What to expect in the new creation

[A talk given at Grace Church Haywards Heath on 28 May 2017, but with extended notes and Bible references added]

Read Romans 8v18-25

Awaiting the main thing
Did you ever see the film “The Terminal?” Tom Hanks plays an immigrant who arrives at the JFK Airport. He’s denied entry to the States, yet can’t return home because of a coup in his own country. And so he lives in the airport for 9 months. Its actually inspired by the true story of a guy who lived for 18 years in Paris’s Charles De Gaulle Airport.

The point for us is that Hank’s character was safe in the airport. He was tasting American culture, meeting American people, even enjoying American food and entertainment. It was a lot better than where he’d come from. But it wasn’t his destination. It was a place of waiting for the main event – the much fuller experience of America that lay beyond.

This is our final talk on what to expect around the end of history. And we’re thinking about what the Bible calls “the new creation.” You see Christians often wrongly think that heaven is their destination. No. We saw a couple of weeks ago that heaven’s going to be good. But it’s not the main event.

In Acts 3v21, Peter preaches to Jews. And he sums up our certain hope like this: God will send the Messiah—even Jesus. Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.”

The joys of heaven, glorious as they will be, will still be only a partial experience of what we will know when Jesus has returned, and we walk out of the arrivals lounge and into his new world.

Now we don’t have time to repeat what we learnt about heaven (see “what to expect when you die”). The two talks need to go together. In particular, we need to remember that God will be the focus of both – worshipping, serving, rejoicing in him. But we’re going to look at three things that will be added to our experience of heaven after Christ returns: A renewed world, which we will enjoy in resurrection bodies, as we reign over all.

1) A renewed world.
Romans 8:18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We need to be absolutely clear here. What we are looking to is not life on some spiritual plane somewhere. Nor is it life on some new planet. It is this life, this world – perfected.

Take a look at verse 21 of our passage. What are we told will be “liberated from its bondage to decay”? The creation. This world.

We just heard it from Peter. God promised “to restore everything.” For the Jews, that meant “restore” the world to what it was before sin, and “restore” their land and kingdom to them (see Acts 1v6).

Now this means two things:

(1) Continuity.
Romans 8v22: The whole of this current creation is groaning for this liberation. Try and take in what that means. This earth and the whole cosmos, the land and sea as we see them now, Europe and Africa, the Rocky Mountains and the Mongolian Plains, the fields and deserts, the grass and trees, the birds and fish, the insects and livestock, the koalas and lions, the South Downs and your back garden, are all groaning - waiting to fully be what they were created to be.

What follows is that time and the seasons in the new creation are likely to be similar to now – though without the urgency. Genesis 1v14 tells us both were given to regulate life. So weather may be like it is now – although without harshness or disaster. People assume Revelation 21v23-25 tell us there will be no sun. But it actually says only that the sun won’t be needed where God is because his glory will be so bright.

Because the new world will be this world renewed, it also follows that animals will be like animals here – though without the viciousness. Now raising all animals would mean a degree of overpopulation! So one presumes God will preserve or re-create the various species, perhaps with some that are extinct too.

And because it will be this world, land and sea will be like here as well – though perhaps re-arranged to some extent by the cataclysmic events we have seen will cleanse the earth at Christ’s return. Again, some say that Revelation 21v1 says there will be “no sea.” But in the book “sea” symbolises the place from which evil, persecution and threat arise. The point is probably just that these things will be no more.

Finally, in terms of continuity the strong suggestion is that continents and places will remain as they are as well. I think this is the only way you can understand the promises of the prophets being fulfilled. Abraham was promised a specific patch of this earth that he never received (Heb 11v8-16, 39-40). Faithful Israelites are promised that after resurrection they will live in the land of Israel (Ezek 37v12-28). And the Messiah is said to reign from Zion, to which the nations will bring the glory of specific countries of the earth (Is 60 fulfilled in Rev 21v23-26). Well if Israel, Jerusalem and the likes of Lebanon carry over, there’s every sense that the British Isles will too. And perhaps even Haywards Heath – as rubble maybe, ready to be rebuilt and repopulated. Don’t let this cause despair if you don’t like where you live! Just imagine what it could be if renewed, and how God would be glorified by the transformation.

