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August 7 lesson: A New Home

July 31, 2022
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A New Home

Summer Quarter: Partners in a New Creation
Unit 3: The Great Hope of the Saints


Sunday school lesson for the week of August 7, 2022
By Dr. Jay Harris


Lesson Scripture: Revelation 21:1-9
The Great Hope of the Saints

We are beginning the third and last unit in our Summer Quarter series entitled “Partners in a New Creation.” The New Creation takes center stage in this unit. The title of this unit is “The Great Hope of the Saints.” You could say that the great hope of the saints is the coming of the New Creation. So, this is a fitting way to round out the Summer quarter’s theme.

Our scripture lessons in this unit come from the last two chapters of the Book of Revelation (or “Revelation,” for short). Some background about Revelation will be given as this lesson unfolds. According to the first verse, this book is “the revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place, and he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John” who was exiled for his faith. We are not sure if this was the same John who wrote John’s gospel and the three letters of John, or another leader of the Church who is referred to in history as John the Elder. The most important thing though is what the author of Revelation says about himself: “I, John, your brother who share with you the persecution and the kingdom and the endurance in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.’”

You can get a good idea of the context for the Book of Revelation by reading the second and third chapters of Revelation, which contain seven letters – a letter each to these seven churches to which the Revelation of John is addressed. These churches were located in Asia Minor, which is present-day Turkey. The letters show what each church was dealing with, where they were being faithful, and where they were not. For instance, the church in Ephesus had been enduring and bearing up for the sake of Christ’s name and had not grown weary, but it also could be said that they had abandoned the love they had at the first. The letter to the church in Philadelphia does not have anything bad to say about the church, and only contains words of encouragement to them as they faced persecution and hostility from enemies of the church. The letter to Laodicea does not have much good to say about the church, and says that the faith of the church was, at best, lukewarm, and that was not good. Each letter contains words of encouragement and exhortation that they needed to hear.

The Old Passes Away, the New Comes

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.” (Revelation 21:1) This first verse of our lesson makes us very aware that a lot has occurred before we get to the new heaven and new earth. The first heaven and the first earth must pass away before the new comes. Before they pass away, we are told from the 6th chapter to the 20th chapter of Revelation that numerous upheavals will unfold. Revelation tells about seals being opened, trumpets blown, woes announced, bowls of plagues poured out, and all causes of evil thrown into a lake that burns with fire and sulfur.

Revelation is filled with symbolism like this to capture in dramatic fashion the real spiritual warfare that Christians faced. The literary style used here is the same apocalyptic style used in the Old Testament books of Daniel, Zechariah, Joel, and Isaiah 24-27. Although we are not to read these events literally, we are to read them seriously. We should also not read them chronologically. Jesus himself said, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7) It is better to think of the Book of Revelation as an apocalyptic sermon where the main point is being reinforced and expounded upon by relentless repetition and metaphors.

The message behind the symbols is the lure, snare, and harmful effects of idolatry and its corrosive effects on human life and the life of faith. The idolatrous culture of the Roman Empire was one that worshiped idols, filled the public spaces with idols, worshiped emperors, and fed the emperors’ monstrous egos. This culture also fed the superstitious obsessions of ordinary people’s egos, mixed idol worship with unbounded sensuality, and degraded human lives and families. Worst of all, it charged those who tried to separate themselves from that culture with treason, persecuted them, and made their deaths into entertainment and sport. Christians in the 1st century who lived under Roman rule faced real conflict and it only got worse in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. We who live in relative safety should remember there has been persecution going on against parts of the Church in every century in various parts of the world.

One of the features of apocalyptic messages is that they present clear choices for a person of faith: good versus evil, faithfulness versus sin, patient endurance versus abandonment of the faith, and ultimately the powers and principalities of this world versus the reign and rule of Christ. The assumption is that if you’re not running up against evil forces, you might be running with them. The idolatry in our culture today is harder to detect. You see it in what people choose to make their god or gods in our narcissistic culture and in the hate and soul-killing behavior in which people engage.

