You don’t have to turn on the news or visit a news web site very long to get very depressed. We live in a day of despair, threat of war, violence, murder, poverty, sickness, abortion, waning morality, injustice, and racial tensions. Even from the perspective of the unbelieving world, things look pretty bleak.
But, contrary to what we might think, this is nothing new. Listen to what one pastor wrote:
I doubt much whether there ever was a time in the history of our country, when the horizon on all sides, both political and ecclesiastical, was so thoroughly black and lowering. In every direction we see men’s hearts failing for fear, and for looking for those things that seem coming on the earth. Everything around us seems unscrewed, loosened and out of joint. The fountains of the great deep appear to be breaking up. Ancient institutions are tottering, and ready to fall. Social and ecclesiastical systems are failing, and crumbling away. Church and state seem alike convulsed to their very foundations, and what the end of this convulsion may be no man can tell.
That was J. C. Ryle in 1867. There is nothing new under the sun.
Well, when we observe bad things around us like this, the world tell us, “What you see is what you get.” The world tells us, as the wicked do in Psalm 11, “Flee like a bird to your mountain, for behold, the wicked bend the bow; they have fitted their arrow to the string to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart; if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Give up. Despair. Withdraw. This is all there is.
And we’re tempted, aren’t we? We’re tempted to despair. We’re tempted to give up. Or, like Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, we’re tempted to walk in the counsel of the wicked and take matters into our own hands.
This is what Asaph experienced in Psalm 73, when he said, “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”
But the biblical answer is not found in focusing on what we see around us. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5, we walk by faith and not by sight. As Paul says a chapter earlier in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;
How? How can we have the same response as Paul to the wickedness around us and the pain and suffering we experience? He says a few verses later in 2 Cor 4:16-18,
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
We recognize that there is more than meets the eye, and seeing with the eyes of faith helps us to endure under the pressures of this world and resist the temptations of the wicked. This light momentary affliction is not the reality—the reality is unseen and eternal, an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
And this is exactly what solved Asaph’s problem in Psalm 73. After describing the apparent prosperity of the wicked, he says in Psalm 73:16-17,
But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, 17 until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.
In the sanctuary of God, Asaph is enabled to see the unseen, eternal reality with eyes of faith.
You see, the solution to grappling with the tensions and problems we see all around us in this present evil age is found when we look with eyes of faith to the unseen eternal heavenly sanctuary.
Scripture presents us with two extended descriptions of of the heavenly sanctuary that provide the foundation for our discussion, notably one set in the context of the Old Testament and the other set in the context of the New Testament, emphasizing that what we see here is eternal. In both cases, these descriptions of heaven were presented during a time of problems with the covenant people of God and what was happening in the pagan nations around them, revealing the important, consistent necessity that God’s people bring their current earthly vision into conformity with a vision of heaven.
This was true for the nation of Israel; during Solomon’s reign and especially following the divided kingdom, God’s people forsook the pure worship of God by bringing pagan idolatry into the nation. Even noble kings in the southern kingdom, such as Uzziah, approached worship presumptuously and not according to God’s explicit command when he entering into the sanctuary though he had no right to do so.
It is no coincidence that the death of Uzziah is the very context for the prophet Isaiah’s vision of heavenly worship (Isa 6:1–13). In a way, God was reminding Isaiah of the true reality upon which pure earthly worship was supposed to be based as a corrective for the syncretism and idolatry of the people. God called Isaiah up into heaven itself, where he “saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.” Isaiah encountered God’s sovereign rule over all.
The heavenly reality that Isaiah saw is a royal palace. God is on his throne. Psalm 103:19 proclaims, “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.” Psalm 145:13 says, “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.” All aspects of the universe fall under this rule. Heaven is a royal palace with the sovereign King eternally on his throne, and the whole earth is the realm of his kingdom. This is the eternal reality that never changes.
But not only is heaven described as God’s royal palace, Isaiah’s vision continues, “and the train of his robe filled the temple.” Heaven is also a holy sanctuary in which God’s glory is displayed and he is eternally worshiped by angelic beings singing the Trisagion hymn (“thrice holy”).
This heavenly vision establishes a two-fold reality concerning God in heaven: heaven is his palace, and heaven is his temple. He rules over all, and he deserves pure worship. This higher kingdom is a holy theocracy, a royal sanctuary.
However, the sight of God in all of his holiness and splendor caused Isaiah to recognize his own sin and unworthiness to draw near to the presence of God in his palace/temple, what Uzziah should have known before entering the earthly temple as he did. Thus, Isaiah confessed his sin before the Lord: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (v. 5)!
Yet God did not simply expel Isaiah from the royal temple due to his impurity; rather, God provided a means of atonement. One of the seraphim took a burning coal from the altar and placed it on Isaiah’s lips, proclaiming, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” Now Isaiah was welcome in the presence of God by the means God himself had provided. Standing accepted in God’s presence, Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord giving him a message, to which Isaiah willingly offered obedience, and God sent Isaiah forth with that message of both exhortation and promised blessing to the nation of Israel. Later, Isaiah’s message to the people of Israel reveals that if they submit to God’s exhortation and commit themselves to him, then “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all people’s a rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Is 25:6). God displays his acceptance of forgiven sinners through a celebratory feast.
This reality of worship in the palace/sanctuary of heaven contained a theological pattern that should have provided a corrective for the syncretistic and idolatrous worship of God’s people. But, of course, the hard-hearted people did not listen, and thus they never experienced the full blessings God had promised to them if they repented.
In the book of Revelation, God granted the apostle John a similar glimpse into the palace/temple of heaven. As with Isaiah during the reign of king Uzziah, it is no accident that this vision of heavenly worship came at a time when God’s covenant people were in chaos; even a noble church like the one in Ephesus had lost its first love, and many Christians like those in Laodicea had become lukewarm. In John’s vision, like Isaiah’s vision, John sees the Lord seated upon his heavenly throne, ruling sovereignly over all things, and he is surrounded by angelic beings who are offering worship before him. Then follows the presentation of the scroll that reveals the unworthiness of all people to open it (5:1–4) except for the Lamb who was slain, he who provided atonement and ransomed a people for God (5:5–12).
The book climaxes with the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb (19:6–21). This, finally, is the fulfillment of what Isaiah had promised for those who would listen to the Word of the Lord. The heavenly temple descends, and for the first time God’s ultimate intention for his people comes to full realization: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (21:3).
Both of these visions in Isaiah and Revelation are the heavenly reality by which we must interpret what is happening here on earth.
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