no country on earth; therefore, we can disdain earthly possessions.” As the Assyrian writer, Tatian, put it around that same time, “Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it; live to God.” Nothing else matters compared to the fact that God is still making all things new, including the very being and identity of we who are pursuing a relationship with this God by the salvation extended through Messiah Jesus. As Paul puts it in his letter to the early believers in Jesus living in the central Anatolian highlands of modern-day Turkey, nothing about us counts for anything when compared to the fact of our “new creation” (cf. Gal. 6:11-15). No matter what people think about us or what happens to us externally, “our inner self is being renewed day by day” as we pursue life predicated on God’s transforming, revitalizing activity through Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16).
2. As a corollary to the above principle, detrimental activity clashes with our truest self, and that’s exactly why we should avoid it - We do not eschew unethical patterns of behavior merely because society might otherwise punish us, and we don’t fixate on our failures either. As that quote from Tatian implies above, we literally die to our old self while embracing the newness of our creation wrought by God. Romans 6:6 puts it this way, “For we know that our old self was crucified with Messiah so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” Ephesians 4:22 underscores this same point, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires.” All this means that immoral activity is the same thing as entanglement with an old self that is fading away; the righteous life pursuing Jesus is liberation to the new creation we most truly are. Hebrews 12:1-2 puts it even more forcefully, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
3. Living a life predicated on God making all things new includes sharing this truth with others as a fundamental operating principle – New creation makes an appeal to others on the basis of its own being, a being that is itself directed back towards its source in God. The key scriptural metaphor describing this phenomenon is that of ambassadorship. Ambassadors do all sorts of things that are exactly like the people with whom they dwell; ambassadors pay rent, forge relationships, eat meals, bear children, follow sports teams, weep at opera houses, and spill coffee on the postal mail. But there is one gigantic difference; the entire purpose of ambassadors is to represent the party who has sent them above and beyond all the incidental stuff. 2 Cor. 5:17-20 puts it this way: “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.” Not only does God literally effect new creation in those who pursue life “in Christ,” God draws those newly created people into the process of extending this grace of worldwide reconciliation. It is impossible to forego sharing this message of God making all things new with others yet still live according to that message. Failing to communicate God’s desired reconciliation is abdication of one’s ambassadorship by definition.
4. Our collective lives should leverage the communication of God making us new- We should celebrate that the dwelling of God already exists in a real but muted way among those of us who have been transformed by Jesus, even as it will one day exist in technicolor, high definition brilliance across the entire earth when God completes this activity of making all things new. Paul emphasizes this point by rebuking wayward followers of Jesus in the city of Corinth with the words, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). Now, the Greek for the term here translated as “you” is ἐστε, which is a second person plural form of “to be”–in other words, Paul is saying something specifically about a group of believers and not just about one or two of them individually considered. In fact, Paul argues that this lived experience of the Spirit of God should be so powerfully present in this group of believers that even somebody who does not believe should be able to notice it; according to 1 Cor. 14:24-25, “unbelievers” encountering a gathering of people truly following Jesus should be so thoroughly convinced of their need for salvation from the encounter that they will “fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” Our primary text under consideration from the book of Revelation encourages us that one day, for certain and with totality everyone will witness God’s new creation. Yet, we have the opportunity to experience a dose of that reality together right now, and we should purposefully foster this to the end of amplifying our collective ambassadorship.
5. We accomplish the most powerful form of collective ambassadorship by living according to higher law, a pattern of behavior that is utterly foreign to this world right now - We are not just talking about rounding up a bunch of people who have experienced God’s new creation and then deploying them all over the place to verbally articulate a message. We are talking about the implicit witness of a concretely lived experience, one predicated on social norms that only make sense from the perspective of God making all things new at the end of days. This makes us nothing less than strangers and aliens here and now; as Tertullian of Carthage wrote to his fellow Christians in the volume, De Corona, “As for you, you are a foreigner in this world, a citizen of Jerusalem, the city above. Our citizenship, the apostle says, is in heaven.” He was unpacking Paul’s point from Philippians 3:20, “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Consequently, we exercise fidelity to one another, pursuing life in Messiah together at all costs in a way that fortifies our message of reconciliation. We exercise faith in God’s supremacy as Alpha and Omega rather than fear whatever lies behind that next bend in the road–we know that our collective origin and our global destination are anchored to the being and activity of the supreme Lord of all Creation. We are strategic, motivated, at peace, and thereby always proclaiming by our life together Whom we serve and why everyone else should, too. We frame everything from that posture of sober hope in God’s supreme, creative work, committing ourselves to living according to and actually speeding the coming of the very kingdom of God on earth (cf. 2 Peter 3:10-13). It is this concretely lived experience that constitutes a fundamental part of the most powerful form of our collective ambassadorship.
