|A New Heavens
God Hears the Heavens
Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.--2 Peter 3:13
Peter may have been inspired to use this illustration from two allusions in the Old Testament (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22). The fact that the heavens and earth are "new" implies they are replacing an old heavens and earth. Also, we find a description of the demise of the old heavens and earth a few verses earlier: "But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up" (2 Peter 3:10). We read in Hebrews 1:10-12, "And, thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands: they shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment; and as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail."
The apostle Peter dispels any notion that these "heavens and earth" are to be taken literally when he writes of the flood: "Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished" (2 Peter 3:6). Of course Noah's ark came to rest on the same literal earth.
The Literal Heavens
While the "new heavens" and the "new earth" are not literal replacements for the physical environment in which we live, they are symbols based on these elements. In the Bible heaven, when used in a literal sense, is either a name for God's dwelling place outside our environment or for earth's atmosphere.
The word heaven first occurs in Genesis: "And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day." (Genesis 1:6-8)
The firmament has many functions in the operation of planet Earth:
Each of these features is important in the symbolic meaning of heaven. As a symbol, the new heavens are a fitting picture for the spiritual control of Christ's kingdom, a control that will be operated jointly by Christ and his risen Church (Revelation 20:4,6). The creation of the literal atmosphere was accomplished by dividing "waters from waters." One meaning of "waters" in the Bible is a symbol of peoples (Revelation 19:6). The spiritual government of earth will be formed by raising one group of people--"waters"--to live and reign with Christ. These are "the new heavens."
God's Channel of Communication
The atmosphere or firmament is necessary for life. The physical location of the atmosphere between the land and outer space symbolizes an intermediary role that is played by the church and her Lord in the kingdom. A description of this role is found in Hosea: "And it shall come to pass in that day, I will hear, saith the LORD, I will hear the heavens, and they shall hear the earth; and the earth shall hear the corn, and the wine, and the oil; and they shall hear Jezreel" (Hosea 2:21,22).
God says specifically that his channel of communication with the earth will not be direct. He will hear the heavens, and the heavens shall hear the earth. This illustrates God's method of dealing with the human race during the kingdom.
Individuals will be raised from the dead in the same condition as when they died. Their thoughts will not change instantly from unrighteous ones to righteous ones. A period of time, possibly centuries, will be involved in unlearning selfish ways and learning God's principles of righteousness. During this process, there will be times when individuals will come short of God's righteous standards. They will commit sins that would be punishable by death if they were not given a rehabilitation period during which they will be educated in the perfect laws of righteousness.
Mankind's judgment is described in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). It is before the Son of Man that all nations will be gathered for judgment; he is the one who pronounces sentence (verse 32). John says "the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the son" (John 5:32). Jesus is not alone in this work for we read, "Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." (Matthew 19:28; see also Obadiah 21.)
Notice the steps in the channel of communication as described in Hosea:
If the spiritual heavens which God hears are the Christ and his church, then the earth is the subjects over which they rule--the human race. Because these lack as yet a spiritual ear, they listen to the voice of prosperity--the increase of corn, wine, and oil. While these may have a spiritual meaning, in this context they may refer to literal prosperity. Finally these are said to hear Jezreel, a symbol of the nation of Israel. When Israel turns to the Lord, she will receive prosperity which other nations will recognize. This chain of command seems to be supported by many other scriptures:
"Thus saith the LORD of hosts; In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you."-- Zechariah 8:23
"And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles. And it shall be, that whoso will not come up of all the families of the earth unto Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, even upon them shall be no rain."-- Zechariah 14:16,17
"And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."--Isaiah 2:2-4 (see also Micah 4:1-3)
The same figure of speech used in Hosea is also used by the psalmist: " He shall call to the heavens from above, and to the earth, that he may judge his people. Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice" (Psalms 50:4, 5). This seems to identify the "heavens" which God hears as those who make "a covenant by sacrifice" with him --the Church of Christ.
Another function of earth's atmosphere is to pick up waters from the sea through the process of evaporation and drop them as rain upon the land. Seas in the Bible often picture the wild and reckless condition of people (see Psalms 65:7). The human race has been in this restless and troubled condition since sin entered the world over 6000 years ago.
One of the most troubling questions which has faced the race during this long period has been, why does a God of love permit evil? The answer is God's kingdom. Man has learned only too well the results of sin and evil--sorrow, sickness, and death. Only by bringing back all who have died and teaching them the contrasting lessons of righteousness--happiness, health, and life--will a full answer to the question of the permission of evil be found.
The teachers of those lessons will be Christ and the church who have learned them well in the present life. These not only will be instructors, they will possess sympathy and compassion for those who will be learning these lessons. One of the titles for Christ and his church is "priests." A priest, like a high priest, must be endowed with compassion. "For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins: who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way; for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity" (Hebrews 5:1, 2).
