2.6 Earth & Heaven: Limitation vs. Liberty
Volume 2: Studies in Contrast—Chapter 6
Earth & Heaven: Limitation vs. Liberty
The contrast I’d like to highlight here is not—as might have been expected—between heaven and hell. The dichotomy between the two things is obvious enough, of course, but there is little instructive value in comparing them. It would be like explaining the difference between kissing your spouse and hitting your thumb with a hammer—it’s not really necessary. Besides, these concepts are often misunderstood and misleading—not because of some fault with Yahweh’s promises or power, but because of our own sloppy use of terminology. Further, “hell,” in the Christian sense (a state of unceasing torment for the damned) has no natural continuity or connection with our mortal lives on this earth. It’s an aberration, an anomaly. In fact, from what we can discern from Yahshua’s admonition (see Matthew 25:41) the “everlasting fire” of hell was never even intended for people—it was “prepared for the devil and his angels.” So “heaven vs. hell” is not really the issue, as far as Yahweh’s symbols are concerned.
No, the lesson God’s word teaches—so incessantly it’s impossible to ignore—is that the natural comparison to make is between heaven and earth. As we’ve seen, this present life was not made to last: it was designed to lead to something else. God’s intended order is that our mortal, temporal lives here on earth should transition seamlessly into immortal, eternal existence in His presence. What we begin here, we’ll end there. What we learn here, we’ll know there. Who we meet here, we’ll share life with there. The issue, then, is where (or how) we live, for what we do here on earth will determine our eternal disposition. Just as the physically dead don’t enjoy life on earth, the spiritually dead cannot participate in everlasting life in heaven. In fact, it seems to me that there can be only one thing worse than being spiritually dead—being spiritually alive but at the same time banished from the presence of Yahweh (in other words, being in “hell,” or as John put it, “abiding in death”). That’s a contingency God never intended for mankind as far as I can tell—which doesn’t make it any less real.
Let’s begin by reviewing the terminology scripture uses to define “heaven” and “earth.” In the Old Testament, the words used to define “heaven” are most often the Hebrew shameh, it’s plural shamayim (“the heavens”), or the Chaldean equivalent shamayin. Strong’s defines the word: “The sky (as aloft; the dual [or plural] perhaps alluding to the visible arch in which the clouds move, as well as to the higher ether where the celestial bodies revolve).” Thus shameh means the air or atmosphere and anything above that: properly, the “heights above” or the “upper regions.”
The usual Greek equivalent is ouranos, meaning, according to Thayer, “the vaulted expanse of the sky with all the things visible in it,” including the aerial heavens or sky and the sidereal or starry heavens; and “the region above the sidereal heavens, the seat of an order of things eternal and consummately perfect, where God and the other heavenly beings dwell.” This definition lines up perfectly with the Hebrew shameh. Note that it’s not a technically “religious” term; it’s an ordinary Koine Greek word, with all the baggage that half a millennium of Greek culture would have added to it. In both Hebrew and Greek, then, “heaven” had three parallel and symbolically interrelated meanings: (1) the sky, where rain and snow came from (Genesis 8:2, Job 38:29) or in which the birds flew; (2) the “sidereal heavens” where the stars and planets were (e.g. Genesis 22:17); and (3) the place Yahweh lived (e.g. I Kings 8:30, Psalm 11:4), and the angels stayed (e.g. Nehemiah 9:6).
The Rabbis imagined a seven-leveled heaven, though the idea is not given credence in the Tanach. (Paul described being caught up to the “third heaven,” but this wouldn’t have been the third of the rabbinical seven but rather a common description of the abode of God—the first heaven being the atmosphere of our planet and the second being the starry sky.) Two other Greek words are translated “heaven,” but they just stress one feature of it over the other—they don’t expand the meaning beyond ouranos, which is actually a component of both words. Mesouranema merely means “mid-sky,” in other words, “up in the air.” And Epouranious means “above the sky—celestial,” used in such phrases as “heavenly Father.”
As with the concept of “heaven,” the idea of “earth” is quite similar in the Hebrew and Greek languages. As I noted above, the Hebrew term eretz “is so broad in its usage, it’s worthless as a technical description. It can mean land, earth, the whole world, a country, territory, region, or plot of ground, soil, the land of Canaan, or even ‘the land of the living’ (as opposed to sheol, although sheol itself is also referred to as an eretz).” The Greek equivalent is ge, and its usage is equally broad: arable land, ground, soil, the surface of this planet, land (as opposed to the sea), earth as a whole, as opposed to the heavens, or the inhabited portion (the abode of men and animals). It can mean a country, a land defined by its borders, a tract of land, territory, or socio-political region. Basically, eretz/ge is “where we live” as mortal beings, its particular application being linked to who “we” are conceived to be at any given moment (i.e., an individual, family, nation, or the whole human race).
Another take on “where we live” is the concept of dwelling or habitation. As a heavy-handed hint of what we’re all supposed to do, Israel was instructed to pay attention to where Yahweh “lived”: “You shall seek the place that Yahweh your God will choose out of all your tribes to put His name and make His habitation there.” (Deuteronomy 12:5) The word translated “habitation” here is sheken, from the Hebrew verb shakan, meaning to abide, dwell, reside, tabernacle, or encamp. The Greek approaches this idea from several different angles: skenoo is to abide, to dwell—especially in a tent or tabernacle; and the related noun skene is a dwelling place, a tent, and most specifically, the tabernacle after which the temple was patterned (or is it the other way around?). Another Greek verb denoting “to dwell” is katoikeo—to settle, to dwell in, or inhabit. This word is used metaphorically to indicate God “dwelling in” His temple or inhabiting and influencing His children. The noun form is katoikesis—a dwelling or abode. These words pop up time and again in scripture, a constant reminder of the connection between where we’re living now and where we’re destined to live as Yahweh’s children.
The Psalmist points out the nature of this connection: “Yahweh looks down from heaven; He sees all the children of man. From where He sits enthroned He looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, He who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds.” (Psalm 33:13-15) Though God inhabits heaven as we do earth, there is a relationship between the two states, a connection based on Yahweh’s character (which can be boiled down to one word: love). He cares about what goes on here because He cares about us. “Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky. Yes, Yahweh will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before Him and make His footsteps a way.” (Psalm 85:11-13)
In the same vein, we read: “May you be blessed by Yahweh, who made heaven and earth! The heavens are Yahweh’s heavens, but the earth He has given to the children of man.” A holy God must by definition remain apart from sinful men (for our own good), but that doesn’t preclude Him from providing the platform from which we can seek Him if we wish. That platform is this mortal life upon the earth—a gift from Yahweh. So the Psalmist draws the inevitable conclusion: “The dead do not praise Yahweh, nor do any who go down into silence. But we will bless Yahweh from this time forth and forevermore. Praise Yahweh!” (Psalm 115:15-18) Those who are dead, those who have no spiritual life within them, cannot relate to God, for God is spirit. But “we” are not spiritually dead. We have Yahweh’s eternal life within us. “Earth” may be our home for now, but we who trust Him will inherit “heaven”—not so much God’s physical home as an eternity in His presence.
So David says, “Trust in Yahweh, and do good. Dwell in the land [eretz] and befriend faithfulness…. In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land [or earth] and delight themselves in abundant peace…. The righteous shall inherit the land and dwell upon it forever…. Wait for Yahweh and keep his way, and He will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on when the wicked are cut off.” (Psalm 37:3, 10-11, 29, 34) The meaning of eretz here depends on who you are. If you’re a faithful Israelite, it specifically means the area promised to Abraham. If you’re a human believer, it means planet earth—and more specifically, the new one that’s slated to replace the old. After all, when you see eretz and “forever” in the same context, you know that something beyond our present mortal state is in view.
Note that the righteous are differentiated from the wicked by what they can expect to inherit: the land, the earth. Someday the righteous and meek won’t have to coexist with the wicked any more. (“Meek” is the Hebrew anav, literally: the afflicted, oppressed, or humble. The word is based on anah, the “affliction of soul” response required for life on the Day of Atonement.) Why won’t the humble have to share their inheritance with the wicked? Because they—the evildoers—will be gone, absent, cut off. So David asks (rhetorically), “Who is the man who fears Yahweh? Him will He instruct in the way that he should choose. His soul shall abide in well-being, and his offspring shall inherit the land.” (Psalm 25:12-13) For the one who reveres Yahweh, the line differentiating earth from heaven can get awfully fuzzy.
Inheritance implies a transfer, specifically between two parties who are related. Further, someone cannot inherit that which did not rightfully belong to the one bequeathing it. So what establishes ownership? Creation is probably the most fundamental factor. Rembrandt may sell a painting to pay the rent, but in a very real sense, it remains his forever. Solomon reminds us, “Yahweh by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens.” (Proverbs 3:19) Yahweh created the heavens, the earth, and everything in them; ergo, He owns it all—including us. Blessing and honor is the rightful domain of our Creator/Owner/Deliverer, so Melchizedek—clearly a type of Christ—pointed out the connection: “Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed [Abram] and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” (Genesis 14:18-20)
Jeremiah concurs: “It is He who made the earth by His power, who established the world by His wisdom, and by His understanding stretched out the heavens. When He utters His voice there is a tumult of waters in the heavens, and He makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth. He makes lightning for the rain, and He brings forth the wind from His storehouses.” (Jeremiah 51:15-16) Not only did Yahweh create the heavens and the earth, He remains active and interested in what goes on there, for they are (at the moment) the home of His children. “Ah, Lord Yahweh! It is You who has made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for You.” (Jeremiah 32:17)
Having created earth and heaven, they are God’s to distribute however He chooses. The second obvious indicator of ownership is purchase. Yahweh created the earth for our use, and then, in a very real sense, turned it over to us to manage. When we “managed” to get cheated out of the title deed to earth by our conniving adversary, Yahweh purchased it back with the most precious substance known to man: the blood of the Messiah. So Yahweh owns the earth twice over, and having established ownership, it is His privilege to leave it to whomever He wishes.
