The following is a lightly edited transcript
Before I read Scripture, I have a long introduction. And before I have the long introduction, I want to pray. And before I pray, I want to say something by way of personal testimony to the faithfulness of God. And now that Martyn Lloyd-Jones has been mentioned, I have one other thing I want to say. So I will read Scripture eventually.
First, nobody should go without listening to Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Every Monday morning, a new sermon from Martyn Lloyd-Jones is put on the web at mljtrust.org. He was the greatest preacher in the 20th century, in my opinion, and his sermons are available. It’s astonishing that you can listen to him while you run on your treadmill and hear the greatest preaching of the 20th century and have it affect you. So, thank you for calling attention to the great doctor. Go there. We are shaped by those we hear.
Second, the other little pre-prayer introduction is that I remember on two or three occasions in my seminary and undergraudate education I was profoundly impacted by hearing the testimony of a pastor to the effect that he loved doing what he was doing. I just want to say that I wish all of you could be preaching this message because you would then have the extraordinary blessing that I’ve had in getting ready for this. To have to say things about great things is a great privilege. It makes you desperate. It puts you on your face. It gets your mind soaked in the word. The preacher is so blessed.
So, if you’ve wondered whether that might be God’s calling on your life, I would say it’s a glorious calling. Don and I are the same age. Don is a teacher preacher, and I’m a preacher teacher. We’ve gone our different ways. I have delighted in the relationship the Lord has given us over the years, but I took my turn away from academia as a calling in 1979 and 1980, with fear and trembling that the pressures of the pastoral life and the multiplied administrative things, along with weddings, funerals, staff meetings, counseling sessions, and endless position papers to keep us all on the same page, would rob me of the most profound insights that I thought, naively in my academic days, came from having extended leisure to reflect upon the text.
Insight is a gift, and God loves to give desperate pastors what they need. He loves it. I do not doubt that today I have seen God more, loved God more, and walked with God more than if I had gone another route, and I’m thankful. I just want to say publicly that God has been faithful. When I thought it would never happen, that this message would never come into being, or this devotion wouldn’t happen, or I wouldn’t know what to say in this counseling situation, or I wouldn’t have anything in this hospital room, he’s never let me down, ever.
In those moments, the best comes — better than all the lingering. I studied four years at Wheaton, three years at Fuller, three years in Germany, and six years at Bethel where I taught biblical Greek. What I have seen of him since those years is the best I’ve yet to see. That’s a testimony before the kind of people who probably face those kinds of questions somewhere in their lives. Should I keep doing what I’m doing or should I go in that direction with my life?
I just want to say that if you lean on him and not on your own understanding, he will not only make your way straight; it will be straight into some of the sweetest, deepest insights and experiences with him that you could have had anywhere.
The first verse of the Bible in the first chapter of the Bible says:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).
In Genesis 1:27, he creates man, both male and female, in his own image, and then in verse 31 it says:
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.
Then, in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve reject God as their supreme wisdom, their supreme beauty, and their supreme desire, and God brings on them and on all their posterity and all creation, a curse, saying:
Cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life (Genesis 3:17).
Now, in Genesis 3:15, there is a spark of hope held out that the fall is not the last word for the creation, nor the last word for Adam and Eve and their posterity. God speaks to the soul-destroying, creation-destroying serpent, and he says:
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.
The Apostle Paul hears in that the hope that he expresses in Romans 8:20–21, which goes like this:
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
So, here’s the big picture: God created the universe out of nothing. It was very good the way he made it. There was no death, no suffering, no pain, and no evil. Then, Adam and Eve did something in their hearts horrifyingly evil, unspeakably wicked; they preferred the fruit of a tree to fellowship with God. God not only sentenced them to death, but he subjected the entire creation to futility and bondage to corruption.
In other words, once there was no suffering; there was no pain, no evil, and no death, but now every single human dies, and suffers before they die. Animals suffer too. Rivers suddenly overflow their banks and sweep away villages. Avalanches bury skiers. Volcanoes take out whole cities. In one night, a tsunami kills 250,000 people. Storms in the Philippine waters sink ferry boats with 800 people on board. AIDS, malaria, cancer, and heart disease indiscriminately kill millions every year, both old and young. Monster tornadoes level Midwestern towns. Droughts and famines bring millions to the brink, and over the brink, of starvation. Freak accidents happen so that the son of a friend falls into a grain elevator and drowns in the grain. Another person loses an eye from a lawnmower accident. A baby is born without a face.
