Category Archives: Isaiah

Coveting, Control and Captivity (Leviticus 25)

You can search this site for “jubilee”, “leviticus 25″ and “sabbath” to read more about the connections I make between Sabbath practices, ecology, economics, Jesus and Isaiah. To find something fresh to say about this central passage in the biblical narrative I turn to one of my favorite scholars.

The text of Leviticus 25 asserts both Yahweh’s radical intention and the radical social practice of entitlement that necessarily accompanies Yahweh’s intention. (103)

So, Walter Brueggeman sums up the well-known Jubilee chapter of Leviticus. Many people, particularly conservatives, hear the word entitlement primarily with negative connotations. However, the concept of predistribution which I mentioned before in relationship to Peter Barnes’ book Capitalism 3.0 is a more positive description of what Brueggeman means. Brueggeman also supports what I’ve often claimed for the importance of this chapter for understanding Israel, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in his book Finally Comes the Poet,

Israel’s theological conviction about the land is asserted positively in the great social vision of Leviticus 25, the text on the Jubilee year. A number of scholars now argue that this text provides the cornerstone for Israel’s ethical practice. (102)

Brueggeman makes this claim in the context of his exegesis of the command not to covet (Ex 20:17) in which he says,

Marvin Cheney has argued, and I agree, that covet in the Decalogue refers in principle to land tenure systems and land management policies. To covet means to arrange loan credit, tax, and inheritance so that some may have land that others should rightfully possess. That is, it is the systemic economic practice of greed. (99)

It is helpful to put the redistribution scheme of Leviticus 25 in the context of prohibitions against covetousness and greed. In other words, the Jubilee is the positive vision of what the world could or should be in light of the negative reality highlighted by the prohibitions in the Decalogue. Greed, or covetousness, is both based on and results in inequalities of the distribution of wealth and power. For the biblical world this comes primarily in the form of access and ownership of land. Brueggeman goes on to explore this further,

There is an important line of scholarship that argues that early Israel (which gives us the seed of all biblical faith) is essentially a social revolution concerning land tenure systems. This charter for “egalitarianism” culminated in the commandment against coveting that prohibits the rapacious policies of the state that characteristically monopolize law, power, and wealth… The Bible has understood, long before Karl Marx, that the basic human issues concern land, power, and the means of production. (99-100)

I have argued before in these virtual pages that a biblical economy is based on the land, and I’m happy to find confirmation from such a highly respected biblical, particularly Old Testament, scholar. Some will dismiss everything at the mention of that dreaded name, “Marx”, but will have missed the point Brueggeman makes that, far from being “Marxist”, the Bible is fundamentally human. Where Marx gets things right he happens to agree with the biblical emphasis on justice, egalitarianism and land reform. Most Christians read the Ten Commandments (and the whole biblical narrative) primarily in individualistic terms. What they miss is the socio-political context of these commands which were understood in much more radical terms by the original hearers.

So, Jubilee is the antithesis to coveting, but Brueggeman unpacks this further in terms of control and captivity,

The theological issue related to the land is sharing— respecting the entitlement of others. The preacher’s theme for those who gather is greed. Greed touches every aspect of our lives: economic, political, sexual, psychological, and theological. Greed bespeaks a fundamental disorder in our lives, a disorder that reflects distortion in our relation with God.

Central to this issue is the addiction to control that permeates human history. In verse 6 the text poses the question most people probably have when reading about letting the land lie fallow for a year, “What then shall we eat?” I hope to explore this aspect of Jubilee further, but the response of the text is that God provides abundantly, such that the people will still be eating from the produce of the Sabbath year three years later. Loss of control is scary, but God clearly promises that letting go of control is actually better than when we hold tightly to the reins.