The point is that the new creation is this world, renewed. We might think of it as creation 2.0. You know what it is to get a computer upgrade. When you went from Windows 7 to Windows 10, there was continuity. A lot of it was recognizable. You could access the same things the same way. But it was different too. Better. Faster. More colourful. More capable. Well so it is with the new creation. But it’s a free upgrade. And one in which there will be no bugs and viruses!

So in what ways will it be different and better? Well, we’re told it will be a place not just of continuity, but:

(2) Liberation.
Now it is Genesis 3 that’s in mind here. There God cursed the created order because of Adam and Eve’s sin. Do you remember what that meant?

(1) Animals were impacted: God told the snake it was “cursed” above all other creatures – implying the creatures were cursed too. Some think their curse meant that it was only from that point that they would die. Genesis 6 implies it meant a degree of viciousness as well. This is rather hidden in the NIV Bible. Verses 11-12 literally say that the whole earth was filled with “violence” explaining that “all flesh” (not “all people”) had corrupted their way. So God says that he will put an end to “all flesh” because of that violence (v13). But verse 17 tells us that “all flesh” is everything that has “the breath of life in it” – which includes animals. And so two of “all flesh” are to be brought into the ark. Can you see? The sense is that animals have become violent too. Some think the curse caused them to become carnivores as plant life became more scarce (see Gen 1v30, 3v17-18). But Psalm 104v21 speaks of God providing prey as a good gift. Perhaps what the curse therefore did was to make animals more aggressive.

(2) Land was impacted. It was going to become hard to grow food (Gen 3v17-18). We saw previously how Jesus spoke of famines and earthquakes being part of the labour pains of this creation (see Matt 24v7-8). That suggests they are part of this.

(3) Vegetation was impacted. Thorns and thistles would make it hard for plants to thrive (Gen 3v17-18).

Well, it’s the removal of these sort of things that will mark the difference in the new creation. And two words describe that. The first is in Romans 8v20: It will be liberation from “frustration.” The sense of the word is that of futility. So the things of creation will finally be able to be what they should be.

The second word is in verse 21: It will be liberation from “decay.” So there will be no more depletion of the world’s resources, no more destructive disasters, no more diseased animals or vegetation. Rather, vegetation will flourish everywhere, and animals will thrive in full health. Then, even ravenous beasts are pictured as living in perfect harmony with each other (Is 11v6-9).

In 1 Corinthians 15v50-52, Paul describes all this with the word “imperishable,” likening the nature of the new creation to the imperishable nature of our resurrection bodies. This implies that although it will be this earth renewed, it won’t be quite the same. Something about its substance will have been transformed in two ways: first, to a higher order no longer subject to destruction, death or decay; and second, to a greater glory comparable to the difference between a seed and its flower (1 Cor 15v37-41). Although we can’t be sure, this could mean an end to even the regular decay that marks vegetation through the seasons – making the passing of the year very different in feel. Certainly it could mean an absolute end to the death of animals.

It’s difficult to know what the renewal of the cosmos will mean. This is the “heavens” (plural) that Peter teaches it will also be purged by fire and renewed just as the earth will (2 Pet 3v12-13). It seems the cosmos should therefore be included under what will be made imperishable, suggesting it may also change in its nature in some way – or at least become more stable and enduring.

Whatever the case, as CS Lewis illustrated so well in “the Great Divorce,” there is a sense in which the new creation will be hyper-real – more tangible and vibrant than the creation is now. And all the more so when one considers our senses will be heightened to perfection so that the smells, sounds, sights, taste and touch of all that’s there will be indescribably vivid to us.

