You can’t read the story right unless you know where it is going. Our school teachers may have warned us against reading the end of the story first to avoid having to read the rest of it. None of us want to read the end of a mystery first. That destroys the pleasure of reading it through and trying to figure out the ending. Yet even if we heed this warning, once we have read the end and see how things work out, the rest of the story makes better, deeper sense and we recognize some of what we missed along the way that that becomes clear at the end.
The Bible can be read from beginning to end. However, without knowing the end of the story, it is easy for us to be misled by other factors that impact and shape the way we think into misreading it. We’ll look at some of that distorting influence here and more on it in ch.6 on Filters).
I propose them we start from the end, the every last vision of the Bible found in Revelation 21-22. John the Seer beholds a new creation with the New Jerusalem descending from heaven to rest on it. This holy city, which is coextensive with the new creation, is the people of God. The new creation is a great temple in which God and people can meet and live in fellowship and love. This is the picture of how God always intended things to be. Sin is no factor here. There’s no distortion or disfigurement now. All that is gone forever.
Now if this is the end God always aimed for, we should find signs or signals of that in the beginning, the creations stories of Genesis 1-2. Sin is not a factor here either. What the narrator pictures for us there is indeed what we find at the end. But it is embryonic in form. In fact, that’s one of this things we need to learn to read the story aright. The world is created as an embryonic temple whose keepers (Adam and Eve) are to care for and their posterity extend its boundaries to inhabit and cover the rest of the earth. And what do we have in Revelation 21-22? A new creation which is pictured as a huge Holy of Holies where God and his creation will dwell forever! From a garden to a city, but a city with a garden in its center. That garden Holy of Holies where God met our first parents has become the universal temple where God and his people live in communication, communion, and community through the ages.
What Do We Learn About Reading the Bible Aright from the End to the Beginning?
Now that we know that the first two and last two chapters of the Bible bookend the whole story of God’s great earth-temple building project, what else do we learn from these chapters ignorance of which might otherwise mislead us?
First, the work of consummation is the work of the triune God (Revelation 21:3-5, 10, 22-23). So also is the work of creation (Genesis 1-3: God, God’s word, the Spirit).
Second, we learn that “heaven . . . it’s not the end of the world.” The default gospel in the western world promotes going to heaven after death to live there with God forever. That’s the goal for which we presume God works and we long. This view has led to a disempowering of the church by relativizing or even denying the importance of the earthly journey of believers and the church. Indifferent to the fate of creation and the conditions of human life we grow calloused to both. But if this earth is to be cleansed and remade by God as his eternal abode with us such indifference or lack of care comes pretty close to blasphemy!
Third, God’s desire for shalom (peace) and justice that pervades the biblical story reflect his intention that this planet reflect his character and will. These matters, then, ought to be the chief agenda of God’s people as we move toward the end we have just identified instead of the central things those outside the church accuse it of neglecting! If God’s not going to junk this globe then by what right do we treat it as if he is?
At the very least then this passion of God for welfare of and right relationships and conditions on earth ought to chief among the passions of his people as well. Ecological matters must be high on the agenda of the church. There is, of course, room for discussion and debate about how to address all this, and various parts of the earth will require different treatment. But care of the earth and its systems for its maintenance and flourishing must be our baseline!
Fourth, and related, human existence then and there on this renewed earth will be embodied, as it is here and now. Only our resurrection bodies will be free of the taint and decay of sin. But we will still be human, God’s image bearers, living the life God always intended for us. Embodied life, our bodies, matter and they will matter forever. Our bodies
are the most immediate form of creation we have. Care of this body is the first line of stewardship for all of us. This too is a matter of first importance in following Jesus.
Fifth, Adam and Eve represent humanity as a whole in Genesis while in Revelation the scene is populated by a great multiethnic community celebrating the presence of God. Human welfare as a whole, community of all, is the language of Christian faith. The individualism so predominant in our culture leads to a focus on individual concern for their own salvation and life in heaven with God. As long as we believe we have taken care of that, everything else is gravy!
That individualism inclines us to see ourselves and others as billiard balls moving around a table. Each ball is complete and self-sufficient on its own. Our contact with other balls moves us in various directions, some helpful, some not, but such “relationship” with other balls adds or subtracts nothing to our completeness and self-sufficiency. We, alone, are our selves.
Biblical, Christian, faith calls on us to see ourselves and others like a model of a compound element – a network of relationships and forces of various elements, like H2O. Two hydrogens and one oxygen comprise water. And water is not water without any them. So too, humans are not human with relationship to God and others. I can only say that “I” am my relationships. I would not know how to describe myself apart from them. There’s so little (at least that I am aware of) that I know of myself that was not shaped in relationships or avoiding relationships.
Even the cursory look at Revelation 21-22 and Genesis 1-2 we have taken here paints a comprehensive and compelling picture of what God wants and will eventually have: a world filled with the joy of divine-human fellowship, right relationships, and a flourishing planet.
These convergences between the two passages provide a baseline of theological markers that any faithful exposition of the biblical story must honor.
-the work of God is Trinitarian. Jesus is central to be sure. He shows us who God is. We must resist versions of visions of God that do not conform to what we see in him. We must especially pay heed to this in an age when God is often blasphemed as an angry vengeful deity on whose good side we must strive to stay or else and from whom Jesus died to save us. This “God with a Scowl,” as I call him is a cultural monstrosity born of failing to see in Jesus’ eyes and heart the eyes and heart of his Father.
-the picture of God’s purposes found in these two chapters gives the lie to the typical western default version of the gospel wherein we trust Christ to rescue us from this earth for a spiritual existence often envisioned as immaterial or angelic. This just will not do, however, in light of what these four chapters of the Bible, the only four that do not bear the taint of sin but rather reflect God’s original dream for his creation. God created this world to be his habitation with his creatures sharing life and love together through the ages. God has not given up on his plan to have a world where his creatures live with him doing what they were always meant to do! To claim otherwise is to suggest that God is wither unable or unwilling to fulfill his original intentions and changed plans to do something else. I don’t think we want to say that!
-that the well-being of the creatures and creation is God’s chief interest puts justice (right relationships on every level of existence) and ecology (that the creation has its own integrity as God’s good creation and God’s interest in its well-being is as compelling as his interest in ours. His creation is not to be despoiled on account of us and our needs and wants. We are created to live in harmony under God’s Lordship. And following Jesus means finding a way to calibrate our lifestyles and consumption within the needs of the creation for healthy reproduction and flourishing.
-that the human community is one in all its diversity of perspective, language, and place of origin is both intended by God. We are all gifts to each other for the common enrichment. No one is expendable or to be left out. None are superior to the other. This is obviously not the case today but must become a central matter of concern for the church!
Thus, exploring the biblical story from the end and then from the beginning gives us a rather large canvas to keep in mind as we read the Bible. This picture of the bookends of the Bible gives us framework of the story we inhabit. But there are more details to fill in as we flesh out that picture and roles we play in the story it tells.