On either side of the river is the tree of life … and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
In part 1 of The Project, I looked at the “project-ness” of Creation, the somewhat alarming notion that the world was meant to go somewhere before the Fall. God made a world full of potential – a transitory kosmos full of exploding stars and volatile elements, untamed earth and nameless creatures. He set capable stewards in a sacred turf with the charge to master it and then expand. Imagine where that could have gone. But the stewards strayed from their glorious task and onto the path of “Self Divorced from God.” That path has thenceforth fractured humanity, taking what was the noble man and yielding, as one author put it, “two pitiable horrors, a corpse and a ghost.”
To skip ahead pretty far, I want to get straight to the mending of that fracture, the putting back together of noble man, namely resurrection. Looking back through Jewish history, you find bits of resurrection-ish elements through the Old Testament. Ezekiel has the image of the dry bones rising and being covered with flesh and filled with breath, with the explicit word from the Lord, “I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel.” A startling image of resurrection is used to illustrate the return of the nation of Israel from exile. As the image of resurrection solidified in Jewish tradition, the idea of “return from exile” became the primary way of talking about the ultimate vindication of God’s people, the actual resurrection. Though by Jesus’ time, The Resurrection as a concept was fully integrated into most orthodox Judaism, the Sadducees famously denied it. Answering them on one occasion (Matt 22:32), Jesus appeals all the way back to Exodus 3 where YHWH declares Himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the God of the living, not the dead.
A final resurrection where God’s people are vindicated from all enemies including death, the evil in the world is judged and burned away, and the glorious kingdom of God comes to reign upon the earth is the Jewish eschaton, the ultimate expectation. Though many people (including many Christians) don’t know it, that’s also the Christian expectation — not a scenario where all Christians are snatched up away from a world that disintegrates in fire to an ethereal place called heaven. The Church inherited the eschatology of Judaism, a very grounded idea of the “Kingdom of Heaven” reigning on earth. Radically different from the dualistic, escapist image of late Western Christian eschatology (non-physical, non-temporal, bliss for bliss’ sake), the early Christian hope looked much more like a project getting back on track with God Himself leading the way.
The New Testament gives us exactly this kind of future project-type hope, especially the book of Revelation. The Revelation of John was written some time in the late first century, when the early Church already had the Gospel accounts and many of St. Paul’s letters. These writings shaped and further colored the Jewish eschatology to which the Church was heir. They painted images of judgement and fire, but only in the context of the removal of evil from creation, not the entire destruction of creation itself. The much larger point, evidenced both in the amount and implication of end time passages in the New Testament, is that healing, rescue, and newness in creation is God’s plan. Revelation chapters 21 and 22 give us one of the best examples of the ongoing project-ness of this New Creation. In these passages, we see Heaven (the realm of God’s dwelling) united with Earth (the realm of man’s dwelling). This remarkable new reality, this New Creation, contains built-in structures for ongoing work, a continued “project” of sorts.
In Rev. 21 and 22 we notice there are still [socio-political-geographical-ethnical] entities called nations with kings/rulers over them. These nations and their kings will walk by the light of God. People will bring the glory and honor of the nations to God. There is a river flowing from God’s throne, carrying the water of life. I like to picture that river flowing out into the world to all the nations, because on either side of the river is the tree of life with leaves that are for the healing of the nations. The tree produces fruit which is yielded every month. And the servants of God will reign with Him. Notice all the verbs indicating continuing work and activity. And there’s no indication that all this activity is only for our bliss, but rather is for the wholeness and wellness of all creation to the end that it is all summed up through Christ in the glory of God.
Granted that Revelation requires a careful handling of its apocalyptic literature, we shouldn’t miss the literary and theological significance of the images we find in these last two chapters: renewed physicality, a purposeful project-ness, and a glorious summing up of all things that’s less like an ending and more like a new beginning. The irony of the misread/re-invented notion of “the end” as popularized in much later Western Christian tradition is that it’s so much less interesting and exciting than the story Scripture actually gives us. So with this spectacular expectation, knowing the project to which we can look forward, what should we be doing in the present? That will be Part 3.