I found what I’ve been hoping to find in N. T. Wright’s Revelation for Everyone, although until I found it, I had no idea that Wright would agree with my thinking —
And the idea of ‘incarnation’, so long a key topic in our thinking about Jesus, is revealed as the key topic in our thinking about God’s future for the world. Heaven and earth were joined together in Jesus; heaven and earth will one day be joined fully and for ever. Paul says exactly the same thing in Ephesians 1:10.
That is why the closing scene in the Bible is not a vision of human beings going up to heaven, as in so much popular imagination, nor even of Jesus himself coming down to earth, but of the new Jerusalem itself coming down from heaven to earth. At first sight, this is a bit of a shock: surely the new Jerusalem, the bride of the lamb, consists of the people of God, and surely they are on earth already! How can they have been in heaven as well?
Tom Wright, Revelation for Everyone, For Everyone Bible Study Guides, (London; Louisville, KY: SPCK; Westminster John Knox, 2011), 187–188.
Exactly my question and for exactly the same reasons. Wright’s answer is more than a little unconventional, but it’s one I’ve suggested several times in this blog —
The clue here is that, as Paul says in Colossians 3:3, ‘our life is hidden with the Messiah in God’. When somebody belongs to the Messiah, they continue with their life on earth, but they have a secret life as well, a fresh gift from God, which becomes part of the hidden reality that will be ‘revealed’ at the last day (Colossians 3:4; 1 John 3:2). That is why, in those great scenes in Revelation 5, 7 and 19, there is a great, uncountable number of people standing around God’s throne in heaven, singing glad songs and shouting out their praises. This is the heavenly reality which corresponds to the (apparently) weak, feeble praises of the church on earth. And one day this heavenly reality will be revealed, revealed as the true partner of the lamb, now transformed, Cinderella-like, from slave-girl to bride.
Tom Wright, Revelation for Everyone, For Everyone Bible Study Guides, (London; Louisville, KY: SPCK; Westminster John Knox, 2011), 189.
When we’re saved, we take on a dual existence. The part our human brains can comprehend remains here on earth. This is what our senses perceive. But —
(Eph. 2:4-7 ESV) 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ– by grace you have been saved — 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
The translation is correct. We were “seated” (past tense!) in heaven. When we were baptized into Christ, in some sense beyond our comprehension, we were seated on the throne of heaven with him — as a part of him.
(Eph. 1:19-23 ESV) [T]he immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he [God] raised him [Christ] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
The picture of the Messiah seated on the heavenly throne, with Jesus as the head and the church as the body. When we’re added to Christ, we join him on the throne. Now, not later.
Having told the story of the sovereign God and of Jesus as an exodus-narrative ([Eph] 1:3–14) and as the story of this God’s victory in the Messiah over all the powers of the world (1:20–23), Paul now tells the story of how humankind has been brought from universal death to life in the Messiah (2:1–10, focused on 2:5–6). The present state of those in the Messiah is that they have already been ‘raised with the Messiah’ and seated with him in the heavenly places; what is true of the Messiah in 1:20–23, in other words, is true of those who are ‘in him’.
N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 237.
(We covered many of these same points in the Part 4 of the posts on the Millennium. I’m trying to avoid repeating the same materials.)
These thoughts are right, but it’s not immediately obvious why they’re right.
Just as the Spirit’s dwelling within the Christian anticipates the fuller union of man and God in the new heavens and earth — by a piece of God living on earth in the Christian, a piece of the Christian anticipates this same union by living in heaven in Christ.
This view is not unique to Wright (and me) —
The new feature in Ephesians is that it places the believer in the heavenlies along with the exalted Lord. By doing this, the author shows that the fullness of life “in Christ” includes all that has happened to Christ himself, including enthronement (1:20). As such, believers already share in Christ’s heavenly rule.
The idea of enthronement or exaltation with Christ is difficult to grasp because there is a tendency among believers to think of this as something to be realized in the future—that is, at the end of this present age. …
C. L. Mitton has noted in his commentary that some scholars go to great lengths to give a future meaning to the verbs in 2:5 and 6 even though they are in the past tense. …
Such interpretations, however, do not do justice to the thoughts in Ephesians, where the resurrection and exaltation of the believer are described as events that have taken place in union with Christ. …
One of the most significant aspects of Paul’s understanding of eschatology is that he conceived of the eschatological process as having begun in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. For him, these events represented God’s breaking into the world and inaugurating his reign on earth. In Christ, therefore, the eschatological promises were already in the process of being fulfilled.
