Life in New Jerusalem
God’s plan of salvation includes, as we have seen, three great renewals: the renewal of our souls in regeneration, the renewal of our bodies in a glorious resurrection, and the renewal of our world in the creation of a new heaven and a new earth; or, if we may combine the language of the two apostles, St Paul and St John, the building of a new and eternal city, New Jerusalem.
But what does the Bible say about what we’ll be doing there? How will we pass the time?
Part of the answer is that we will ‘serve’ God and the Lamb (Rev. 22:3). The verb used here (latreuō) points, not to the service of a slave, or the service of an elite, specially ordained clergy, but to a service of worship to be offered by the whole church, gathered in the heavenly Holy of Holies, the true sanctuary (Heb. 8:2); and here, beside the real Shekinah, in the presence of the Glory (Jude 24), we will exercise our priesthood, proclaiming the superlative qualities of the One who called us out of darkness into his own amazing light (1 Pet. 2:9).
Yet, splendid though that service is, purged of sin and illuminated by new depths of appreciation and understanding, there is continuity between it and the service we offer here on earth. Here, already, mind and body are united in ‘rational service’ (Romans 12:1); and here, already, we sing the glory of ‘the One who loves us and who has freed us from our sins’ (Rev. 1:5). If we don’t learn the music here, it’ll be too late to learn it there.
But not only do we serve, we also reign (Rev. 22:5). We are servants and kings, and this goes back to God’s original purpose for the human race. When God created Adam and Eve, he appointed them, together, as both lord of creation and servant to creation. The latter point is often overlooked, but it is unmistakeably clear in Genesis 2:15, where the Hebrew reads, ‘The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to serve and to guard it.’ This complements the earlier mandate of Genesis 1:28, where God authorised the First Adam to subdue the earth and to exercise dominion over what today we call the eco-system. There was a duty of care as well as a mandate to research and develop, and both these mandates have now passed to the Last Adam, to whom God has subjected the world to come (Heb. 2:5). We reign with him, and we serve with him; and for us, as for him, such service is perfect freedom.
In his work, The Revelation of St John (p. 332), the Dutch theologian, Abraham Kuyper, raises a fascinating question. Will life in New Jerusalem consist of nothing but ‘religious reveries’: a kind of endless round of prayer-meetings, where the external world counts for nothing and the only activities are ‘spiritual’? Will there be no physical work?
Kuyper’s response is to point out that God has promised us not only immortality, but resurrection bodies, and just as in this life we present our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1), so it will be in the life to come. Besides, as Aalders pointed out in his Commentary on Genesis (Vol. 1, p. 91), life in Paradise was not ‘a glorious state of inactivity.’ Adam and Eve had to engage in manual labour, and this in no way conflicted with their unbroken communion with God, any more than Jesus’ occupation as a carpenter conflicted with his commitment to doing the will of his heavenly Father. Indeed, there is a clear hint that the pleasures of the garden were a key element in the blessedness of the first human pair. The trees which God caused to spring out of the ground were not only good for food: first and foremost they were beautiful to look at (Gen. 2:9).
The Paradise of Revelation 21 – 22 is not described as a garden, but there is surely enough in what John prophesies to satisfy all our senses: beauty all around. But heaven will not be a place where we have nothing to do but swing in our hammocks. It will be a physical environment offering its own fulfilment and presenting its own challenges. There will indeed be no toil, but there will be labour; and like the pre-Fall creation it will be an environment to stimulate our imaginations. Adam was not permitted to remain where he first saw the light of day: he was commanded to colonise the earth far beyond the confines of Eden (Gen. 1:28). Those rivers that flowed out of the garden, where did they go, and to what lands did they lead? Granted that all invention begins with curiosity, it’s hard to believe that our first parents weren’t curious. The glories of New Jerusalem will not be taken in at a glance or its wonders overtaken in a day. Nor should we assume that our lives will remain static. Perfection has its own laws of development, as we see in the case of the child Jesus, who ‘grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men.’ (Lk. 2:52).
