Reconciliation of heaven and earth

I taught the following lesson to the high school students of Grace Fellowship Church on Sunday, March 13, 2022.

Today, we continue a study we began three weeks ago of the relationship between heaven and earth. As we’ve discussed, it’s an evolving relationship. It has changed over the course of human history, and it will change some more—drastically, in fact—as we’ll talk about today.

Why should we want to understand this subject? First of all, it’s in the Bible, and we know that all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for us to study (2Ti 3:16).

Second, this relationship between heaven and earth is a theme that runs through the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation. In many respects, it is the story of the Bible. It is the story of redemption.

Last but not least, understanding the relationship between heaven and earth helps us understand heaven itself, which is important because heaven is what the believer in Christ hopes for. If heaven is our final destination, we should want to know as much about it as we can because what we know about heaven will have an influence on our lives now. I’ve compared it to going on a trip. Your level of excitement and longing will be directly influenced by where you’re going.

If, for instance, you have that cartoonish view of heaven where you think God’s people will float around on clouds playing harps for all eternity, that’s probably not going to excite you. And if you have the all-too-common vague view of heaven where you can’t even imagine what heaven will be like, that may be hard to get excited about as well. My prayer is that this study will give you a clearer view of heaven and, in turn, cause you to happily anticipate it more than ever.

Unity, separation, and a promise of reconciliation

Briefly, let’s review what we’ve talked about so far.

I told you to imagine heaven and earth as two circles. Typically, we think of these circles as separate and distinct from one another, but that wasn’t the case when God first made the world. In the beginning, heaven and earth were one. Perhaps the best evidence of this was that God strolled through the garden of Eden right alongside Adam and Eve. God’s domain and man’s domain were one and the same.

Adam’s sin, however, changed all that. His disobedience caused a complete and utter separation of heaven and earth. Sin can have no place in heaven, so the two were divided. God went so far as to place cherubim and a flaming sword to guard the entrance back into the garden, which is to say sinful man would not be permitted to enter paradise ever again on his own (Ge 3:24).

This, of course, didn’t stop mankind from trying. A short time later, we read about people trying to build a tower into heaven, which God quickly stopped in its tracks. The lesson is, if sinners will ever reach heaven again, it won’t be through their own efforts. Unless God intervenes and does something on our behalf, heaven will forever be out of reach.

In Genesis 12, God chooses a seemingly random man by the name of Abraham and promises to bless all the families of the earth through him and his descendants (Ge 12:3). What that meant wasn’t abundantly clear at the time, but as Old Testament history progressed, the promise began to gain clarity. Before we reach the end of Genesis, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, sees a ladder that connects heaven and earth. He sees angels moving up and down the ladder. He sees God at the top. For the first time, Abraham’s family is given a sneak preview of what’s to come. It would seem that heaven and earth may not be divided forever.

The prospect of heaven and earth being reunited is brought into even greater focus when God instructs Israel to build the tabernacle. The tabernacle, later replaced by Solomon’s temple, would be a place God promised to dwell with the people. His presence would live in the tabernacle, creating this tiny overlap between heaven and earth. It may have been in only one place for the benefit of only some people, but it was undeniable progress. The relationship between heaven and earth was one step closer to reconciliation.

Sadly, sinners are good at only one thing, which is making a mess of things. Eventually, Israel broke their covenant with God, and he left the temple. In fact, he let the Babylonians destroy the temple. That small overlap between heaven and earth was gone.

Thankfully, though, God is faithful. He always keeps his promises. Even before the destruction of the temple, he sends prophets to speak about a coming day when he will create new heavens and a new earth (Isa 65:17). Just as he created the heavens and the earth in the beginning, he promises to recreate the heavens and the earth (Ge 1:1).

The question is, what does that mean?

If you spent any time reading and considering Isaiah 65, which we read through last time, you know God intends to restore unadulterated joy to the earth. He will remove all suffering and pain from the earth. He will cause peace like mankind hasn’t known since Adam’s fall, and he does so on the earth—emphasis on earth.