God speaks of those who revere Him “inheriting” the land/earth, but what does that really mean? As long as we’re mortals, we can’t really “own” anything; the minute we die, our lease on all that stuff we thought we had accumulated expires, and it all gets “re-inherited” by somebody else. If we really understood that Yahweh retains ultimate ownership of everything, we’d start to see the idiocy of our covetousness, our lack of trust, our petty idolatries. Yes, Yahweh owns the earth, and He’s pleased to let us borrow it for a while (just to see what we’ll do with it, I imagine). But we need to remember that even when good things come our way, they are merely “on loan” from God. He is the source of our blessings—all of them: “For not by their own sword did they win the land [eretz, whether the Promised Land, the whole world, or next Friday’s paycheck], nor did their own arm save them, but Your right hand and Your arm, and the light of Your face, for You delighted in them.” (Psalm 44:3) It may seem to us that we’re working for it—that we’ve earned whatever we have—since Yahweh, like a doting father letting his four-year-old “help” with the chores, allows us to participate. But in the end, it’s all a gift. Let us therefore not neglect to give thanks.
The Promised Land was the ultimate demonstration of this principle: “‘I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant.’” Yahweh was teaching us that we didn’t (and can’t) really earn anything. Our blessings in this world are gifts, and temporary gifts at that—we only get to use them in this world. But (and this is the lesson) what He really wants to give us—our real inheritance—will (or at least, can) transcend the bounds of this temporary life and extend into eternity. Earth is designed to be a picture of heaven, a preview, a precursor. What we choose here in this life will determine what—if any—kind of life we’ll enjoy beyond our mortal state. So Joshua, having led Israel into the Promised Land, pleaded with his people to choose wisely whom they would serve, for two things were certain: they would serve something, and the choice of what (or whom) that would be was entirely up to them. “Now therefore fear Yahweh and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve Yahweh. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve Yahweh, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve Yahweh.” (Joshua 24:13-15)
Joshua was asking his people to make a choice—a selection of one thing and the rejection of its rival. He was telling Israel to get off the fence, to cease trying to keep a foot in each of two different worlds. It’s a lesson that few of us ever master—how to live in the world (as we must) without letting the world live in us. The implied separation is, of course, the essence of holiness. As Yahweh is separate from His creation (that is, not part of it), we are to be set apart from the earth we live upon—its attractions and its lusts. That, you may have noticed, is harder than it looks, for there is a fine line between desire and necessity. We all wear clothing, but do we “dress to impress,” or choose our wardrobe primarily with the weather in mind? Most of us drive cars, but how do we select them? (I drive a cute little red sports car, but not to impress anybody. It’s because there are twenty miles of winding road between my home and anything you might call “civilization.” At the moment, handling matters.) Holiness, then, often boils down to motive: why we do what we do, or what we choose when we’ve got a choice.
Since choice—free will—is Yahweh’s primary gift to the human race, it is instructive to study those times when virtually everyone had chosen to serve false gods, substitutes for Yahweh. Three instances from early in our history come to mind, and Yahweh dealt with each of these situations in different ways. All of them, however, achieved roughly the same end result: the setting apart of a faithful remnant. The subject is of the utmost importance, for God has told us—in hundreds of overt prophecies—that He intends to do it again. Notice that each phase of Yahweh’s historical lesson plan revolved around what was happening on the earth. I know: it sounds obvious. Where else would it happen? But it’s as if He’s trying to make the point—over and over again—that the choices we make in this world will determine to a certainty what our condition will be in the next. We’ll be either with Yahweh or separated from Him—for eternity.
The first instance of forced separation (a.k.a. “judgment”) was doubtless the most drastic: the flood of Noah. We looked at it in the previous section: a cleansing of the earth through the agency of water, as the coming separation will be a transformation of the world wrought by fire. “Yahweh saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And Yahweh was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him to His heart…. Now the earth [eretz] was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:5-6, 11)
Having made His point (at least temporarily) with the flood, “Yahweh said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.’” The word translated “ground” here is adamah, which is related to Adam’s name (meaning “man”). A loose synonym for eretz, it stresses human habitation: the ground, land, soil that is tilled to raise crops, a plot of land, “earth” as a building material (clay), a territory or country, or the whole inhabited surface of the earth. “Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth [eretz] remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:21-22) Separation on earth this time was achieved by providing an escape mechanism for one faithful family while all the others were unceremoniously swept away. That’s one way of doing it, but it’s awfully hard on the infrastructure. More to the point, if He wanted humans to be on the earth at all, Yahweh wouldn’t be able to do this sort of thing every time we went astray, for “Every intention of the thoughts of [man’s] heart is only evil continually,” and “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” Next time, therefore, He would try something a bit more subtle.
Half a dozen generations after the flood, mankind had once again made an art form out of his “evil intentions.” Man had ignored Yahweh’s commandment to “fill the earth,” (Genesis 9:1) opting instead to band together in the land of Shinar, the Tigris-Euphrates river valley. We can trace the movements of many families listed in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10) to far-flung locations in Europe, Africa, and Asia, but they didn’t go willingly. Instead, they stayed together at first and proceeded to invent the world’s first religion. I’ll admit that unity can be a good thing if we’ve chosen to unite around Yahweh (see Psalm 133). But this generation had come together “to make a name for themselves,” that is, to elevate themselves to the status of “gods.” The factor that made this collective apostasy possible (if not inevitable) was the ability to freely communicate: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.” (Genesis 11:1)
Yahweh’s solution to the problem this time was “simply” to “confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Well, it was less complicated than destroying the earth with a flood, at least. I have no idea how Yahweh actually did it.) “So Yahweh dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there Yahweh confused the language of all the earth. And from there Yahweh dispersed them over the face of all the earth [eretz].” (Genesis 11:7-9) This time, Yahweh didn’t kill those who had forsaken Him. He merely separated them from the faithful remnant (and from each other) by making it impossible for them to understand what other folks were saying. (Funny how that phenomenon is hanging on: today I can listen to politicians pontificate in English, and I still can’t figure out what they’re really talking about.) History reveals that the Babylonian religion would continue to develop, but it would make its inroads far more slowly than it might have otherwise.
That would give Yahweh time to call out a godly line for His purposes, a family whose story dominates the Bible. As there were six generations from Noah to the tower of Babel, there were six more to Abram, later known as Abraham. That Abram wasn’t the only man of his time to know Yahweh is evident through the stories of such near-contemporary characters as Job and Melchizedek—and later with Moses’ father-in-law, Reuel (a.k.a. Jethro), the priest of Midian. But it is evident also that apostasy and idol worship had made deep inroads into humanity by this point. So Yahweh’s solution this time was to call His man out from among his pagan neighbors and send him to an entirely new geographical location. “Now Yahweh said to Abram, ‘Go from your country [eretz] and your kindred and your father’s house to the land [eretz] that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth [adamah] shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
This is the first hint we’re given that Yahweh’s sporadic separation process had an overarching objective. By isolating His faithful from a world bent on evil, God was, at every stage, focusing ever more closely on the one thing—the one Person—who could save that world from its own folly. The counterintuitive factor in all of this is the connection of that salvation with a piece of land—“the land [eretz] that I will show you,” as God had promised Abram. As soon as he arrived, “Yahweh appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to Yahweh, who had appeared to him.” (Genesis 12:7) This was no quarter-acre lot in a housing tract, either—it was the whole country. A bit later, Yahweh told Abram to “Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land [eretz], for I will give it to you.” (Genesis 13:17)
The point was not (as Muhammad would later conclude) that you could just show up somewhere, sword in hand, and the place was therefore yours forever. Quite the contrary: Abraham believed Yahweh’s promise, but he (personally) never actually owned any of the Promised Land, except for one small burial cave he purchased from a Hittite colonist near present-day Hebron. This doesn’t make Yahweh a liar, for He had clearly stated, “To your offspring I will give this land.” The promise was repeated to Abe’s son Isaac, with the same caveat: “Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands [by the way, Isaac was in the Gaza Strip when Yahweh said this to him—the Palestinians are squatting on Israelite land, like it or not], and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” (Genesis 26:3-5)
“All these lands” specified as Abraham’s inheritance wouldn’t be occupied by his offspring for another millennium—under David and Solomon. And several times since then, because of Israel’s rebelliousness, Yahweh has had to temporarily “evict” His favored tenant from the land, holding it “in escrow” for them until they were ready to receive it. Actually, they’ve been in and out of the land for the past thirty-five hundred years. At the moment, they’re “in” again, at least partially. And if the weight of prophetic revelation is as clear as it seems, Israel is on the very doorstep of permanent occupancy under the reign of their Messiah (who also happens to be our Messiah, Yahshua—though they don’t know that yet).
What isn’t quite so obvious is the parallel condition, the thing of which the eretz of Israel is “only” a symbol: heaven. Israel is a microcosm of mankind, a metaphor for the whole human race, our calling and our condition. If they were paying attention to their scriptures, they would be anticipating with deep longing the reign of the Prince of Peace in the land of promise. And if we were paying attention, we would crave to the bottom of our souls what Christ’s Millennial Kingdom on earth prophetically represents—eternity in the presence and favor of our God and King, Yahshua.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1) Although this mortal life is the only one we know by experience, and our world is—as far as we can perceive—the home of all living things, I believe God didn’t make the earth as an end in itself, but rather as a tool with which to teach us about “heaven”—our potential eternal state in His presence. I see the physical world as His textbook, His blackboard, His laboratory demonstration. Like any classroom experience, how well we do will depend on how closely we pay attention, how much we want to learn, our willingness to do our homework, and even our respect for the teacher.