In his BST commentary on Romans 8 John Stott writes: “The general promise of the renovation and transformation of nature is plain, including the eradication of all harmful elements and their replacement by righteousness, peace, harmony, joy and security.” But he helpfully adds: “We should be cautious in pressing the details. The future glory is beyond our imagination.”

The New Jerusalem
It’s at this point that it is worth reading Isaiah 35. You see, it is a vision of what the new earth will look like after Christ returns – deserts bursting into glorious life, humanity healed of all disability, animals living in peace, and joy filling Zion. And it is this latter detail that we must now consider. We are told again and again in scripture that “Zion” – “Jerusalem” will be the capital of this new world.

Its description can be found in Revelation 21-22. Like the rest of Revelation, it is figurative so may not be literal. It pictures God’s people as a new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth following the judgment (21v2). And the description of the city uses the most superlative language to stress its perfection, glory, security and completion in containing every one of God’s people. It’s massive – being 1400 miles in all three dimensions. That’s twice the length of Great Britain plus another 300 miles.

But the key thing about it is that it is where God sits enthroned and reigns through his Son. That’s why there is no temple there (21v22). The temple separated God from his people, but through Christ that separation is no more. So the whole city a cube like the holy place in the temple where God resided, and the jewels that decorate it are an echo of those born by the High Priest who alone could enter God’s presence.

It is therefore the New Jerusalem that is the source of life for the new creation – pictured by a river flowing through the city from God’s presence and throne, with the tree of life bearing fruit on its banks. And it is the New Jerusalem that is the place from which God’s people from all nations go out into the new creation to serve him, and the place into which they bring their glory, which comprises all the best of what they do and achieve.

Now as a man Jesus will have to live and reign from somewhere. And to my mind Revelation 21-22 together with the wider teaching of the Bible suggests it will be from a literal new Jerusalem, probably where the current city is located.

2) We will enjoy all this in resurrected bodies.
Romans 8:23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Take a look at verse 23. The word “redemption” refers to being set free too. So we see the same two things of continuity and liberation will apply to our bodies.

(1) Continuity.
Think carefully about verse 23. Whose body will be redeemed? “Ours.” Can you see? This doesn’t mean we will be given different bodies. They will be these ones – the ones that are “ours” now.

Back to computers. My brother-in-law is a salesman for Canon, promoting their 3D printing division. And it is astonishing hearing what can be done. From some simple data in a computer we can already print ears, heart valves, skin, blood vessels and liver cells. We’re told they’ll be able to print organs too – but we can already grow them in part from stem cells.

Well, we’re told God chose us before the creation of the world (Eph 1v4). In other words, the data as to what we will be was already stored in his great mind. So if we who are made in his image can do what we already can, how much more can we be sure that God can recreate us from the atoms of the universe – exactly as we are now, but for our imperfections. Did you know, even now every year 98% of the atoms in your body are replaced? A new suit of skin every month. A new liver ever six weeks. A new stomach lining every five days!

And what resurrection means is this: In the new creation we will do body-things. We will enjoy food and drink and sport, and perhaps sleep, just as we do now. It’s possible we might need them to replenish. But if not, we will just enjoy them as gifts from God.

We will also continue to reflect the diversity of the human race – with different colours and sizes and traits. There’s a challenge here if we don’t like a particular part of our anatomy. If it doesn’t result from injury, imperfection in development or an unhealthy lifestyle, then surely it reflects how God has chosen to “knit us together” – and so should be cherished (Ps 139v13-14). There’s every suggestion that in the resurrection much that distinguishes us in our physical appearance will be carried over, perfected and seen as truly beautiful.

Of course this means that we will recognize and know one-another too. Paul encouraged his readers that they would meet their loved ones at the resurrection (1 Thess 4v13-14). And Jesus taught Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will be in his kingdom (Matt 22v32) – always and forever as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; always and forever three generations of one particular family.

