Comfort Food: Revelation 21:1-4

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4 NIV)

The passage of Scripture I have read most often in the three weeks since my mother’s death is Revelation 21:1-4. It portrays the Apostle John’s vision of the new heaven and the new earth. The description is stunning. It’s beyond comprehension. How can a water cycle work if there is no longer any sea? If there is no sea, there is likely no rain as well. Apparently the water cycle is part of “the old order of things” which has passed away. I see beautiful symmetry here to the paradise described in Genesis 2:5-6, where rain had not yet fallen and the earth was nurtured by ground water. In John’s vision the curse of the fall has been reversed. Tears have been resolved and death has been removed. Only the presence of the Lord himself is better than that. What a promise!

This passage is comfort food to me. It’s also an enigma. Two days before my mother died, her pastor came to visit her at the hospice house. The family was all gathered around mom’s bed. Mom wasn’t really awake. The pastor asked if we had any Scripture requests. I quickly listed three or four passages, from which the pastor selected Revelation 21:1-4.

As she began to read, I settled back and closed my eyes, waiting for the familiar words. But the pastor was reading from a different version of the Bible and the words I heard were not familiar: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;” (Revelation 21:3 NRSV)

Suddenly my eyes flew open and my head jerked up. Wait a minute! “They will be his peoples”? Plural? It can’t be! God has only one people. I didn’t like what I had just heard. I suspected textual abuse grounded in a liberal agenda. I was distracted and agitated internally, although I didn’t say anything or indicate an objection. I was able to escape to the genuine comfort in the passage, but there was now a burr under my saddle which I needed to resolve.

The first thing I had to address was my bias. The text says what it says and it means what it means. Authorial intent has nothing whatsoever to do with what I want the verse to say or want it to mean. Good Bible study is a systematic search for revealed truth, not a recitation of preconceived conclusions. Faulty Bible study leads to faulty conclusions. I run into a lot of bad theology by people who are sincere, but sloppy in their Bible study. In short, motives matter. And methods matter, too.

The following week when I returned home, I opened my Greek New Testament to Revelation 21. I’m not a Greek expert by any means, but I was well trained in seminary decades ago. I know what to look for. And what I found surprised me. Two things, actually.

First, there’s a pesky textual variant here. In some manuscripts the word “people” is singular. In other manuscripts, the word is plural, which would be literally translated “peoples.” The publisher’s notes in my Greek text indicate this variant has a high degree of doubt about which reading is correct. I would have to do textual criticism to determine the correct word. But for me it’s been too long. I’m going to have to rely on the scholarship of others. A textual variant with a highly uncertain conclusion tells me that other people long ago struggled with the same question I had. When they heard the “wrong” reading, their heads jerked up, too. And somewhere a scribe changed the text along the way, intentionally or not, knowingly or not. Then others made copies. That’s why there’s a variant reading in some manuscripts. My first surprise was finding an unexpected textual variant. We don’t know for sure which reading is the original. I’m going to lean on the scholars who assembled the critical text of the Greek New Testament.

My second surprise was that the editors of the Greek New Testament ultimately chose the plural word for “people.” In fact, both the received Greek text and the critical Greek text use the plural (laoi), not the singular (laos). Surprise! There is, at a minimum, a grammatical argument for translating the passage, “they will be his peoples” if the plural reading of variant is correct.

But a grammatical argument is not enough. For starters, “people” is a tricky concept to distinguish between singular and plural. In the singular, it means the populace in general or a particular nation or ethnic group. The plural form of the word occurs only four times in the New Testament (Acts 4:25, Romans 15:11, Revelation 17:15 and Revelation 21:3) and generally refers to the nations or the peoples of the world. But it’s not always translated “peoples.” In fact, all the major English Bible translations (except the NRSV) translate the plural “laoi” as a singular “people” in Revelation 21:3.