I remember (don’t ask me how) that back in college, I had an art history professor, a diminutive Hungarian expatriate named Dr. Bela Biro, who seemed rather more dogmatic and authoritative than most of my professors. The reason, it transpired, was that he had personally authored the textbook for the course. So any way we sliced it, we were going to be graded on our adherence to Dr. Biro’s point of view. Our mortal lives are kind of like that. The class is “Life 101.” Yahweh is the Professor, and He too wrote the textbook for this course, one entitled The Heavens and the Earth. But whereas Dr. B’s book presented third parties like Cezanne and Renoir, God’s “book” is actually about Himself. The final exam entails our own death (and you thought Freshman English was tough), but a passing grade is rewarded with the privilege of remaining in the Beloved Professor’s inner circle—forever. Or something like that.
Part of the course deals with investment strategies. Yahshua taught us, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21) “Your treasure?” We’ve already established that whatever we have—up to and including life itself—is a gift. It’s only characterized as our treasure because God entrusted it to us. But because we’re temporary (i.e., mortal), what we have in this world is only temporarily ours. So the issue is what to do with what we’ve got during the limited time we have possession of it. We can’t really accumulate treasures on earth, for we have no way of accessing them after death. But the remarkable truth revealed here is that it is possible to “lay up treasures in heaven.” This is the evidence we need—eyewitness testimony—that there is indeed a continuity, a connection, between life on earth and the heavenly state, for Yahweh’s children, anyway.
Yahshua, in a parallel passage, admonishes us, “Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.” (Luke 12:29-33) Obviously (if you’ve read this carefully), our worldly possessions can’t be “laid up” in heaven. We’re reminded that they’re vulnerable to all sorts of hazards. But something can be deposited in the heavenly bank—spiritual “gold, silver, and precious stones” that will withstand the fires of judgment.
Strangely, Yahshua doesn’t exactly say what these things are. He does, however, give us plenty of guidance here in Luke 12 as to what won’t work as heavenly currency. He warns us against (1) religious hypocrisy and political intrigue (vs. 1-3); (2) reverence for unworthy objects (vs. 4-7); (3) failure to heed the Holy Spirit (vs. 8-12); (4) reliance on earthly possessions (vs. 13-21); (5) undue concern with this life at the expense of the next (vs. 22-34); (6) willful ignorance, apathy, and negligence—a failure to be watchful (vs. 35-48); and (7) unwillingness to heed the signs—a lack of discernment (vs. 49-59). The opposite of these things, then, might be characterized as treasure in heaven: honesty and openness, reverence for Yahweh alone; sensitivity to the leading of the Spirit; reliance on God’s provision; concern for the advancement of Yahweh’s kingdom; vigilance concerning the promise of our Messiah’s return; and a willingness to judge for ourselves (based on God’s truth) between right and wrong—sticking to our godly convictions despite pressure from the world to compromise or retreat.
The undercurrent of thought here is that if we are Yahweh’s children and citizens of the kingdom of heaven, we should think as He does, value what He values, and love what He loves. Look at it this way: in my yard there are lots of resident squirrels. When there’s snow on the ground and food is scarce, we like to throw out some peanuts, corn, or sunflower seeds for them, for these things have value out there, if you’re a squirrel. But what would happen if I threw out money instead? (After all, it’s what I use when I want to go out and get something to eat.) Money is worthless to squirrels. Here in the woods, nuts are the “coin of the realm.” They grow on the trees, a gift from God. My point is that just as squirrels don’t value the same things we do, we don’t always value what God does, either. He is not impressed with our wealth, power, abilities, prestige, or good looks, for those are all gifts we received from Him—and they’re temporary gifts at that. What we do with our gifts, though—that may be another story.
What has value in the Kingdom of God? What is the nature of “treasure in heaven?” Yahshua revealed the answer this way: “And one of [the Pharisees], a lawyer, asked [Yahshua] a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And He said to him, ‘You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’” (Matthew 22:34-40) How does identifying the greatest commandments help us? Moses directly linked the keeping of God’s precepts with Israel’s welfare: “And now, Israel, what does Yahweh your God require of you, but to fear Yahweh your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of Yahweh, which I am commanding you today for your good?...” Our compliance doesn’t do anything for God—it only benefits the ones who follow His instructions.
Keeping someone’s commandments, of course, won’t help you if he can’t (or won’t) keep his own promises. A politician might promise you the moon to get elected, but can he deliver (and at what cost)? A false god might command you to do something horrible, as when Allah commanded all Muslims to “Fight and kill the disbelievers wherever you find them.” (Qur’an 9:5) But can he follow through on his threats to those peaceful Muslims who were reluctant to terrorize their neighbors? He promised them, “Unless you march (i.e., in jihad), he (Allah) will afflict and punish you with a painful torture.” (Qur’an 9:38) If every Muslim really believed Allah, the world would have no respite from their attacks until we (or they) were all dead. (On the other hand, if every Christian really believed Yahweh, the world would have no respite from our constant outpouring of love.) In the end, we all obey whoever it is we truly believe is capable of fulfilling his promises. We pay our taxes because we believe the IRS has the power to make our lives miserable if we don’t—not because we have faith in the government’s ability to spend our money wisely.
So Moses explains why Yahweh’s commandments can be relied upon to result in “your good.” “Behold, to Yahweh your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it.” (Deuteronomy 10:12-14) Ownership of the universe gives Yahweh the right to call the shots—not to mention reminding us that He has the power to fulfill His promises. In light of this, the only logical thing I can do is heed His word, His precepts, His instructions.
And as we’ve seen, Yahweh’s instructions boil down to just one thing: love—first for God, and then for man. Love is not an action per se, but rather a motivation for action: the exact same earthly act (for example, giving alms) could be “treasure laid up in heaven” or not, depending upon one’s motive for doing it. Everything Moses listed above as “the requirements of God” are love’s derivatives. “Fear” (more properly translated “reverence”) comes from a comprehension of and appreciation for Yahweh’s character—love. “Walking in His ways” implies trust. And why should we trust Him? Because He who owns heaven and earth loves us. Wholehearted “service” to God is, as far as Yahweh told us, little more than showing love to our fellow man (the specifics of how to do this being enumerated in both the Torah and the Gospels).
Micah put it like this: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does Yahweh require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) “Justice” is seeing to it that all parties are treated fairly, balancing the Torah’s requirement for restitution (i.e., love for the wronged party) against Yahweh’s characteristic mercy (i.e., love for the guilty party). “Kindness” is obviously something Yahweh wants to be an attribute of our lives, but note that Micah says God wants us to love kindness: if we have to grit our teeth and force ourselves to be nice against our natural instincts, then something’s wrong. And “walking humbly with our God” presupposes an understanding of Yahweh’s greatness—at least in comparison to our own. It never ceases to amaze me how many otherwise smart and talented people walk in a posture of total arrogance before God.
As our walk on earth is meant to be a learning experience for what we’ll need to know in “heaven,” so the Promised Land was designed by Yahweh to reveal the difference between living in the world and living in the kingdom of God. Moses told the Israelites, “For the land that you are entering to take possession of it is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and irrigated it, like a garden of vegetables.” The place from which they had come could be bountiful enough, but only if they worked at it. Egypt was a land of bondage, of hard labor. You could get used to it, but it wasn’t really God’s ideal. “But the land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven, a land that Yahweh your God cares for. The eyes of Yahweh your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.” (Deuteronomy 11:10-12) You can plant all the seed you want; if there’s no water, you aren’t going to get any food. So Moses prayed, “I have obeyed the voice of Yahweh my God. I have done according to all that You have commanded me. Look down from Your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the ground [adamah] that You have given us, as You swore to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.’” (Deuteronomy 26:14-15) In Egypt—the world—people had been forced to “bless themselves,” so to speak, irrigating their fields laboriously. But the Promised Land is where heaven addresses the earth. Here Yahweh provides the blessings Himself, sending “the early and latter rain” upon the land at just the right times and in just the right amounts. It’s sort of like the distinction between the six-day work week and the Sabbath: up to a point, there’s nothing wrong with work; but in the end, Yahweh intends to provide for His children directly and personally.
At this point, you’re saying, Wait a minute! Israel is nothing like that. It’s dry and rocky, fruitful only because of the herculean effort and clever innovation the Israelis have brought to bear. Yes, that’s true. It’s like they’re back in Egypt again, only worse, because theirs is a land of “hills and valleys,” not easy-to-till alluvial plains. Why is the land barren today? Because Israel didn’t heed the rest of the lesson: “Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; then the anger of Yahweh will be kindled against you, and He will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that Yahweh is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 11:16-17) Human nature is goofy. First, we cry out to God, “Our burdens are unbearable—please rescue us!” And He does, and we are thankful. But a few generations later, our grandchildren are heard saying, “Life is good—Who needs God?” as they sink into apathy, hedonism, and malaise, and from there into apostasy and outright rebellion. And at that point, their grandchildren cry out to God, “Our burdens are unbearable—please rescue us!” Heeding the lessons of history would help. But what we really need to be doing is paying attention to God’s original instructions, for nothing has changed. Yahweh had promised His people that if they did not obey His voice or observe His commandments, “The heavens over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you shall be iron. Yahweh will make the rain of your land powder. From heaven dust shall come down on you until you are destroyed.” (Deuteronomy 28:23-24) Was that really so hard to understand?
I can’t stress strongly enough that the lessons here aren’t confined to our lives on earth. They are, rather designed to help us see the continuity between earth and what lies beyond. Temporal blessings are only a pale shadow of what Yahweh wants us to enjoy in His presence. And temporal curses are only whispered hints of what looms in the eternal distance. Think of earthly blessings and curses as the range of temperature in your living room over a year’s time: a little warm in the summer, perhaps, and a bit chilly in the dead of winter, but bearable, all things considered. Then think of “heavenly” blessings and curses—that is, the difference between being Yahweh’s child for eternity and not being His—as the temperature range in outer space. That’s a whole different kettle of fish. The basic background temperature in deep space is below 3 degrees Kelvin (i.e., just above absolute zero, the point at which energy becomes totally unavailable). That’s minus 455° Fahrenheit. But if you’re near a star, say, our sun, the thermometer will read more like 11,000° F (and if you’re inside that star, the temperature can climb to 27 million degrees F.) In other words, God knows we can’t comprehend the real difference between heaven and hell, so He gives us blessings and cursings on earth to help us get the general idea.
