There is coming a day when we will all enjoy what is good in our world -- a home where you'll always be safe, a table always covered with the healthiest meals, a community where everyone cares about everyone, and a heart that will never feel sorrow or pain. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!
Or, the delight that you have in being with your family at a holiday meal points you toward the delight God will have in providing heaven for His children.
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Fun with Harvest and County Fairs
Armed with the projection that 2020/21 will bring in the largest wheat, corn, and soybean harvests in world history, let's have some fun with harvest superlatives.
You've all been to a county or state fair, right? They are a timeless (and critically important) part of agrarian society. I want you to think of your favorite fair memories.
I wouldn't be surprised if many of you are fondest of the midway. Some people really like to have the feeling of puking up their cotton candy and funnel cakes. Some people also like to think they can beat the rigged games (ex-NASA scientist Mark Rober tells us how you can).
I also wouldn't be surprised if some of you love the various contests. Maybe you buy some art. Or, maybe you're willing to sample some of the award-winning pies and cakes! (Please tell me -- was it worth it?)
As you might have guessed, my favorite are the animal shows. I love to see the kids showing off all of their hard work. (Side note, my brother-in-law was the rabbit king of Kansas.)
(My actual most favoritest part of a fair is the duckling slide in South Carolina. It doesn't really have anything to do with my opening illustration except that I'm assuming there's going to be one of these in heaven.)
But where I'm really going with this illustration is the produce contests. (Okay, and maybe the pie contests.) What's the most amazing fruit or vegetable you've seen at a fair?
Was it a huge pumpkin? A really cool-looking gourd? A perfect tomato?
How do you think they compare with the "world's biggests"?
This is where things get quite ridiculous, so I encourage you to research the biggest and best of whatever your favorite fruit or vegetable is.
(Seriously -- it's incomprehensible. A cabbage that weighs 140 pounds. A pumpkin that weighs 2,600 pounds. A carrot that weighs 20 pounds. A grapefruit the size of a basketball. No that's not a real potato, but I bet you can convince your friends it is!)
Here's where we're going with all of this: the very best this world has to offer is just a taste (sorry, couldn't help it) of what God has to offer us in the new heavens and new earth.
Let's say you don't like fairs or fruits or vegetables. We can go a different direction with this (at the risk of stepping on an illustration we will probably use again sometime in December): what is your favorite Thanksgiving-or-Christmas meal memory?
Or, along those lines, what is your favorite Thanksgiving-or-Christmas dish or dessert?
My grandma was a stickler for tradition. Maybe that's why I took to Texas A&M so well. I think I can still rattle off the Thanksgiving menu I grew up with: oven-baked turkey, Stouffer's stuffing, green bean casserole, that pink fluffy casserole(?), cranberry sauce, those flaky layer biscuits, mashed potatoes, some sort of sweet potato casserole, pumpkin pie, and chocolate pudding pie. Frankly, I've never really liked most of those, so when we moved to Georgia, we started having things like nachos, burritos, hamburgers, you know, good food.
My grandma went to be with Jesus, and her house has been sold. It is somewhat weird to think that I probably won't ever set foot in that house again -- those memories (some from 40 years ago) are still so fresh and present. Eat until we couldn't eat any more, then move to the tv room where the card tables were set up for a full day of spades with the football games on, and at least one trip out back to throw the aerobie around.
Those family memories shape us. And then, as we get older and our family structure changes, we make new memories and we shape our kids. And then our grandkids. And that's how God designed it. And the very best of our memories point us to a new heaven and a new earth where it is nothing but better than best.
If you read this before Thanksgiving, make sure to be thankful. I'm certainly thankful for you!
Where We Are in Isaiah
This is the last lesson in Isaiah! (Next week, on to Luke.) I mentioned last week that this final section of Isaiah is about righteousness, namely Israel's inability to do it and God's determination to see it. We see this back-and-forth between Israel's failures and God's solutions, with last week's lesson focusing on the failures.