This addiction to control is a kind of captivity or slavery. When we hold our possessions and wealth tightly, we are possessed by them. We become slaves to the things we pretend to have control over. Their is a subtle reversal in the relationship to material goods that most people don’t recognize in their daily lives. The logic of greed and coveting and the systems that perpetuate these values traps us in a spiral from which we cannot extricate ourselves. This kind of captivity is picked up by the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2) when he proclaims “good news to the poor”, “liberty to the captives” and the “year of the Lord’s favor”. Many scholars argue that this is a reference to the Jubilee, which is then appropriated by Jesus when he quotes Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). This proclamation of liberation from captivity which is good news to the poor is a thread connecting the Torah, Prophets, Gospels and on through Paul and James. This Jubilee thread weaves a tapestry that paints a picture of the “kingdom of heaven” at the core of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But Brueggeman also admonishes that the prohibition against coveting and the positive command of the Jubilee are not based on a revelatory “because God said so”, but instead on real world experience.

This claim about God and the distribution of land is not accepted simply on the basis of revelation, but can be established in terms of social experience. Excessive land grabbing leads to death, whether in the family, in the church, in the faculty, or in Latin America. (101)

Living among people that are desperate for access to land, I can attest to the timelessness of this assertion. North American and western cultures have isolated themselves from the death that the injustice and inequality of economic systems creates, causes and exacerbates, but it is very real. Those at the very bottom understand that their inability to access land is the basis of their poverty and exploitation. For middle class westerners so detached and abstracted from their land base, it seems strange that people are still fighting over access to land. We have been sold the lie that we can solve poverty and basic inequalities in the system without dealing with the most fundamental issue of access to land and exploitation of natural resources. It is so important to recognize that this is not an arbitrary commandment, but one based on the social and economic realities of human existence which continue to apply today.

I’d like to share a story that Brueggeman relates which, I think, helps connect this ancient text and practice to our current context,

A concrete embodiment of the Jubilee command- ment was evidenced in a rural church in Iowa during the “farm crisis.” The banker in the town held mortgages on many farms. The banker and the farmers belonged to the same church. The banker could have foreclosed. He did not because, he said, “These are my neighbors and I want to live here a long time.” He extended the loans and did not collect the interest that was rightly his. The pastor concluded, “He was practicing the law of the Jubilee year, and he did not even know it.” The pastor might also have noted that the reason the banker could take such action is that his bank was a rare exception. It was locally and independently owned, not controlled by a larger Chicago banking system. (104)

Finally, let me end with this challenge from Brueggeman,

What if the central claim of the Tenth Commandment is true: that coveting kills, that taking what belongs to another destroys, and that life-giving social practice requires giving things back to people! (106)

The Law of Liberty (Leviticus 19 The New Testament Remix)

One semester in seminary I was taking a New Testament class and a Greek class on the Letter of James. In my New Testament class I volunteered to write a paper about James 1:25-27. I thought I’d have a leg up since I was already doing research by reading the letter in Greek for another class. I discovered a couple of wonderful texts on James that connected it to this chapter of Leviticus. First, Luke Timothy Johnson wrote an article asserting that the entire letter of James can be read as a gloss of Leviticus 19. He lines up the topics covered side by side, verse by verse, and it is astonishing to see the parallels. Robert Wall wrote an excellent commentary on James in which he suggests that the reference to the “law of liberty” in the passage I was assigned, or also “royal law” (2:8), is a reference to the Jubilee in Leviticus 25. These two commentaries have a lot to do with the way I read James, Leviticus 19 and ultimately the biblical narrative. I would like to consider these two insights, first reading James’ letter as a gloss of Leviticus 19 and then the idea that the “law of liberty” and “royal law” is a reference to Leviticus 25 and the Jubilee.

If you just read Leviticus 19 and the James’ letter together the parallels jump out. James 2:1-7 is an extended exposition of Leviticus 19:15, “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” However, James does not settle for the total impartiality in Leviticus, but seems to suggest in verses 5-7 the “preferential option for the poor” argued for by liberation theology.

Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

Perhaps James, reading Leviticus 19, realized that it is rarely the poor that are shown partiality or favoritism within the unjust systems with which he was familiar. This is then followed by James’ quote of Leviticus 19:18 (to which we will return later). James 4:11 finds its corollary in Leviticus 19:16 concerning slandering and treatment of neighbors. James’ invective against the rich and oppressors in 5:1-6 very closely resembles Leviticus 19: 9-11, 13 and 35-36. These are the most obvious connections, but more commonalities exist concerning the more general tone and emphasis on the outworking of covenantal relationship with God through the just relationships within the community and to the earth. In James’ language we are to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (1:22).

The Law of Liberty
I also wrote a paper in seminary arguing that, in terms of the relationship of faith and works, Paul and James are actually on the same page, but are coming from different perspectives, particularly in terms of their unique missions, and writing to very different audiences. This is very important in terms of the way James and Paul use the term “law”. Paul’s Gentile audience does not have the same relationship to Torah that James’ Jewish audience does. Now, let’s turn to the way that James uses the term “law”.

James uses the term law in seven verses. Out of those seven three use the phrase “law of liberty” or “royal law”. Are these just stylistic flourishes? The repetition of the phrase “law of liberty” in both 1:25 and 2:12 suggests an intentionality and distinction from other uses of the term. In verse 25 it is the “perfect law, the law of liberty”, further elevating the status of the phrase. This comes as James is making the central argument of his letter, the judgment of true or sincere faith by the actions it produces (1:22-25). The next use of the phrase “law of liberty” occurs within the same passage as the term “royal law”; therefore we will consider them together.

Verse 8, which quotes directly the “love your neighbor” command in Leviticus 19:8, comes immediately after the discourse on partiality and favoritism towards the rich and the “preferential option for the poor” which I mentioned above. “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well” (Jas 2:8). This love command does away with the partiality and favoritism as illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 (discussed in the previous post). The designation “royal law” seems to carry the same weight that Jesus gives to Leviticus 19:18 in Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:31where it is paired with the Shema as the commandment on which “depend all the Law and Prophets” (22:40). So, this is nothing new from what we have already seen.

The Jubilee in Leviticus is described in this way “And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Lev 25:10). So, if we take Robert Wall’s suggestion that the “law of liberty” is a reference to the Jubilee, then we should read 1:25 and 2:12 in light of this reference. James concludes his diatribe against partiality and the law with verses 12-13, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” In the context of the Jubilee then this can be read as a reference to the forgiveness of debts, freeing of slaves and return of land and with the land the equality of economic opportunity.

The “law of liberty”, then, represents an ideal of social, economic and ecological relationships that may have never actually been practiced according to many scholars. Thus James’ insistence that “the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (1:25) may be an indictment of Israel’s inability to fulfill this “perfect law”. It represents a messianic hope for the coming reign of God where all injustice and inequality will be done away with, while simultaneously urging Israel and the church to embody this coming hope in concrete practice that was not considered a distant impossibility.

Conclusion
In the first post on Leviticus 19 in its original context, I argued that the entire chapter concerns the convergence of relationships between God, humanity and the earth. In light of this, what we have said about the New Testament passages and references to Leviticus 19 should also be read in light of the connections that Leviticus 19 itself makes between the command to “love your neighbor” and the Sabbath practices to care for the earth which includes the Jubilee. I think that this integrated, holistic way of thinking is assumed by Jesus, Paul and James in their words and actions.

We have also seen how the law to “love your neighbor” includes the social and political realms. Our relationship to possessions and wealth is directly related by Jesus to our living out the “love your neighbor” law. Jesus moves this law from the realm of feeling, where we have relegated it, into the realm of action by transforming neighbor from a category of people into an action taken by the righteous person. Paul challenges the Powers by elevating this law of love above “what is owed” to the Powers and authorities of this world. He also defines our understanding of the freedom we have in Christ in terms of the limits that the law of love places on freedom because of its social, political and economic implications. This is exactly what James does in his letter concerning the practical application of the law of love, the “royal law”, and its companion, the Jubilee, in which this law of love is expressed most concretely in terms of the social, economic and ecological ordering of our lives.