Isaiah’s prophecy isn’t describing some far-distant, unknown place. According to Isaiah 65, it’s a place with a city. It’s a place with people. It’s a place with houses and gardens. It’s a place with animals. In short, it’s a very familiar place to us.

At the same time, there are a few differences. Again, it’s a place without sorrow. It’s a place with nothing but joy. It’s a place so peaceful that even animals, both predators and prey, live in harmony with one another. In other words, it’s the earth as we know it, but it’s been recreated and perfected. All of its flaws have been removed. To use a biblical term, it’s been glorified.

Even though God allowed the temple to be destroyed—that is, the one overlap between heaven and earth—he points ahead to a future that looks a lot like the past when heaven and earth were completely overlapped. According to Isaiah, the future looks nearly identical to the beginning when heaven and earth were one.

God dwells in Jesus

With that, let’s continue working our way through the Bible. We need to get all the way to Revelation before our time runs out. Go with me to Luke 17.

As you’ve been studying the book of Matthew, you’ve probably noticed how often Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven. John the Baptist preached it. Jesus preached it. In Mark 1, Jesus declared, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand (Mk 1:15). In Matthew 13, Jesus described the kingdom of heaven growing and spreading on the earth. Notice what he says here in Luke 17.

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, Look, here it is!’ or There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Luke 17:20, 21)

This is one of many shocking statements Jesus made during his ministry. What do you suppose made this particular statement so shocking at the time—“for the kingdom of God is in the midst of you? (Lk 17:21).

Previously, I’ve defined heaven as God’s domain. Heaven is his realm. Well, another word for domain or realm is kingdom. So, Jesus comes to this earth and claims heaven is in the midst of the people. According to Jesus, heaven is among them at a time when heaven and earth are utterly separated because of our sin.

To be clear, Jesus isn’t pointing to the temple in Jerusalem when he makes this claim. He says, The kingdom of God is in the midst of you,” when he’s in Jerusalem, Galilee, Samaria, or even beyond the Jordan River (Lk 17:21). Wherever he goes, he says, The kingdom of God is in the midst of you.

If not the temple, where is he pointing? In large part, Jesus is pointing to himself. Listen to what Paul says in Colossians. For in Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Col 1:19, 20).

You’ll notice two significant points Paul makes in that passage. First, he describes God as dwelling in Jesus. That’s the same language used in the Old Testament when the tabernacle and temple were constructed. What made the tabernacle and temple so extraordinary was that God’s presence would take up residence inside. He would dwell in those places. Though heaven and earth remained separated, God would live on this earth among sinners in those distinct places. Here, God does the same thing only he’s taking up residence not in a building, but in the person of Jesus Christ. Wherever Jesus goes, God goes.

Second, Paul describes God’s purpose this way: Through Jesus God will reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven (Col 1:20). What is God reconciling, or reuniting? The short answer is all things. More to the point, he’s reconciling all things on earth and in heaven. I’ll even go as far as to say he’s reconciling earth and heaven, which are now separated by sin. Through Christ his Son, he’s bringing them back together.

Believe it or not, this is a theme we see throughout the entirety of the New Testament. Do you remember the Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus taught his disciples how to pray? The prayer goes, Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Mt 6:9, 10). That’s essentially a prayer asking God to bring heaven to earth.

With the incarnation of Jesus, heaven was breaking through onto the earth in a massive way. It was heaven invading earth through Christ, which is a substantial turning point in redemptive history. According to the Old Testament, God left the temple hundreds of years before Jesus’s birth. In other words, that tiny overlap between heaven and earth that once existed had been gone for a long time. But with Christ, the promise is renewed in a big way. He not only restores the overlap, if you will, but he also promises to finally bring reconciliation to heaven and earth. He’s not here just to create a small overlap. He will bring the two together as one.

The problem of sin

Let’s jump over to John 2. Here we read about an interesting conversation between Jesus and some of the Jewish leaders.

The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, Zeal for your house will consume me.”