We must remember that it is in this context that Jesus taught there will be no marriage in the new creation because we will be “like the angels” (Matt 22v30). That doesn’t mean we will be genderless or able to fly. No, Jesus has just been engaging with the importance of marriage for having children (22v23-28). His point is probably just that marriage will be no more because we will no longer be having children (nor needing to picture in our marriages the love Christ has for his people). But that doesn’t mean our marriages, family life and friendships will mean nothing then. As with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we will always know and have that particularly deep bond with those we’ve known in this life because we’ve known them in this life.

The Bible says that Jesus’ resurrection is the model (1 Cor 15v20). His old body wasn’t in the tomb, he still had it – it was renewed. And the closeness of his relationships continued. So Mary clung to his feet. He ate with his disciples. And he was recognizable – the same Jesus; though hard to recognize – presumably because he was free from all signs of aging (Lk 24v13-35).

(2) Our resurrection bodies will also be about liberation.

We’ve already mentioned that in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul likens the difference to that between a seed and its crop. There’s continuity – it is the same thing; but difference – it becomes much more wonderful. And in verses 42-44 focuses on four wonderful differences.

(1) Our bodies will be imperishable. Jesus’ example shows that we will appear as adults, but free from genetic imperfection and aging, from disability or disease, from illness, injury and death. This was foreshadowed in his healing ministry (Lk 7v20-23 with Is 35v5-6). However, he still bore his scars, so we cannot assume the marks that make us “us” will be removed – though they may be. Moreover pain might still be part of the new world just as touch will be, perhaps as a way of protection. But it won’t be pain in a distressful sense (Rev 21v4). Indeed, one presumes our bodies will self heal or be indestructible as 1 Corinthians 15v50 equates the body being “perishable” with being “flesh and blood,” stating that “flesh and blood” cannot inherit the “imperishable” kingdom. In context, his point is not to say that we won’t then have flesh and blood. Rather, verses 39-40 teach they will be of a different kind, being “changed” in substance so that they are no longer subject to destruction, death and decay, but of the same order as the new creation itself (v51-54).

(2) Our bodies will be glorious. They will be free from the dishonour of sinning and therefore the indignity of dying and decomposing in the ground (v43). Because we will recognize each other and praise God for his grace to us in this life, we must have memory – and memory of sin. But be won’t be tempted by it. We will be pure in body as well as soul, using our bodies as “instruments of righteousness” to serve God and do good to one-another (Rom 6v13). Indeed, Paul teaches the key reason we don’t do this now is because, although our hearts are renewed, our bodies are descended from Adam and so subject to sinful desires and habits. But when raised and transformed they will be free from this (1 Cor 15v46-49). We may even find our bodies shine brilliantly as a way of reflecting God’s glory – just as Jesus, Moses and Elijah did on the Mount of Transfiguration.

(3) Our bodies will be powerful. There’s no sense we will have superpowers. Certainly Philip was transported in the Spirit (Acts 8v39), and we might be when fully attuned to him. But that won’t be because of something in our new nature but something God does for us. Having said that, Jesus was able to pass through locked doors and appear in different places (John 20v26). Remembering this keeps us from over-emphasizing continuity. What we will be is going to be different and full of wonder. But this ability in Jesus may have reflected the unique situation of his resurrection body operating in the world as it is now, and so is not necessarily something we will be able to do.

No, what we will be able to do is what we would be able to do now if physically perfect - and that includes having perfectly capable brains. Who knows what we will be able to do when we use them to capacity? Having said that, individuals may not do everything to the same degree. Remember our differences will carry over, and God gives different abilities as he has decided so that his people work together with a wonderful unity and diversity (1 Cor 12). It might well be that everyone will have the potential to be a concert pianist, olympic athlete or astro-physicist, but it seems likely that our particular interests and leanings will remain. And we may well choose to nurture them more than others, perhaps according particular roles Christ gives us.

(4) Our bodies will be spiritual. In his book “Surprised by Hope” Tom Wright explains that differentiating between a natural and spiritual body is not like asking if a ship is wooden or iron – it’s not about what they’re made of. It’s like asking if they’re a steam ship or sailing ship. It’s about what energizes them. We’ve seen our bodies will be physical. But they will be fully enlivened by the Holy Spirit. That’s why they’ll live forever. And that’s why they won’t sin.