Purpose in the Pain
If we could see, at any given moment, one ten-thousandth of the world’s suffering happening at that moment, we would not be able to bear it. We would pass out or throw up. Only one person can bear that sight and keep going — God almighty.
Why did God do this to the world? Why did he subject creation to such futility and bondage to corruption and decay? The creation didn’t do anything. God said, “Cursed be the ground because of you.” The creation was subjected to futility because of us, but why? God said on the day that they ate of the fruit they would surely die. So why not just do that? Why not just simply have death? Wouldn’t that do it, just to have life and death with no eternity or hell? What is the purpose of this kaleidoscope of agony? Why so many children with so many heart-wrenching disabilities? Sometimes, I feel like my church has something in the water.
My answer to this is that God put the natural world under a curse so that the physical horrors we see around us, like diseases and calamities, would become a vivid picture of how horrible sin is. In other words, natural evil is a signpost to the unspeakable wickedness of moral evil. God disordered the natural world because the disorder of the moral and spiritual world is so great, and we don’t feel it. In our present fallen condition, our hearts are so dull and so blinded to the exceeding wickedness of sin.
We can’t see it. We can’t feel how repugnant sin is. Hardly anyone in the world feels the abhorrent evil that our sin is. Almost no one is incensed or nauseated at how they belittle the glory of God. How many people do you know that at the end of the day are shaking their fists in their face and wanting to almost throw up at how much they have demeaned God that day? Almost nobody. We don’t see it. We don’t feel it. But when God touches our little finger, he’s in the dark. We begin to say, “What are you doing? How is there any justice here?” Diseases and deformities are Satan’s pride, and in God’s overruling providence, they are God’s portraits of what sin is like in the spiritual realm. That’s true even though some of the godliest people bear the most horrible deformities.
A Cause for Hating Sin
I preached these last statements on the fourth anniversary of 9/11 at our church. It was the first time that anniversary landed on a Sunday, and I said all that I did, knowing who was out there. About three weeks later in a pre-service prayer meeting at the north campus, a dozen people or so gathered for prayer. One of these moms was there who had a child with a disability, flopping around and noisy in his little carriage. And she prayed this: “Oh, God, help me to feel as intense and bad about my sin as I do about my boy’s disability.”
Do you see why I love being a pastor? This went down into her soul and gave her a whole new perspective. Every day, she hates her boy’s disability. Every day, she feels with everything in her that it shouldn’t be this way, and I’ve given her just one more way to put meaning to that. It is God’s way to help you hate your sin. That’s a picture of sin. That’s where sin is going. That disability is at the physical level what sin is at the spiritual level, but who feels that? Almost nobody. That’s how sick, how blind, and how numb we are to our moral condition.
Oh, that we could feel how repugnant and offensive and abominable it is to prefer anything to our Maker, whether its television, wife, ministry, etc. We ignore him. We distrust him. We demean him. We give him less attention than the carpet on our living room floor when it’s time to change it.
We have to see this or we’ll never fly to Christ, and we will want heaven for no other reason than relief. Those who only want heaven for relief won’t go there, so this is important. God mercifully shouts to us in our sickness and pain and calamities. He is saying, “Wake up! Preferring television to fellowship with me is like this disability or this faceless baby. That’s what desiring heaven for relief alone is like in my eyes.” The natural world is shot through with horrors that aim to wake us up from the dream world that thinks demeaning God is no big deal. That’s what it’s for.
Suffering in the Light of Future Glory
Back to the big picture. God created the heavens and the earth out of nothing. It was very good. There was no pain, no evil, and no death. Creation was full of everything good. But then, this horrific heart choice of anything over God brought the whole creation down, and God subjected it to futility and the bondage of corruption.
So what’s to become of us? And what’s to become of creation? What do you say to the parents whose child in this life will never have mental power beyond a six-month-old? Here’s what you do. You open your Bible. I invite you to Romans 8:18–25 because everything else I have to say from here on out is an attempt at an exposition of these verses. It would be good for you to memorize the whole chapter of Romans 8. It is the greatest chapter in the Bible, maybe in competition with Romans 3. Let’s read it together:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Young pastors, this text is one of the most important texts for you to get clarity on for your pastoral ministry and for your people from the beginning of your ministry. Here’s what I mean: When I came to Bethlehem in 1980 (27 years ago from this message) one of the first sermons I preached, within a month or so, was called Christ and Cancer from this text. You can read it online.