The people of God is a thematic thread which runs throughout the Bible. In the Old Covenant, Israel was the people of God. In the New Covenant, the church is the people of God. Perhaps, together they might be the “peoples” of God in Revelation 21:3. Yet in a very real sense, God has only one people, those whom he has redeemed in Christ. The plural in Revelation 21:3 might refer to their origin in the nations of the world. But the support for that is speculative. Or it might refer to the nations turning to Christ at the end of time. When the nations turn to Christ, they will become his singular people regardless of their ethnicity.

In conclusion, I jerked my head up that day partly because of surprise and partly because of ignorance. I strongly affirm the standard translation “they will be his people” in Revelation 21:3. There’s room for genuine debate. The text does allow the possibility of the NRSV translation “they will be his peoples.” Yet the collective Scriptures are clear that God will assemble a singular people who belong to him from among the nations. It will be out of this world.

For a grieving heart, that’s comfort food.

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Burying a son

My dad’s 86th birthday is this weekend. It won’t be an especially joyful occasion for dad. About a week ago he lost his youngest child, my brother Darrell. Darrell died at age 56 from complications to pancreatic cancer.

Mom turned 85 a couple weeks ago. For awhile we wondered if Darrell might die on her birthday. Instead he lingered a few more days. These were hard days for my parents. They were basically housebound 500 miles away from Darrell’s hospice house. Their fare­well was accomplished with a phone call, although Darrell was unable to speak. He communicated only by grunts and gestures which were relayed by our older sister Pam.

After Darrell’s memorial service in South Carolina, I spent three days with my parents this week in Ohio. It wasn’t especially a deep or spiritual time, although we did pray together a couple times. We didn’t tell stories about Darrell or look at any old pictures of him when he was healthy. Maybe that will come later. Dad is stoic and self-contained. He wants to move on. Mom is tender and open, but quiet. I know the pain of losing a brother, but they have endured the crushing experience of burying a son. That’s a much greater loss.

The Scriptures provide numerous episodes of parents who lost their children to untimely death. They include sons and daughters of both the rich and famous as well as the poor and obscure. It isn’t a rare phe­nomenon. The parents of the human race, Adam and Eve, lost a son to murder.

Naomi lost two sons to death and her husband as well. King David lost multiple children to death by murder and the judgment of God. Jacob mourned the death of his son Joseph, but Joseph turned up alive in Egypt many years later.

A few of the children who died were subsequently restored to their parents. They include some of the most unique stories in the Bible. Elijah raised the son of a widow in Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-24). Ironically, we are told neither the name of the woman nor her son. Elisha raised the son of the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:8-37). Again, their names are not provided. Jesus raised the son of a widow in Nain (Luke 7:11-17) and the daughter of a synagogue ruler (Matthew 9:18-26). These are the exceptions.

For the rest of us, death is final in this world. The mothers of Bethlehem mourned the loss of their baby boys by the sword of King Herod. But the children were not restored to their parents. Not yet.

Abraham almost lost his son Isaac in a very strange way. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering on an altar (Genesis 22:1-2). Amazingly, Abraham obeyed without hesitation. He believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead. That’s incredible faith. At the last instant, when Abraham’s knife was in the air to slay Isaac as a sacrifice, the Lord stopped the procedure and rewarded Abraham’s faith.

At first it seems like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac doesn’t make any sense. Why would God command Abraham to do that? The initial answer is that it was a test of Abraham’s faith. But the meaning goes much deeper than that. The typology wouldn’t be fulfilled for two thousand years until God himself sacrificed his own son Jesus on the cross. This time the Lord didn’t stop the procedure. Jesus died on the cross. God buried his own son.

Parents bury their children because they lose them. But God buried his son because he gave him (John 3:16). A few dead children were restored to their parents. Their resurrection is a type (a picture) of what is yet to come for all in Christ. Because he lives, we too shall live. Such is the hope of a parent who has buried a child.