The rub is that all of our fundamental choices must be made here on earth; all of our lessons must be learned in these mortal bodies. That’s why Moses pleaded with his people to choose wisely. The real choice they were making was between life and death: “But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish.” “Other gods?” Don’t just think of primitive idols and graven images. Whatever you’re devoted to, whatever you serve, is your “god.” Choose carefully. “You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving Yahweh your God, obeying His voice and holding fast to Him, for He is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that Yahweh swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (Deuteronomy 30:17-20) Let’s see: Yahweh, blessing, and life; or some other god, cursing, and death. That’s our basic choice. Call me crazy, but this doesn’t really seem all that hard to figure out.
As we are taught about heaven by living on earth, perhaps the most important lesson we can learn is that Yahweh is sovereign. This may sound ridiculously elementary to the average Christian, but it’s not. We (and I’m talking about the whole human race now) somehow feel that it’s our right and privilege to hold and express our own opinions about anything and everything—including God and His kingdom. Granted, free will is apparently God’s most fundamental gift to us. Yahweh’s love requires that we have the right to choose between His revealed word and any conceivable alternative. But that’s not the same thing. We are not free to reinvent God in our own image, or to build religions based on our own distorted views of what God is or wants. We are required to either take His word for it—or leave it. It is neither our place nor privilege to redefine God to suit our own preconceived preferences. If you’ll recall, that sort of thing is what got Job’s “comforters” into trouble. Solomon wisely wrote: “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5:2) I’ve tried to be neither rash nor hasty with my thoughts, for I respect Yahweh’s absolute sovereignty. (That “few words” thing, though—it appears I may still need work in that department.)
Do we have to be “smart” to figure out that Yahweh is sovereign? Not really. Human intelligence, after all, is a gift, and some have been given greater intellectual capacity than others. But our mental acuity, strangely enough, has no direct bearing on our potential for relationship with Yahweh. Some of the most brilliant men this world has ever seen were atheists or heretics. But small children are extolled in scripture as shining examples of faithfulness and innocence—things God prizes far above human intellectual prowess. “At that time Jesus declared, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise [sophos: skilled, lettered, cultivated, or learned] and understanding [sunetos: intelligent, clever] and revealed them to little children.’” (Matthew 11:25) The point (I think) is that children have an uncanny ability to learn from their surroundings—the very thing Yahweh is asking all of us to do during our sojourn on the earth. They soak up data like a sponge. Children intuitively trust their parents, search for boundaries, seek the truth, and recognize injustice—until they “grow up” and the insidious world teaches them how to be clever and self-deceptive instead. While they are born with instinct and intuition, they must acquire knowledge and experience. And we, like children, need to learn (or re-learn) to discern right from wrong, safety from danger, love from hatred, and truth from falsehood. If Yahweh is sovereign in our lives, we’ll never go too far wrong.
Isaiah specifically highlights this connection between Yahweh, His schoolroom (heaven and earth) and the intended students (us, His beloved children): “Thus says Yahweh, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: ‘I am Yahweh, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by Myself.” In the very next breath, He states His parallel purpose—to expose even the most brilliant of human thought as utter idiocy in comparison: “Who frustrates the signs of liars and makes fools of diviners, who turns wise men back and makes their knowledge foolish,” while He provides insight and vindication—“spiritual intelligence”—to His children: “who confirms the word of His servant and fulfills the counsel of His messengers.” (Isaiah 44:24-26)
David employs the same sort of imagery: “Yahweh is in his holy temple; Yahweh’s throne is in heaven; His eyes see, His eyelids test [the idea being that this “testing” happens in the blink of an eye], the children of man.” (Psalm 11:4) Once again, there is continuity between heaven and earth: what we do on earth is seen as of being of great interest to God in heaven—the testing (bachan: to examine, scrutinize, try, or prove) speaks of Yahweh’s earnest desire to see something of value in us. Later, David reveals the result of this examination: “The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.' They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good. Yahweh looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up My people as they eat bread and do not call upon Yahweh?” (Psalm 14:1-4) Left to our own devices, we all fail the test.
Can you imagine a university in which a Professor, after being forced to flunk the whole class for their poor performance, offers to take the make-up exam Himself? He says, “I really want you all to succeed, so if you’ll trust Me, I’ll take the test for you. I know I’ll get fired for cheating, but you’ll get an ‘A’ that will go on your permanent record. I’m willing to do this for you because I love you.” The responses among us students are varied. Some don’t trust the Professor to have the answers, so they decline His offer. Some arrogant overachievers are convinced they can pass the test on their own (even though no one has ever passed it), so they too say “no.” Some were only there to party, so they have no idea what’s going on. They didn’t even know there was a test. But a few of us, knowing we can’t pass it on our own but desperately wanting to, accept the Professor’s generous offer, touched and mortified at the sacrifice He’s making on our behalf. So He takes the test and faces the world’s outrage. As He packs up His desk to go, we all stand around weeping and promising never to dishonor what He’s done for us. But on His way out the door, He winks at us and says, “Don’t worry. My Father owns the university, and He asked Me to do this for you. In three days, I’ll be back, not as your Professor this time, but as the Chancellor.”
Some will protest, “That’s a fine parable, but there’s still one glaring problem: the Professor cheated—and so did the students who followed Him.” Yes, that’s something with which we need to come to grips. The fact is, God does cheat. He’s not fair. He forgives unpaid debts and sets guilty prisoners free—if they ask Him to. Don’t get me wrong: Yahweh is never unjust. There was a price to be paid for giving an “unfair” advantage to people in need—and the Professor (Yahshua) paid it willingly. If God were “fair,” we’d all be dead. But since He’s just (and at the same time merciful), He’s willing to let someone else, someone worthy, take our exam, pay our debt, and stand our prison sentence. The fact that there was only one Man in history willing and able to do this (by virtue of His own sinlessness) doesn’t change anything. But it does raise the issue of who is qualified to “take the exam” in our stead. That is, who (or what) is able (never mind willing) to atone for our sins? Who is our teacher, our redeemer, our God?
This is not a popularity contest, but a search for truth. Man has always had an odd propensity to assign personality profiles to heavenly bodies. Moses warned Israel about them: “And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that Yahweh your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.” (Deuteronomy 4:19) It’s part of God’s lesson of heaven and earth: worship the Creator, not the creation. The world’s pantheon is peppered with “sun gods” like Tammuz, Mithras, or Apollo, and “moon gods” like Isis, Diana, or Allah (which is strange: moon deities are usually seen as females. Does that make Allah gender ambivalent? Gay, perhaps? Just a thought). And then there are the planets. Mercury is a swift messenger, Venus a seductress. Earth (the goddess of choice for many, these days) is worshipped as our “mother.” Mars is supposed to be the god of war, Saturn the god of agriculture, and Jupiter the god of the sky—of thunder and lightning. They’ve all got dozens of names and complicated, interrelated mythologies. But where in the world did mankind get the idea that they’re alive, that they have any intrinsic power or personal authority? If “gods” other than Yahweh were really what people claimed them to be, we should have expected some interaction, some continuity between their “world” and ours. We should have expected—if they were real—that they had something of value to teach us, that they were something greater than the insecure self-centered narcissists their scriptures or devotees envision. These false gods have never actually done anything. Perhaps it’s time to hold these so-called deities (I’m talkin’ to you, Allah) to a higher standard—Yahweh’s standard: either show up or shut up. At the very least, do your own “wet work.”
And Yahweh? Is He any different? Yes, He is. First, He is our foundation, our Creator: “I am He; I am the first, and I am the last. My hand laid the foundation of the earth, and My right hand spread out the heavens; when I call to them, they stand forth together.” (Isaiah 48:12-13) He then walked among us, voluntarily humbled for our benefit and our salvation: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Today, He dwells within us, as Yahshua promised: “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. You know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16-17) Soon, He will personally judge the earth, purging it with fire and sword: “For behold, Yahweh will come in fire, and His chariots like the whirlwind, to render His anger in fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire will Yahweh enter into judgment, and by His sword, with all flesh; and those slain by Yahweh shall be many.” (Isaiah 66:15-16) And in the end, He promises to teach His children—here on the earth—everything we need to know: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of Yahweh as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14)
I’ve mentioned that Yahweh has apparently designed earth and heaven (in the sense of our eternity with Him) as a continuity: our earthly lives will, if we choose His path, flow seamlessly from one paradigm to the next. Yahshua’s rhetorical question points out this very thing: “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?’” (John 3:12) Stated as a positive, He’s actually implying, “What I tell you about your earthly, mortal life has a direct and relevant bearing on the immortal life to come, for I alone am at home in both worlds.”
Man tends to think homo-centrically; that is, that heaven may be the domain of God (whoever he may be), but earth is man’s turf. We may not say so out loud, but most of us behave as if we believed that. Yahweh, however, has informed us in no uncertain terms that everything is His—including our world. “The heavens are Yours; the earth also is Yours; the world and all that is in it; You have founded them.” (Psalm 89:11) Ironically, the only reason we can be so far off base on this issue is that He has given us the mental acumen to ponder it, coupled with the free will necessary to come to our own conclusions. I sincerely doubt that garden slugs and dung beetles give Yahweh’s sovereignty a second thought. Only man “knows” enough to contradict his Maker.
We’re not completely self-deceived, of course. We understand that we didn’t create the heavens and the earth. But we’re sharp enough to grasp the fact that if Someone did purposely built all this, then we are logically part of that creation, which in turn makes us subjects of the Creator—thus indebted to Him on some level, maybe even obliged to obey Him (gasp!). So we humans invent fictions designed to release us from the God-shaped responsibility we sense within our souls. We illogically insist, It’s all just a big accident, a series of lucky coincidences (billions of them, in fact—one right after the other). Or we say, God, if he exists, is a great spirit who put the physical universe in motion a long time ago, but who has no personal interest or involvement in our lives now. Humanity as a whole desperately wants to disconnect earth from heaven, for connection implies relationship, and relationship necessitates comparison—an honest determination of who is greater and who is lesser. So man, like a pitiful has-been boxer, shakes his fist in the face of the God he hopes isn’t there and declares, “I am the greatest!” No, you’re not. Actually, you’re not even second greatest.