When facing his own death, DL Moody famously said: “Soon you will read in the newspaper that I am dead. Don’t believe it for a moment. I will be more alive than ever before.”

Well if that’s true in heaven. How much more when we’re raised.

3) Finally, it is in these resurrection bodies, enjoying the renewed creation that we will reign over all.

All this is about God’s kingdom. Revelation 11v15: “The kingdom of THIS world will have become the kingdom of the Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.”

In this present time God’s kingdom is expressed here in believer’s hearts and lives. But it is only perfectly expressed in heaven from where Jesus reigns. But after his return, when all in heaven embark onto this earth made new, Christ’s rule will be submitted to in every inch of the world. And he will gladly submit his own rule to his Father’s ultimate authority (1 Cor 15v24-28). The old order will then have finally passed away, and God will be able to wipe every tear from our eyes because in reigning over all he will not only have brought about the end of death, but the evil and oppression that so often accompany it (Rev 21v4-8).

The key increase in joy for believers when they move from heaven to earth won’t therefore be found in their enjoyment of the world per se, or in their new bodies. It will be found in knowing evil and oppression has finally and forever been eradicated, so God the Father and the Son will be fully and forever honoured, praised and served in the life-giving power of God the Holy Spirit.

And they will be served as we reign with Christ. Again, we need to look closely at the text of Romans 8. Have a look at verse 18:

Romans 8:18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
 We’re told that we look to a “glory” to be revealed “in us” when raised from the dead. But verse 18 leads into verses about the renewal of the creation too. This is also part of our “glory.” And we see something of why. Verse 19: The creation is waiting for our resurrection, because only then will it be renewed. Again, verse 21, it will be “brought into” our freedom as the children – more literally “sons” of God.

So what’s Paul getting at? Well, he’s still thinking of Genesis 2 and 3. We usually link the word “glory” with God. It describes his excellence on display. Our glory is therefore to reflect that excellence. It is to be and act like him – all in worship of him. That’s why the whole creation depends on our redemption.

Remember who we are as human beings. Adam was the first son of God and made “in the image of God” (Gen 1v26-28, Lk 3v38). And in Genesis 1 that was to involve two things: first, imaging his character – in all goodness; second, imaging his rule, as we fill and subdue the world in a good manner.

Our neighbours moved out about a year ago. And the house they left has been empty since then. Well, when weeding yesterday I noticed that their drive is covered in weeds. I assume their garden is too. In other words, that particular plot of this creation is groaning – it’s longing for a son or daughter of Adam to take up residence and reign there.

Genesis 1 and 2 tell us that the creation can’t be all it can be without us. We are needed to care for and cultivate it, just as Adam and Eve were the garden.

Do you get the point? God will only renew the creation when he is ready to raise us to rule over it as we should – and in service of his Son. It’s in this sense that in Revelation 5 Christ is praised for redeeming people from every people and nation. The worshippers declare how he has made them “a kingdom and priests to serve our God and they will reign on the earth” (Rev 5v10, 22v3-5). Now king’s reign by ruling and ordering life in a realm. Priests serve by caring for and coordinating the work of a temple. But because God will live within the new creation, it will be his temple as well as his realm. And so the two roles are combined. We will care for and co-ordinate what goes on in the new creation, and we will do this as we rule over and order its life.

First, what will that look like in terms of continuity?
As we’ve seen throughout, it will mean everything it means now, but made perfect.

In his book “Heaven” Randy Alcorn writes:God’s intention for humans was that we would occupy the whole Earth and reign over it. This dominion would produce God-exalting societies in which we would exercise the creativity, imagination, intellect, and skills befitting beings created in God’s image, thereby manifesting his attributes. To be made in God’s image involves a communicative mandate: that through our creative industry as God’s subcreators, we should together make the invisible God visible, thus glorifying him in the sight of all creation.”

