“To the Millennium and Beyond”
April 21, 2013
No matter how hard the present or dim the future, we can rejoice in what God has planned.
I. New Heavens and a New Earth (Isaiah 65:17-19)
II. Millennial Jerusalem (Isaiah 65:20-24)
III. Eternal Zion (Isaiah 65:25)
“To the Millenium and Beyond” The title of this week’s sermon is based on a phrase made famous by a toy: “All right then, I will. Stand back, everyone. ‘To Infinity and Beyond. That!”
Now honestly, part of what makes the phrase ‘to infinity and beyond’ funny is that it doesn’t make sense. But from a Biblical viewpoint, ‘to the millenium and beyond’ does make sense. The millennium is a foretold thousand year reign of Christ on earth, a key feature of the book of Revelation. But Revelation portrays this millennium as only a semi-colon on the way to eternity in a new heaven and a new earth. So in a very real way the prophecies of today’s text Isaiah 65:17-25 and others move to the millennium and beyond.
This is something we’ve talked about before. From the point of view of Revelation, the thousand year reign of Christ on earth and subsequent re-creation of all things in the New Heaven and the New Earth are two distinct events. But from the point of view of Isaiah they are both so far away that they can be talked about as one event. In one sentence he’ll be describing what it’s like in the New Heavens and New Earth, and in the next sentence he may be describing aspects of the slightly closer millennium. The exact transitions in our text are fuzzy, but verses 17-19 mostly describe the new heavens and new earth.
I. New Heavens and a New Earth (Isaiah 65:17-19)
Isaiah 65:17-19 For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. 18But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; For behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. 19I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.
A new heaven and a new earth? Does that fire your jets? Honestly, for me, in light of the events of this week, even when I sat down to write this section of the sermon, I had to wrench my eyes off the things of the old earth. Between what happened in Boston, and what has been happening in Philadelphia, and what just happened in West, Texas, the awful, painful, tragic, sinfulness of the world has had a good deal of my attention. Boston reminds that the boundaries of terror do not end someplace over the water – that death and destruction can happen on any street in any city and that this world is not a safe place. And this loss of innocent life has touched people. I’m not a baseball fan but even I was moved to realize that in stadiums across the country, to honor Boston, fans sang ‘Sweet Caroline’ Monday night, the Boston Red Sox theme song.
But Philadelphia is even more disturbing, because Dr. Gosnell’s death circus was the grisly pre-meditated murder of the most innocent lives among us, too grisly to describe or to even want to imagine, and yet clothed in rhetoric about women’s health and women’s choice, and hiding not only racism, cruelty, and a gruesome indifference to blood and filth, but hiding an evil ideology so strong that not even the blood and gore could induce the media to speak.
And the catastrophic explosion in West, Texas reminds us that much of the pain and terror in our world is not the direct result of pre-meditated human evil, but the indirect result of neglect or accident, and the multiplied consequences of living in a fallen world. And all of this makes us want to doubt even the possibility of a place with no more death or mourning or crying or pain. It's often not the beauties of this old earth that keep us from looking forward, but the ugliness. C. S. Lewis once famously compared us to “an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”
The ugliness of this world can inflame our desire for something better, but it can also suppress it. In the same way the beauties and pleasures of this earth can side track us from the beauty which is promised, or awaken us to that beauty and lift our minds to heaven. Lewis, again, described this perfectly: he said that we have a longing, felt especially when we see the beauty of creation and yet it leaves us aching for something more, more permanent, more fulfilling.
Lewis says “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country and never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and help others to do the same.”
A new heaven and a new earth. This is one of only two times in the Old Testament that the exact phrase is used, and the other is in the next chapter, Isaiah 66. And the phrase is only used twice in the New Testament. Peter says that everything we now see is going to burn and in light of that we ought to live lives “of holiness and godliness,” because “according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”
The other New Testament use is in Revelation 21, the climax of Scripture which, as you know, is one of my life verses: “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. 2And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”
So God promises that he will re-create: not just make, but create, using the same word that is used in Genesis 1 of creating the first heavens and the first earth. And he promises that this new world will be so wonderful that the things of this ugly fallen world will no longer be remembered or brought to mind. Terrorism? No more. Abortion? A sadness of the dim past. Cruelty, violence, hatred, war, accident, disaster, disease, anger, injustice, oppression, hunger, thirst, exposure, abuse, greed, frailty, senility, and death itself will be no more, never again. There will be no need to be consumed with the tragedies of the old world when all is made new.
