[K:NWTS 5/1 (May 1990) 22-31]

The New Heavens and the New

Hebrews 12:26-29

Charles G. Dennison

Is the world too much with us? Now I don't intend to go down the lines Wordsworth pursued with that sentiment, but still the issue is well set before us. Have we Christians lost sight of the goal of our redemption? Is our vision blurred? obscured? diverted so that we are not looking where we should?

Despite the current rhetoric, the Christian church has traditionally trained her eye upon the world to come. In fact, the conclusion of her message, the end to which she pressed, has been the note upon which she began. So she preached the text, "...and whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life."

Those of the Reformed church would do well to reread Book III of Calvin's Institutes especially the section known as "the golden booklet of the Christian life." I fear many present-day Calvinists are embarrassed by the reformer's longing for heaven. Such an eschatological orientation also dominates the work of the Westminster Assembly if we take the Shorter Catechism as a key. Glorifying and enjoying God forever (Question 1) and being made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to an eternity (Question 38) set the tone at Westminster Abbey.

There is a world beyond! This destiny is laid before us. Truly, the present world will end, and the heavenly world will endure in which the saints, presently graced by Christ, will enjoy full, unending, perfectly satisfying communion with God. In the simplicity of our faith we speak of moving to the realms of glory, to a heavenly residence.

I'm well aware of how this perspective is maligned and caricatured. Pure sentimentalism, mysticism, irresponsible world flight, a kissing cousin to the beatific vision. What's "up there" anyway? We with our airy bodies, sitting on clouds playing harps throughout eternity? What could be more boring!

Christian Worldliness

There is, however, another side of the story. While a heavenly perspective and vision has been obscured, even lost, we have witnessed the rise of an earthiness, what you might call a Christian worldliness, and the development of Christian activism that sets its sights upon the world and the world's renovation. We have been especially infected by a vain optimism, by millennial dreams, even by a utopianism—the perfection of our world. Serious Christian thinkers, maybe Christianity's most serious, seem bent by these winds.

You probably don't spent your time the way some former seminarians do—reading seminary ads in periodicals. My favorite appeared a few years ago in Christianity Today entitled "Make a Difference." Pictured was a well-known professor in teaching pose. Beneath him ran this quote: "The point of theology is not merely to understand the world, the truth and doctrine; the point of theology is to change the world." The sad truth is that this man, an anabaptist, expresses the near-unanimous opinion of present-day theologians, even those that have no sympathy for his basic anabaptist position.

Ironically, this age of Christian worldliness and activism, therefore supposedly "out-faced," is also self-absorbed. Ours is a particularly selfish age, and Christians are not doing well at distancing themselves from it despite their well-publicized exercises in caring and sharing. As the course of modern literature has proven, the rise in our sensitivity and our development of what Edmund Fuller has called the "new compassion" are linked to a blatant inwardness. Erich Kahler quite convincingly described this trend through the close of the eighteenth century when he wrote on "the inward turn of narrative." Anais Nin tells us the only future for the novel is the exploration into the subconscious.

Preoccupation with the stream of consciousness may distress us but can hardly surprise us. The world of man triumphs and man's interior world grows in importance to the point that some have labelled us narcissistic. Are we "stuck on ourselves?" Are we caught in the trap of endlessly reviewing our own emotional responses, cataloging our positive features, reassuring ourselves about our self-image, and demanding our needs be met? "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?"

A worldliness, yes, even a Christian worldliness devotedly activist, millennial, and tragically selfish, has landed us in a situation in which heaven—the age to come, the world above—is anything but the chief concern for the Christian community. We are hardly in a position to lose our lives in this world in order to gain them for the next. As one pastor put it, "Heaven ain't what it used to be." It simply doesn't interest us.

Of course, we still half-seriously appeal to heaven as an answer to the interminable anguish of this world. We jokingly say, "I can't wait to get there, because then I won't have to experience these problems."

But basically we identify heavenly orientation with world-flight and the abdication of responsibilities here. We fail to see at the center what the apostle Paul longs for; namely, his "dwelling from heaven." O. that I might be with Christ, that my faith might be sight (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:7,8).

Christian Restoration

How obviously lacking this passion is in much Reformed thinking today. We sanctify our worldliness under the guise of a doctrine of restoration. What is the doctrine of restoration?

Here is how one Reformed leader explained it: "The Bible teaches us how God is moving to restore man to the Garden of Eden and to his place as vicegerent in God's world." You might not understand the term vicegerent. It means a sort of deputy, an administrator, even a junior king, a prince with the responsibility of taking care of the affairs of the realm.

