Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Things That Are Prepared

The idea of heaven is necessarily a blurry concept to earthly beings. We navigate the world around us via our senses, so it is unsurprising to find a certain conceptual impenetrability to those things we cannot see, touch, taste, smell or hear in this present life. Those who are unacquainted with the Lord might well say, “The reason you can’t conceive these things is that they don’t exist”.

Except they do. We have our Lord’s word on it. He tells his disciples explicitly that “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?” And he says it as if he’s wondering why on earth we would for a moment expect anything else.

This conceptual fuzziness about heavenly things is a consistent feature of prophetic revelation, both Old Testament and New. Ezekiel peppers his description of the heavenlies with the words “appearance” and “likeness”, as if to say, “I know my account is hopelessly inadequate, but this is the closest I can get”. John, in Revelation, does exactly the same thing, using the word “like” over and over again.

To the believer, it’s emotionally stirring, certainly, but I have to admit to a certain intellectual dissatisfaction with the lack of detail.

My favourite of these attempts at description is Ezekiel’s crack at describing God enthroned, which requires three full rhetorical ‘removes’ rather than his customary one. “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord,” he says, and you can almost picture the prophet throwing up his hands at the insufficiency of language for such purpose. He’s not attempting to describe the Lord, or even the glory of the Lord, but the ‘appearance’ of the ‘likeness’ of the ‘glory’ of the Lord. He might as well have said “I saw the penumbra of an aura of a really bright, shiny thing” for all the materialistic specificity his words convey. 

Except his description does convey something, doesn’t it. It conveys the inadequacy of our present bodies with their present senses, informed by our present experience, to grasp what is in store for us.

Which is exactly what Paul tells the Corinthian believers:
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)
Conceptually anyway, we can’t get there from here, and the prophets and apostles understood that.

Here’s the problem as I see it: We are looking at the whole thing backward.

We read in John’s description of the glorified Lord Jesus in Revelation, for instance, that “from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword”. Our imagination immediately tries to construct a visual of that, and our minds tell us, rightly, that what we are picturing makes no real-world sense, and in fact, if we’re honest, seems a little horrible. If we saw a man with a big sword sticking out of his face walking down the street we’d be confused, wonder if someone was pulling a prank on us, or assume he was on his way to Emergency to have it removed.

Which is not John’s reaction: He fell at the Lord’s feet as though dead. There was nothing confusing or humorous about what he saw. He was in abject, absolute awe of the glorified Lord. And I think we can rightly conclude that if John’s words produce anything less than the same reaction in an otherwise-spiritual heart, the problem is with us, not with the adequacy of Scripture.

Consider this: When the Lord Jesus spoke the world into being, not only had the sword not been invented, it had not even been conceived by its human inventor, who would not be born for who knows how long. Was the Lord’s word any different when he created the world than it was when John reclined on his human breast, when John saw him in glory, now, or in eternity?

Of course not. We are talking about heavenly imagery here, not biology. If a sharp, two-edged sword was a good, approximate description of the Lord’s word in Revelation for our purposes, then it would be just as apt a description if we were to glimpse the Lord at work before the creation of the world.

God is, as always, at pains to accommodate the inadequacy of our human minds, hearts and experience, to deal with heavenly realities.

Forgive the crudity of the image, but I have no doubt when we see the Lord in glory, we will not find ourselves distracted by the sight of a big piece of metal sticking out of his mouth.

We will, however, I am most convinced, find ourselves reminded every single time he speaks that every utterance of his mouth is absolute, infallible, brilliant clarity — so indisputable and irrefutable that no argument in the universe may contend with it; no excuse, apology or explanation may defend against it; no clarification or amplification by the finest scholars in history improve it or correct it.

When we hear him speak, we’ll say to ourselves, “Wow. That is just like a sharp, two-edged sword”.

The things of heaven are described for us in Scripture through the use of imagery, but that does not make them intangible or unreal. If anything, they are hyper-real, in a way that our present experience is not.

What is more concrete, more substantial, more lasting, more real, more eternally true: the word of Christ, or a piece of metal pounded into shape by a human smithy for the purpose of injuring another man?

I vote for the former. What do you think?

1 comment :

  1. Yup. I agree. The sword is a metaphor for the power of speech. "Never did any man speak like this man," said the soldiers sent to arrest Him. "Never."

    His word isn't just "realistic": it constitutes reality. It isn't just "truthful": it sets the precise parameters of Truth itself. His word is not just "quick": it is the ultimately apt expression in any situation. And it isn't just "sharp": it slices into ribbons anything that is opposed to it.

    Likewise, He is "the Word" of God. He is the precise, real, apt, total expression of all that God is. He is the perfect expression of all that mankind was required to be. He is also the ultimate judge of the universe, whose final word cannot be controverted.

    Swords are for war. Pity his enemies.