Instead we will be able to obey the command to be glad and rejoice forever in what God creates. At the end of verse 18 God says that in this new heavens and new earth he will also create a New Jerusalem. We heard about that in the Revelation 21 passage that we just read. But here we learn that God creates that Jerusalem to be a joy, and he populates her with his people to be a gladness. Even more amazing and fun: though we might experience this joy and gladness, he will He will rejoice in Jerusalem; he will be glad in his people. We’re not the only ones waiting for this fulfillment. God himself is looking forward to that day.
One of the key reasons is that in that day there will be no more weeping or distress. In the new heavens and new earth there will be only righteousness; it’s where righteousness dwells, Peter says. There will be no more sin or pain, therefore no more weeping or distress. There will be no horrors in Philadelphia. There will be no terrors in Boston. There will be no dangers in West, Texas.
II. Millennial Jerusalem (Isaiah 65:20-24)
God himself is looking forward to that day. But there is a stepping stone on the way to that eternity, an important thousand year moment in which God fulfills his promises to the people he chose in Abraham. I believe Isaiah’s gaze shifts to this particular location in the vista of the future in verses 20 to 24:
For behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. 19I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. 20No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. 21They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 23They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord, and their descendants with them. 24Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.
These verses, I believe, describe the millennial reign of Christ, not the new heavens and new earth. The key passage for the millennium is Revelation 20 “Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. 7And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea.
This period begins when the anti-Christ and his minions and allies are defeated by the return of Christ, and imprisoned. And for a thousand years the resurrected martyrs of the tribulation period reign with Christ. Then Satan is released and goes out and deceives the nations again. That last fact makes it plain that this is not yet eternity, not yet the time of ‘no more death or mourning or crying or pain.’ So when we find a prophecy of a future reign that still includes death or wickedness, it probably fits during this thousand year period. When we find a prophecy that implies the end of death or a major change to the natural order of things, it is probably looking forward to the new heavens and the new earth.
Do you get this? I’m trying to teach us how to read the Old Testament, especially the later prophets, like Isaiah. Often the events they see seem only to fit in that thousand years, when God through Jesus gives a space where all his temporal ‘this creation’ promises to the nation of Israel can be fulfilled.
Verse 20: “No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.” This is a world with birth and death, with saint and sinner, though still a much better culture than ours, because Jesus is reigning. Notice that unlike Philadelphia, babies live in this millennium. Unlike Boston, young men live out their days. And this despite the fact that there are still sinners, who at the end of the thousand years will rebel. Even the sinner who lives a hundred years with Christ reigning on earth, if he continues to rebel will suffer condemnation.
Again, if you don’t have a millennial understanding of the end of Revelation, then Isaiah 65 and dozens of prophecies like it become nonsense. You’ve either got to dismiss the death and sin evident in these passages and say they are speaking of eternity anyway, or you’ve got to dismiss the references to forever and find some symbolic fulfillment someplace in the history of Israel. This is why millennialism made so much sense to people both in the early church and in the last couple of hundred years. And this is why, seven years ago, when the Free Church tried to eliminate the explicit belief in the millennium from the doctrinal statement I and others fought for it with energy – and prevailed.
So Isaiah is now describing Christ’s wonderful, and promised, but not yet eternal reign: infants won’t die, young people won’t die, old people will die, but at a ripe old age. Verse 21: “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” One of the most common curses on God’s people in the Old Testament was that they would plant but their enemies would reap. But in Christ’s kingdom, verse 22, “They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat.” This security in the land implies no war: for most of that thousand years, and again in eternity, there will be no nations taking up sword against nations. Not until the end will Satan be released to deceive sinners into another fruitless war.
The end of verse 22 adds that God’s people will have days like the days of a tree, and will long enjoy the work of their hands. This satisfaction in the work of our hands is what God made us for, even in the garden. It is part of the shalom, the peace that he promised Israel over and over. And it will, I trust, be part of the new heavens and the new earth also. He didn’t make us to be idle; he made us to do and learn and master and grow. Even, I believe, into eternity.
Verse 23: “They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord, and their descendants with them.” The word labor in the first phrase does not usually imply child-birth, but it might in this case, because the rest of the verse talks about a time when God’s people bear children into a promised kingdom.
In fact the blessing of descendants is a regular feature of promises to Israel, and is one of the key things that can be fulfilled during the millennial kingdom. A thousand years might seem a short time for such a promise to reach complete fulfilment, but it’s a long time compared to the 120 years the original kingdom of Israel held together under Saul, David and Solomon. And Jesus said there will be no marriage or giving in marriage in eternity, so this promise is for the end of the present age, not for the new heavens and the new earth.
Verse 24 makes another common promise “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.” This is a variation of the key Biblical theme that God will walk with us and be our God; he will be so close that he hears us as soon as we speak, and before we finish calling he will have answered. This has, of course, always been true of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God. Nonetheless, he promises a time when his presence will be even more intimate than in the Garden, a time when he will walk with us.
