… set your hearts and minds on things above …

Colossians 3:1-2

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Lesson Eight  “Living as a Preview of God’s Coming Kingdom” – February 22, 2015
We know from Scripture that one day “every knee should bow…and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10-11). We know too that one day all of creation will be restored. So we look toward that day with hope, rooting our lives deeply in the gospel so we can begin to make the kingdom known in our own communities even today. We live in hope, eagerly anticipating and straining toward what is ahead (Philippians 3:13-14).

Hope is a settled conviction about the future, a conviction giving meaning and shape to life in the present. Through Christ we have been given a preview of God’s coming kingdom, and we have been called to continue his mission today. In response to this call, we bear faithful witness through our lives, which are to be a preview of God’s new creation. As we bear faithful witness, we also wait patiently (often in the midst of suffering) for God’s future to be revealed. We embody this hope together in community—which produces a spontaneous overflow of praise to a God who is present within us. This is what makes the church a foretaste of the endless joys and surprises of heaven. In all of these things, our one job is to bring the life of heaven to birth in actual, physical, earthly reality.

Altogether, what we believe to be the goal of history gives particular significance and form to our lives today. If we recognize that we have been called to provide our world with a preview of God’s coming kingdom, the hope of that kingdom’s coming will shape all that we say and do in the present. Thus every act of love, every deed done in Christ and by the Spirit, every work of true creativity—doing justice, making peace, healing families, resisting temptation, seeking and winning true freedom—is an earthly event in a long history of things that implement Jesus’s own resurrection and anticipate the final new creation and act as signposts of hope, pointing back to the first and on to the second.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21)

1. How might we face the pain, struggle, and evil in this world differently if we lived with confident assurance that Jesus has already assured the victory over them?
2. What does it mean to be God’s new creation (2 Cor. 5:17-21), and what is one way you can live out this “new-creation life” in the coming weeks?

Lesson 7 “John’s Vision of the New Jerusalem” – February 15, 2015
In John’s vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22, we find a description of what it will be like when God’s purposes for creation are finally fulfilled. John’s vision in Revelation 21 does not depict salvation as an escape from earth into a spiritualized heaven where human souls dwell forever. Instead John is shown (and shows us in turn) that salvation is the restoration of God’s creation on a new earth.

Perhaps the most important point about the new Jerusalem is that through its descent from heaven, God’s presence decisively shifts from heaven to earth. Although God rules the earth from his heavenly throne in the Old Testament (Pss. 11:4; 14:2), when we get to Revelation 21:3, things have decisively changed. Revelation 22:3 tells us that there is no longer any curse (or anything accursed) in the holy city (the curse from Gen. 3:17 is effectively reversed). This allows for a radically new thing: God’s throne is now no longer in heaven but is in the midst of the city (Rev. 22:3; 21:3, 5; 22:1). The center of God’s governance of the cosmos from now on will be permanently established on a renewed earth. Thus the destiny of the cosmic temple is complete. The definitive presence of God is now manifest in the earthly creation.

Not only will God’s people (now risen to new life) worship and commune with him (22:3-4), but also, in accordance with Old Testament expectations, “they will reign forever and ever” (22:5). Thus, the final state of the righteous is unmistakably depicted in terms of resurrection and earthly rule. Indeed, the church will one day be conformed to the full likeness of Christ (1 John 3:2), which will include the resurrection of the body (1 Cor. 15:49) and reigning with Christ on earth (2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 22:5)—this is, the restoration of their full humanity.

“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” (Rev. 21:3).

1. How would you explain the new earth to someone? How does this passage give us a better understanding of what our new life will be like?
2. Hebrews 13:14 and 2 Peter 3:13 tell us that we look forward to something more than life on this earth has to offer. How did you picture heaven prior to this study? Discuss how your perspective has changed since beginning this study.

Lesson 6  “Heaven Is Now But Not Yet” – February 8, 2015
In Romans 8, Paul uses the imagery of the Exodus from Egypt in relation to creation as a whole. Creation, he says, is in slavery at the moment, like the children of Israel. God’s design was to rule creation in life-giving wisdom through his image-bearing human creatures. In that future promise, one day the true human being, the image of God himself, God’s incarnate son, would come to lead the human race into their true identity. Meanwhile, the creation was subjected to futility until the time when God’s children are glorified, when what happened to Jesus at Easter happens to all of Jesus’s people. The whole creation is on the tiptoe with expectation, longing for the day when God’s children are revealed, when their resurrection will usher in its own new life.