The creation account was written in such a way as to reveal the purposeful connection between the heavens and the earth that Yahweh intended us to see: “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so….” Signs are meaningless if there is no one to “read” them. The ability to mark days and years—as indicated by the relative position of “lights in the expanse of the heavens”—is of no use to anyone who isn’t (1) living on the surface of the earth, and (2) intelligent enough to comprehend what is being displayed. The concept of “seasons” has even more significance. The word translated “seasons” is mo’ed—the same word used to describe the seven annual “appointments” Yahweh instructed Israel to observe (see Leviticus 23:2). These seven holy convocations (of which four have been fulfilled and the final three are still pending) comprise a prophetic synopsis of Yahweh’s grand plan for our redemption. (I intend to cover them in detail in a future chapter.) And finally, “light upon the earth” is pointless (or at least not worth mentioning) unless the Creator had planned for there to be someone here able to see it.
“And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:14-18) This creative continuity God engineered between heaven and earth has a stated purpose. God wanted us humans to be able to discern between light and darkness—between good and evil. The symbolism here is so thick you can cut it with a knife.
This continuum isn’t a one-way street, either. The traffic flows both ways. Jacob had a vision in which he saw this very clearly: “And [Jacob] dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” Since Jacob saw this in a dream, some would protest that it wasn’t real, that it meant nothing. On the other hand, the dream wasn’t sent to the scoffers, but to one who already had a working relationship with the God who had sent the vision. Yahweh has no information to impart to those who are not of a mind to hear it. But He did have something to say to Jacob: “And behold, Yahweh stood above it and said, ‘I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring.” Once again, we see heaven’s concern for the earth. “Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” Through the Messiah, that is. “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely Yahweh is in this place, and I did not know it.’” Well, actually, Jacob, Yahweh is everywhere He chooses to be, and He reveals Himself to whomever He pleases. “And he was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’” (Genesis 28:12-17)
Jacob had been the privileged recipient of a rare and wonderful glimpse into the physical interplay between heaven and earth. Yahweh rarely renders this connection quite so unmistakably. But I strongly suspect that divine and/or angelic involvement in the mundane affairs of our world is something that goes on all the time, unseen perhaps, but real nevertheless. To the one who fully trusts in Yahweh, even though overt “miracles” may not occur, providence happens all the time. If we’re paying close attention, wherever we happen to be we might echo Jacob’s observation, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
In a different way, David noticed the same thing. As he waxed poetic in his praise for Yahweh in preserving him from his enemies, he morphed into prophet mode, describing the miraculous salvation Israel will experience during the Tribulation, when there will be no one on earth willing to stand with her against her satanic enemies: “In my distress, I [in the prophetic sense, Israel] called upon Yahweh; to my God I called. From His temple He heard my voice, and my cry came to His ears. Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations of the heavens trembled and quaked, because He was angry. Smoke went up from His nostrils, and devouring fire from His mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from Him. He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under His feet.” (II Samuel 22:7-9) Needless to say, neither David nor Israel has ever been defended personally by Yahweh in quite such a spectacular a manner: this is either yet-to-be-fulfilled prophecy describing the vital connection between heaven and earth, or it’s a lie. But one thing is clear: we’re not allowed to ignore it.
Yahweh’s fondness for humanity—and especially for the unlikely people He chose to be the vehicle of salvation to the world, Israel—did not go unnoticed in the angelic realm. When Satan rebelled against Yahweh, he didn’t become God’s opponent. Compared to Yahweh, the devil has less mass than navel lint. No, he became our adversary. Satan can’t touch Yahweh, but he can try to separate earth from heaven, something merely annoying to God but fatal to us if he succeeds. So the prophet asks, “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star [Hebrew heylel, sometimes translated Lucifer, but more a description than a name], son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’” Note that Satan doesn’t even pretend that he can replace the true God, only “be like” Him, become His rival in some way. “But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit. Those who see you will stare at you and ponder over you: ‘Is this the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms, who made the world like a desert and overthrew its cities, who did not let his prisoners go home?’” (Isaiah 14:12-17) Since man was created “a little lower than the angels” in our capabilities, being compared to a dead man must, for Satan, be like us being called a dog, or an ass, or a worm—a lower species. Cute, considering his basic sin was pride.
Fortunately for us, Satan’s successes are not in his own power to achieve, but rather in ours. If we choose to seek the truth, we will find it, and the song of heaven will be sung here on earth: “[Yahshua] said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:15-17) Would we see anything if Father Yahweh didn’t reveal it to us? I kind of doubt it. It is only His personal involvement in the affairs of mankind that allows us to rise, if only for a moment, above the spiritual perception of a paramecium.
The most obvious personal repository of Yahweh’s revelation to us was, of course, His advent as a human, in the person of Yahshua of Nazareth. He told Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” (John 3:13) This cycle of communication between heaven and earth was completed with Yahshua’s ascension. Luke records the scene: “While He blessed them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven… As they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him our of their sight.” (Luke 24:52, Acts 1:9) Or as Mark puts it, “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.” (Mark 16:19) He left behind His Scriptures and His Spirit to guide us in His physical absence. For now, it is enough. But the time is coming—and soon—when the connection between earth and heaven will be reestablished. He who left as the Son of Man will return to us as the King of Kings. And we will know what it is for Yahweh to walk among us upon the earth.
It’s an uncomfortable thought for the vast majority of humanity: the concept that God might actually follow through on His promises. (Well, it would be if they knew what He’s promised to do.) Actually, just as they’re willingly ignorant of what He said and did in the past, most people remain oblivious to what He has vowed to do in the future. Sticking one’s head in the sand may seem like a sound defense strategy to an ostrich, but it makes no sense at all if you’re a person. The worldwide consensus today seems to be, God is not making His presence known, so He must not exist. As Peter put it, “Scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, ‘Where is the promise of His coming?’” (II Peter 3:3-4) And yet, if they would simply open the scriptures, they would see that Yahweh has been personally involved in the affairs of men since before we were even here. He is sovereign not only in heaven, but also on earth. The fact that He doesn’t “throw His weight around” (which would have the effect of curtailing our freedom to choose) shouldn’t be construed as disinterest, incompetence, or non-existence.
A few verses later, Peter explains why: “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.” (II Peter 3:8-10) This tells us several things about Yahweh’s modus operandi: (1) God is on a schedule, one that He revealed in His instructions in symbolic terms: as our weeks are structured according to the creation account pattern—six days of work followed by one day of rest—fallen man’s God-given tenure on earth will be seven thousand years—six millennia in which to “work things out” with Yahweh, and a seventh in which to rest in His salvation. (2) God’s unwillingness to rush into overt judgment is due to His mercy; He wants to give us all the time we need (within His predetermined schedule) to come to our senses and repent. (3) Even after revealing His schedule (in admittedly cryptic terms), His coming will still take the world by surprise. And (4) Yahweh is running things His way—there is nothing man can do to hasten, delay, or prevent His kingdom. The only thing we can do is decide which side to be on when the time comes.
So Yahshua taught His disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come; Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) It’s a given that God’s will is done in heaven, but alas, it’s seldom done on earth these days. This rebellion, of course, is a byproduct of free will being exercised by fallen, sinful men. We are instructed to pray that God’s authority will become as obvious here on earth as it is in heaven. Does this imply that we are to implore God to eliminate free will? In a way, yes, as counterintuitive as that may seem. What we’re really asking for is that Yahshua’s kingdom be established on earth—as He promised—with all that entails. First, the Messiah-King will reign personally on the earth, in transcendent glory and with a scepter of iron. Second, the adversary/accuser/deceiver—Satan—will be bound in chains in the abyss, no longer able to trouble mankind. Third, the sheep will have been separated from the goats, the wheat from the tares: in other words, the kingdom age will commence populated only by the redeemed of Yahweh, both resurrected and mortal. The children of these mortals will still have choices to make during the kingdom age, but as the Millennial reign of Christ begins, Yahweh’s sovereign purpose will be done on earth—just as it always has been in heaven. And David’s prophetic prayer will at last be fulfilled: “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice, and let them say among the nations, ‘Yahweh reigns!’” (I Chronicles 16:31)
The Millennial reign of Christ won’t mark the beginning of God’s sovereignty over the earth, of course—only the overt manifestation of a state of affairs that has always existed. I believe Abraham understood this principle when he told his servant to “Swear by Yahweh, the God of heaven and God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac.” (Genesis 24:3-4) There was a connection between Abraham and “his country and kindred” that’s parallel to that which joins heaven and earth. Yes, he was absent from his home, living as a pilgrim among heathen idolaters in a foreign (though “promised”) land—which, if you think about it, is a pretty good picture of us believers living here on earth. But he knew that for him and his household, the only place for a relationship to have its foundation was “at home” (in symbolic terms, in heaven—the abode of our heavenly Father).
But Yahweh’s overt interventions in the affairs of mankind have historically been rare, and focused primarily on Israel. Moses pointed this out to them: “Has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror [i.e., inspiring awe or fear], all of which Yahweh your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown, that you might know that Yahweh is God; there is no other besides Him. Out of heaven He let you hear His voice, that He might discipline you. And on earth He let you see His great fire, and you heard His words out of the midst of the fire….” Israel had been chosen by God to be the vehicle or conduit of His salvation of all mankind—two thousand years before the Messiah actually appeared. So it’s only natural that He would, on occasion, choose to be somewhat less than subtle in demonstrating His presence and power on their behalf. It was crucial that they, of all people, were witnesses of the connection that existed between heaven and earth, between God and man.