The command to “love your neighbor” has never seemed both so simple and complex at the same time. This law of love draws to itself so many aspects of our lives and society that are broken and unjust. Yet, Paul simplifies it so eloquently for us in his advice to the Romans living in the heart of the Empire, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Ro 13:8). The outworking of this reality will take a lifetime for individuals and longer for the world, but we don’t have to perfect it before we can begin practicing it in our lives and embodying it in our communities and churches.

The Law of Love (Leviticus 19 The New Testament Remix)

I began looking at Leviticus 19 a couple weeks ago in terms of its original context. This is part two in which I hope to draw some important connections with the New Testament, in particular Jesus and Paul. Because of the scope of what I’m trying to cover, I will conclude with a post connecting Leviticus 19 and the letter of James with some concluding remarks. I will warn you ahead of time that this is long and could easily have been a thesis paper for seminary, but I believe it is well worth your time and was edifying to me as I studied and wrote it. First, I would like to rant a little and clarify something.

“Various Laws”
The title given in some Bibles for this chapter is “Various Laws”. Indeed it seems to be an amalgamation of leftover laws, thoughts and ideas that didn’t make the cut or reiterations of laws found elsewhere. Yet, we should remember that the system of chapters and verses was added after the fact and certainly the designation of “Various Laws” for this chapter is not part of the inspired word. While people who publish Bibles like to add these little things (not to mention all the sidebars, boxes and inserts in many Bibles) in order to help us read the Bible, they act as a filter and mediator for our reading of the text. The title “Various Laws” tells me what to think about the text that follows. Instead, we should assume that those ancient editors who put together the version of Scripture that we have today did so with intention and purpose, not haphazardly. What appears to be a random collection of laws probably serves some particular purpose. The fact that Leviticus 19 contains the verse on which Jesus said all of the Law and Prophets hinged (19:18b) should also tell us that something more than “Various Laws” is going on here.

Jesus, Paul and James all refer to Leviticus 19:18 in different contexts. With the previous post on Leviticus 19 in its original context as our background, I would like to consider each of the eight passages in which it is mentioned and attempt to synthesize the importance of this verse and chapter of Leviticus for a New Testament theology.

The Great Commandment
The most important parallel references are in Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:31 in which the scribes or Pharisees question Jesus about which commandment is the greatest in the Torah. Matthew’s Pharisees intend to “test” Jesus with their question, while the scribe in Mark affirms Jesus’ response and is in turn affirmed by Jesus with the words “You are not far from the kingdom of God”. In both cases the answer to the question is the same. The greatest commandment is the Shema, “
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:4-5). This was the expected traditional Jewish answer, but Jesus adds another qualifier to his answer and quotes Leviticus 19:18b “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Remember that Jesus was only asked to give one command, the greatest. Instead Jesus, I believe, correctly interprets the Torah and refuses to separate love of God from love of neighbor. In Matthew he then orients the entire Hebrew Bible around the connection of these two commands by saying “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 22:40).

We should also read these passages within their greater context of questioning by the scribes and Pharisees and Jesus’ responses aimed at undermining oppressive structures, religious, political or otherwise. Matthew 22 begins with a parable about the kingdom in which the uninvited and unwanted become guests of honor at the wedding feast. Both Mark and Matthew connect this with the question about paying taxes to Caesar and Jesus’ subversive response. Mark concludes his chapter with the observation of the poor widow who gave “everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk 12:44) and was thus deprived of subsistence by an unjust temple tax. Therefore Jesus’ insistence that all of the Torah and Prophets depend on the understanding that our social relationships reflect our relationship to God and vice versa means that justice and right-relatedness is at the very heart of his understanding of the “kingdom of God” that he preached.