So the Jews said to him, What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:13-22)

This event takes place during the annual Passover celebration. It was a time when the people of Israel offered millions of animals in sacrifice to God. Obviously, selling animals for sacrifice was a lucrative business during Passover, so a lot of merchants set up shop around the temple. Over time, however, those merchants had made their way into the temple. They were no longer selling around the temple. They were selling inside the temple, and this infuriated Christ. As he said, Do not make my Father’s house a house of trade (Jn 2:16). How dare you treat God’s temple like it’s a flea market!

Jesus, then, proceeds to physically and forcibly remove the merchants and money-changers from the temple. Unsurprisingly, the Jewish leaders want to know who gave him the authority. They want to know what gives him the right to say who can and cannot be in the temple. But Jesus refuses to answer their question. Instead, he responds with what appears to be a strange statement. He says, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up (Jn 2:19).

If you’re thinking, What? What does that have to do with anything? Who said anything about the temple being destroyed? that’s precisely what the Jewish leaders were thinking. They replied, It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days? (Jn 2:20).

As we’ve talked about, Solomon’s temple in the Old Testament was destroyed by the Babylonians. Eventually, the Jews did return and rebuild it, but it was never as impressive as the first. By the time Jesus storms in and drives out the merchants, a renovation of the temple is in the works, which started more than forty years earlier. In short, the current temple has been a work-in-progress for approximately 600 years. So, when Jesus claims he could rebuild the temple in only three days, Jewish leaders think he’s crazy (Jn 2:20).

Jesus isn’t crazy, of course, and he isn’t talking about the temple in Jerusalem. He’s talking about himself. He’s describing himself as the temple of God. Why? Why does he use this analogy?

Jesus refers to himself as the temple to express the reality that God dwells in him. In the previous chapter of John’s Gospel, John writes, And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14). That word dwelt is the same word the Old Testament uses for tabernacle. It refers to a place one occupies. God once dwelt among the people in the tabernacle. Then, he dwelt among the people in the temple. Now, we’re told he dwelt among the people in the Word who became flesh, Jesus Christ.

To be clear, though, the Bible refers to Jesus as more than just the building of the temple. He’s also the priest, who offers sacrifices for the people’s sins. Furthermore, he’s the sacrificial lamb. He’s the priest, the lamb, and the temple itself. In other words, he is entirely responsible for the atoning work and sacrifice that takes away the sins of the people. Meanwhile, he is also the place where God and his kingdom dwell most fully.

Do you remember how we talked about the problem with any kind of overlap between heaven and earth? What is the problem?

The problem is sin. Sin caused the division in the first place because sin cannot exist in heaven. As a consequence of sin, the Israelites had to perform many cleansing rituals. Sacrifice after sacrifice had to be offered. They had to go to painstaking efforts to purify themselves to maintain a bridge between heaven and earth at the temple. And all of that was for a tiny overlap of heaven and earth.

Jesus, on the other hand, is able to do so much more. He will completely reconcile heaven and earth through his death and resurrection. He will be the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. He will accomplish what we could never accomplish, which is finally and totally removing our sin. And if Jesus removes the sin from earth, there’s no longer any reason why heaven and earth can’t be unified once again.

God dwells in his people

Let’s go now to Ephesians 2. As I mentioned before, and as you’ve seen in your study of Matthew, Jesus described the kingdom of heaven as growing, expanding, and permeating the world. The question I’d like to answer now is, how does this happen? How does heaven continue expanding on the earth, especially since Jesus left the earth? Shortly after his death and resurrection, he returned to the Father in heaven. How does heaven, or the kingdom of heaven, continue growing?

Let’s consider what Paul says here in Ephesians 2.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)

What are God’s people becoming?

God’s people grow into a holy temple, a dwelling place for God (Eph 2:21, 22). They become the very bricks that make up this temple.

In the Old Testament, where did God dwell among the people?

The temple. In the Gospels, where did God dwell among the people?

In Christ. Now that Jesus is no longer on the earth, where does God dwell among the people?