“And because He loved your fathers and chose their offspring after them and brought you out of Egypt with His own presence, by His great power, driving out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves, to bring you in, to give you their land for an inheritance, as it is this day, know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that Yahweh is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.” People in that age were accustomed to thinking of deities as “local gods,” dedicated to one tribe or region. In our day, society tends to make the opposite mistake—believing that all “gods” are somehow the same. If I was paid a nickel for every time some idiotic politician intoned, “We all worship the same God,” I could take my wife out for a nice lunch with the proceeds. But here, on the doorstep of the promised land, the truth is proclaimed: there is only one God in heaven and on earth, and Yahweh is His name. And this fact has ramifications: we are obliged to heed His word. “Therefore you shall keep His statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that Yahweh your God is giving you for all time.” (Deuteronomy 4:34-40)
This wasn’t the first time Yahweh had warned His people about falling for the “all gods are created equal” myth. They hadn’t even left Sinai when He told them, “I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against Me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.” (Exodus 23:31-33) Yahweh is saying, in effect, I am the one true God in heaven and on the earth, and you are the people I have chosen to deliver salvation to the human race. Therefore, you need to remain separate from the idolaters of the land—and their so-called “gods.” This separation is called “holiness.” Even today, when we make what seem to us like reasonable (or at least politically correct) compromises with the world, we run afoul of Yahweh’s admonition. Love is supplanted by tolerance. Familial relationship with Yahweh is replaced with religious duty. Individual mercy gives way to social justice. Godly responsibility and stewardship becomes environmental hysteria. And the promises of God are substituted with the schemes of man. If Yahweh is sovereign over both heaven and earth, then why don’t we take His instructions to heart? When did compromise with evil become a virtue?
For Israel, compromise was defined as coexistence with the idolaters of the Land. That being said, their conquest of Canaan was to be limited in scope: only seven hopelessly corrupt tribal nations were targeted for destruction, and then only within well-defined borders. (For example, the Hittites were listed, but the heart of their empire was located far to the north in modern Turkey, outside Joshua’s mandate.) “When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places. And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it…. But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.” (Numbers 33:51-56) How does this translate into spiritual truth in 21st century society? The spiritual ramifications are hard to miss. We are to (1) honor Yahweh as sovereign and holy; (2) not allow idols to share our space with Him (and by “idols,” I mean anything that competes with Yahweh for our affections—amusement, ambition, security, lust, possessions, pride, etc.); (3) separate ourselves from people who’s agenda is to draw us into such idolatry (not to be confused with mere “sinners,” whose lives we are to positively impact if we can); (4) cease tolerating falsehood and deception; and (5) recognize that whatever we have in this world is a gift from Yahweh—to be used for His glory.
It helps to remember that Israel in the Land is a microcosm of mankind in the earth. (Same concept: eretz.) A divine commandment to Israel is also a godly principle to live by for the rest of us. (Again, it’s the same concept: dabar/logos—the Word.) That which was to be “acted out” as if on stage by Israel is to be observed, embraced, and applauded by their gentile audience. The nations should not be unaware that the admonitions of Yahweh toward Israel apply to them as well—in an even deeper sense. For example: “You shall keep My statutes and My rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.” (Leviticus 18:26-28) We look at Israel’s history (in and out of the land of promise) and we shake our heads in horror. Do we not realize that the whole earth is about to vomit out its rebellious inhabitants, just as Canaan did to Israel, and for roughly the same reasons?
It’s not as if we have no evidence of what’s coming, no historical precedent to guide us: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is Mine.” (Exodus 19:4-5) Israel’s special place in the heart and plan of God brought with it special responsibilities. They have not obeyed Yahweh’s voice and kept His covenant—yet—but that “treasured possession” status is still available to them, as a nation, contingent only upon their national repentance. In the meantime, since “all the earth is Yahweh’s,” everyone lives under His sovereignty, whether we realize it or not. Ironically, it is through Israel’s history (a history they themselves have largely chosen to ignore) that gentile believers find their most compelling reasons for honoring Yahweh through His Messiah. Considering Israel’s rebellion, they shouldn’t even exist anymore. Logically, they should have gone the way of the Amorites and the Girgashites—and they wouldn’t exist were it not for Yahweh’s unilateral promises of restoration.
Yahweh’s sovereignty over both heaven and earth gives Him the right to be worshipped—exclusively. The Second Commandment codifies this thought: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God.” (Exodus 20:4-5) “Jealous” here means “zealous for that which belongs to you.” The implication is that if we serve other gods—of any description—we aren’t really interested in belonging to Yahweh. That’s why it’s so important that we understand that Yahshua is Yahweh, and not some derivative deity, demigod, or worse, a mere prophet or religious innovator. Yahshua is the “carved image” Yahweh made of Himself—the very likeness of God in heaven walking among us here on earth. It is therefore Yahshua alone—Yahweh in flesh—whom it is proper for us to serve and worship.
Yahshua didn’t become God when He was born in Bethlehem. Being Yahweh, He always was God, even before He was manifested in flesh. Like the Holy Spirit and all of the other manifestations of Yahweh in human experience, Yahshua’s character, purpose, and identity are Yahweh’s. “Yahweh, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting You are God.” (Psalm 90:1-2) The form God assumes is suited to the venue, whether heaven or earth. But make no mistake: He who is sovereign over the heavens rules over the earth as well. This is something that ought to have been obvious, and would have been were it not for the privilege of free will He bestowed upon us. The right to choose presupposes the possibility of choosing badly, and many men have. But blessed are those who recognize Yahweh’s universal sovereignty: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let Your glory be over all the earth!” (Psalm 108:5)
As the Psalmist begs Yahweh to make His glory known, Yahweh answers with an admonition: just open your eyes! “Thus says Yahweh: ‘Heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool; what is the house that you would build for Me, and what is the place of My rest? All these things My hand has made, and so all these things came to be,’ declares Yahweh.” If we’re paying attention to Yahweh’s glory as it’s revealed in the heavens, we will recognize our relative insignificance here on the earth. Like a loving father with His small children, God does not need our help, but He does enjoy our company. “‘But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at My word.’” (Isaiah 66:1-2)It’s ironic, in a way, that Yahweh promises to “look upon,” to pay heed to, those who humble themselves before Him—but not to those who elevate themselves among men.
Although it’s hard for us to understand, differences in relative size are not an issue with Yahweh. He can be as “big” as it takes to get the job done, and He can—at the same time—be our most intimate associate. “Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares Yahweh. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares Yahweh.” (Jeremiah 23:24) I’ve always found it fascinating that God made man “mid-sized.” That is, as far as we can tell, our bodies are about halfway between the immensity of the scale of the universe and the complexity of the sub-atomic realm. We can describe—even if we can’t really comprehend—the whole vast picture. And Yahweh? If I’m seeing this correctly, He’s “bigger” (if that word can be used) than the biggest thing of which we can conceive, but at the same time, He directs the path of every quark, lepton, and boson as surely as you navigate your way to work every morning.
If we really understood what Yahweh is and does, human pride would be absolutely unthinkable. If we truly came to grips with His glory, we probably wouldn’t be able to breathe, much less function as normal human beings. And yet at every turn, our God is heard inviting us to live in fellowship with Him, to receive His blessings, to stand in holiness before Him. “The earth is Yahweh’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for He has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.” Is He also the master of esoteric understatement, or is it merely the inadequacies of human language? “Who shall ascend the hill of Yahweh? And who shall stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from Yahweh and righteousness from the God of his salvation. Such is the generation of those who seek Him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.” (Psalm 24:1-6) “Ascending the hill of Yahweh” is a euphemism for achieving—of being part of—the ultimate connection between earth and heaven. Note that the very righteousness we need in order to do this—the requisite clean hands, pure heart, and hunger for the truth—are gifts bestowed by Yahweh upon the one who seeks His face. We can’t approach Him on our own merit: we have no merit. All we can do is ask to be called, cleansed, and covered.
As we contemplate the earth beneath our feet, or even the stars in the heavens, we tend to think of them as permanent. After all, they were here long before we were, and will be here long after we’re gone (or so it would seem). Sure, our observation tells us that as a system, the universe is slowly decaying—that left alone to unravel at its own pace, it will eventually consist of randomly distributed atoms floating through nothingness at absolute zero—no organization, no movement, no beauty, no life, no purpose. But what is that to us? We live only seventy or eighty years—nothing, compared to the billions upon billions of years the cosmos apparently has yet to run.
And yet, God’s word teaches us that if we are in Yahweh, we are what’s permanent, for He is permanent. The creation we see before us is, in comparison, temporary, fleeting, and ephemeral, for our universe—the heavens and the earth—exists at the discretion of Yahweh, and He has destined it for destruction. “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner; but My salvation will be forever, and My righteousness will never be dismayed.” (Isaiah 51:6) A contrast is being drawn here between the old, decaying cosmos and the new, eternal creation. What separates the new state from the old is “salvation” and “righteousness,” two things (actually, just one) that Yahweh offers freely to those of us who seek Him. “For behold, I [Yahweh] create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But 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.” (Isaiah 65:17-18) This refers to the “New Jerusalem” described in such glowing detail by the New Testament prophets. We’ll revisit that theme in a moment. Note that logically, one cannot “be glad and rejoice forever” unless he’s alive—forever.
The “new heavens and new earth” of which Isaiah wrote are also prophesied in the New Covenant scriptures. “But according to His promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (II Peter 3:13) Whereas the present creation “groans and travails” under the weight of our sin (see Romans 8:20-22), the new heaven and earth will be the exclusive abode of “righteousness.” I can only conclude that we who inhabit these domains will no longer have a sin nature to deal with: we will have been transformed into the likeness of Christ, fulfilling our destiny as believers (Romans 8:29). Likewise, John wrote, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” (Revelation 21:1) The new cosmos isn’t built alongside the old one—a parallel universe, so to speak. It is, rather, a replacement: the old one will be gone and forgotten.