Who Do You Love, Neighbors or Possessions?
The other parallel reference is in Matthew 19:16-22 and Luke 10:25-37. Both passages begin with someone coming to Jesus to ask, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 10:25). In the Matthew passage Jesus initially deflects the question and tells him simply to keep the commandments. When the man presses him asking, “Which ones?”, Jesus lists off half of the Ten Commandments and ends with “love your neighbor as yourself”. The man claims that he has kept all these commandments. But when Jesus tells him to “be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”, the man refuses and leaves in sorrow “for he had great possessions” (Mt 19:21-22). In light of our reading of the command in Leviticus 19:18, it is clear that the man cannot fulfill the spirit of the commandments because he refuses his social connection and responsibility to those around him. Indeed, his confession that he has kept all these commands is revealed to be false when the practical application and implications of these commands is taken to their logical conclusion. He cannot maintain his “great possessions” and confess to love his neighbor. They are mutually exclusive.

Neighbor is a Verb
The reference in Luke to the neighbor commandment comes in the context of a lawyer trying to test Jesus. Luke’s passage does not end with the lawyer retreating. Instead the lawyer “desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, And who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10:29). Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan in which the question is changed from “Who is my neighbor?” into “Who is a neighbor?”. The attempt to find loopholes in the law is subverted by transforming the idea that the “neighbor” is an identifiable group of people into the idea that it is our job to be a neighbor to others, to “go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37). So, Jesus adds another dimension to this command about loving our neighbor. It is not possible to fulfill the command while simultaneously trying to exclude any group of people from its implications.

Finally, Jesus also refers to the “love your neighbor” passage in his Sermon on the Mount when he transcends the “eye for an eye” ethic of the Hebrew Bible (which was intended to limit excessive punishment) and reframes it in these terms, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). So, neighbor is equated here with enemy and the division that makes it possible to draw lines between humanity is obliterated.

Love Is Not Against the Law
Paul refers to the “love your neighbor” command in Romans 13:9 where he says that all the commandments “are summed up in this word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. First we should simply recognize that Paul is picking up on Jesus’ teaching about the Torah and reiterating it here for us. What is more interesting to me is that this occurs directly after the passage which many Christians and theologians use to justify subservience and acquiescence to governmental authority regardless of the nature of its laws, governing or authority. I tend to agree with John Howard Yoder’s interpretation of Paul’s words concerning the Christian’s relationship to authorities and government in this passage which you can read in his book Politics of Jesus. It is as if Paul intends to clarify his previous statement, perhaps to prevent it from being misconstrued, by placing it squarely in the center of Jesus’ teaching about the commandments in the Torah.

Paul concludes his discourse on submitting to authorities by saying, “Pay to all what is owed to them” (Ro 13:7) and immediately turns and says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Ro 13:8). This is an incredible piece of rhetoric, perhaps even political satire reminiscent of Jesus’ response to the question about paying taxes to Caesar. In the same way Jesus subverts “what is Caesar’s” by saying that the Jews should “give to God what is God’s”, Paul seems to wink at the previous advice to submit to authorities and pay what is owed by them by pointing out that “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Ro 13:10). What law is he referring to here, the law of the Torah or the law of the governing authorities? I would suggest that the answer is both and that Paul is juxtaposing the ultimate law of love with the imperfect laws of the Powers. So, the great command which integrates love of God and the social justice inherent in loving our neighbor is also inherently countercultural to the order and tendency of the Powers of the world.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he is primarily concerned with the influence of Judaizers who insisted that followers of Jesus had to continue to follow the laws of the Torah, in particular the rite of circumcision. The main theme of the letter is the meaning and purpose of the law, of freedom in Christ and the implications of the latter on the former. Chapter five begins, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). Then Paul sums up his understanding of the relationship of the law to this new freedom in Christ this way, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:13-14). Again, reiterating Jesus’ teaching on the centrality of the “love your neighbor” commandment in another context, Paul expands the understanding of freedom in terms of the “law of love”. The freedom we are called to in Christ is not a license to do what we want, but rather a limited freedom governed by the great commandment to love our neighbor which contains the social and political implications we have already outlined.