My church 27 years ago was 300 gray heads. I did a funeral every three weeks for a year and a half — that’s no exaggeration. So I knew immediately I was going to be in the hospital multiple times every week, and I wanted them to know that I wasn’t thinking if they had faith they wouldn’t be there. I wanted to say, right off the bat, I don’t believe that. Romans 8:23 is the reason I don’t believe it. It says:
…not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly, waiting for the redemption of our bodies.
That was the universal experience of my church and it still is, only now they’re younger. So, in your ministry, nail that near the front end. Your people need to know what you think about them getting sick. It’s more complicated than this only, but it’s important and they need to know where you stand so that when you stand by their bed, they have a theological framework for what you mean when you say what you say. If you’ve done that well, you won’t have to say anything in that moment. You can just kiss them.
The Gospel and the Age to Come
Therefore, this passage is important, and I want to point out four observations to attempt getting at the meaning of the new heavens and the new earth, and the relationship of the gospel to it.
1. God promises that there will be liberation of the creation from its futility and its bondage to decay.
The first half of Romans 8:21 says, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption.” The material world, the natural world, will be freed from the curse of the subjection to futility and corruption. That’s Paul’s way of saying the new heavens and the new earth are coming. The earth and the sky that we now know will be freed. This earth will be a new earth. Let me just read you the new earth and new heaven passages from Scripture:
For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind (Isaiah 65:17).
For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain (Isaiah 66:22).
But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13).
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…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).
Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago (Acts 3:19).
So, Paul’s words in Romans 8:21, that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption, means this old earth will become a new earth. He understands the word new to mean renewed, not new in the sense of getting a new car because it’s not the same car when you get a new car. New (kainos) can mean renewed — new because it’s been fixed.
So then, one of the things you say to this mom with a disabled child is: “You know, the Bible teaches that even though your son has been denied a lifetime of leaping and running on this earth to the glory of God, there is a new earth coming, free from every disease and every disability. And he will not just have a lifetime, but an eternity to run and leap to the glory of God. This world will have seemed like a light and momentary affliction in comparison to the eternal weight of glory.” That’s observation number one. This creation will be liberated.
2. This liberation of the natural order from its bondage to corruption will be a participation in the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
This is mind-boggling. The whole of Romans 8:21 says:
The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
Now, the order here is very important. Just as the creation followed fallen man into corruption, so the creation will follow redeemed man into glory. If one were given to quick logic instead of disciplined exegesis, one might be tempted to say to the parent of a suffering child, “Do you see what the Bible says? It says that the natural order, the creation, is going to be set free from its bondage to corruption. Well, your body and your child’s body are part of that natural order, aren’t they? Well then, you too are included. You will be drawn into that liberation. Isn’t that wonderful?” Well, it would be wonderful. It’s just not the way Paul’s thinking at all. It’s emphatically not what he says.
What he says is that our bodies will be redeemed in this new order. We wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23). But our bodies are not drawn into this newness by being part of creation which generically gets fixed. Amazingly, it’s the other way around. The creation, the universe, is drawn up into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Romans 8:21).
The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption, and the creation — all the galaxies, all the oceans, all the mountains, and all the cells and atoms — will obtain your freedom. You don’t obtain its freedom. It obtains your freedom, which is the freedom of the glory of the children of God. The freedom of the glory of the children of God comes first. Then, having glorified his children with the new and glorious bodies which Jesus said will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Matthew 13:43), the whole creation is fitted to be a suitable dwelling for the glorified family.
Therefore, you say to the parents of the disabled child: “Your child will not be changed to fit the new glorified universe; the new universe will be changed to fit the glory of your child.” The point of Romans 8:21 is that God loves his children and provides what’s best for them. Do you see that phrase? Don’t miss that. We fly over things sometimes, but stop and muse. It says the freedom of the glory, not of the saints, nor of the redeemed, but the freedom of the glory of the children. He’s thinking five verses earlier from Romans 8:16–17, which says:
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
The point is that the new heavens and the new earth are the inheritance of the children. Make sure you keep things straight here in your eschatology and your environmentalism, which you should care about and not belittle like some right-wing talk show host, but get it straight. The universe is not important in itself. It’s important as the playground of the children of God, and the temple of the children of God, and the farm of the children of God, and the craft store of the children of God. It gets its importance by God fitting his children with the glory of his Son and then looking at this creation and saying, “I want you to be this way for my family,” and it happens.