That there is an “inauguration” of the eschatological process does not, however, eliminate the futuristic element. Paul retains the conviction that the eschatological process now begun is moving forward toward a final day of consummation. This has a significant bearing upon Paul’s theology because it places the individual in tension between the two aeons—the one begun with the coming of Christ and the one yet to come at his Parousia [Second Coming].
Arthur G. Patzia, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 180–182.
So, if that’s true, then when the new Jerusalem comes to earth, and God with it, we find Christ and his body in just one place. The Spirit within the Christians is now with God — in the same place. No longer is heaven God’s throne and earth his footstool (Isa 66:1). The two have been joined. And Christians, who have been baptized into Jesus, find their heavenly and earthly existences united.
Thus, as a number of commentaries suggest, the new Jerusalem is indeed the church descending from heaven to marry Jesus — but it’s the heavenly part of the church, perfected and ideal, pure enough to wed the Messiah.
Although a few writers take the New Jerusalem in John’s vision to be an actual city, it is far better to understand it as a symbol of the church in its perfected and eternal state. The point is that Jerusalem is the site of the temple, the place where the Presence [JFG: God’s Glory or Shekinah] dwells. In 1 Cor 3:16–17 the people of God form the temple where God dwells; here (in Revelation) they are the city. The vision itself takes the form of a magnificent city symbolizing the eternal felicity [happiness] of all who follow the Lamb. The holy city (cf. Isa 52:1; Matt 4:5) is of heavenly origin. It comes down from God, that is to say, the church is not a voluntary organization created by human beings but a fellowship initiated and given by God (cf. Matt 16:18).
Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 381–382.
The new Jerusalem is kind of like the bride’s wedding dress. The white bridal dress was originally symbolic of virginity, and not all brides are virgins. But they all get to wear white. Just so, the new Jerusalem symbolizes the idealized church, and when the bloody, persecuted, sinful, broken, struggling, imperfect church is joined with the new Jerusalem, the ideal becomes reality. (Again, literal language doesn’t really communicate the idea.)
The bride in Revelation 21:1ff., on the other hand, represents the end-time completion of the redeemed, believing community from throughout the ages, finally secured from any dangers and residing in the midst of God’s perfect, full presence. Therefore, the new Jerusalem of ch. 21 has its inaugurated existence throughout the ages in the true Israel of the OT age and the church of the NT age (the latter of which Gal. 4:21–31 and Heb. 12:22–23 testify to).
G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 1043–1046.
And I’ll confess that this is a very difficult thing to imagine — at least in terms of how we Westerners think. But the Jews had no trouble imagining God as both omnipresent and specially present in the Temple. And we Christians don’t struggle that much with an omnipresent Holy Spirit who indwells Christians specially. And we don’t struggle that much with Jesus being in heaven and yet among his people when they gather to worship him.
This is just the sort of paradox that’s at the core of Christianity. And Eph 2:6 is merely suggesting that when Christians are baptized into Jesus, they on something of this dual, paradoxical nature. Maybe this is how the Spirit indwells. Maybe this is why Jesus is with his disciples until the end of the age.
How distant is heaven?
Indeed, as C. S. Lewis suggests in the Chronicles of Narnia, maybe heaven isn’t far away at all. Maybe it’s here among us but invisible.
The mystery of the ascension is of course just that, a mystery. It demands that we think what is, to many today, almost unthinkable: that we recognize that when the Bible speaks of ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ it isn’t talking about two localities related to each other within the same space-time continuum, nor yet about a ‘non-physical’ world on the one hand and a ‘physical’ one on the other, but about two different kinds of what we call ‘space’, two different kinds of what we call ‘matter’, and also, quite possibly (though this does not necessarily follow from the other two), two different kinds of what we call ‘time’.
We post-Enlightenment westerners are such wretched flatlanders. Although New Age thinkers, and indeed quite a lot of contemporary novelists, are quite capable of taking us into other parallel worlds, spaces and times, we retreat into our rationalistic closed-system universe as soon as we think about Jesus. C. S. Lewis of course did a great job, in the Narnia stories and elsewhere, of imagining how two worlds could relate and interlock. But the generation that has grown up knowing its way around Narnia has not usually been helped to see how to make the transition from a children’s story to the real world of grown-up Christian devotion and theology.
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 126–127.
So it’s not necessarily really a descent of the new Jerusalem. That’s how the ancients envisioned heaven — as sitting above the clouds. In reality, it more like the spiritual world is next to us but invisible, separated by an imperceptible wall. The Transfiguration ripped a brief hole in the wall, allowing the glory of heaven to shine through. At the Second Coming, the wall will be torn down and heaven and earth will be purified and merged into one. And so our existence in heaven on the throne is not far away at all. We just can’t see it except through the eyes of scripture.