Here’s Bernard Levin writing in The Times a while back:
Would my readers kindly note that when I have finished this… column, I shall be on my way to Christmas Island, never to return. The choice… was made in the belief that it is the most remote inhabited place in the world. I’ve been told that only one ship goes there, and… only once a year. I have already been in touch with the postmaster… and he has promised to burn any letters… that are addressed to me…. And what, you ask, has brought about this powerful urge to misanthropy? You ought to be able to guess… It is that yet another bundle of papers from Amnesty International has landed on my desk.
And he summarises the catalogue of atrocities and oppression and persecution. And then he ends like this:
How much wickedness can the world stand? That is not a cry of despair, but a wish to know, because I now begin to believe that at some point the world will be drowned in evil, and evil will rule the world.
Well, if you don’t believe in God, but you do still (inconsistently) believe in evil, that fear is hard to answer. After all, as Edmund Burke said, ‘All that’s necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing’ – and yet good men often do nothing in the face of evil – witness Germany in the 1930’s. So if you don’t believe in God, you have every reason to fear for the future.
But what about those of us who do believe – in the God of the Bible? How should we see the future? Well, that’s what we come to today, in the last of this series (for now) on the Nicene Creed, as we think about the line, ‘and his kingdom will have no end.’
Now my first thought on that was, ‘This sermon is going to be on what heaven will be like.’ And it will include that. But actually, that first thought was very us-centred – focussing straight in on what it’ll be like for us, which can lead to very unhelpful teaching: e.g., the kind of teaching that says, ‘Think of everything you most enjoy in life – from your favourite piece of music to your favourite food… well, heaven will be like that.’ Now don’t get me wrong: heaven will be more enjoyable than anything we’ve ever experienced. But what will make heaven heaven is not that your favourite ice-cream is on tap for free, but that we’ll finally be able to enjoy relationship with God – and therefore with one another and with the (renewed) creation – in a way that’s totally unspoiled by evil. And that depends on the Lord Jesus’ final victory over evil – which is what this bit of the creed is really about.
So would you turn in the Bible to 1 Corinthians 15. When we did the line of the creed that says, ‘on the third day he rose again’ (see sermon 26 February 2012, am), we went through 1 Corinthians 15 verses 1 to 23. So let’s pick up again at v20:
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep [i.e., his resurrection has blazed the trail and guaranteed the resurrection of all who die trusting in him]. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive [that is, all who are trusting in him]. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits [who rose from the dead 2,000 years ago]; then, when he comes [i.e., at the end of history], those who belong to him. (vv20-23)
Which gets us to our short passage for this morning. I’ve got three headings to help us look through it:
Firstly, THE PRESENT REIGN OF JESUS
Look on to v24:
Then the end will come, when [the Lord Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. (vv24-25)
So that’s saying that the Jesus who really lived 2,000 years ago, who died and rose again and ascended back into heaven, is currently reigning over everything at his Father’s side. And yet v24 says there are ‘dominions, authorities and powers’ which he will overthrow when he comes again, but which are presently allowed to oppose his rule.
And by ‘dominions, authorities and powers’, the apostle Paul (who wrote this) would have meant both spiritual and human powers. So in the spiritual category, there is Satan – the devil – who is still allowed to oppose God. The Lord Jesus called him, ‘the prince of this world’ (John 12v31) – by which he meant that Satan does have a ruling influence over people by shaping the fallen culture around us. So one writer says:
‘[The world Jesus was talking about] is that system of values and beliefs, behaviours and expectations in any… culture that has at its centre fallen human beings, and which relegates any thought about God. The world… makes sin look normal in any age and righteousness seem odd.’ (God In The Wasteland, David Wells)
And isn’t that what the sexual revolution in general, and the homosexual lobby in particular, have been doing in our culture?
But these ‘dominions, authorities and powers’ are human as well as spiritual. After all, Satan can only shape the culture through people – e.g., by influencing governments to normalise and institutionalise evil, which is what’s at stake right now in the proposal to call same-sex unions marriage. But Satan uses all sorts of other human means as well – like false teachers in the church, persecutors of the church, the false world religions – Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc – and so on. And all those enemies of God are allowed a continued influence under the Lord Jesus’ present reign. But Paul then mentions one enemy above all. Look at v26:
The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (v26)
And what’s different about that enemy is that it’s something imposed by God. Because Genesis 1-3 says that mortality is not our natural condition. It says: God imposed mortality on the human race as a blanket judgement (if I can put it like that) on our rebellion against him. So human beings basically said, ‘We want to be God and run our own live; we can be independent.’ And hard as it sounds, God imposed mortality upon us to teach us that we’re not God and can’t live independently of him – witness the brute fact that we can’t even keep ourselves physically alive.