Besides, as Kuyper reminds us, the new humanity will be as varied as the old. Precisely because our resurrection bodies will have continuity with our earthly ones, each body will be different; and to each body, its own brain, and all the aptitudes of intellect and imagination that go along with it. Each will still have his or her own gifts, continuous, probably, with those we possessed in this life (though not limited to them). There will be Bezaleels and Aholiabs, as well as Augustines and Calvins; Dorcases and Lydias, as well as Miriams and Deborahs; gifts of the hand as well as gifts of the mind. Yet there will be nothing to prevent us making new choices and developing aspects of our personalities which lay dormant in this life.
We turn, in conclusion, to John Seventeen, where we move from the breath-taking visual imagery of Revelation to equally breath-taking words, listening-in to a remarkable conversation between God the Son and God the Father. We should note, especially, Jesus’ words in verse 24: ‘Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.’
Here, Jesus is praying for those who will come to faith through the preaching of the apostolic message; and he prays with a unique authority. The NIV catches it well: ‘Father, I want’. He isn’t merely asking or requesting, like a mere supplicant. Instead, he uses the verb thelō, which we might well paraphrase as, ‘Father, the way I want it to be is that they will be where I am’, and he is able to pray with such authority for two great reasons: first, that he is God’s Son (verse 1), and secondly, that he has completed the work the Father gave him to do (verse 4).
But what, exactly, is he is arranging for his people? That they will be with him where he is! The NIV describes them as ‘those’ the Father has given him, but the original (ho) is singular, and would be better translated, ‘what you have given me’. Jesus is here thinking of the church as a single, unified community given to him as a complete whole by the Father; and that is a vision we lose at our peril. There is one flock, and one shepherd (Jn. 10:16).
But it is what he asks for that is really astonishing. He wants us to share his own space throughout eternity, and to see the full meaning of this we have to go back to verse 5, where Jesus, praying on his own behalf, asks to be glorified ‘beside’ the Father with the very glory he himself had ‘beside’ him before the world began. We have to receive these words in the obedience of faith. What Jesus has arranged is that we are to be as close to the Father as he is himself.
Nor is that all. He has decided that we, redeemed sinners, should share with ‘the man, Christ Jesus’, all the splendour of his pre-incarnate deity. And if we are in any doubt about that, we need only back to verse 22, ‘I have given them the glory that you gave me’. It is as if no distinction is to be drawn between the glory of the Mediator and the glory of his people. We are to live in the same location; we are to have the same kind of glorious resurrection body; we are to share in his sovereignty; and we are to share in the sme blessedness. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.’ (Mt. 5:8).
The only words that match these are those of 2 Peter 1:4, which declare that the final purpose of God’s ‘great and precious promises’ is that we should participate in the divine nature. Here the exegete trembles. Taken literally, the words mean that we and Christ are to have the divine nature in common. ‘It is, so to speak,’ comments Calvin (and you can almost hear him taking a deep breath) ‘a kind of deification’; and this is exactly what the Greek Fathers of the early church meant when they repeatedly spoke of salvation as theosis: ‘He was not man and then became God,’ wrote Athanasius (Against the Arians¸ 1.40) ‘but He was God and then became man, and that in order to deify us.’
But then, Athanasius was also fully aware that, since no further glory could be added to Christ’s eternal divine nature, it was not the Logos viewed as the Logos that was ‘promoted’ in the exaltation of Jesus, but his human nature. Furthermore, it was ‘promoted’ precisely as human nature, and as Calvin and other Reformed theologians stressed (particularly in their controversy with Lutherans over the nature of Christ’s presence in the Sacrament) to invest Christ’s humanity with such divine attributes as omnipresence would be to destroy it. His humanity is still humanity, glorified indeed, but retaining all its sinless finitude. It shares in the glory of his divinity, but it does not become divinity. He occupies the Throne as the Lamb that was slain (Rev. 5:6).
It goes without saying that this is no less true of ourselves. The Creator-creature divide will always be unbridgeable, and rather than resent this, we glory in it. We will never be God’s equals, linked to him in a continuous chain of being, but his worshippers. His knowledge of us is already exhaustive, and will never deepen, but our knowledge of him will continue to grow world without end; and with every new insight we will cast our crowns before him, lost in wonder, love and praise.