Those who embrace this doctrine ten us the Bible teaches how God is committed to restore man, the Garden of Eden, and this world to their original order—the order they had before the fall. We who are elect will be living in the garden again. And this time we're going to get it right! We win subdue, or hold in subjection, the creation. There will be changes, of course. For instance, we will no longer die, no longer be subjected to sin. But our tasks will be in line with the tasks that Adam had—the patterns of which we can still see in the created order. You're a scientist? You will be a scientist still. You're a farmer? You will be a farmer still. Your pursuits will be in line with the nature of the restored earth.

But are not the problems of this position clear enough? First of all, it seems that many will be out of work in the restored world. Do all jobs have a carry-over? What will happen to lawyers and insurance agents? or theologians for that matter? How about doctors and nurses?

Much more seriously, though, the restoration doctrine suggests an eschatology even within the eschatological state; in other words, man's job will not be complete and he will still be facing a future. In fact, the sense of incompletion can so dominate the vision of the restorationists that they have difficulty delighting in what they already have in Christ. 

Furthermore, do we truly believe our hope to be a mere restoration to Adam's pre-fall state? Actually, the position so emphasizes continuity between what is and what will be that it glorifies this world and man's work in it. Eternal, full, perfectly satisfying communion with God seems to be lost from view.

That's the picture as preached and pursued by many, including many Reformed people. But we'll have to do better than simply take verbal jabs. Hopefully, a look at Hebrews 12:26-29 win help. I trust that, as we move through this passage, we can at least make a beginning at answering restorationism and better understand our hope.

Hebrews and Haggai

Now, how do you do with the Epistle to the Hebrews? Is it one of your favorite books? No! Does its difficulty keep you from delving into it? Admittedly, it's tough going and our passage is no exception. It bears the stamp of the epistle as a whole. But let's make an effort at grasping it.

In verse 26 the writer quotes a passage out of the Old Testament—Haggai 2:6. You may know that Haggai was a prophet from the time of the restoration of the Jewish people from Babylon. In the sixth century B.C. the Jews had been taken off into captivity in Babylon, and after a time in which they were chastised by the Lord they returned to their homeland and to Jerusalem. Haggai is a prophet of the period of the restoration.

Isn't it interesting that this period is known as the restoration? Remember what we said earlier about the doctrine of restoration and people who want to get us back to the garden. But there has already been a restoration movement in the history of redemption. Its design was to get the people back to the land of promise, the inheritance, to Jerusalem, the city of God, and to the rebuilt temple.

Haggai, however, speaks to these people about what has become all too obvious—this restoration isn't good enough (2:2,3). The problem was that as yet God had not shaken "the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land" (v. 6). There remains a shaking of all the nations, a day in which God's temple will be filled with glory (v. 7). "And the latter glory of this house will be greater than the former" (v.9).

Hebrews and Heaven

In the New Testament, the writer to the Hebrews contrasts the former days in which God spoke to us by the prophets, like Haggai, with these present times in which he speaks to us in his Son (1:1,2). He also tells us about the true sanctuary (8:2), "the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation" (9:11). Into this sanctuary Christ has now entered.

God's recent and final revelation explains his previous disclosures. Thus, Haggai, the prophet of the restoration, is explained by what God has now made clear. The prophet's vision of the temple's latter glory is explained by opening up to our view the heavenly sanctuary. Likewise, in the case of the yet future shaking. The fact that the Lord will shake not only the earth but also the heavens must now be explained through what God is doing in Christ.

For both Haggai and the writer of Hebrews the first shaking occurred with the establishment of the first covenant. This is clear from Haggai 2:5, "As for the promise which I made you when you came out of Egypt...." Hebrews 12, as you read from verse 18 on, presents the same thought through a description of God's appearance at Sinai. The blast of the trumpet and the sounds of God's word terrified Israel (v. 19). God's voice shook the earth as he spoke "on earth" (v. 25).

But this first shaking was merely preparatory. A further and final shaking is at the center of the second covenant. No mountain "on earth," no mountain in this creation stands before us here. Instead we are brought to Mount Zion, to glory, to the mountain above (v. 22). Indeed, God spoke on earth from Sinai, but now his Son speaks from Zion in heaven (v. 25). This time, when the divine voice is heard, not just things on earth but the entirety of the created order is affected. Everything is shaken to its very roots, at its foundation.

In Hebrews 12:27, the writer exegetes from Haggai 2:6 the phrase, "yet once more." He reads it in terms of the finality of all things. Haggai promises a shaking beyond which there will be no more. Nothing can be greater. His language brings in view the seismographical significance of that event. Things will not be merely rearranged—reordered as if they're out of place, as if they're a deck of cards picked up and put together in suit and sequence. Actually, the promised final shaking removes and dissolves. It has as its end-point the fact that "our God is a consuming fire" (v. 29).

