Connections 11.13.2016: It’s All About the Presence

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Revelation 21:9-14, 22-27

On the day before Mother’s Day in 2004, my Good Wife and I purchased a slate sign about the size of an automobile license plate from a vendor at the Charleston (SC) City Market. We had two lines of text inscribed on it. The first line said “The Ruffins.” The second one read “Est. 1978.”

When we returned to our house in Augusta, Georgia, we hung the sign on a short wrought iron pole that we placed beside the front steps.

Eight months later, we invited the members of the church I was serving at the time to a Christmas Open House. As I greeted one of them at the door, he motioned toward the sign and said, “Established 1978? You just bought this house.”

“Well, see,” I explained, “we got married in 1978. That’s the year our home was established. We’ve lived in several houses, but we’ve always lived in the same home.”

As a matter of fact, that house in Augusta was the sixth place we’d lived in. We’re on our eighth (and I hope last) one now. We were at home in every one of those places, and we’d have been at home in any other residences, because home is not about the building. It’s about the relationships. It’s about the people.

It’s also about the presence. That’s why we can feel at home even when we’ve reached a point in life where we’re alone—those who have gone before us are still with us.

That’s not to say that physical structures aren’t important.

Jerusalem, and especially the temple located within the city, had for centuries represented the Lord’s presence among the people. The Babylonians destroyed the city and the temple in 587 BC. One of the first things the exiles did upon their return to Judah was rebuild the temple; they finished it in 515. By the time the book of Revelation was written, Jerusalem and the temple again lay in ruins, destroyed by the Romans two decades earlier.

When John envisions the fulfillment of all things, he sees “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (v. 10). It’s not a literal city he sees; it’s a symbolic picture of God’s eternal, perfect community.

And there’s no temple in the city—not even a symbolic one. Why? Because “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (v. 22b). We won’t need something to remind us that God is there or that Jesus is there, because we’ll know they’re there. We’ll know it because we’ll be there with them, and they’ll be there with us.

When everything is said and done, it will all be about the community. It will all be about the presence.

Really, though, isn’t it already? I mean, we’re human, so maybe we need reminders. It’s good that I have a house to go to where I can remember what constitutes my true home. But if the house went away tomorrow, I’d still have a home.

We are the church. We are God’s community. God is with us. We are with God.

We are practicing in the here and now for what will be in the forever….

Discussion

1. To what does the phrase “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” refer (v. 9b)? Why do you say that?
2. Why do you think John uses precious jewels and metals to describe the new Jerusalem?
3. Why is there so much emphasis on the number twelve in the city’s description?
4. John says that the city will have no night and that the gates will never be closed. What do those symbols communicate about life in God’s eternal kingdom?
5. How can we build a better community in the church? Can it spread beyond the church into the community and the world? If so, how?

Reference Shelf

Ultimately, Christian hope resides in God, not in a place. In popular idiom, eternal life—or eschatological salvation—means “going to heaven.” Such language is acceptable only when we recognize that “heaven” is metaphorical language for the dwelling of God. To “go to heaven” means to live in complete community with God. As noted earlier, John locates the new Jerusalem on earth, not in heaven, because God has come down to dwell with people. Whether, as did John, we locate existence with God on a transformed earth or we continue to use the language of heaven, the substance of our hope is relational—eternal bliss is knowing and being known by God.

In this regard, John’s use of a city as a metaphor for eternal life is instructive. To be a part of a city is to be engaged with other people, to be involved in relationships with other people. Eternal life is relational not only in that we are in community with God, but we are also in community with the people of God. John does not present eschatological salvation in terms of isolated individuals, living in a pristine wilderness apart from society. Salvation is communal. As Eugene Boring has noted, “The goal of history is not an individualistic and anticultural ‘back to nature,’ but community, life together; not self-contained monads, but Theopolis.” If a foretaste of eschatological glory is to be found in the present life, then we find it also in community, and not in isolation. “Individual” salvation is almost an oxymoron. We are saved into a community. We become a part of the people of God, both now and forever.

Mitchell G. Reddish, Revelation, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 414.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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