Is goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that the only thing that’s intrinsically permanent is Yahweh Himself. The “steady-state” universe once so philosophically dear to scientists has been conclusively proven to be an unsupportable myth, a mere product of wishful thinking by brilliant fools who insist there is no God. There was a beginning, they now (reluctantly) admit. (They still haven’t come to terms, however, with the disconcerting fact that only Life begets life. Spontaneous biological serendipity remains the last bastion of desperate hope for the religion of atheism.) The Psalmist, without any scientific training at all, was nevertheless able to see the truth of the matter: “Of old You [Yahweh] laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but You are the same, and Your years have no end.” That much would be easy enough to deduce from science and a rudimentary knowledge of the nature of our God, I suppose. But the really amazing thing is the Psalmist’s conclusion on the subject. He goes on to say that the inevitable result of this never-ending “sameness” of Yahweh’s nature is that “The children of Your servants shall dwell secure; their offspring shall be established before You.” (Psalm 102:25-28) You can’t “dwell secure” and “be established” if you’re dead and gone. No, if it’s true that God’s “years have no end,” then we who are His can, and will, inherit eternal life.
The complete remaking of the universe is a bit beyond our ability to envision, of course. But in both scriptural history and prophecy, Yahweh has given us numerous glimpses into how—and why—it will happen. It should come as no surprise by this time that the whole point of the exercise is holiness: Yahweh’s purpose is to separate, step by step, the corruption of the cosmos that exists from the purity of the world that shall be. I get the feeling that the infrastructure of the universe is the least of it in His mind; His focus is on man—and specifically on the relatively few of us who have joyfully chosen to embrace Him as our adopted Father. Everything else is collateral damage, chaff in the wind, worthless dross to be skimmed off and cast aside in the process of our purification. Is God angry that so many have chosen to arrogantly reject His entreaties and decline His sacrifice? Wouldn’t you be?
Three apocalyptic passages from Isaiah (selected from among scores of worthy candidates) will suffice to demonstrate Yahweh’s frame of mind on the subject. Whether blended into prophecies concerning near-contemporary nations or not (this first selection emerges from a diatribe against Babylon—initially fulfilled over a century after Isaiah issued the warning), the prophet’s point is quite clear: God’s temporal punishment of wicked men in this life is but a pale shadow of the things to come—a preview of cosmic events yet in our future. He says, “I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless. I will make people more rare than fine gold, and mankind than the gold of Ophir. Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of Yahweh of hosts in the day of his fierce anger.” (Isaiah 13:11-13) There will come a day, Yahweh says, when He will no longer put up with the ridiculous arrogance of ruthless men. This will be accomplished at first through the purging of the populace during the Tribulation, but ultimately through the introduction of the new heaven and new earth—a universe designed and built for immortal, spiritually living beings in the same way the present one is built for mortals. If the wicked were still around (they won’t be), they’d find themselves in a world that couldn’t accommodate them; they’d be as out of place as snowflakes on the sun.
In the short run, it’s going to get far worse than it has ever been: “For behold, Yahweh is coming out from His place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no more cover its slain.” (Isaiah 26:21) I once saw a bumper sticker that portrays God as an angry parent, saying “Don’t make Me come down there!” Isaiah has revealed that this is precisely what He is going to have to do. Yahweh has been patient with us, not willing that any should perish. But enough is enough, children. If He is a God of justice (as well as One of mercy) there must come a time when He rights the wrongs, punishes the guilty, and rewards the innocent. This means that the earth must someday (and soon, I’m guessing) experience a rare and terrifying “close encounter” with heaven: “Yahweh is coming out from His place”—not for fellowship this time, but for punishment. Since the days of Cain, the blood of our victims has cried out to Yahweh from the ground. Here at last, He will answer: the slain will be so numerous, there will be no one left to bury them.
Remember how Yahshua talked about the Kingdom of God being accessible only through the “narrow gate?” Isaiah’s prophecy also stresses the sad fact that very few (comparatively speaking) will choose this path. “Behold, Yahweh will empty the earth and make it desolate, and He will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants.” This desolation won’t be distributed along class lines, either, for our choices are an individual matter: “And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the slave, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the creditor, so with the debtor. The earth shall be utterly empty and utterly plundered; for Yahweh has spoken this word. The earth mourns and withers; the world languishes and withers; the highest people of the earth languish.” This isn’t just Isaiah being pessimistic. Yahweh Himself has declared this verdict upon the earth—which is scary, because He’s the only One qualified to judge, the only One who has a right to be angry, and the only One powerful enough to do anything about it. Note that for once, the “highest people”—the privileged elite—will not escape. “The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt; therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched, and few men are left.” (Isaiah 24:1-6) What once befell Israel (in partial fulfillment of this prophecy) is the inevitable—and literal—fate of the whole world. John describes (in Revelation 6:4, 6:8, and 8:7) a future war—apparently thermonuclear—that will consume a third of the earth in fire and kill a quarter of its inhabitants. Isaiah has just informed us as to why God will allow this to happen: mankind has arrogantly turned its collective back on His word.
But as I said, the “end of the world as we know it,” the coming Tribulation, is just a preview of the ultimate recycling of planet earth—a grand urban renewal project Yahweh has had scheduled since the dawn of time. John’s vision revealed it: “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.” (Revelation 21:1) No sea? There’s our first clue as to how fundamental and comprehensive the change is going to be. Today, oceans cover 71% of the earth’s surface. Presuming the new earth will be the same size as the old one (which, of course, is something we can’t really presume), that’s an additional 140 million square miles of land area. Beyond that, an entirely different ecosphere is implied: our oceans drive our present climate, for good or ill. The hydrologic cycle is essential for our present mortal existence. But if we’re no longer mortal—if we cannot die—then what’s necessary and what’s not? I can only imagine what the new earth will be like, but from what I know of Yahweh’s character, I’d guess that it will be more beautiful than anything we’ve ever seen up to this point. And that’s saying a lot: in its natural state, the world as we know it is (in my eyes, at least) jaw-droppingly beautiful—something worth praising God over.
And the new heavens? We aren’t told what John saw—only that he did see them. We can presume, then, that there was something to see, and that it was impressive. We have been, in these last few years of mortal man’s existence upon the old earth, privileged with glimpses into the stunning splendor of God’s sidereal creation. Space based telescopes like the Hubble have brought us images of incredible beauty we never before knew existed. If we didn’t know before, we do now: the heavens declare the glory of God. And that’s the old heavens. What will we see in the new? And how will we see it? It would be pointless to speculate, of course, and words couldn’t adequately express what’s out there anyway. So I’ll have to content myself with what God did choose to reveal: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” In other words, it’ll be as pretty as Yahweh knows how to make it. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place [Greek: skene] of God is with man. He will dwell [skenoo] with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He 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.” (Revelation 21:1-4)
I’ve highlighted a couple of Greek words we’ve seen before, because their significance is largely lost in the English, as mind-blowing as the rough concept is anyway. The noun skene is a particular sort of “dwelling place”—a tent, a tabernacle, a temporary shelter or booth. In other word, it’s not “permanent”—a house, castle, or palace. And the related verb, skenoo, means to dwell or take up residence, especially in a temporary abode like a tent or tabernacle. This is precisely the same picture we’re given with the wilderness tabernacle, the portable proto-temple the Israelites were instructed to use as they made their way toward the Promised Land. This tabernacle, including its fenced courtyard, is a complex and comprehensive symbol of Yahweh’s plan for mankind’s redemption. Everything within it is a picture of one facet or another of the way Yahweh ordained to redeem us. The function, placement, materials, and even dimensions of every sanctuary element specified in scripture is meaningful and significant. So what Yahweh is saying here in Revelation is that He—in the persona of the glorified Messiah—is the tabernacle and everything it represents.
He declares this plainly a few verses later: “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” The “Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” are descriptions of Yahshua—no longer the babe in the manger, no longer the persecuted itinerant rabbi, but now the reigning King of kings. “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there….” We’re not told whether the sun and moon are gone at this point, or merely superfluous. But as part of the “old heavens,” they are slated for early retirement at some point, to be replaced with something more in keeping with the new spiritual paradigm.
The New Jerusalem is described as the eternal home of the ekklesia’s redeemed. You can call it “heaven” if you want, but it’s clear that we aren’t going to live with God, exactly. Rather, He is coming to “camp out” with us! This—the New Jerusalem—is what Yahshua was talking about when He described the “mansions” in His Father’s house that He was going to prepare for us (see John 14:2-3). One thing’s for sure: it’s a very exclusive neighborhood, a guard-gated residential community: “They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:22-27) Since this “city” (actually, it’s apparently more like a small planet) is called “the dwelling place of God with man,” it’s the ultimate expression of the continuity between earth and heaven—a continuity that is, in the end, the whole point.
Considering the fact that Yahweh called His original creation “very good,” it may seem strange to hear Him say He plans to melt it all down, like out-of-style gold jewelry, and start all over again. But if we pay attention, we can detect this subtle undercurrent of thought running throughout His word: God’s plan from the very beginning was for us to dwell with Him—not as subjects, and certainly not as adversaries, but as dearly beloved children. Our living arrangements as mortals on earth were, I believe, meant to teach us what this could be like. “Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him. For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of Yahweh by doing righteousness and justice, so that Yahweh may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” (Genesis 18:17-19) The heart of what God promised to Abraham was that through him, “all the families of the earth would be blessed.” Yahweh reiterated this several times. “By myself I have sworn, declares Yahweh, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of His enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” (Genesis 22:16-18)
The fulfillment—the fruition—of that promise was Yahshua’s provision for our reconciliation with Yahweh. So Peter writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (I Peter 1:3-5) If our status as God’s newly adopted children—with all the privileges that relationship might be expected to bring with it—were revealed in temporal terms in this life, people would be clamoring to “join the club” for what they could get out of it, not because they revered Yahweh and were eternally grateful to His Messiah. So the overt benefits of having this imperishable inheritance are concealed from the world, held in escrow for us, so to speak. They’ll be revealed soon enough.