The inheritance of the children is what matters here. The designs of God are for a universe for his children. Your disabled child won’t have to adapt anymore. His body will be totally redeemed and new, and everything in creation will be adapted to him.
3. The arrival of the new, liberated creation is compared to a birth.
There’s not only continuity with this world, but discontinuity. Romans 8:22 says:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth (synōdinō) until now.
When a child is born, the child is human and not a horse, so there’s continuity. But he’s not the mother, so there’s discontinuity. Now, I don’t think it would be exegetically warranted to force this metaphor to mean there is an exact, one-to-one correspondence between this world and the world that’s coming as with a mother and her child. But surely, the choice of that verb does signify that we should at least look around the New Testament for evidences of discontinuity as well as continuity between this earth and the new earth, and when we look, they abound. Let me give you a few. For Paul, the most important place is I Corinthians 15:35. He says:
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?”
In other words, if we’re going to have a new earth with new bodies, what are they like? How do they come? And here’s the answer that he gives in 1 Corinthians 15:37–38:
What you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.
That’s discontinuity, pretty clearly. It sounds very creator-like, not just redeemer-like, and frankly, I am thankful he said it that way because you and I both know that almost all of our ancestors’ atoms are in other people and animals and plants. If we were shut up to God finding the bodies of our loved ones that have died and then making them new, we would have a problem, but God is God. I think Paul is trying to say this in a way that, by the end, you’re going to hear the key word, but it’s very strange. In 1 Corinthians 15:42–44 he says:
What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.
What in the world is that? Notice he says it is sown and it is raised. This is not the new car; this is you. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So there is continuity with having a body, but discontinuity between natural and spiritual. In 1 Corinthians 15:49 he says:
Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust (Adam), we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven (Christ).
Those images are not identical, but there is continuity. We’re in the image of Christ and Adam, and Adam was created in the image of God. Then, in 1 Corinthians 15:50, he says:
I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
Something has to change so that this is just not what it was anymore. He says, “I tell you a mystery.” I wonder if this is the only place in the New Testament where mysterion (something that has been long concealed and is now revealed) means that it is still concealed and will continue to be? The Apostle John said in 1 John 3:2, “what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
Stored Up for Fire
Second Peter 3:7 draws out some more of the discontinuity:
But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.
Speaking of discontinuity, Jesus said:
In the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven (Matthew 22:30).
I am about to finish a 10-week series on marriage, and I made a big deal out of this because I don’t want people to idolize marriage. I want them to idolize Jesus, and marriage is a picture of him and his church. When that marriage happens, this one is not needed anymore. So, don’t make it too big. Then, I preached a sermon on singleness, which was very easy to do after that. Still related to continuity and discontoiunity, the Apostle John also says:
The first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more (Revelation 21:1).
I don’t know if I like that, so I use a little hermeneutical prestidigitation here. Somewhat might say, “What, you’re going to just make it a lake, like the Pacific Lake or the Atlantic Lake? I wonder if he doesn’t mean that, but I don’t know what he means.
I just think we’re going to miss something if the crashing of the waves, as the Psalms depict, aren’t shouting the glory of God anymore. I’m tempted to think that what was so threatening about this leviathan-laden deep, unknown on the other end, is just that. If you get the leviathan out of there, and you know there’s a coast on the other side and nobody’s ever going to drown, then it’s cool. We can surf. That’s a speculation though. Somehow, there is discontinuity with the present ocean. This next one hurts even more. In Revelation 21:23 and 25, John says:
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…and there will be no night there.
That’s different. There’s no sun, no moon, and no night, but just the Father and the Son so radiant they produce something like light. I promise you, whatever he replaces the sun with, or whether this passage means he will change the sun, you won’t regret it. So there’s no night, no sun, no moon, no sea, no marriage, and we have spiritual bodies in a world brought through fire. We’re talking discontinuity along with massive, glorious continuity.
