I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. It’s the penultimate in a series introducing themes explored more fully in the book, The Whole of Life for Christ: Enriching Everyday Discipleship, written with Mark Greene.
‘See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice for ever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.’
The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.
In words that John will later pick up in Revelation 21, God – through Isaiah – lays out the goal of his redemptive work – nothing less than a new creation. Not an immaterial heaven, but heaven and earth combined in breathtaking renewal. A restored world washed clean of dirt and pollution, where weeping and crying will no longer be heard, where ugliness and scarcity will be overcome by beauty and abundance. Just pause to imagine such a world.
It’s not like that now (in case you hadn’t noticed...). Romans 8 is one of many places where Paul expresses the tension between how things are now and how they will be one day. And that tension between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ is part and parcel of everyday discipleship.
The new age has broken into the present age, so that we enjoy ‘the firstfruits of the Spirit’ while awaiting the full harvest. The current experience of birth pains will give way to eventual relief. Paul depicts salvation as being set free from bondage, applying the imagery not just to women and men, but to the entire created order – yet one more reminder of the sweeping scope of God’s work in Christ, where such liberation is not simply ‘internal’ or ‘spiritual’, but the ‘redemption of our bodies’, and of creation itself.
The Bible tells the story of God’s work of redemption, which is a gloriously comprehensive rescue – ‘far as the curse is found’, as the old carol puts it. To be sure, biblical passages use figures of speech in their descriptions of what the future looks like, but they all underline not the removal of creation but its renewal, not its ruination but its restoration.
In this time between the times, our discipleship – in keeping with what will be – is all-embracing, as we make known and live out God’s rule over the whole of life. Seeking to avoid both defeatism (claiming too little) and triumphalism (claiming too much), we can testify to the wide-ranging sweep of God’s renewing power in politics and parenting, in economics and education, in art and athletics – being realistic about current ‘bondage’, but all the while looking forward to the complete restoration of what was originally declared ‘good’.
Such is our confidence and expectation – our hope – a hope of the full disclosure of God’s gracious reign that shapes each of us in the here and now.