*See last week's lesson supplement (God Expects - A Lesson on Hypocrisy from Isaiah 58 (fbcthomson.org))*
This week focuses on the promised future for those who return to God and live by His righteousness -- it will be worth every effort and sacrifice.
A big concept in this week's passage is the new heaven and earth. It would really be worth getting familiar with what the Bible means by that.
I strongly encourage you to watch these two short videos from the Bible Project. In the first, they explain how the idea of a "new heaven and new earth" can be best understood in the person and work of Jesus, and in the second, they explain how fallen humans can be redeemed to be a part of this new heaven and earth.
And here's a series they just started: The Visual Commentary. It just so happens that their first chapter, Genesis 1, directly feeds into this week's topic. The better we understand creation, the better we can understand what God means when He talks about a new creation.
So here's our transition question and idea: based on what we know about creation, what do you think is God's purpose and priority in a new creation? How might it be the same? How might it be different? (For example, everything that God called "good" in the first creation, don't you think that it will also exist in God's final creation? But what might have to be different about it?)
Part 1: A Place of Joy (Isaiah 65:17-20)
17 “For I will create new heavens and a new earth; the past events will not be remembered or come to mind. 18 Then be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I will create Jerusalem to be a joy and its people to be a delight. 19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people. The sound of weeping and crying will no longer be heard in her. 20 In her, a nursing infant will no longer live only a few days, or an old man not live out his days. Indeed, the one who dies at a hundred years old will be mourned as a young man, and the one who misses a hundred years will be considered cursed.
Okay -- let's start with the obvious questions. "I thought that heaven was a place without sorrow or death. WHY ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT DYING CHILDREN AND CURSES????"
Good question. Let's start with the mind-blowing assertion that not everyone believes this passage is talking about heaven. Quite a few scholars believe this is just hyperbole -- that the change God will create in Jerusalem will be like a brand new universe. I.e., one day Jerusalem will be the perfect city where everyone lives a long time in safety, and then the Jews can experience the life they always wanted. (A twist on that interpretation is that this passage talks about life in "the millennial kingdom" of Revelation 21.)
The reason I reject that interpretation is that it doesn't fit the larger context of Isaiah. Isaiah has gotten rather cosmic by this point. We have been juxtaposing failed, rebellious Israel against this "suffering servant" who will act in such a way as to change people's hearts. Salvation and righteousness vs. punishment for the wicked. If the end goal is a pleasant city where people live in safety, then the rest of Isaiah is hyperbole.
So, I believe this passage is giving us a peak into eternity, the place we call "heaven".
Note that verse 17 starts with "for", tying it to everything before. God has repeatedly talked about the punishment for the wicked and rebellious, and He's talked about salvation for the repentant. Now, He simply puts some value on salvation. Those who experience the forgiveness and salvation of the Lord will be allowed to live "on Mount Zion" -- and that experience will be great. Worth whatever hardships people endure as a servant of God.
It should make us think of a passage we covered a few weeks ago: Isaiah 25:6-8
6 On this mountain, the Lord of Armies will prepare for all the peoples a feast of choice meat, a feast with aged wine, prime cuts of choice meat, fine vintage wine. 7 On this mountain he will swallow up the burial shroud, the shroud over all the peoples, the sheet covering all the nations. 8 When he has swallowed up death once and for all, the Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face and remove his people’s disgrace from the whole earth, for the Lord has spoken.
But that still leaves us with the questions we have about our passage: what's this talk about death? Why is death even mentioned if God has already talked about a place with no more death? Well, here's how I explain this. Our passage isn't necessarily saying that people will die in the new heavens and earth. It's saying "if a person died before 100, that would be a shock". Another way of looking at this: a person who is 100 years old is still young.
