New Heavens and a New Earth

Text: Isaiah 65:17-25

For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” Thus says the Lord in the second to last chapter of Isaiah. He promises a time when His beloved children will no longer suffer the effects of sin. In that time He will rejoice over His people and dwell with them. No longer will there be heard among them the sound of crying or distress, no longer will there be an infant who dies only a few days old nor and old man who doesn’t fill out his days. No longer will God’s people labor in vain, nor will they build and others inhabit. The wolf and lamb will graze together and the lion will eat straw. Finally, the promise made in Genesis 3 will find complete fulfillment: the serpent will eat dust forever. God says that there shall be no hurt nor destruction in all His holy mountain.

All this we understand to be a picture of what our lives will be like in the Resurrection. Last week the lessons took us to the end times and the return of our Savior. And now this week, the last Sunday of the year, we are given in our Old Testament text a vision and a promise of the blessed future that awaits us. In Gospel and Epistle readings we are exhorted to live and wait as those who are wise and have oil enough and more. But here in Isaiah, we see that for which we wait and pray. We await from our Lord the time when sin will be no more. Our God promises to us, His beloved children, a new heaven and earth. There He will dwell with us in a way that we can’t even fully comprehend yet, and He will cause us to live in joy, security, and peace forever.

I.

Thus saith the Lord, “Behold, I 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.” As we talked about last week, at the end of the Church Year our minds turn toward the talk of eschatology, the last things. Our Epistle and Gospel readings direct our consciences toward what will happen to us. Between recent funerals and the readings, we’ve reached a conclusion. Those who die in faith are immediately in the presence of Christ. Though we lay their bodies in the grave, those same bodies will be resurrected at Christ’s return. One thing we haven’t really talked about is, what happens to creation? After all, God created us with bodies. Bodies need space. Bodies need the creation. Yet, at present, the creation itself is corrupted by sin. St. Paul says in Romans that, “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth,” until such time as sin will be no more.

That’s where our text comes in. God promises to create new heavens and a new earth. You might hear that and expect that we’re hearing from Revelation – because it’s there, too. But it’s also promised here in the Old Testament. It’s unclear to us exactly how the new heavens and earth will come to be. St. Peter says that the heavenly bodies will be burned up with fire. Hebrews simply says the foundation of the earth and heavens will be “changed,” like you would an old shirt. Whether by fire or other means, the Biblical witness and the promise of God is that all things will be made new. And, quite frankly, we’re due for it. Our Lutheran forefathers were of the opinion that the earth is somewhere around 6,000 years old, judging from the timelines in the Bible. This view we share. That’s six thousand years of death. Six thousand years of disease and decay, of crime and warfare, of sin and shame. But all these things will pass away. We who have been baptized have already been made new creations in Christ, but then will all creation itself be made new.

What will be new, is that the effects of sin will be no more. God goes to one of the most notable changes, “No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days.” In this new creation, the chief consequence of sin will be destroyed. Death will no longer exist. No more will we mourn the loss of our children nor grieve for those who passed too soon. There will be no more weeping nor cry of distress. For, God says, “I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people.” In addition, the former things shall not be remembered. Meaning, the sins that we committed will no longer weigh us down. There will be no death, and there will be no guilt.

II.

Because God will create all things new, death and sin will be no more. We will live in the joy of the resurrection and in its security. The language of building and inhabiting, planting and eating, calls to mind the many times in the Old Testament where God’s people were delivered into the hands of their enemies. God allowed them to be driven from their land as punishment for sin and their adultery against Him. Other families lived in their homes and other farmers benefited from their hard work. But, no more. Instead, “They shall build…and inhabit…they shall plant…and eat…my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.” Think of all those times you’ve worked hard on something, only to see it fall to pieces. That won’t happen anymore.

For like the days of a tree shall the days of My people be…They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord, and their descendants with them.” God returns us to the big idea here: there will be no sin, no death. Death is not a good thing. Jesus Christ died to put an end to death; at His Return it will finally be no more. The translators of the Greek Old Testament monkey with the Hebrew here, but I’ll allow it. They change “like the days of a tree,” to “like the days of the Tree of Life.” The lives of God’s beloved people will be like the Tree of Life, standing in the Garden of Eden forever for all to see and enjoy. This eternal life will extend not just to us, but to our children. No longer will we labor in vain, or bear children just to outlive them. Instead, we and our children will live together in God’s light. Remember what St. Peter said on Pentecost, “The promise [of forgiveness in Christ] is for you and for your children.”