So we will image God’s creativity in harnessing the world’s resources for the development of our race and the good of the creation. Technology is not an evil but a reflection of this creativity. So there will be no end to what we might develop but in a way that is always used for good and always protects the environment. Many even wonder whether the vastness of the universe has been created ready for us to explore and cause to flourish – all to the praise of God.

Humanity were certainly called to work before the fall (Gen 2v15), so we will work. But it will be work with God-ward motivation and to our absolute joy - work, free from all toil or stress. We should remember eternal life is described as an everlasting Sabbath rest (Heb 4v1-11, Rev 14v13). In particular, it’s to rest from the hard aspects of serving Christ now – from the battle with sin and the opposition it brings.

You’ll need to refer to the talk “on what to expect when we die” for teaching about rewards. But Jesus hinted that there will be hierarchy with differing responsibilities dependent on our faithfulness now - and perhaps depending on who God has made us to be as well (Lk 19v16-27, 22v24-30 and 1 Cor 3v10-15). But we won’t resent this. We will rejoice in its wisdom and in seeing others honoured.

Revelation 21v26 (fulfilling Is 60) pictures the glory of the nations being brought into the new Jerusalem as tribute to Jesus. The sense is that all that is good in their diverse cultural pursuits will be given to developing Christ’s kingdom and society. Art, music, craftsmanship, engineering, management – whatever it might be.

Now I’m not convinced by those who say God will resurrect everything that believers have made or done for his glory. That would make the new earth very cluttered. But if the purging of the earth before its renewal involves literal disasters, it is possible some museums or books or databases will survive and be utilized. But the main thing that will survive is us. And because we will have memory, we will remember and carry forward our knowledge and skills and languages and interests – and no doubt enjoy developing them whilst learning new ones too. Indeed, because all God’s people throughout history will be raised, our modern skills will be used alongside those who can teach us the joy of melting iron or making a wicker fence or learning ancient Arabic.

So, I can’t see any reason why Jez won’t be offering drumming lessons – or the Bannisters, training in leadership and presentation. It’s not a joke. This is entirely sensible and to the glory of God. Of course if you are in a job you dislike this doesn’t mean you will have to continue in it (although every job will be a joy in the new creation). It just means that all you learn by doing it is not wasted.

And doesn’t this make all your efforts now in developing not just your character, but your knowledge and skills, all the more worthwhile? If you die after your GSCE’s, that knowledge won’t be wasted. You can speak to French saints in their language, as well as any common language there may be.

Second, how will reigning with Christ be liberated?
Well, by now we already know don’t we? We will do these things free from all limits – whether physical or intellectual or temporal. But above all, we will do these things free from all sin. Think back to the talk on heaven. As in heaven, the joys of the new creation aren’t found so much in what it is and what we are and what we do – but in all these things turning our hearts to God in thanks and praise and service.

And we don’t have time to dwell on it. But this means that when you go about your work now – when you reign here in a way that images God, when you teach drums or do management to his glory, you are doing two things. You are displaying his likeness to the watching world. But you are also expressing something of what his coming kingdom will look like – a shadow of what it’s godly culture and society will entail. That’s the fuller picture of what it is to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Randy Alcorn puts all we’ve learnt like this: “In order to get a picture of [eternal life] you don’t need to look up at the clouds; you simply need to look around you and imagine what all this would be like without sin and suffering and corruption.”

That’s what we’ve learnt. That’s what to expect in the new creation. But there is a danger that we diminish what it will involve by our comparison, because we can only compare it with a world that is wracked by sin and decay. No, we should acknowledge that what exactly the new creation will entail is beyond our grasp in the present, just as the life of the butterfly is beyond the grasp of the caterpillar, or life as the king of England is beyond the grasp of baby Prince George. But what we do know is that reaching the new creation will only be the start. Lewis puts this well at the end of his novel “the Last Battle,” when the children reach Aslan’s land:

"The things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”