There is a recurring pattern in the Bible of exile and return. At different points in history, God’s people forsook their covenantal obligations and were sent into exile, whether to Egypt or Babylon. These exiles were not permanent. Through redemptive figures such as Moses, Joshua, and even Cyrus, God restored his people to the land he promised. This restoration involved not just a physical return but also the forgiveness of the sins that led to the exile. These returns resulted in specific structures where sins were forgiven: the tabernacle and the first temple after the exile to Egypt, and the second temple after the exile to Babylon.
The ultimate fulfillment of relationship that is prefigured in these Old Testament temples is the ministry of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus Christ. In his death and resurrection, relationships are restored, and God brings his people home from exile. The motif of exile and return finds expression in several stories in the Bible, such as Jonah, the prodigal son, and Peter’s denial and restoration. God is portrayed as just and merciful, the One who delights to bring his people home.
The renewed city
The pattern of exile and return finds its culmination in the closing chapters of the last book of the Bible. Adam and Eve were exiled from their home, the garden of Eden, and when we come to the end of the Bible we see many Edenic references. But the restoration of the garden is not an exact replica of Eden. Those who live away from home for many years discover, when they return, that home has become a different place. Nothing stays the same over time. A garden is a place of growth and development, and when we come to this final view of Eden, we are in the middle of a city, the New Jerusalem.
Cities by definition are places of human achievements. They bristle with the activity of commerce, industry, and the arts. We were made creative beings, in the image of our Creator, and there is no surprise that this has led to many developments, especially in cities. But cities are not places of perfect beauty. The effects of sin are all too evident in crime, pollution, and homelessness. Within this city, the New Jerusalem, we find a garden within a city and the redemption of a sinful world. Human achievement is renewed by God’s presence within it, as the kings of the earth bring their treasures into it (Rev. 21:24).
Within this story of exile and return, we meet two Adams: the first Adam and the last Adam. The first Adam was given dominion over the first creation, yet through the entrance of sin and resultant exile, much of the good of creation was undone. The last Adam defeated the power of sin through the cross and resurrection. When Satan, the force behind the destructive effects of sin, is finally cast into the lake of fire and sulfur (Rev. 20:7–10), the total restoration will be ready. The new Jerusalem will descend to earth (Rev. 21:2). This is our homecoming.
All of this builds from the fact that God is committed to his creation. The garden of Eden is the prototype of the renewal of all that God has made. Within the garden, Adam was granted dominion, but dominion does not end with Adam. . . . There have been several Adamic figures throughout history. Noah continued dominion over the renewed creation after the flood. We have noticed that Israel fulfilled the role of corporate Adam. Israel’s role was to be a blessing to the nations. Within Israel, the tabernacle, the temple, and the Promised Land each had overtones of Eden.
The resurrection changes everything
This all points to the one who is the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45), who by his resurrection has initiated the renewal of all things. His resurrection is the firstfruits of the renewal of Israel, the renewal of Adamic dominion and the new heavens and the new earth.
Jesus’s resurrection changes everything. It forgives the past and assures the future. The resurrection is our guarantee that the wrath of God has been appeased by the sacrifice of Jesus. How do we know that Jesus was a sinless sacrifice? How do we know that in the final moments of Jesus’s life, while in excruciating agony, Jesus did not curse God before his death? The answer is clear. God put his seal of approval on the sacrifice of Jesus by raising him from death. The penalty for sin, death, has been paid in full. The resurrection is our bill of release. We cannot change our past, but we can be forgiven. We know this because of the resurrection of Jesus.
The resurrection also assures our future. Death casts a long shadow over life. Its shadow is everywhere: unfinished books, unfinished symphonies, parents suffering terminal illness before their children become independent adults. If this life is all there is, there are no guarantees, and there is a tinge of futility in all our pursuits. I have never understood the custom of allowing prisoners on death row to choose their favorite meal before their execution. Do you really think they will enjoy it knowing what is about to happen after dessert? Death casts a long gloom over all we do if we believe that at the end is only annihilation. What is the point?
The labors we do in the Lord are not defeated by death but have eternal significance (1 Cor. 15:58).
The same despondency is also seen among many Christians who believe in the annihilation of this current world. But the resurrection shows not only that God’s people will be raised, but that God will usher in a new heaven and a new earth. The labors we do in the Lord are not defeated by death but have eternal significance (1 Cor. 15:58). The resurrection brings forgiveness for the past, meaning for the present, and hope for the future.
The renewal of everything in between
John’s vision of this ultimate renewal of creation is encapsulated here: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had passed away” (Rev. 21:1). The expression used is a clear reminder of all that God had created: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The expression “heavens and earth” is what grammarians call a “merism.” A merism takes two extremes and includes everything in between. If you have hot and cold running water, it implies that you also have every shade of warm. If you know the long and the short of it, you know the lot. Therefore, to paraphrase Genesis 1:1 and Revelation 21:1 would be to say, God made everything, and he is going to renew everything: the heavens, the earth, and everything in between.
We need to ask ourselves, In what sense will the new heaven and new earth be new? What does it mean that “the first heaven and earth had passed away” (Rev. 21:1)? There are two words for new in Greek. One is the word kainos, which means qualitatively new in kind; the other is neos, which means something has superseded something else. To illustrate, there are two women each married to a man with an addiction to gambling. The first woman encourages her husband to go to “Gamblers Anonymous,” and through this he overcomes his addiction. The second woman divorces her husband and remarries. Both women say, “I am married to a new man,” but they mean different things by “new.”
In Greek, the first woman would use the word kainos for the same husband who has been renewed; the second woman would use neos for the husband who superceded the first one. When the Greek New Testament uses the word new to describe the merism of the heavens and the earth, it uses the word kainos. It is the same heaven and earth, but it is renewed. This world is not discarded.
So what will be renewed? Sin has marred God’s beautiful creation and caused a rift between heaven and earth. The Lord God no longer walks with his people in the garden (Gen. 3:8); he now lives in a high and holy place called heaven, separated from the sin of earth. No longer do we think of the heavens and the earth as united, with everything in harmony. It is divided. The earth is the place where God’s will is not done as it is done in heaven. It is a place of oppression, injustice, addiction, resentment, greed, and self-promotion.
We long for a day when God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). We long for the renewal of the earth. We long for the rift between heaven and earth to be healed. This rejoining of heaven and earth found prospective fulfillment in the tabernacle, the temple, the incarnation, and the gift of the Spirit, but we await the day of Jesus’s return that will consummate all of this.
Content taken from "Not Home Yet" by Ian K. Smith, ©2019. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.