Remember: whatever God says to His people about eternal heaven has to make some kind of sense to them. Jews did not have a sophisticated view of the afterlife. Even in Jesus' day, a major group of Jewish leaders (the Sadducees) still taught that there was no resurrection of the dead! So, God talks about subjects that would be very important to His people: infant mortality and life expectancy. If you've been involved in any of our Wednesday night studies (modern ethics, and modern fears), you know that these are still important topics today!
You might not be too impressed by this "people will live to 100" claim. And that's because the world we live in today is very different from the world of 3000 years ago. Here are two charts from Wikipedia depicting the tremendous gains on both mortality rates and longevity.
Since 1950, worldwide infant mortality rates have dropped by 75%, which is incredible (sadly, that means that around the world, almost 3% of all children still die before they turn 1, and that doesn't count those children that die while in the womb). At the same time, life expectancy around the world has increased from less than 50 to more than 70. Those are astonishing improvements. In fact, if you keep up with clickbait, you probably saw the headline that some scientists are currently arguing whether or not people born today should expect to live to be 100!
But in the ancient world, a person who was 50 or 60 would have been considered very old. Talking about a world with no infant mortality and no one dying before 100 would have been very impressive to Isaiah's readers. And that's how we should understand this description. It's a word picture designed to help us see how death will not interfere with life in the new heaven and earth.
So, that leads straight into the next obvious question. Does this mean there will be children in heaven??? No, that's not the point either. You know how testy people get when talking about thigs beyond our comprehension -- like marriage in heaven. Even in Jesus' day, they couldn't have a reasonable discussion about it (Matthew 22), so there's no way Isaiah's readers could have absorbed a concept like "in heaven there is no marriage and thus no children". The point being made is the presence of life and joy on God's eternal mountain. (Note: again, this is why some scholars do not believe this is talking about heaven but rather about the ideal Jerusalem that could exist when people get their act together.)
Now, let's go back through the verses.
Verse 17: the very important promise of no memory. Over and over again, God has reminded His people of their failure. But in heaven, He will not remember it any more. Why? Because the suffering servant has paid the price for that punishment, and in this New Jerusalem, they will no longer make those mistakes. Heaven is a place with no memory.
[You could get pretty well sidetracked on this topic, but imagine this scenario: you have the power to wipe your worst moment from everyone's memories. How would that change your life? What kind of impact would that make on you? There are a lot of things I would love to go back in time and change. But in heaven, we can't dwell on the past because we will finally see ourselves the way God sees us -- forgiven in Jesus. The "weeping and crying" will be those regrets that we won't have.]
Verse 18/19: the repetition of glad/joy/rejoice/delight. These are as positive as words can be. They stand in stark contrast to words like "ruins" and "destroy" and "shame" that have been associated with failed, rebellious Israel. God has created this wonderful city to be a delight to Himself. Yes, the people will enjoy it, but God is the one who will take the biggest delight in it. We do not serve a God whose primary interest is in punishing wrongdoers; we serve a God who wants to save and forgive and bless. But He is also holy -- He cannot tolerate sin, and He will punish those who insist on rebelling against Him.
[Another potential sidetrack: about Jerusalem. God has clearly chosen Jerusalem to be His special city. Even in Revelation, the location of Jerusalem is important to God. We could spend a whole lot of time speculating as to why, and we would never find out for certain.]
Verse 19: weeping and crying. The connotation here is that of sorrow. So, ask yourself this question: what are all of the causes of weeping? Because think about it -- if there is no more weeping, then there must no longer be the things that cause weeping. Is that not mind-boggling?
Put this in the perspective of your family gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas. If you have children, the more precious these times become each year. And if you have grandchildren, I believe that is probably even moreso. The delight that you have in being with your family at a holiday meal points you toward the delight God will have in providing heaven for His children. There's no better wording of what this means than
When we've been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, We've no less days to sing God's praise than when we first begun.