Now the Lord Jesus died to take the punishment of separation from God that our sins deserve. So if we’re trusting in him, we know that that punishment isn’t waiting for us when we die; we know we’ll be accepted. As Paul puts it later in 1 Corinthians 15 (v55) the ‘sting’ of death has been drawn for those trusting in Jesus. But we still have to go through death – we’re not immune from that blanket judgement.
So all those enemies of human happiness are still at large. And this side of heaven, there’s no totally satisfying intellectual answer to the question, ‘Why does God allow that?’ But the gospel does give us a practical answer, which is that God will bring all those enemies of human happiness to an end – and we need to wait patiently for that. Which brings us to:
Second, THE FINAL VICTORY OF JESUS
Look down to v24 again:
Then the end will come, when [the Lord Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed [or you could translate that, ‘brought to nothing’ or ‘rendered inoperative’] all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (vv24-26)
So that’s saying: all that opposes God and his purposes will be done away with and will never feature again in our experience – because the one, single influence over the new creation will be the unopposed reign of God.
So just think what that will be like. No Satan. So no temptation. No doubting God or struggling to obey him. No divisions and arguments among God’s people. No more culture around us making sin look normal and righteousness look odd. No more living under depressing or oppressive or persecuting godless governments. No more false world religions or atheism or indeed any isms leading people away from God. No more killing of Christians in Nigeria and so many other places in the world. And no more mortality. John Calvin wrote, ‘We live in an envelope of death.’ And that phrase has stuck with me ever since I first read it. When we’re young, I guess we don’t really believe it – we feel immortal. But then death comes for our grandparents and then our parents and it then becomes increasingly clear that we too live in the same ‘envelope of death’. So that with Naomi, our new baby – just like I did with Beth and Ellie – I’ve found myself looking at her asleep in her Moses basket and thinking, ‘I’m sorry you’ve got to die – not just grow up; but die.’ ‘We live in an envelope of death’ – now. But in heaven, there will be no envelope; there will be no dark horizon. There will be no physical or mental deterioration. There will be no pain or indignity. There will be no anticipation of death, no having to plan for death, no times of life dominated by the care of loved ones who are dying. There will be no separation or loss of those we love.
As Revelation 21 puts it:
... There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Revelation 21v4)
So you could call all that the negative side – what the Lord Jesus will do away with. But of course that’s precisely what creates the positive – they’re two sides of the same coin. And if you look down to v27, Paul sums up the positive like this:
For “he [that is, God the Father] has put everything under his feet” [that is, the Lord Jesus’]. (v27)
Now that’s actually a quote from Psalm 8, where David says to God:
What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honour.
You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet (Psalm 8v4-6)
So that’s a snapshot of God’s original purpose for us, for the human race. It was that we should rule the world under him. But since the fall, the human race has said ‘No’ to ruling under God – we’ve said to God, ‘We want to rule our lives independently of you.’ But ironically, that means we’ve ended up being ruled by what should never have ruled over us – by Satan and sin and the values of this fallen world. So as someone has put it, ‘We who were made to rule fail to rule ourselves, society or the world.’ And as the Bible sees it, there’s only one exception to that – only one man today who is fulfilling God’s original purpose for mankind. And that man is the God-man, the risen Lord Jesus. Because, v27 again, since his resurrection and ascension,
... “he [God the Father] has put everything under his feet.” (v27)
And elsewhere, Paul says that believers will ‘reign with him’ (2 Timothy 2v12) - which doesn’t mean we’ll rule with him as equals. But it does mean that in the new creation we will be restored to our original purpose of ruling.
So for a start, we’ll be able to rule ourselves as we were meant to. Our resurrection bodies won’t have any of the unruly and unwelcome sinful desires that so often get one over on us in this life. So in the new creation we’ll never again say things like, ‘My tongue ran away with me,’ or, ‘My temper got the better of me.’ We’ll never again be subject to besetting temptations or habits or moods or addictions. C.S.Lewis pictures Adam before the fall like a rider on a horse – where the horse stands for human nature, and Adam can ride it perfectly. And he then pictures us since the fall, like riders who’ve fallen off the horse, but still have our feet stuck in the stirrups and are being dragged along as it gallops out of control. But in the new creation, we’ll be put back into the saddle of our human natures.