In the people. Specifically, God takes us residence in his people. Jesus is the cornerstone of this new temple, the apostles served as the foundation, and believers in Christ are the bricks that God continues to add over time.

By the way, this is what Scripture is referring to when it describes our bodies as the temple of God. For example, Paul rhetorically asked, Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? (1Co 6:19). As good as it is to be physically healthy, Paul’s not insisting that we exercise and eat right. That’s not his point. No, he wants us to recognize the significance of who we are in Christ. We are not merely followers of Jesus. We are the temple of our holy, living God.

Christians are an overlap between heaven and earth.

Let me illustrate. Last time, I drew a picture on the board of two overlapping circles. One circle represented heaven, and the other circle represented earth. The small overlap between them represented the temple, the one place where God’s presence dwelled on earth. In the New Testament, that overlap would represent Jesus. After Jesus ascends to heaven and sends his Spirit in Acts 2, something remarkable changes.

Suddenly, the circle that represents earth contains a multitude of tiny pieces of heaven. Anywhere on earth we find believers, we see a little pieces of heaven penetrating this sinful world. The kingdom is growing with every new conversion. Heaven is permeating the world. Light is breaking through the darkness all over the place. Little by little, heaven is coming down and God’s dwelling place on earth is expanding. The temple itself is growing.

You can probably guess where all of this is leading.

Reconciliation of heaven and earth

If you will, turn to Revelation 21. While you make your way there, listen as I read a passage from Romans 8. Paul writes:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Romans 8:18-22)

Typically, when we think about salvation, we think about the salvation of people. We think about God redeeming his children. According to Paul, however, God’s plan of redemption doesn’t stop with people. Paul personifies natural creation in Romans 8 to show that creation also longs to be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Ro 8:21). In other words, creation itself will be saved, redeemed, and glorified in the end.

Let’s look now at Revelation 21.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

We’ve come to the end of the story. Christ has returned to finish salvation. He has raised the dead, judged the wicked, gathered all of his disciples, and transformed their bodies into glorified bodies like his own.

Let me pause here for a moment. Have you ever wondered why Christ would raise our bodies from the grave and glorify them? If heaven is our final destination, why do we need bodies?

Christ will give us new bodies because we’ll need them. We wouldn’t need them if we were destined to float around in an entirely spiritual place for all eternity, but that’s not where we’re headed.

Notice what is happening here in Revelation 21. God’s people aren’t leaving the earth for heaven at the end of time. Instead, the earth is remade, just as Isaiah said it would be, then heaven comes down. We don’t go up. Heaven comes down. Better yet, the earth once again becomes the dwelling place of God (Rev 21:3). As heaven descends, so does God. He will dwell with mankind, and they will be his people. In an instant, heaven and earth are reunited once again.

We don’t have time to read through it all, but if we were to continue reading this chapter and the next, we would see a series of physical descriptions of the new earth. We’d read about a new Jerusalem, and we are even given exact dimensions of the city. In the next chapter, we’d read about:

the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life. (Revelation 22:1, 2)

Does that sound familiar? It sounds like the Garden of Eden, only it now has a city in the middle of it.

God designed and created human beings to live on the earth. That was always his plan. It is still his plan. Sin may have ruined the earth for what seems like a long time, but a day is coming when God will finish fixing the mess we made. Then, things will go back to the way he intended. The earth will be perfect. We will be without sin. We will live on the earth. And God will live with us. Heaven and earth will be one and the same.

Practically speaking, what does all of this mean? How does this understanding of redemption shape our view of heaven and eternity?

First of all, it means we won’t be floating around on clouds for all eternity. Second, it means the heaven that awaits us is not some vague concept we could never imagine. There will be trees and grass. There will be food to eat. There will be houses to live in. We’ll have our hands and feet. We’ll walk and talk. We’ll visit with our neighbors. We’ll pet the animals. We’ll work the garden just as Adam and Eve did.

And the best part is, this new life on a new earth will not only be familiar, but it will also be different in the best possible ways. It will be free from mourning, crying, pain, and death (Rev 21:4). Best of all, there will be no separation between us and God.

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