The first heaven and first earth will pass away when the evil forces in heaven and on earth are conquered. It has given great hope to Christians through the ages knowing that evil will be defeated. All of us await the coming of the new heaven and the new earth because it will mark the return of Christ and the completion of his reign. The backdrop of Christ’s promised return gives the Revelation of John a palpable sense of urgency. It matters how believers deal with the pressures placed upon them by the culture. Not knowing the hour Christ will return means that a believer must be ever vigilant so that he or she will be found being faithful. Attention is given to the virtue of patient endurance. Those who endure through the conflicts and tension are described as “conquerors” who will be rewarded, because their faithfulness overcomes and therefore defeats the pressures to conform to the pagan culture surrounding them.

Notice that when the first heaven and the first earth pass away, the sea is no more. As the sea is vanquished, in Revelation 20:13, we are told that the sea will give up its dead. In the ancient world, the sea was associated with all the victims the sea claimed through the ages who never arrived safely back at port. Survivors who floated on the wreckage of their boats and never made it to shore thirsted to death although surrounded by water because salt water brings death, not life.

The Consolation of those Who Remain Faithful

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Revelation 21:2) The new Jerusalem is the Church, the Bride of Christ. Presently, the Church is not ready to be the Bride of Christ with all of its many flaws, failures, divisions, compromises, and betrayals. So, when we see the Church, the New Jerusalem, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband, we are seeing a symbolic picture of the Church that has undergone the refining process of sanctification. We are seeing the Church as it was always meant to be. In this vision, the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven from God, meaning that the perfecting of the Church happens through God’s divine interventions and not through mere human effort. This vision provides a beautiful picture of the sanctification of believers.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

Notice that, in this vision, God comes down. God comes down to dwell with humankind. God makes his home with the members of the human family who have persevered. Members of the human family from every nation and ethnicity will be God’s holy possession—God’s people. No longer will God be thought of as “up there” or “out there,” but dwelling down with us. This will not be God’s temporary home, but rather God’s eternal home.

One of the burning questions for New Testament Christians was about the members of the Body of Christ who died before Christ’s return, or perhaps died or will die during the persecutions inflicted by the powers of this world. What happens to them? Throughout the Book of Revelation, between descriptions of the numerous upheavals faced by the Church, there are interludes that show the faithful being preserved through death and resurrection. They are wearing white robes. They are rewarded – not in this life, but in the life to come. We hear about what happens to those who die before Christ’s return – before the battle between good and evil is complete. The voice from heaven tells us: “Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord. ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.” (Rev. 14:13)

We are told that God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes, the eyes of our loved ones, and the saints who have gone before. Not only will God bring comfort and deal with all past misery suffered by the Church, God will put an end to all misery, all suffering, all death, all mourning, all crying, and all pain. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. In Revelation 20:14, we are told that Death and Hades will be thrown into a lake of fire that will bring about the end of death itself. Death and all that is associated with it will pass away.

The Apostle Paul described this moment in the 15th chapter of First Corinthians, which is called the resurrection chapter. Paul was describing how the work of resurrection continues beyond each believer’s resurrection. Resurrection is the force that continues throughout Christ’s reign. Paul wrote, “Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:24-26) When all things are brought into subjection under Christ’s reign, then Christ brings the completed kingdom, and himself, into subjection to God, “so that God may be all in all.”

When all that opposes God is gone, the fullness of God’s holy presence dwells everywhere and fills everything. All of God fills all in the new heaven and the new earth. God is all in all. God dwells in it all. God’s home is in it all, and the believers who have endured to the end are there too, for God has come down to be with and among them. To speak of the completion of Christ’s reign does not mean that the reign of God will end at that time. It means that the reign of God will have taken in everything. The new creation that results will be just the beginning – when time as we know it gives way to eternity.