III.   

So much of this text is beyond our comprehension. We can imagine there being no death, but only to an extent. The entire experience of our lives is built upon the fact that things don’t last. None of us has ever lived in a world where there was no death. Soon we will. God has yet more to say in our text. “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.” Repeatedly God promises in Scripture to dwell with us. All of it – all of the work of Christ, His fulfillment of the Law, His suffering, His death, His resurrection and defeat of death – culminate in this. God will dwell with us in an immediate sense. There will be nothing between us. Truly, God does already dwell with us in Word and Sacrament, but in the new creation we will be in the presence of God. Before we call, He’ll answer. While we’re speaking, He’ll hear. It won’t be a terrifying presence, like in chapter 6 when Isaiah is sure he’s gonna die for seeing God. It will be a joy, and God Himself will rejoice.

Last things. “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the LORD. So much of this we can’t truly picture, so God describes it in a way we can. The fundamental order of creation will be changed. There will be no death and no destruction in the new creation that awaits us. And so, at the end of another Church year, our minds turn to the glory ahead. Our citizenship is in heaven, and we await from it our Savior. When He returns He will change our bodies to be like His and create all things new. Let us pray.

O God, the Father of all mercies, we bring unto You this day our sacrifice of praise for the innumerable and inestimable blessings which You have bestowed on us in Christ during the Church year which is now ending. You have caused Your divine Word to be preached to us, which is able to make us wise for salvation; You have permitted us to enjoy the holy Sacraments for our comfort and sanctification, and have accompanied the means of grace with the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. We thank Your for Your goodness and praise Your holy name. We beg You, that in Your mercy, You would forgive us all our sins of the past year for Jesus’ sake, and graciously preserve for us and Your whole Church the light of Your Gospel. Lead us by Your Holy Spirit, that, receiving Your Word with gladness, we may be sanctified by Your Truth, and finally receive eternal salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Sola Gratia: Sealed and Delivered

Text: Revelation 7:(2-8) 9-17

“Oh, how blest are they whose toils are ended, who through death have unto God ascended! They have arisen from the cares which keep us in prison. We are still in a dungeon living, still oppressed with sorrow and misgiving; our undertakings are but toils and troubles and heart-breakings.”[1] These are the first two stanzas of the hymn “Oh, How Blest Are They,” #679 in our hymnal. Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints. This day was set aside by the Church many centuries ago to commemorate those who have preceded us in the faith. We do so not by invoking them, but by giving thanks God for the faith that He gave to them and to us and for the grace that we have all received in Jesus Christ. We give thanks to God for their great example in the faith and the forgiveness they received, but we would be remiss if we ignored one major thing.

One thing we can’t ignore today is that all the saints that have gone before us have done exactly that – they’ve all died. Though they were forgiven their sins and covered in the robes of Christ’s righteousness, they still died as a consequence of the sinful condition which we’ve all inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve. But now they have been freed from all that. As the elder says in St. John’s vision of the throne room, they have come out of the great tribulation. Those who have passed from death to life stand before the throne where there is no hunger or thirst, no death, for the Lamb of God is in their midst and wipes every tear from their eyes. But what about us? We live amidst a culture of death; what about us? When will we get what the saints now enjoy? The answer to that is now, actually. At Holy Baptism God signed and sealed you as His, and He continues to keep you until, by His grace alone, He delivers you into His eternal kingdom.

I.