Dissolution and Removal

But what is removed or dissolved? Now, the writer does not use easy language. He talks about "those things which can be shaken, as of created things..."(NASV). Text translations seem to make little difference at this point; e.g., it doesn't matter whether you read the King James or the New American Standard or the New International Version, the sense of the matter is easily missed.

To begin with, the things dissolved and removed are specifically those things capable of being dissolved and removed. In other words, all that can be shaken, all that can be removed and dissolved shall be. But the problematic phrase that follows—in the NASV "as of created things"—doesn't read well; it doesn't read naturally to us. We know it explains what can be shaken. We also know it speaks of these things as specifically created. Furthermore, we know the writer cannot mean that createdness per se designates something for removal, since we are created and assured we shall endure. 

Two Orders

What then does the writer mean? His meaning is grasped if we understand he is contrasting two orders. One is specifically characterized by the words "created things." Not only is this order capable of being shaken, it is, in fact, destined to be shaken. As created it can be and shall be removed. Such is the case irrespective of the question of sin and its consequences. From the beginning these created things, these things of this creation (cf. 9:11), were provisional and were meant to give way to something else, something better still.

The other order is spoken of at the end of verse 27. The writer tells us the things shall be shaken in order that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. In verse 28, the other order is called a kingdom. The kingdom, you know, cannot be dissolved. It cannot be destroyed. It is eternal And as if the mere unveiling of this enduring order were not glorious enough, we are told that it is being given to us as a gift!

Now this gift is inseparably bound to the finished work of Christ; that is the point throughout Hebrews. The eschatological shaking commences in his death and resurrection. Matthew makes this point by telling us of the earthquakes at the crucifixion (27:51) and resurrection (28:2). Thus, the eternal kingdom already asserts itself.

Sadly the church in our time refuses to start here. To the extent she refuses to do so, she abandons grace. The eternal kingdom is a gift, not the product of Christian activism, millennial frenzy, or exercises of self-love for recovery of our self-image. How well the writer to the Hebrews communicates this in calling us to gratitude (v. 28)!

Acceptable Service

Far from generating a spirit of indifference or world abandonment, such gratitude leads us to willing service and appropriate worship in the world. As the writer says, "May we offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire" (vv. 28,29). Having received the kingdom—this superlative, unshakeable, eternal, heavenly order, we must not live as those who belong to the other order destined to be dissolved.

As chapter 13 goes on to make plain, the acceptable service spoken of in 12:28 means continuing in brotherly love (13:1), showing hospitality to strangers (v. 2), remembering the saints in prison (v. 3), holding marriage in honor (v. 4), and being content and free of the love of money (v. 5). It includes doctrinal faithfulness, willingness to accept suffering in keeping with our pilgrim identity, doing good and sharing, and obeying those leaders who keep watch over our souls (vv. 7-17), since we live for that one who has an indestructible life (cf. 7:16), in whom the indissolvable, eternal, heavenly order is realized—Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever (13:8).

How this perspective permeates Hebrews! The keynote of the epistle is chapter two, verse five: "For [God] did not subject to angels the world to come concerning which we are speaking." Here he states his subject; namely, the world to come or as it is called in the twelfth chapter "a kingdom which cannot be shaken." Hebrews 9:15 speaks of the called receiving "the eternal inheritance." Hebrews 10:34 tells us how Christians accept joyfully the seizure of their property knowing that they have for themselves "a better possession and an abiding one." What about 11:10? This passage finds Abraham "looking for the city which has foundations whose architect and builder is God." That city is joined to a country in verse 16: "But as it is, they desired a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God. For he has prepared a city for them." Turning to Hebrew 13:14, we hear our theme once more: "For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come."


There it is. From these few passages the two orders are laid out before us: the created order that from the beginning was destined to be transcended; and the eternal, heavenly order that shall endure.  

Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, has gone before us and now presides over the heavenly order so that we might have access.

In conclusion, let me just underline for you what I have been saying. The doctrine of restoration, as developed by many, is flat wrong. This is no minor point since holding to the contrary invests the original creation with a permanence it was never intended to have. Hebrews 12:26-29, as the epistle as a whole, lays before us the fact that the created order, the original heavens and earth, was provisional, capable of being shaken, intended from the beginning to give way to something better, that is the eternal, transcendent order of the everlasting kingdom. We do not live for mere restoration but for establishment in the eternal order of glory with God through Christ, a high priest who mediates presently the blessings of that order for our salvation. Amen.

Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Sewickley, Pennsylvania