A Place of Prosperity (Isaiah 65:21-23)
21 People will build houses and live in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22 They will not build and others live in them; they will not plant and others eat. For my people’s lives will be like the lifetime of a tree. My chosen ones will fully enjoy the work of their hands. 23 They will not labor without success or bear children destined for disaster, for they will be a people blessed by the Lord along with their descendants.
As before, we should look at these verses as describing the blessings of God in ways that Isaiah's readers could understand. This is first and foremost about war and exile and slavery. In war, people lose everything. Those who survive work as slaves for the victors, never profiting from the labor of their hands. During Isaiah's lifetime, the northern kingdom was destroyed and the people resettled. Within 100 years of his death, the same would happen to the southern kingdom. That will never be the way things are in heaven -- it will be a righteous society.
The chosen images are houses and fields. That should make sense as having the most application to the most readers. Even today, homeownership is seen as a critical part of society. If you've heard the phrase "a man's home is his castle", well, that's basically a founding principle for American law. The home is important -- all around the world and throughout history.
Sidetrack! I love houses! I love touring houses. I love seeing pictures of houses. I love watching people build houses. It changed my life when Trulia and Zillow released apps so I can basically look at pictures of any house I want as nosy as I please. What kind of houses will we have in heaven? (Compassion International even uses education about houses from around the world as a way to remind us how many children live in poverty.)
And then I discovered time-lapse construction videos! Those are so great. And then we found videos that real estate companies post of their high-priced properties. We can take tours of Beverly Hills mansions and Manhattan penthouses without leaving our home. What a world!
I have no idea how that could be helpful in your study of Isaiah 65. Maybe it means that God is as interested in houses as I am? Of course, there's no envy in heaven, nor wastefulness, so I could be on thin ice.
If I'm going to insist on this passage talking about heaven, then all the same questions come up as in the previous section. These verses talk about long lifespans and children, both of which seem out of place when talking about heaven. And the answer I give here is the same as what I gave before: God is putting a description of heaven in terms that the people could understand and appreciate.
That said, let's not sleep on the power of living as long as a tree! There are multiple specimens of Mediterranean cypress and Lebanese cedar and also olive trees that were very likely alive when Isaiah wrote these words! The great bristlecone pines of the American west might live for 5,000 years. Ancient trees are so amazing that they get awesome names like Prometheus and Methuselah and The President. (And the people who cut them down are forever notorious for that act.)
When I look at pictures of ancient trees, I am reminded of how awesome and creative God is. God took great delight in creating those trees. They're beautiful and amazing. And so when God compares life in heaven with that of a tree, that's nothing to scoff at.
I'm going to keep putting a holiday twist on this passage: describe your perfect holiday day. For me, it involves the smells of the food being prepared in the kitchen, the table being made ready, all of the decorations in the home, the comfortable temperatures inside, and mostly the people present. God created us to desire our family, and so where our family lives will be extremely important to us. God is simply validating that importance in these verses.
Now -- how does this line up with what Jesus told us in John 14:
In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?
If you're like me, you have taken great comfort in knowing that Jesus Himself has prepared a place for our Christian friends and loved ones in heaven. So, does Jesus build our house? Or do we build our own house?
That's definitely reading too much into these verses. These verses are about the life and joy and security and peace that God's children will have when they live forever on God's holy mountain. That's all this passage is establishing.
That said, I do think we can get hints of heaven here. Surely you have wondered "What are we going to do in heaven?" And it's a near-impossible question to answer because we don't understand existence that is not affected by time. But I don't think it's unreasonable to draw from these verses that life in heaven will reflect what life could/should be on earth. We will work with our hands and enjoy the fruits of our labor. We will be with our families and enjoy the company of others. There won't be famines or droughts or thorns or pests, so our livelihoods will never be threatened. We will never be vulnerable.
[Aside on having children in heaven. This is now the second reference to this. Are we sure that we won't have children in heaven? Yes, I think we are. That passage I referenced before from Matthew 22 includes Jesus saying that in the resurrection we will not marry. And God designed children to be a product of marriage. Ergo.]