I really like Indelible Grace’s rendition of the old hymn ‘Face to Face.’ The second verse says ‘Only faintly now I see Him, with the darkened veil between. But a blessed day is coming, when His glory shall be seen. Face to face I shall behold Him, Far beyond the starry sky; Face to face in all His glory, I shall see Him by and by! What rejoicing in His presence, When are banished grief and pain; When the crooked ways are straightened, and the dark things shall be plain. Face to face I shall behold Him . . .” That’s the promise of eternity.
III. Eternal Zion (Isaiah 65:25)
So Isaiah’s focus, which started with new heavens and new earth has been narrowing on the millennium, but now moves beyond that again to words that must be seen as a glimpse of eternity. Verse 25 The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.
This verse gives itself away as a glimpse of eternity in the New Earth, reflecting a complete renewal of the environment. It’s not this present earth if the wolf and the lamb graze together. It’s not in our world that a lion can be happy with straw or a snake with dust. It’s a world with no more death or pain where even creation will be recreated in a way that there is no more hurt or destruction.
Do you see what this is saying? You may never have thought about it, but our world’s ecology runs on death. If you are not a green plant, you get your energy from the death of another living creature. Plants are eaten by animals. Or they die and decay and become nutrition for other plants. Even the decay itself is a process of gathering the nutrients and the energy of the plant and then being eaten or dying to provide energy for other plants and animals. So it’s not an exaggeration to say that our whole ecology depends on death.
But this new ecology is based, somehow, on life: They shall not harm or hurt in all my holy mountain. I’m not sure how it all works, but I know that many places in Scripture where you can identify ‘new heavens new earth’ it’s because of this radically renewed ecology. Let me give a few examples, also reminding us of the beauty of what God has promised. First, from Revelation “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.”
From earlier in Isaiah: The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. 9They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Justin Rizzo’s song that we sang earlier is based on that.
Perhaps my favorite, from Isaiah 25: On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. 7And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. 8He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. 9It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have trusted in him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have trusted in him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
We’re catching glimpses of a whole new world here; the millennium is wonderful, but the promised new heavens and new earth are extraordinary; so different we can hardly imagine them, and yet with a strong sense of ‘this is the way it is supposed to be!’ Philadelphia is not the way it’s supposed to be. Boston is not the way it’s supposed to be. West Texas is not the way it’s supposed to be. And on a personal level, your life is probably not the way it’s supposed to be. You’ve experienced death and disappointment and disease and failure and all the colors of this fallen world. Furthermore, we’re all broken people; we all walk with a limp; we all contribute at least a little to the sin and sadness of the world. But that’s not the last word. No matter how hard the present or dim the future, we can rejoice in what God has prepared for us.
We can rejoice because we have been all these promises in Jesus. Through Jesus we have already been rescued; through his death on the cross we can receive forgiveness of sin. Because of his resurrection we can trust that our ultimate rescue is sure. And through the Holy Spirit we can begin to experience the new world now; substantial healing and the reality of his power and presence. And yet we long, we ache for the ultimate healing, Christ’s millennial victory, and even more for the new heavens and new earth that will follow.
On Saturday as I was working on this message I stumbled across an amazing video that expresses this longing. The video is obviously brand new since last Monday. It’s a cry of one man’s heart, and it’s also a prayer, so I close with it as our closing prayer.
“This is my comfort in my distress, my sorrow, my tears, my angst; in my grief, my scars, my fears, my pain; through murder, through terror, through ashes, through war; amidst the rubble of hatred, and the cries of despair; this is my comfort – you are near. When the grip of the aftermath has taken me and its force shaken me, I’m left pummeled, helplessly watching neighbor and friend being cut, torn, pierced, severed and dead. My eye sheds streams of tears, and my soul melts away; I’m seized by burning indignation; fit with rage; it’s simply cruel; in a word, massacre.”
“I pull my hair out with the overwhelming questions: how much longer; how much more; isn’t this enough? Why? Why? Why? I feel it all at once, and then nothing at all. Speechless; thoughtless; deadened; numbed; nothing left.
“But it’s when there is no more, when we have nothing left that we see this just hasn’t been emotion or mourning, concern or care, but consuming longing for what deep down we know to be true; it’s prayer – for the long awaited arrival of the new that never gets old; the light that never darkens; the hope that never tires; the spring that never falls; the victory that never fades; the joy that never ceases; the love that never fails, and the life that never dies. No more tears, no more crying, no more pain, no more death; no more; no more; no more.
“This is my comfort in my distress; that your promise gives me life; that you are near; always are; always have been; always will be. May your kingdom come; may your will be done; in Boston as it is in heaven. Amen.”