Philippians 3:21 says:
[He] will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
See My Hands and My Feet
What sort of body was Jesus’s resurrection body? First, it was recognizable. Second, it was spatially inexplicable, arriving and disappearing in ways we can’t explain. Maybe most refreshing and imagination tickling is Luke 24:39–43, where he says:
See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.
Parents of disabled children might have a child that has never fed himself and can hardly keep food in his mouth. And they ask themselves, “Will he ever grow up? Will he eat on his own? Will he be able to make anything? He’s never made anything like one of those little dandelion chains.” And we say to her and the dad, “God will make this world in a way that nothing is wasted. He doesn’t create material things just to waste them. Your son will eat with Jesus, fish, if nothing else. God will give him full development.” Do you have any idea what the optimal age is for children in the kingdom? My answer is that it will be such a level of development that will be for his maximum joy and God’s maximum glory.
I’ll close by asking one more question giving one more observation. What’s the deepest assurance we can give to these parents, or yourself, in suffering? And what’s the highest hope for their son and for themselves? That brings us now to the fourth observation into the gospel.
4. The hope of having redeemed bodies in the new creation is secured by our salvation which we received through faith in the gospel.
But this is not our best hope, that is, receiving new bodies is not our best hope. I’m directing your attention finally to Romans 8:23–24. It says:
We wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?
What does that mean? What does it mean that in this hope we were saved? It’s a dative, not en elpidi, but tē elpidi. I’m inclined to think it’s a dative of reference, as in, “with reference to this hope, we were saved”; meaning, when we were saved, this hope was secured for us. And since we’re saved by banking on the gospel of Christ crucified and risen (1 Corinthians 15:1–3), the gospel is the foundation that produces the salvation on which this hope is secured, which is why I presume, I was assigned this topic — The Triumph of the Gospel in the New Heavens and the New Earth. If there were no gospel, if Christ had not died and risen for sins, we certainly would not be included in the new heavens. I don’t think there even would be new heavens and a new earth.
No Greater Gift
Here are some final observations because we can’t leave it there. The gospel is the rock of our solid assurance of the hope of the new heavens and the new earth. We will be raised. Our bodies will be redeemed. This is the gospel of Christ crucified, providing pardon, providing righteousness, and vindicating us by resurrection.
All of that is true, it’s just not the main thing. The ultimate gift of the gospel is not the new heavens and the new earth. The ultimate good of the gospel is not the redeemed body. The ultimate good of the gospel is not forgiveness of sins, nor redemption, nor propitiation, nor justification. These are all means. The ultimate good of the gospel is God himself beheld in the glory of his crucified and risen Son, enjoyed because of his infinite beauty, treasured because of his infinite worth, and reflected because we’re being conformed to the image of his Son.
Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous that he might bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18).
There is no end after that. Everything before that is a means. I’m concerned that we Reformed types so love the doctrine of justification, so love propitiation, and so love penal substitution (as I do and will write with all my might to defend it), that we stop the message there and leave people with the sense that what the gospel does for them is get them out of hell, relieve them of their guilt, and clothe them with a righteousness that lets them have relief in heaven forever, perhaps with virgins or golf or family. But they don’t crave Christ there. That’s my concern. The gospel terminates on 1 Peter 3:18 — that he might bring us to God.
The ultimate reason there is a new heaven and new earth is that the risen Christ will never lay down his human body, but keep it as an everlasting emblem of Calvary where the glory of God’s grace was displayed most fully. Don’t let anybody tell you we will not sing of the slaughter of the Son forever; sphazō means slaughter (Revelation 5:9). The lamb slain before the foundation of the world stands like a lamb slain and lion of Judah forever, and we will sing of it forever. He will hold out his hands and his feet and eat fish forever. The cross will never cease to be the center of everything as the apex of the revelation of the glory of the grace of God.
The whole material universe was created in the first place, and then given a new form, so that the Son of God could be incarnate, suffer, be crucified, rise from the dead, reign as the God-man, and be surrounded by a countless host of redeemed people with glorified bodies who will sing with these glorified lips, love each other with glorified hands, and play with glorified bodies to the glory of God because, evidently, in God’s scheme of things creating mere spirits would not display all of his manifold, kaleidoscopic glory as well as if there had been a physical universe where the Son of God could physically be slaughtered.