A New Creation

And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.’” (Revelation 21:5-6)

In the Book of Revelation, we are brought numerous times to the throne room of God. This is a reference to the fact that God reigns through Christ and the Holy Spirit. The reign of God is an ever-present theme throughout the Bible. The first coming of Christ at his birth marked the advent of the Messiah, the Son of David, God’s anointed One. To be taken to the throne room of God throughout Revelation is a reminder to Christians that, no matter how chaotic things get here on earth, our God reigns.

When the One on the throne announces that he is making all things new, it is a mighty declaration worthy to be written and preserved. God is making all things new – new heaven, new earth, a new situation with every enemy vanquished, a new creation. When God says, It is done! God is saying that the completion of God’s reign is already assured. This is the culmination of the revelation. This represents the accomplishment of what God has intended. This is the moment foreseen in the future when God gets all of what God wants. It has already been announced. Although there will still be trials to endure, the ultimate triumph of good over evil has been determined.

God truly is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. God holds the two bookends of history in his hands – Genesis through Revelation. To amplify this point God shows us in the Revelation of John the spring of the water of life, which was first revealed in Eden. We’re told in the 2nd Chapter of Genesis that even before God had caused it to rain, “a stream would rise from the earth and water the whole face of the ground…a river [that] flows out of Eden to water the garden.” (Genesis 2:6,10) It is the water that first flowed in Eden that shows up again the Revelation of John. The sea is no more, but the river of the water of life remains. To the thirsty, God offers the water from this river of life as a gift. This is the water that truly satisfies.

Recall what Jesus’ said to the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus spoke about the water she came to draw, saying, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14) The water that God offers as a gift satisfies for eternity.

We live in a time in which people are preoccupied with so many things, trying to attain fulfillment but never getting there. Recall what God told the people through the prophet Jeremiah: “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:13) We commit one evil by forsaking God, and we commit a second evil by seeking fulfillment in worthless pursuits outside of God. God is calling his people to seek satisfaction in life from God.

Sinners and Saints

“Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:7-9)

In this passage, after all that has transpired in the chapters preceding, we see the choice that the members of the seven churches of Revelation faced. Will they conquer or will they surrender to the pagan culture? It is clear that the culture will be judged. Those who conquer, those who resist the lure of the culture and live out their faith in spite of persecution, will inherit an eternal reward. Is it an easy road? No, it is a difficult road.

When today’s scripture lesson refers to the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and liars it refers to the people who seemed in the culture to get a free pass in doing evil. These were often the ones who were seen to benefit from the pagan, narcissistic culture in which Christians suffered. It was also at their hands that Christians suffered. To hear that they will be judged said to Christians that God cared. Injustice does not prevail. God wins.

It is noteworthy that it is one of the angels that carried the plagues who says, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” This is the Church, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. This image is about the sanctification of the Church – the sanctification of you and me. What an intimate image of our relationship with Christ!

The title of this unit is “The Great Hope of the Saints.” This brings us to the use of the word “saints.” The word here means “holy ones.” Are we not a mixture of sinner and saint? Why does the New Testament insist on referring to believers as saints when our sanctification is clearly not complete? God seems intent on calling us saints until we become saints. Clearly, God wants us to live into that term. A famous quote by Goethe says, “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” A part of “God getting what God wants” is getting us to be saints. As we wage spiritual warfare, it is encouraging to remember that the victory is assured. That is reason enough for us to patiently endure.

Prayer

God of Hope, Comfort, and Renewal, when the old order passes away, You have promised to make all things new. Show us where we need to die to sin and self, and rise to new life in Christ, that we may be sanctified through the influence and work of the Holy Spirit, through our Lord Jesus Christ who is the Alpha and Omega and the bridegroom perfecting His Church, Amen.

Dr. Jay Harris serves as the Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services for the South Georgia Conference. Email him at jharris@sgaumc.com. Find his plot-driven guide to reading the Bible, the “Layered Bible Journey,” at www.layeredbiblejourney.com.

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