By the way, that phrase “born again” isn’t quite accurate. But it’s not the same phrase mistranslated in John 3, either—it’s not gennao anothen: “born from above.” This time the word is anagennao, which literally means “born into the midst, ” or “born among.” (Ana can also mean “each,” speaking of relative distribution, as in Matthew 20:9). What Peter (who’s the only guy to use the word in scripture) is really saying is, “He has caused us to be born into the midst of a living hope [elpis: the joyful and confident expectation of good] through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” or perhaps “He has begotten each of us into a living hope.” My point is that our birth into hope in Christ is unique: it does not happen “again.” It can’t really be compared to anything else in our experience. It alone marks the commencement into a life that’s “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” the inheritance reserved for us in heaven.
I must confess, sometimes I just sit here staring at my computer screen, dumbfounded. I mean, I can sort of understand how Yahweh pulled His plan together, how He put the pieces in place, how he balanced His own wishes against our free will. But what I can’t figure out is why He would do this. It’s not enough to explain it by appealing to the intrinsic “bargain” involved—the idea that if God wanted people who would love Him, He would have to risk allowing them to choose not to (since real love can only be the result of choice). Nor is it a “numbers game,” in which God was willing to accept a certain level of loss in order to guarantee the gains He had calculated. No, the fact is, He had no guarantees at all—His risk was absolute. His sacrifice was offered up front with no assurance that anybody would respond. (Yes, there were saints who had already demonstrated their faith in His promises by the time Yahshua came, but Yahweh’s plan and promise had been established from the foundation of the world—and revealed as far back as the Garden of Eden).
The Calvinist view of limited atonement doesn’t fly either, because Yahweh’s sovereignty (the truth upon which the doctrine is based) is ultimately expressed in His decision to let us all make our own choices. Just because God is sovereign, it doesn’t mean He has to force His opinion down everybody’s throats—or worse, down the throats of only a privileged few that He Himself selected, condemning everybody else to hell (which is basically the Islamic view of things). A God who is really in charge can, if He wishes, opt to delegate the decision making process, and scripture clearly indicates that this is what Yahweh chose to do.
So why did Yahweh put it all on the line for us? There can be only one answer, but I can’t claim to comprehend the depth of the thing. It’s His compassion. It’s as if He said to Himself, How people respond to My love is up to them. They may or may not choose wisely, but as things stand, they’re lost. I must try to reach them—to save them. My nature demands it. I might be able to comprehend how a hypothetical finite god could “intervene” in the course of human affairs with an eye toward nudging the outcome in his favor. People do this sort of thing all the time. The “problem” is, Yahweh is not finite, limited, or restricted in any way. He does not struggle. He need not “try.” As long as His objective is not nonsensical—both of two mutually exclusive alternatives—He has the power to simply say “Let it be,” and it is. It is said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That is true enough for men, I suppose. But in Yahweh’s case, absolute power was voluntarily relinquished out of compassion for us—mere creatures, and corrupt ones at that. If I told you I understood why Yahweh did this, I’d be lying. But I’m glad He did.
Solomon struggled with the same conundrum. “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” The “house” to which Solomon is referring is the new temple he’d been privileged to build in Jerusalem in 967 BC (precisely one thousand years prior to the passion of the Messiah it was designed to represent), replacing the portable tabernacle that had been in use since Moses’ day. “Yet have regard to the prayer of Your servant and to his plea, O Yahweh my God, listening to the cry and to the prayer that Your servant prays before You this day, that Your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you have said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that You may listen to the prayer that Your servant offers toward this place. And listen to the plea of Your servant and of Your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven Your dwelling place, and when You hear, forgive.” (I Kings 8:27-30) In asking Yahweh to listen to the prayers of his people, Solomon is declaring some very remarkable things, if viewed through the skeptical eyes of our generation: (1) There is a God, infinite in presence and unlimited in power; (2) this God is interested in sharing an intimate relationship with us; (3) Yahweh wants to be identified with a single location on earth, though His dwelling place is in heaven; and (4) He is willing to grant forgiveness to those who ask, because His forgiveness is necessary if we are to dwell together in harmony with Him.
The scoffers of our day deny all of this. They’d say that god, if he exists at all, has neither power nor moral standards; he isn’t so much a spiritual personality as he is a vague “force” or feeling; he has no special relationship with Israel (even if he once did), so it’s safe to support Israel’s enemies in hopes of currying favor with their oil-rich allies; and people don’t need forgiveness, so they don’t want a god who says they do. Meanwhile, Yahweh looks upon the world with sadness and compassion, longing for our repentance but remaining unwilling to force us to choose His path. His scriptures incessantly declare the desire of God to free us from the chains of our self-delusion. “Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise Yahweh: that He looked down from His holy height; from heaven Yahweh looked at the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die, that they may declare in Zion the name of Yahweh, and in Jerusalem His praise.” (Psalm 102:18-21) The “people yet to be created” are the ekklesia, the church, the called out assembly of Yahshua. It is us who praise Yahweh today, praying that our brothers in Israel will come at last to “declare in Zion the name of Yahweh” as we do. It’s only a matter of time.
Unfortunately, it will take utter catastrophe to shake Israel out of her two-thousand year coma. The prophet writes, “Come, let us return to Yahweh; for He has torn us, that He may heal us; He has struck us down, and He will bind us up. After two days [read: two thousand years] He will revive us; on the third day [i.e., the Millennial reign of the Messiah that will follow the “two days”] He will raise us up, that we may live before Him.” (Hosea 6:1-2) There it is once again: the counterintuitive idea that God and men (in this case, Israel) are destined to dwell together in perfect harmony. The last seven of these two thousand years (see Daniel 9:24-27) will be the roughest for Israel—in fact, the latter part of this period is referred to (in Jeremiah 30:7) as “the time of Jacob’s trouble,” which is something of an understatement, if you understand the prophecies. However, against all odds (since “odds” have nothing to do with it, but rather the will of God), Israel will emerge as the world’s sole superpower, the home of the Kingdom of God, the seat of the Millennial reign of Christ.
This seven-year (actually, an even 2,520-day) period of time is generally known as “the Tribulation.” Much of yet-to-be-fulfilled prophecy centers on this time or on the conditions leading up to it—in the years in which we now live. But even here, in the darkest days of the history of the human race, the message of scripture is that heaven and earth will be reconciled, that God and man (those who have, whether early or late, chosen to follow Him) will dwell together. For example, “Therefore [that is, because these Tribulation martyrs have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”] they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter [skenoo] them with His presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:15-17) The “silver lining” to the Tribulation’s dark cloud is turning out to be platinum.
Speaking of these Tribulation martyrs, John writes, “And they have conquered him [the accuser of the brethren—Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them!” Note that somebody is seen dwelling in heaven, even while the Tribulation is still raging on earth: “But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (Revelation 12:11-12) Later, we read, “It [the beast] opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming His name and His dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven.” (Revelation 13:6) Who? Who dwells in heaven while the martyrs (not to mention billions of lost souls) are getting hammered on the earth?
Without getting too wrapped up in the technical state of the souls of the redeemed departed, I believe that when John speaks of those “dwelling in heaven,” he’s not referring to disembodied souls (the state of the dead in paradise, a.k.a. “Abraham’s bosom”). He referring, rather, to those who have, like the risen Christ, received immortal, spiritual bodies. Paul begins with this cryptic reference: “For we know that if the tent, which is our earthly home, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (II Corinthians 5:1) The “tent,” of course, is our mortal body, a marvelous piece of machinery, yet designed to be temporary. It will be destroyed, only to be replaced with a permanent dwelling place—a body built by God to last for eternity.
Paul’s account continues: “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” (I Corinthians 15:50-52) He explains further how we can expect to receive these new bodies: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up [Latin: rapiemur, giving rise to the common English term for this event: the “rapture”] together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (I Thessalonians 4:16-18) From everything we’ve seen so far, that’s been Yahweh’s purpose from the beginning—for us to “be with the Lord” (i.e., Yahshua).
That’s not to say we’ll remain in heaven forever after our transformation. When Yahshua returns at last to rule upon the earth, the saints will come with Him: “And He will send out His angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (Matthew 24:31) Note that we’ll be gathered from heaven, not from the earth. The earth, rather, is our destination: we’ll make a grand triumphal entrance in the company of the conquering King. “And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following Him on white horses.” (Revelation 19:14) These “armies of heaven” can’t be angels, because the “fine linen” they’re wearing symbolizes the imputed righteousness that covers the redeemed saints.
The transformation from mortal into immortal isn’t strictly a New Testament revelation, either. The psalmist Asaph writes, “He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that He may judge His people: ‘Gather to Me My faithful ones, who made a covenant with Me by sacrifice!’ The heavens declare his righteousness, for God Himself is judge!” (Psalm 50:4-6) No man may see God in His undiminished glory and live to tell the tale. Therefore, these “faithful ones” whom Yahweh wishes to gather together will of necessity need to be transformed—“raised imperishable,” as Paul put it: changed. And what qualifies them for this? What defines them as being “faithful?” What do they have to do to be declared righteous by the heavenly Judge? They must “make a covenant with Yahweh by sacrifice.” In other words, someone innocent has to die in order for the sacrifice to ratify the covenant. But there has been only One who is truly innocent: Yahshua. Therefore, the only way man may come into the presence of God is for him to be atoned, indemnified, covered, and transformed by the blood of Yahshua.
So He told His disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” Good point. Among the various religions of the world, there is no expectation whatsoever of God wanting to live with people. The Greek gods lived on Olympus and pretty much kept to themselves; Hindu hopes center on being reincarnated into a higher life form, but never one that shares a personal relationship with any god; Allah promises an afterlife for his martyrs in a paradise overrun with sex-starved virgins, but he won’t be there sharing the fun—he says he’ll be in hell, torturing the poor souls he himself predestined to go there. Only Yahweh wants to spend eternity enjoying the company of his created friends: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:1-3) Yahshua prayed, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given Me, may be with Me where I am, to see My glory that you have given Me because you loved Me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:24) So with whom will we share eternity, Yahweh or Yahshua? Trick question: both of them, for they are the same Person: “Yahweh will be king over all the earth. On that day Yahweh will be one and His name one.” (Zechariah 14:9)