Paul then uses the image of birth pangs—a well-known Jewish metaphor for the emergence of God’s new age—not only of the church and of the Spirit, but also of creation itself. The very metaphor Paul chooses for this decisive moment in his argument shows that what he has in mind is not the unmaking of creation, or simply its steady development, but the drastic and dramatic birth of new creation from the womb of the old.

Paul thus invites the Christian to live within the horizon of God’s new creation. This great project, the global and cosmic dimension of salvation, has begun with the resurrection of Jesus, and will continue until the whole world is transformed under the just and healing rule of God’s children. If the Christian is called to live at the overlap of the old and new creations, this is hardly a matter of sitting back to await better times when the overlap is done and the new creation is fully present. Christians must be in the forefront of bringing, in the present time, signs and foretastes of God’s fresh beauty to birth within the world, signs of hope for what the Spirit will yet do.

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Romans 8:22-23

1. To what was the creation subjected and who subjected it (Gen 3:17-19)? To what will it be delivered?
2. What motivates us to persevere (vv. 24-25)? Explain how this quality relates to how we understand heaven.

Lesson 5 “Heaven and the Biblical Story” – February 1, 2015
Over the past four weeks we have deepened our understanding of life after death, the present heaven, the promised future of a new heaven and a new earth, and the resurrection of Christ and those who die in Christ. Equipped with this understanding, we now move to consider how these “parts” fit into the “whole”—that is, the comprehensive story-line of the Bible. Put another way, we want to see how the present/future reality of heaven fits into the “big picture” of the biblical narrative.

In our remaining lessons, we will discuss the present/future reality of heaven within the context of the Christian hope, the establishment of God’s kingdom and reign on earth, and our place in God’s story as the people of God now sent to live among the nations. This week, to set the stage for these future discussions, we seek to answer the following question: “What is the biblical narrative all about?”

As a starting point, the Bible claims to tell the true story of the world. Against the backdrop of a good creation that has become corrupted by sin, God sets out on a long quest to restore all creation and the entirety of human life from the destruction of sin. God’s mission is his long-term intention to bring about a renewed, restored heaven and earth. Thus the Bible provides a grand story that encompasses all nations and all peoples for all of earth’s history. The church’s missional identity is founded in the role that God assigns his people in this story.

He who is the faithful witness to all these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon!”  Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! — Revelation 22:20

1. How does reading the Bible as the story of God’s redemptive mission in the world aid our understanding of (1) God’s purpose for creating and the goodness of his creation, (2) God’s redemptive pursuit of humanity and God’s faithfulness to a wayward people, (3) God’s love for humanity expressed in full through the incarnate Christ, and (4) God’s promise to one day renew his good creation and live with his people forever?
2. How might we explain the “already-not yet” era of the kingdom of God announced in Luke 17:20-21 (cf. Matt. 24:12-14; Acts 1:6-8) ? How is the church called to live as a preview and sign of the coming kingdom of God?

Lesson 4 “Resurrection: The Christian Hope” – January 25, 2015
New humanity is grounded in the new human, Jesus the Messiah. The glorified Lord is new creation. He reversed the curse under which creation groans as the kingdom broke into the world through his ministry in the power of the Spirit. He transformed death as the firstborn from the dead by the will of the Father. His old creation body was transformed into a new body animated by the Spirit of God through which the ascended Messiah reigns in the heavenlies. At the right hand of the Father, ever interceding for the people of God, he has poured out the Spirit upon the church in order to transform them into new community, a new creation. Jesus, as glorified human, will return to redeem humanity and inaugurate the new heavens and new earth so that the glory of God may fill the creation. In 1 Corinthians 15:53, moreover, Paul tells us that we, being perishable, must put on immortality. This speaks of our bodies being made new, becoming immortal. God promises us new resurrected bodies when Christ returns because of the work he did on the cross in our place. Christ’s resurrection is a preview of the resurrection of mankind and the earth.

“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 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.” 1 Corinthians 15:20-22

1. According to 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, why is Christ’s resurrection so important?
2. As the harvest of new humanity, what significance do our lives hold today? In light of what Paul concludes in 1 Corinthians 15:55-58, how does resurrection give us hope about the future? How does this hope shape the way we live today?
3. As you think about the resurrection and our bodies being made imperishable, how is your view of your future body affected by Christ’s bodily resurrection? What do you think life on the New Earth will be like based on your view of Christ’s bodily resurrection?

Lesson 3 “A New Heaven and a New Earth” – January 18, 2015
Why should we consider and discuss God’s future promise of a new heaven and a new earth? Why is it important? When the expectation of a new earth is denied, the meaning of life on this earth break’s down. Indeed, our understanding of a new earth and its future is important not only for anticipating life after death with hopeful expectation, but also for living with purpose and direction as God’s people now. We come to understand these things by setting our hearts and minds on the goal of God’s redemptive mission.

