Everything I ever needed to know about the Kingdom of God, I learned from flannelgraph.
If I can find any flaw in the felt-rich images of God’s kingdom which I encountered in my youth, it is only this: their depiction of what God’s kingdom will one day, in the end, look like, was too limited.
I have vague memories of pictures of a very beautiful city, a city adorned with gold, and with pearly gates for an entrance. These images were supposed to represent the end result of where God was taking me. We called it “heaven,” and the picture was primarily borrowed from Revelation 21.
But this city – this New Jerusalem – is only a part (though a very important part, to be sure) of the future of God’s kingdom that is promised in scripture. Even the verses around the description of this city in The Revelation portray a changed universe that surrounds the city.
“Look! I am making everything new.” God promised early in Chapter 21. And, sure enough, a new heaven and a new earth are already making their appearance as the new Jerusalem descends into creation.
The image of a “new heaven and new earth” is not unique to the Revelation. Rather, the Revelation only echos a promise that God made long ago, in Isaiah 65 and 66. It is in the book of Isaiah that the idea is truly fleshed out.
If you really want to know where God is moving history, how he is acting in the world, and what to expect in our future, I find that Isaiah is a much better place to look than The Revelation. For me, the Revelation is largely concerned with our present: with how we are responding to cultures and powers that threaten to undo our faith in the here and now. But Isaiah…there is a book that looks ahead!
Nestled neatly among several other dominant themes, Isaiah seeks to portray the end of injustice, the end of human kingdoms, and the return of the rule of God in the world. It is a magnificent book: a glimpse of God’s future in which all of the violent kingdoms of the world come to an end, a picture of how all of creation – though damaged and destroyed by the fall – is made new. But most of all it tells me that God will finally, again, be recognized (i.e., worshipped) as Lord over all.
But it would be a serious mistake to think that the future of Isaiah and Revelation 21 is a future that we’re supposed to sit around and wait for. As I have previously said, all of scripture – particularly the parables – make it clear that God is moving in the here and now to bring history toward that day. He invites us to participate in the creation of that Kingdom, and – if we aren’t willing to give up our own kingdoms – we will miss out.
And I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet, which is this:
There is a sense in which the future is now. God’s Kingdom refuses to stay put in the unrealized realm of the not yet, and it rushes into the already.
The “age to come” – as it is often called – beckons to us, even in the here and now. Even though we see blood and war and bickering and self-centered pursuit of wealth, it is also sometimes possible for us to see and even experience something that is akin to Isaiah’s and John’s vision of that day. It is as if tiny streams of the Full Kingdom can come rushing backwards in time, making it possible for us to live out that future in the here and now.
We have become accustomed to looking at our world as being driven by history. One event leads to a subsequent event, which leads to another until we finally reach a dismal end. But in scripture, we need not be products of the inevitable march of political and social events beyond our control. Instead, we are being beckoned into a future: a place where disease and death, greed and war, famine and pestilince have all come to an end. A place where all human kingdoms have ended, and we can all instead live together in the righteousness of God’s kingdom.
And, it is here that I end another series of posts by reciting more of Peter Furler’s ultra-cool lyrics, this time from the song Halleleujah:
I’m looking up
Without a doubt
Longing for the things unseen
Longing for the things I believe
My true country
We hope and wait
For the glorious day
All tears will vanish
On the saints this day already shines
On the saints this day already shines
It already shines
And I know that it’s coming
But I can’t see it now
And I’ve touched it in moments
But I can’t hold it yet
And it glows in the darkness
And it calls us away
To our true destination
To that glorious day