I’ve recently received some criticism about the length of the articles I post on this blog, and I plan on including a greater quantity of briefer posts in the future for those short on time or attention span. But the topic of this article is worth burning ten times as many words as the 4400+ that I will have spent by the time I wrap this thing up. And that is because there is literally nothing more important than meditating upon and responding to and celebrating this simple, profound truth developed within these various portions of scripture upon which I’ve reflected to unpack just what it means that God is making all things new.
My life swiftly drifts off-course when I lose sight of this, and I’m alternatively too hard on myself or too flippant. On the one hand, I can become discouraged when I fail to achieve the things that I want, and I repeat the same, stupid mistakes that I already know won’t deliver specifically because of my fatigue and irritation. On the other hand, I can fling my weight around boorishly, inadvertently hurting other people as I traipse along my merry way without reference to who God is and what God is doing in me and throughout the world. Maybe I struggle with this sort of thing more than most; I lack a trustworthy means of discerning that. But even if you are reading this post right now without any of the tension I’ve shared such that there is subjectively less at stake for you in considering the points I’ve mentioned, I hope that you will still take a chance on experiencing and celebrating and committing yourself to the reality I’ll never have enough words to fully describe.
God wants to reconcile you and me to God’s self, every day more deeply and yet always afresh. God doesn’t want to merely forgive you for that one time you stole the candy from the drugstore or that other time you cheated on your taxes or screwed your buddy’s crush or talked crap behind that one girl’s back. God wants to redeem you from a death of which you aren’t even fully cognizant towards a life categorically different and more substantial than anything you or I have ever encountered–repetitively, day after day, moment by moment. And God doesn’t want to just stop there; God wants to draw us into this very process of expanding wholeness and well being throughout the world, of sharing this message even as we live it with other people moving from shadow to substance, from decrepit adolescence to youthful maturity. God wants to knit you together in relationship with others resisting a world marked by decay and rebellion that will one day be overturned and yet somehow redeemed by an apocalyptic, divine fiat of compassion and justice perfectly balanced. Nothing you or I have done or seen or known up until now is like this or more important than it.
So, what does this mean for you today? How does this affect your work, your family, the friendships you’re forging, and the goals you’re setting? What does this mean for the way you manage your finances, for the use of your time, or for the sorts of things you talk about and meditate on? What parts of your life already reflect these truths pretty clearly, and what parts sharply clash with them? Moreover, what would it look like for you and me to take these truth more seriously but also more joyfully, as leap-off points for action rather than mere nodes of reflection? What aspirations may emerge and what habits or attitudes will need to be put to rest? What might it mean for you, just this day or even just for the next couple hours to explore this way of life more fundamentally? In what intentionally embraced manner can this be, right now for you, more “trustworthy and true”?
God is making all things new.
- I utilized David Bercot’s summary of multiple points from The Kingdom that Turned the World Upside Down for quick reference to the thought of various Ante-Nicene fathers in this article on scrollpublishing.com while writing this post.
- Many thanks also to the hosts of the five best parties I ever attended on a New Year’s Eve in a row: Micah and Lauren McLellan, Michael and Christine Evans, Dana Chen, Lauren Parton, Jake VanKersen, Lizzy Hill, Katie Nelson, Sarah Joy Mikolajczyk, Kevin Harris, and Jenifer Dodsworth–you people are amazing.
- I would not have written this article if I had I not been blessed with the opportunity to preach about its subject matter on New Year’s Day at the congregation where I was raised and came to faith in Messiah, namely, Jesus People Covenant Church of Uptown, Chicago, and this would not have been possible apart from the invitation of Rev. Neil Taylor and Rev. Thomas Cameron, to whom I am more deeply indebted than just about anyone else on earth for literally years of wise counsel. My bosom buddy, Nathan Cameron, ran the PowerPoint making the message optimally comprehensible given how pooped most people are the morning of New Year’s Day.
- These songs by Skrillex, Broken Social Scene, The Who, and Monchy Y Alexandra helped motivate me to finish this post. Check ‘em out if you have flash.