That goal is described in the last chapters of Revelation. It is especially Revelation 21:1-5 which depicts the coming climactic moment. John sees a new heaven and a new earth cleansed of sin and evil. The old heaven and earth dominated by the order of sin and death passes away giving place to a new dominion. The Holy City, the new Jerusalem, descends from heaven; there is no sign of people flying upward but a whole new order coming to earth. Heaven, which has been separated from His good creation because of sin, now is joined in harmonious unity with earth. God comes to dwell on the new earth with humankind. Sin and all its effects are removed. There is no more death or sickness or pain; all the effects of sin are removed. The old order of things dominated by sin and evil has given way to God’s renewal.

There is peace and harmony. The relationship between God and humankind is healed. God’s presence is closer than ever before. The relationship among human beings is healed. Love reigns. Human life in all its aspects is purified. The non-human creation shares in this liberation of God’s people. And so God’s people live with this hope of healed and renewed creation. Their prayer until that day is ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (Revelation 22:20).

Lesson 2 “The Present Heaven” – January 11, 2015
“What happens when we die?” This is a question many have asked and the information offered about heaven in the scriptures is not clear-cut. In fact, theologians have drawn a diversity of conclusions. Pop culture describes heaven in writings and screen adaptions as a “bright” light seen in near death experiences. But we hope to gain insight into this spiritual realm by turning to the inspiration found in the scriptures.

One of the primary intents of this study is to gain a better understanding of the resurrection experience. Paul describes the resurrection in Rom. 8:23 as the redemption of our bodies. But we need not die to experience Jesus. As it states in Galatians 2:20, we possess a life with him now and his spirit lives in us. But what about that time when the body dies? What should we feel about dying? There are moments of discomfort and feelings of ambivalence associated with this transition. Paul speaks to this in Phil.1: 21-24.

Gaining a clearer vision of what awaits at the end of the race of life will help us to overcome our hesitancy for what lays ahead. If we visualize clearly the goal in sight than it becomes easier to press forward to the place called “Heaven”. Therefore, our operational faith should provide us with a clearer picture and we should not fear to challenge commonly held beliefs if they help us to expand and solidify our understanding of our final destination in Heaven.

One predominantly held belief is that a person may only experience Heaven once the earthly body dies and there are scholars and theologians who also support this view. However, some scholars have studied the texts and have concluded the existence of a Present Heaven. In Revelations 6:9-11 references are made to the souls of slain Christians who were described as living under an alter awaiting the final judgment. These souls were able to call for justice, requesting that God judge the earth. This text gives implications that the souls of the dead were in close proximity to God and that they were aware of their circumstances and of the approaching time of reckoning. These departed Christians also voiced awareness of the suffering that was still occurring on earth. This is suggestive that there is a dimension for the dead that is separate from Heaven.

Jesus alludes to this same concept in the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus found in Luke 16:19-31. It is also noteworthy that this is the only parable where Jesus personalizes the righteous man by giving him a proper name. In this parable both men die and each one understands their individual status (reward vs. punishment). While Lazarus was in comfortable circumstances, we find the rich man was experiencing pain and suffering. Even in his state of discomfort the rich man was still able to express concern about his family who remained on earth. There are those who might contend that the concept of a Present Heaven alluded to in this parable was merely a vehicle to introduce the concept of reward versus punishment for misdeeds and therefore, should not be given serious consideration as a viable argument for another spiritual dimension. However there is room to entertain a contender for previously held beliefs in this parable of death. This parable entertains the possibility of an immediate reality beyond death that is separate from the final resurrection.

In Luke 23:40-43 Jesus in his final breaths before dying upon the cross speaks out to a man who has professed his belief in the innocence of Christ. The man clearly has confessed his belief that Christ is the representation of God. The man clearly asks Jesus to remember him when Jesus begins his rule over his kingdom. Jesus responds by making a clear statement to this new believer they both will be together on that same day in a place called Paradise. In this situation there is no reason to talk in parables to the man because the imminence of death was a very present reality to both Jesus and the man beside him.

As a last thought, consider 1 Thess. 4:13, where Paul comforts his brothers and sisters concerning loved ones who have already died. Paul describes these dead Christians as ones who “sleep in death” and will come back with Jesus when Jesus returns. These departed Christians will be resurrected at the Second coming of Jesus. So where do those who have died reside?