So, if we conceive of heaven as a place that is more familiar than foreign, that opens all sorts of fun thought exercises for us. What do you hope to do in heaven? While the book of Revelation does give the impression that we will spend most of our "time" worshiping at the throne of God and of the Lamb, there's a lot more to it than that.
Revelation 21 intentionally and directly calls back to our passage in Isaiah 65:
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. I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away. (1-4)
The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never close by day because it will never be night there. (24-25)
Then he showed me the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the city’s main street. The tree of life was on each side of the river, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, and there will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will worship him. (22:1-3)
You probably notice quite a few references to Isaiah in Revelation 21/22!
The point being -- there's a lot going on in the new heavens and earth.
Part 3: A Place of Peace (Isaiah 65:24-25)
24 Even before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear. 25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like cattle, but the serpent’s food will be dust! They will not do what is evil or destroy on my entire holy mountain,” says the Lord.
This is what really tips the scales for me in that this is talking about heaven. Heaven will be a place of peace -- true, lasting peace between all creatures.
On the one hand, yes I think this means that there will be animals in heaven. God created them and called them "good". (What about mosquitos and ticks?)
Necessary aside: Do All Dogs Go to Heaven? This is such a touchy subject. The answer is no. "Dogs" will be in heaven. Your dog will not be in heaven. Why is that? Because God created humans uniquely in His image. Part of that image is the possession of an eternal soul (that Jesus died to save). Animals do not have a soul. Jesus did not die on the cross for anything other than humans. (Not even angels!) When your dog dies, that's it for your dog. That's the cycle of life. (I said this was touchy.) (By the way, that's why I have so much trouble holding people who have been cruel to animals in anything but extreme contempt.)
So, how do animals get to heaven? Does God just spontaneously put them there? Do they procreate -- that's natural behavior, right? What do they eat? I DON'T KNOW.
There are some rather astounding consequences of these passages.
The first is just a reminder that God originally created all of His creatures to be herbivores. There are lots of callbacks to Genesis 1-2 in here, including 1:29-30. Eating meat -- killing animals -- is a product of sin. And so it will be in heaven.
No more hamburgers.
Maybe there will be Impossible Whoppers. Or maybe they will have perfected the Beyond Meat recipe. I don't know -- I'm as skeptical as you are.
Here's the way I look at this: if God can raise us from the dead and give us eternal bodies, don't you think He can help us like some good fresh bread and vegetables? I mean, there's no complaining in heaven.
(And, oh yes, so many questions arise with respect to diet! I don't think you have the time or energy to tackle them. In the meantime, I plan on enjoying a lot of turkey with my Thanksgiving dinner.)
The second is that there will be no hunting in heaven. Sorry, y'all. There will be no destroying of any kind.
But that doesn't apply to plants. Sorry, tree-huggers. Trees and flowers and plants are beautiful and amazing, but God created them for a purpose: to be fuel for the cycle of life. (I tend to think that insects are in that same category.) When we eat a fruit or a vegetable, when we grind wheat into flour, we're doing what God created it for. We're not causing it pain, so to speak. Birds and animals and the like -- those things with "the breath of life" of Gen 1:30 -- are different. However, ecology is very important to God.
The third is that the poor serpent will never get away from its relationship with Satan. Tough break.
The fourth, and most important, is that I think we can draw from this passage a direct and personal relationship with God on Zion. Yes, today we can pray to God and God hears us. But in heaven, it will be more akin to a conversation. This is far beyond our ability to comprehend, and that's part of the reason why Jesus came to reveal God to us, so that we could "see" what is otherwise invisible and incomprehensible.
The year 2020 has reminded us of how broken this world has become. God created the world good, but then we broke it with our sin. But God will re-create the world to be everything that is was supposed to be -- the difference is that we can no longer break it with sin. There will be no more destroying or sorrow or hypocrisy. We will walk in the light of God as His forgiven children.