In the final post I will consider the connection between Leviticus 19, the letter of James and the observations we have already made concerning the original context of the Hebrew Bible and the consequent interpretations and teaching by Jesus and Paul.


I’ll Fly Away: Heaven Help Us

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Photo of earthrise from nasa.gov

What is this realm referred to as “heaven”, “kingdom of heaven”, or “kingdom of God” in the Bible? Although these terms are not used in the Hebrew Bible, there is certainly the expectation of a Messianic Age in which God will “put things to rights,” as N.T. Wright loves to say. I would also like to point out at the outset that although these terms are not necessarily used interchangeably in Scripture, I will use them variously to refer to the coming future perfection in which God reigns completely. There are aspects of this idea such as judgment, justice and salvation that I will not address, but are certainly connected to the discussion about the relationship between heaven and earth.

The first thing I think we should admit is that our knowledge of what we call heaven or the kingdom of God is limited. The descriptions throughout the Bible often feel contradictory and difficult to grasp. Jesus says to the Pharisees that “the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:21). In Mark Jesus says that the kingdom is at hand or near (1:15). Then you have the many parables that purport to “explain” the kingdom, but often seem to obscure it or make it more difficult to understand (Mt 13:24-52; 20:1-16; 22:1-14; 25:1-30 just to name those in Matthew). These are only the ways that Jesus described the kingdom, not including the Torah, Prophets, Psalms, Paul or Revelation. While it is necessary to try and make statements about what this realm of heaven, we should continually approach our attempts to understand it with humility and acknowledgment of our limitations.

For our purposes we are interested in the way that the Bible describes heaven or the kingdom in relationship to the earth. Does it describe it in contrast to earth, in the same terms or some combination of the two?

Heaven is certainly described in contrast to the current state of affairs, but the terms used to describe it are decidedly earthy. If some of the New Testament description of heaven could lead us to think that it is an other-worldly, spiritual realm, the Hebrew Testament depiction is distinctly grounded in the reality of this world. Isaiah’s vision of the “new heaven and new earth” uses language intimately connected to life here and now on earth.

They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat… They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune… the wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain (Isaiah 65:21-23,25)

The Hebrew Bible’s vision of the Messianic Age was grounded in the reality of the Israelite’s experience of exile in Babylon. The vision is of the restoration of Jerusalem. While it is concerned with judgment against the nations that oppressed Israel (Samaria, Assyria, Babylon, etc.), it is also concerned with the oppression practiced within its own borders (e.g. Amos 2:6-8). In terms of salvation it is concerned, not only with Israel’s future, but portrays an age in which all nations will come together under the banner of Yahweh (Micah 4:1-4; cf. Isaiah 2:1-4). This vision of the future Messianic Age is not one that is discontinuous with this world. In fact it is quite the opposite. The future perfection only makes sense in light of our present experience of imperfection, injustice and suffering.

I think it would be good exegesis, biblical interpretation and hermeneutical practice to read the New Testament’s words about heaven and the kingdom in light of what has just been said about the Hebrew Bible’s vision of the coming Messianic Age. Even the New Testament language about heaven is much more earthy than we typically believe. I would like to consider just one passage often used in this context, Revelation 21. Almost quoting (certainly paraphrasing) Isaiah the author writes,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with people, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:1-4)

The first thing I notice is that the new heaven and new earth are contrasted with the old heaven and the old earth. It is not a contrast between heaven and earth. As previously discussed our identities and the earth’s have continuity through redemption and ultimately the final transformation described here. Nothing here suggests that the planet which we currently inhabit will simply be disposed of like so much garbage and tossed into God’s landfill while God opens the brand new, shrink wrapped earth for us to live on for all eternity. If that were the case, then this passage suggests that there is also a place in that landfill for the old heaven. What could that possibly mean? We are dealing here with apocalyptic language and should read and interpret it as such. However, even a literal interpretation would deny the idea that heaven and earth are disconnected.