We have in our text a vision of the heavenly throne room. We’re in an interlude in the outpouring of God’s wrath, as if to see how the saints are doing while the world is in tribulation. The period described in the text relates to us now. The 144,000 in the first part of the text are those who are coming out of the tribulation of the times, but are still in it. Those in the throne room are those who now rest from their labors. They are in the presence of Christ continually as they await His second coming and the resurrection of their bodies. The camera pans and we see four angels with the authority to pour out God’s wrath on the earth and sea. Then we see another angel, who says to the first four, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”[2]

This is where we fit into the text. The 144,000 put before St. John and us is not a literal number of the elect, but a signifier of the completeness of the Church that will enter into eternal life. In Scripture the number 12 signifies wholeness or perfection. You multiple that by twelve and you get a number of completeness. Then multiply that by 1,000 – and you get the picture. Those who are sealed upon their foreheads are those marked as redeemed by Christ the crucified. Though they are now in the midst of trial and tribulation, they have received upon their forehead and heart the mark Christ, which signifies them as inheritors of eternal life.

The Church has long understood this passage, this sealing of the elect, as a reference to Baptism. The word for seal in the Greek is σφραγίζω (sphragizo), and it means to mark as a means of identification or to certify something for delivery. This is our connection to Baptism. In the ancient Church, at Baptism the pastor would take some olive oil, the sphragis, and make the sign of the cross upon your forehead and heart. This would be a sign to you and others that you have been claimed by Christ. In the same way we might put a seal on the back of an envelope, certifying that what’s inside comes from us. We carry on this practice today, though usually without the oil. When you were baptized the pastor made the sign of the cross on your head and heart, marking you as one redeemed by Christ.

It doesn’t always feel like it, though, does it? In Holy Baptism you are marked by the blood of Christ. You were given the gift of faith and the forgiveness of sins. You received eternal life and salvation in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And yet it doesn’t look like it. All around us we see death. We see the death of loved ones. We see long, protracted, painful illnesses. We live through the loss of jobs and closing of businesses, even the closing of churches. It says right here in Scripture the saints of God are before His throne and neither hunger or thirst, nor cry or suffer pain. When do we get that?

II.

The painful reality we live in is that, because of the Fall, we who are baptized into Christ are not only marked on our forehead and heart for redemption, but also with a target on our back. This is what St. Paul preached to the Christians at Iconium and Antioch. He taught them to continue steadfast in the faith, for, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”[3] You see, the devil hates you. This is why we suffer so many things. Ills of body and mind, broken relationships and lives, persecutions of various kinds – especially when we confess the pure Gospel of Christ against all false doctrine – these are all the result of the Fall into sin and the instigation of the devil.

Jesus promised that in this world we will have tribulation. But, “take heart,” Jesus says. “I have overcome the world.”[4] When we look at our text from Revelation, and see those saints and the rest they’ve entered, where there is no suffering of any kind, and then we look at our lives, it’s easy to feel short-changed. We look at the pagans and atheists who prosper and cry out to God, when we will have what they (seemingly) have. When will we have eternal life and rest from our labors, when will we be free from the effects of sin? When we will come out of the great tribulation? Now. St. John wrote, “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”[5]

By God’s grace alone, you were marked as one redeemed by Christ the crucified and now share in the inheritance of the saints in heaven. One of the meanings that I shared with you for the word seal is to certify something for delivery. In Baptism you were marked as Christ’s, and by that mark He promises to you that you will enter eternal life. He promises that He will guard and keep you until the time when we all feast together in the new creation. How does He do that? Through the preaching of His Word and in His Sacraments. In Baptism He washes you and makes you clean, and daily you rise before Him in righteousness and purity. Through the preaching of the Word He reminds you of your sinfulness, but also comforts you with the fact that He died for you. In the supper of His own body and blood, He gives, again, the forgiveness of your sins and the faith and love to serve Him and each other. Through these things He guards and protects you as His own redeemed and inheritors of eternal life until we become the saints who’ve gone before.

Today we celebrate All Saints Day. We celebrate not because they were better than us or more perfect examples of the faith. We celebrate because of the grace and forgiveness that they received, as we do, through faith in Jesus Christ. They have passed from death to life and rest from their labors. Some from among us are there now, too. May Christ keep us ever steadfast in the one true faith, and may He always remind us that we are marked by His blood for the redemption of our souls until these words are said of us:

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 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.”[6]


[1] “Oh, How Blest Are They,” Lutheran Service Book, 679.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Re 7:3.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ac 14:22.

[4] Jn. 16:33.

[5] 1 Jn 5:4–5.

[6] Rev. 7:15-17