Scripture’s proclivity for a new creation
Some people have an aversion to describing a future day when the troubles of this world will have passed into oblivion, the kitchen-table expression being “pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye.” Although many of these people have no qualms against speaking of a day when human beings, by their own ingenuity, will have conquered life’s illnesses, such as cancer, and created a better life for all humankind.
While I would agree that we ought not resort to those conversations just to avoid providing an explanation for the woes of this earthly life, I think there is an innate desire in most of us for a better day when the tears have been replaced with joy, whether by human effort or divine effort.
Scripture has a proclivity to engage in those conversations and describe a golden day of humanity when our sorrows and troubles have been forgotten and our lives transformed into receptacles of joy, not by human means but by God’s creative power.
In the Sermon on the Mount the Lord Jesus described the kingdom of God as a time when human behavior and aspirations would be turned upside down. It was not the eschatological kingdom but the new kingdom that Christ himself inaugurated by his life-changing teaching.
The prophets, especially Isaiah, take an interesting approach to this proclivity for a golden age. Often they engage in a hybrid description of an earthly and heavenly kingdom, and often describe it in terms of a new creation. In our lectionary reading from Isaiah 65:17-25, Isaiah engages in the heavenly (eschatological) description, and in order to describe that new world, he reverts to the creation of the world and the effects of sin that followed humanity’s fall.
New heavens and a new earth (65:17)
This prophet was so convinced that his world, and ours, so polluted with sin and its consequences, could not be transmuted into that better world, that perfect world of love and justice, that he opted for a total new creation: 7“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth.” Moreover, to accomplish this marvelous feat, it was absolutely necessary to blot out human memory of the old world so that “the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isa. 65:17). And the effects of sin and death were sorrow and trouble: “the sound of weeping and the cry of distress” (65:19).
Paul spoke of the transformation that comes through Jesus Christ and called it a ”new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). That is the individual transformation that, multiplied by the numberless “new creations,” will populate the new heavens and the new earth.
The protocols of “new heavens and a new earth” (65:18-25)
The lifeforce of the new creation, compared to the universal reign of death and tears, would be joy and gladness. We have all, at some time of our lives, experienced this lifeforce, which is the new nature of the new world. To acclaim that, Isaiah describes the new world as one where infants will not die at birth or succumb to cancer in childhood. On the contrary, it will be a world where individuals live a long life (65:20). The all too often reality of Isaiah’s world, and even our world too, where some plant and another eats the produce, or where some build the house and another lives in it—that world will be changed by the drastic change in human nature. We earthlings will know when our children are born that they will not meet an untimely death (65:21-23). And more wonderful than all the transmutations of that world, our relationship to God will be most intimate, and our communications with God beyond our own technological advancements: Before we even pray, God will already be answering our prayers; while we are still saying our prayers, the Lord will be in the process of granting them (65:24). Then to supply the one commodity that human hearts have longed for since the fall, there will be peace, expressed with the beautiful metaphors of the wolf and lamb grazing together and the lion eating straw life the ox (65:25). This is the new heaven and new earth that John saw when the Spirit pulled back the curtain of time and gave him a glimpse of the new creation. He particularly observed that there were no tears there and noted that pain and death were absent (Rev. 21:4), and then he heard the voice of the One seated on the throne saying: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). This is new creation we can all anticipate with joy. It is the “appendix” of the redemption story. No, that term won’t work–it is the story itself in miniscule! And we are its major and minor characters, all bearing the name of a “new creation.”
C. Hassell Bullock is the Franklin S. Dyrness Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College (IL) where he taught for 36 years. He is a graduate of Samford University (Birmingham, AL), Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, GA), and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Instiutute of Religion (Cincinnati, O).
Among his published works are An Introduction to
the OT Poetic Books (Moody), Encountering the Book of Psalms, and a two-volume commentary on the Psalms, Psalms 1-72, and Psalms 73-150 (Baker Academic).
In addition to forty years of teaching in the college classroom, he has served Presbyterian congregations as pastor in Alabama and Illinois. He is married to his college sweetheart, Rhonda, and they have a son and a daughter and five grandchildren.
“I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Key Sermon Illustration
A Transformation of Stone
In 1463, members of the City Council of Firenze (Florence) Italy decided they needed a monument to enhance their city. They commissioned a sculptor to carve a giant statue to stand in front of city hall. Someone suggested a biblical character wrought in the neoclassical style, an expression of beauty and strength.
They approached Agostino di Duccio, who agreed to their terms. Duccio went to the quarry near Carrara and marked off a 19-foot slab to be cut from the white marble. However, he had the slab cut too thin.
When the block was removed, it fell, leaving a deep fracture down one side. The sculptor declared the stone useless and demanded another, but the city council refused. Consequently, the gleaming block of marble lay on its side for the next 38 years, a source of embarrassment for all concerned.
Then, in 1501, the council approached another citizen, the son of a local official, asking him if he would complete the ambitious project, using the broken slab. Fortunately for them, the young man was Michelangelo Buonarroti. He was 26 years old, filled with energy, skill, and imagination. Michelangelo locked himself inside the workshop behind the cathedral to chisel and polish away on the stone for three years.
When the work was finished, it took 49 men five days to bring it to rest before the city hall. Archways were torn down. Narrow streets were widened. The people from across Europe came to see the 14-foot statue of David relaxing after defeating Goliath. It was even more than the city fathers had envisioned. The giant stone had been transformed from the massive fractured waste of rock to a masterpiece surpassing the art of either Greece or Rome.
Sam Whatley, Pondering the Journey (True Life Publishers, 2002), pp.17-18.