It is also interesting that the metaphor used her is that of a city, a most earthly concept. This is not just any city either, but Jerusalem. That vision from the Hebrew Bible of God’s people being restored and the world set right is alive and well in the book of Revelation. Indeed the names of the twelve tribes of Israel are inscribed on the gates of the city (Rev 21:12). This chapter goes on at great length about the layout of the city and the materials used to construct it. Chapter 22 goes on to describe a river flowing through it and trees that bear fruit every month. This is not a vision of heaven far away from earth in the clouds or even some dimension of being. Rather it is rooted (quite literally since there are trees) on the earth. The text clearly states twice (21:2, 10) that the city came down out of heaven. If it came down out of heaven, then where was it headed?

My intention is not to completely describe what the Bible has to say about heaven or the kingdom, but instead to shed light on the way that our dualistic thinking is not based on the biblical text. Heaven is intimately connected with this world. Certainly there is an element of the biblical description that is simply beyond us, but nothing necessitates the idea that the new creation will be discontinuous with the old.

Next… It’s the End of the World As We Know It


I’ll Fly Away: Why Caring for the Earth Matters for Eternity

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Tree of Life by Gustav Klimt

My economist friend recently commented that while he certainly believed that we were called as Christians to care for the earth, this was somewhat akin to polishing the Titanic (apologies for any liberties my paraphrase took with the actual comment). At some time in the future God is going to do away with the earth and create something new in its place that will be perfect and not subject to the death, decay and problems that we face, in a word “heaven”. This way of thinking about the earth, creation care and heaven is often prevalent among Christians. So it prompted me to try and sum up why I believe that creation care matters for eternity and why this attitude toward the planet is dangerous spiritually and environmentally.

I owe a lot of my thinking on this subject to two gentlemen named Wright (though not brothers and not involved in aviation), Christopher Wright, who wrote an excellent book called The Mission of God, and N.T. Wright, who (even though he seems to write books as often as Roger Olson) wrote a small article for The Green Bible called “Jesus is Coming–Plant a Tree!” (I did find a couple articles online that touch on some of N.T. Wright’s points in the aforementioned article from which I quote.) Certainly other scholars have written a lot on this subject, perhaps some better than either Wright I mentioned. These happen to be the two that influenced me.

There are three questions that frame how we understand this issue: 1) What does the Bible say about the earth? 2) What does the Bible say about heaven? and 3)What does the Bible say about the relationship between heaven and earth?

What On Earth?
The first and most obvious thing is that the creation is “good.” Although brokenness enters the picture when Adam and Eve trust the serpent instead of God, there is no declaration that now creation is “bad”. In Genesis 3:17-19 God tells Adam that the ground is cursed because of him and that “through painful toil you will eat of it” revealing that creation and humanity’s relationship to it are affected by this brokenness. The fact that creation is affected by (or maybe participates in) the brokenness of sin is important to remember when we read Paul’s words to the Corinthians that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Cor 5:19). Lest we think that by this Paul meant that God reconciled all of the atomistic individuals in the world (which he certainly did), he goes cosmic in what N.T. Wright considers the apex of Romans.

The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:19-22)

This passage clearly refers to nature (in contrast to human beings) being involved in the work of redemption through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. It might help to think about what the work of redemption means for human beings as we are transformed into “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). While there is a transformation that takes place in which we can contrast the “old person” from this “new creation”, the newness is not completely discontinuous with the old. We maintain our unique identities even though our relationships are also transformed (Lk 20:2740). If the creation is also involved in Christ’s work of redemption, why wouldn’t it also be transformed in a similar manner? The “new heavens and new earth” envisioned by Isaiah and later picked up by John’s Apocalypse (Isaiah 65; Revelation 21) are not necessarily discontinuous with the earth that we know today. Nothing in the text demands that this be the case. On the contrary, as we will see, there is evidence that the vision of the future kingdom is one that is intimately connected to this earth.

Since I won’t have access to the internet soon, I will stretch this into a four part series.

Next… Heaven Help Us