So, from these scriptures what can we understand? Consider these statements:
1. Death is not a final resting place if the hope we have in Jesus Christ is real (1 Cor. 15:13-23).
2. God will take care of us at death by providing us with a temporary dwelling place and we will be with Him and Jesus.
3. In this Present Heaven, we will have an understanding of our circumstances and of the future.
4. In the Present Heaven we will have rest.
5. Bodily Resurrection is a next step beyond this Present Heaven.

1. In this context of 1 Thess. 4, what does fallen “asleep” mean for us?
2. Why is death different for Christians and non-believers?
3. Does this passage indicate about the second coming and the saint who died before the coming of Jesus Christ?
4. In Phil 1:22-24, what do you think Paul is implying about the state of our bodies after we die?

Lesson  1  “What We Know About Heaven” – January 4, 2015
If you ask a Christian or even a non-believer to describe heaven you might be given some bible passage or hear an explanation based upon what that individual has been told by another.  Maybe you while be told about a city with pearly gates and streets of gold that is filled with magnificent structures.

These concepts arise from the passages found in Revelations 21 and John 14:2 (KJV and ASV). Both scriptures shed light on the concept of heaven. In order to broaden and strengthen our foundation of belief it is important to explore the context of these and other passages to gain a greater understanding of what heaven means to us as followers of Christ.  The goal of this 8-week study is to help heaven become a reality in our hearts and minds and to evoke in us a sense of joy and anticipation.

Hope and Death
Since the beginning of time there have been other cultures with other gods and theologies that have incorporated into their teachings some type of “after life” story. However, the story of the Christ is unique in its focus upon a bodily resurrection.  This emphasis is recorded in the teachings of Christ found in the gospel accounts.  In those passages are found multiple scriptures that describe the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  As the world has grown older, Christians over the centuries have looked for Jesus to return again.  And over the centuries Christians have died while waiting for His return in bodily form.

In Randy Alcorn’s book, Heaven, death is described as a “terminal disease”.  To many people death is simply “the end” with nothing to follow afterwards. Death viewed from this perspective is like the old saying about the dog Rover who was “dead all over”.  However, it seems to be intrinsic in all people to desire more than the finality of death.  Millions of dollars each year as spent trying to distract from passage through life.  It feels reassuring to collect possessions, have medical procedures to restore health and engage in the pleasures of various entertainments because no one wants to end life asking, “Is that all there is?”

In Old Testament times before the message of Christ, death was thought of as a dark place called Sheol, and it was thought to be a place reserved for the wicked. Many of those of Old Testament including King David expressed a belief and hope that God would deliver the righteous from the grip of Death (see the handout from Desmond Alexander).  This belief was clarified by the arrival of Christ in New Testament times.  As is stated in Hebrews 2:14-15 the followers of Christ are released from the hold of death and are no longer slaves to fear. Death has no sting, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:55. Christians a living hope (1 Peter 1:3) through resurrection of Jesus.  We carry the joy of his resurrection in the activities of our daily lives and through our behaviors we show a dying world that we have a vision beyond the dust of the grave.

1. What is our honest view of death?
2. How does our view of death influence our life and the manner in which we live out that life?

Consider these scripture when answering the above questions:
Phil. 1; 22-23
2 Cor. 5:6-8
Hebrews 2:14-15
1 Corinthians 15:55
1 Peter 1:3

Now let’s turn our focus on the present time and take a good look at what each one of us thinks about Heaven.  Do you find yourself struggling to put your beliefs about heaven into words that elicit joy and hope? Some of us might find ourselves thinking of heaven as an endless church service with songs that go on and on for an eternity.  While some might view this as an enjoyable experience others who have not found worship in a corporate body refreshing might consider the thought of an endless service something to be endured. With such a distorted view of heaven why be a Christian at all?  Why look forward to Jesus Christ coming again?

What about the concept of heaven being a pearly gated community with great mansions connected by streets of gold?  These descriptions were the translation in the King James as well as other translations that interpreted some of the heavenly passages into the phrase “many mansions”. Others translated the passage to mean “many rooms” or  “many dwelling places.”  While this in not necessarily an incorrect translation, the concept of heaven is covered in numerous passages. A closer examination of scripture can lead to a fuller understanding of what Jesus brought to us in his message about God and his plans. Mansions, dwelling places or rooms simply assure us that we will have a reservation.  We need to focus upon the reason for our invitation, what activities will take place, who will be the host and consider what it will be like to be at the table of the King.

Questions to start class discussion:
1. What do you think Heaven is like?
2. How do you think Heaven compares to our lives here on earth?
3. What is the Christian Hope?

Our Lesson #2 will examine “ The Present Heaven.” Where do we go when we die? What does the bible tell us on this important question?