"Then Peter said in reply, 'Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?' Jesus said to them, 'Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life." - Matthew 19:27-29
I asked my Sunday morning Bible class the following two questions yesterday morning. First of all I asked, “If you could change one thing to make the world a better place, what would you change?” As a follow up to that question I asked them to describe their version of utopia. In other words, what would a transformed and renewed world look like to you? I asked these questions to introduce the third part of a study on the Old Testament prophetic book of Zephaniah. In Zephaniah chapter one, we are told that God is going to bring a sweeping judgment on the whole of creation. The description of this judgment is couched in language very similar to the flood narrative of Genesis chapter 6. In fact, like the flood description, this judgment is God’s de-creation in order to bring about a re-creation. By the time you get to Zephaniah chapter 3 (the last chapter in this short book), universal judgment language similar to the flood is evoked again, but this time another Genesis story is brought to the fore. Here the Tower of Babel is brought to mind, but instead of God scattering the nations, in Zephaniah we’re told that he will gather the nations for judgment. But unlike the Babel narrative, in Zephaniah the language of the people isn’t confused, but is instead unified in praise to the Creator. As Zephaniah 3 progresses we discover that the result of God’s judgment on the world and on the nations eventually leads to a remnant of renewed people who are joined by God in an ideal world and kingdom. Even the outcasts and lame are welcomed into relationship with God and his people.
So like the message of the entire Bible, we discover that in Zephaniah, God brings judgment on his world in order to bring about repentance which leads to renewal, transformation, and ultimately salvation. Like the flood, the purpose of God’s judgment isn’t finally destruction, but re-creation. The flood served to cleanse the world so that God could start again with Noah and his family. This micro-message in Genesis actually forms the backbone to the entire macro-message of the Bible. From the beginning of creation, God’s plan was to share life with his people in this world. We see descriptions of this in Genesis 2-3 as God walks with his people in the garden. After humanity rebels against God and is cast out of the garden, the remainder of the Biblical narrative is the revelation of God working to redeem and renew both the creation and humanity so that he can once again share life with his people in his beautiful world. Of course the redemption and renewal of all things comes at a great cost to God. And at times both discipline and judgment must be experienced by humanity. But the final outcome of this judgment is restorative in purpose. God’s not a vindictive God. His actions always flow out of his loving purposes for his creation and for his people. God’s final word is always grace.
I believe we need to hear (or re-hear) this message. From the civil unrest in the United States to the terrorist actions in France to the unrest in the Middle East to the countless other places of strife and devastation in our world, it seems like the planet’s going to hell in a handbasket in a hurry. I’m not sure that things are worse now than other moments in the last century, not to mention the whole of history. But I do think that we are more aware of what’s going on, not just locally, but globally. And because bad news leads to far more clicks than good news, we can be overwhelmed by the sheer avalanche of chaos. We are painfully aware that our world is broken and it needs to be fixed. And in our moments of clarity and honesty, we are also painfully aware that our own personal lives are broken and need to be fixed. The good news of the Bible is that God knows this too and is actively at work to make all things new – us and the rest of his creation. The most significant part of this work was accomplished in the life, ministry, death, and especially resurrection of Jesus Christ. The new creation broke through when Jesus’ body was raised to new life. But, as we can clearly see, the renewal of the cosmos has not yet been brought to completion. That will happen when Jesus returns and God’s final judgment results in a renewed world for a renewed people. In the meantime, we hope, we wait, and we work to bring God’s love, justice, healing, and grace to a world badly in need of good news.
Unfortunately, for many years I was told a different Biblical story than the one I’ve tried to share here. I was made to believe that the world is simply a temporary home for us all to sojourn on and that one day, God would destroy the universe and we would all live with him in some kind of ethereal bliss in heaven. That’s not necessarily a bad story and it was told with good intentions, but it’s just not the Biblical story. The reality is that God won’t give up on his good creation and since we’re a part of that creation, that’s good news for us too! God won’t give up on us either.
So let’s go back to those two questions I asked my Bible class yesterday morning. If we were to actually try to make some of those changes in the world – or at least, our world – because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can be sure those efforts won’t go to waste. Undoubtedly, our version of utopia won’t match up exactly with God’s renewed world, but we can be sure that whatever world we may dream of will pale in comparison with what God will actually bring about in the end. His version will be so much better than ours and that gives me hope for the future. The best part of that world is that we’ll see Jesus face to face and we’ll be like him. And we’ll experience God’s Kingdom having come and God’s will being done on earth as it’s filled with all the glory of heaven. I’ll let John and Paul (not the Liverpudlian versions) have the final words of this post. From Revelation 21:1-7 – “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, the 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, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself 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.’ And the one 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. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.’” And from 1 Corinthians 15:58 – “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain." – Shay