Resurrection. To Abraham life after death was a belief and a hope. The resurrection of Jesus made it a reality. He was the firstfruits of resurrection. We will follow later in due time. In the meantime, resurrection remains our belief and our hope. Parents still bury their children with the hope of a future resurrection. When Christ returns, he will make that resurrection a reality.

A grief observed

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7

My brother Darrell died last Saturday from complications of pancreatic cancer at the age of 56. I received the news while finishing a salad lunch at Costco six miles away. My sister Brenda was seated beside me with her cell phone. She said simply, “He’s gone. About five minutes ago.”

It felt like a sucker punch to the gut. For a few seconds it didn’t matter that Darrell’s suffering was over. For a few seconds I forgot that I had prayed a benediction over Darrell and told him I loved him several nights in a row. It just hurt badly.

I had recently blogged that death was welcome. But it really wasn’t. Not at that moment.

The hurt was immediately followed by regret. We hadn’t been there with him. We had stopped for a 25 mile torque check on our rotated tires. We were going to pick up salads and eat them in Darrell’s room. But they told us it would take 45 minutes with the car. So we ate the salads there. And lingered a few minutes more. We hadn’t hurried. After all, we had been waiting with Darrell almost a week. We were commuting from my older sister Pam’s house in Asheville, North Carolina. That was 65 miles away and we hadn’t seen Darrell yet that day. It was already noon. Suddenly he was gone.

Pain and regret stabbed me. I ran for the car, which I had just learned was ready. On the way, I realized that God’s timing was right after all. Anne needed to be alone with Darrell at the end. Suddenly I was glad she had been there instead of us. Had we arrived earlier, she might have left before he died.

By the time I pulled the car to the no-parking zone at the door two minutes later, Carol and Brenda had already reached the same conclusion. I loaded Carol’s crutches into the back (she had sprained her ankle 12 days earlier), jumped into the driver’s seat, and said, “Let’s pray.”

We drove and prayed. Or prayed and drove. When we arrived 10 minutes later, God was already providing peace. Anne was ready for us. All was well. At least, all was going to be well.

In the days since, I’ve been aware of deep grief. My mind regularly goes back to Darrell. He was my only brother, but we weren’t especially close. I was almost five years older by the calendar and four years ahead of him in school. I was finishing college and getting married when he finished high school. I was the oldest in my high school class. Darrell was the youngest in his class. It made a difference. We were very different. We didn’t do a lot together as kids. Not only was I older than Darrell, we also had different values and different interests. Our life paths diverged.

We met a few times over the years for vacations and holidays. But we didn’t see each other a lot, not even every year. We weren’t angry or fighting. We were just in our own very different worlds.

Late in January, Darrell called me. He said he was finally ready to open up. He told us his disease had returned and the news wasn’t good. He was scared. He asked for prayer. We prayed.

After that, I was the one who initiated contact. Darrell was still very private. He didn’t want calls more often than every three weeks or once a month. Sometimes it was hard to reach him. He was hospitalized a few times. He kept saying, “No visits and no money.” I nudged him toward Jesus and pointed him toward some resources. He said he’d check them out. I asked about his faith. He said it was “slow.”

At the informal memorial service on Sunday, one his co-workers (Rich) stood up and said he had very directly confronted Darrell about heaven in one of his last coherent days. He said, “Sometimes you had to be very direct with Darrell.”

That was true. Darrell didn’t respond to subtle hints. Rich told the group how Darrell had confirmed that he was going to heaven. That is a comfort to me. But Darrell’s death still hurts. I’m not sure I expected it to hurt this much.

Anne told me about another person who was coping with death by pretending it never happened. I’ not sure it’s possible to do that. I think if you try it, you’re left with only a very superficial life.

It’s much better to live deeply. That involves the spiritual world. That means connecting with Jesus. He has offered to carry our pain. I can testify that it’s a genuine offer.

Jesus does carry our pain. I still feel the loss, but it’s not crushing. All is well. At least, all will be well.