We’ll be able to rule ourselves. But we’ll also be able to rule society as we were meant to. And it’s important to say: there will still be society, and all the work and responsibility that goes with it. It’s not just going to be some ‘24/7’ church service. After all, in the parable of the talents, the master (who stands for the Lord Jesus when he comes again), he says this to the person who’s served him faithfully in this life:
“Well done, my good servant!.. Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.” (Luke 19v17)
So just imagine what someone like Billy Graham will be put in charge of! We don’t know exactly what the picture language of that parable means, but the Bible makes it clear that there will still be society and work and responsibility. The new creation is not going to be something totally different, totally discontinuous with the world we know now – it’s going to be this creation continued and transformed in a way that we can’t begin to get our minds round. But whereas now, trying to influence government or local authorities or a school or hospital in a Christian direction can seem like banging your head on a brick wall, in the new creation there will be a 100% overlap between the way things are run and God’s will. It will be fantastically free of frustration.
So, we’ll be able to rule ourselves and society. And we’ll also be able to rule the world – i.e., the natural world. And at present, that also eludes us – because, according to the Bible, God allows natural disasters and diseases and so on to counter the lie that we can rule this world without him. But those things won’t feature in a new creation where that lie is no longer there to be countered.
So all of that is what we have to look forward to, if we’re trusting in Jesus. But, to end with, Paul talks about:
Third, THE ULTIMATE PURPOSE OF JESUS
Look down to v27 again:
For “he [that is, God the Father] has put everything under his feet” [that is, the Lord Jesus’ feet]. Now when it says that everything has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God [that is, the Father] himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (vv27-28)
Now the creed says that the Lord Jesus’ ‘kingdom will never end.’ And these verses are not contradicting that or the other Bible passages which say that Jesus will continue to reign with his Father forever. E.g., the very last chapter of the Bible – Revelation 22 – says:
The throne of God and of the Lamb [i.e., the risen Lord Jesus] will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. (Revelation 22v3)
And the songs of praise to God in the book of Revelation are addressed:
To him who sits on the throne [i.e., God the Father] and to the Lamb… (Revelation 5v13)
And that reminds us that we owe our salvation to God the Father and God the Son – as well as to God the Holy Spirit, who brings us to faith in them. But these verses in 1 Corinthians 15 are saying that God the Father is going to be the ultimate centre of attention, and that Jesus’ ultimate purpose is to bring us under his Father’s rule. His goal, end of v28, is: ‘that God [his Father] may be all in all’ – i.e., may be the unopposed ruler of everything, and our ultimate source of purpose and satisfaction. And that’s why I said earlier that teaching which goes, ‘Think of everything you most enjoy in life... well, heaven will be like that,’ is unhelpful – because it’s us-centred, and misses the point that heaven is going to be totally God-centred, and that our satisfaction there will come from a finally perfect relationship with him.
Among other books, Julian Barnes has written The History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters. And the last chapter is called The Dream, where the narrator dreams that he’s died and woken up in heaven. And he discovers it’s a place where you can do anything you want – so, e.g., he meets lots of famous people (like film stars), has amazing gourmet meals, plays on replicas of all the famous golf courses and, predictably, has lots of sex. But the problem hits him when he finally goes round the golf course in 18 holes-in-one. And he asks his chaperoning angel what he should do now. ‘It’s as if golf is used up,’ he says. So she suggests other sports and he says, ‘But they’d get used up, too.’ So she suggests trying to go round the 18 holes twice, and do 36 holes-in-one. But he tells her that wouldn’t work – and he slowly realises that the ‘heaven’ he’s in won’t actually satisfy. And when he says that one day to his chaperoning angel, she says,
‘Well, everyone has the option to die off if they want to.’
‘I never knew that,’ he said... ‘What percentage of people take the option?’
She looked at me levelly, her glance telling me to be calm. ‘Oh, a hundred percent, of course... everyone takes the option sooner or later.’ (The History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, Julian Barnes)
It’s a brilliant description of a man-made heaven, an us-centred heaven, a godless heaven – which would never satisfy any more than a godless three score years and ten here will satisfy – because as Augustine said in his famous prayer:
O God, you have made us for yourself; and our hearts are restless until they find they rest in you. And Jesus’ ultimate purpose is to get us to the place where God is ‘all in all’ for us – where there’s nothing we want more than to serve him as King; and where we’re finally able to do that perfectly. That’s what the creed is on about when we say, ‘His kingdom will have no end.’ And if you’ve come to find your purpose in serving his kingdom, then your satisfaction there will have no end, either.