Like the winds that carry the waters from the sea to the dry land, Christ, Head and body, will pick up the lessons from humanity's turbulent sin-filled present condition and distill them as "showers of blessing" in the kingdom. This is suggested in Deuteronomy 32:1,2, "Give ear, O ye heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth. My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass."
Gathered in Clouds
Another text which may carry a similar thought is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:16,17, "For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord."
There seems little doubt that this verse connects the beginning of the resurrection of the followers of Christ with the Lord's return. There is, however, an interesting symbol in this passage that is open to various interpretations--those which remain shall be "caught up together with him in the clouds."
Most expositors deduce from this that those that remain shall be caught up in large groups. Such an interpretation has little, if any, scriptural support. Clouds are not synonymous with crowds.
Others gather that the last members of the church will be taken in clouds of trouble. This has more support in the Bible. Clouds are used to signify trouble--especially storm clouds. However, the one cloud that is most directly connected with the Lord's return is not a storm cloud but a "white cloud" (Revelation 14:14).
Still others interpolate the words "in the region" of clouds to use it as a description of the place to which the saints shall be gathered.
Another possible interpretation, and the one favored by this author, is based on the fact that the word clouds in this passage lacks the definite article in the Greek. A more accurate translation is that they will be caught up "in clouds." The Greek en, translated "in," is open to a wide breadth of interpretation including "into" (Romans 1:23, 25). As air, passing over seas, pick up moisture into clouds, so the church will pick up the lessons from the present turbulent sea-like condition of society to distil them and drop them as blessings in the stable dry-land condition of Christ's kingdom. Certainly it is true, whether taught in this verse or not, that the church will be the clouds of blessing that will take the experiences of the present life and distribute those in the kingdom of Christ.
The Pillar of Cloud.
In a compatible interpretation, the noted Jewish rabbi Nathan says, "What has been done before will be done again. As he led the Israelites from Egypt in the clouds of heaven, so will he do to them in the future time." (Midras Tillin, 48:13)
Here the rabbi is referring to the unique pillar of cloud which led Israel through forty years of wilderness wandering. What a unusual cloud that was! No matter which way the wind blew, the cloud either remained stationary or directed them, sometimes contrariwise, in the paths that they should go.
This cloud is described in Isaiah 4:5,6 in these words: "And the LORD will create upon every dwelling place of mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night: for upon all the glory shall be a defense. And there shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the daytime from the heat, and for a place of refuge, and for a covert from storm and from rain."
The word translated "defense" in this passage is the Hebrew chuppah, the bridal canopy that is so common in Jewish weddings to this day. The same word is used in Psalms 19:1-5 where he writer says of the heavens, " In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun, Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.."
In these verses we have a close connection between the canopy under which the bride and groom are united and the cloud that covered Israel. This will certainly be another role of the church in the glorious kingdom ahead, to be a guide to direct all to their promised land. The exodus journey of the ancient Israelites is likened unto this trek of human race in Isaiah 11:15, 16.
As the literal atmosphere protects the earth to a large measure from the many meteorites that fly through space, so the provision of Christ and the church will protect man during this kingdom period from the direct judgments of God. In Isaiah 4:6 this cloud would be as "a tabernacle for a shadow in the day from heat, and a covert from storm and from rain." A rain-proof cloud is an unusual cloud indeed. Even while distilling the moisture needed for growth, it provides protection from the storm clouds and lightning-bolts of God's judgments.
Distribution of Assets
The winds that inhabit the atmosphere also redistribute minerals and other substances. Wind erosion produces a vast amount of material that is carried by rivers and streams, sometimes for many miles, before it settles back in other parts of the world.
This describes another role of the new heavens. Lessons learned by humans in one part of the globe will be transmitted to those living elsewhere. Thus there can be adequate examples for the entire race without every person experiencing personally all the possible consequences of sin.
Pollutants that are absorbed in the air become diluted and so prevent high contamination in a single area. The nuclear disaster in Chernobyl produced radioactive fallout. Although it was heaviest in the local area, it would have been much more devastating if it had not been carried away by the winds. Ashes from the eruption of Mt. St. Helens were carried aloft and distributed throughout the world. Although a wide distribution of pollutants spreads problems to others, it also restrains the negative impact of disasters from being even more deadly in a local area. Likewise in the kingdom: the lessons learned from the permission of evil will be kindly diluted and spread world-wide to produce a beneficial effect.
The atmosphere is an essential part of our life and we could not live without it. The new heavens will also be an essential part of life in the world to come. The human race will not be able to live without these new heavens. How important it is that those who are called to be a part of these "new heavens" learn their lessons so they may properly carry out their important future mission.