Saturday, August 29, 2009

Every head bowed and every eye closed

A priest, a minister, and a guru sat discussing the best position for prayer, while a telephone repairman worked nearby.

“Kneeling is definitely the best way to pray,” said the priest.

“No,” said the minister. “I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to heaven.”

“You’re both wrong,” said the guru. “The most effective prayer position is lying down on the floor.”

The repairman, unable to contain himself any longer, said, “Hey, fellas. The best praying I ever did was when I was hanging upside down from a telephone pole.”
(author unknown)

When Jesus prays prior to a miracle, something he rarely does, he looks up to heaven (once in Matthew, twice in Mark, once in Luke, and once in John). For example,

Mark 6:41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven (ouranos = heaven or sky), and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all.

Mark 7:34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened."

John 17:1 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you . . .”

Why did Jesus look up to pray sometimes? Is the heavenly Father really “up there” somewhere—implying that he is somehow absent “down here”? Did Jesus believe like other ancient peoples that God’s heaven is beyond the sky’s dome of blue waters? Or was Jesus’ sense of God’s Spirit that, like the wind, it comes from everywhere in the air around and above us? The Bible neither emphasizes nor clarifies why Jesus on occasion looked upward when he prayed.

What’s strange to me is that while Jesus prayed with his eyes opened looking up, we Christians pray with our eyes closed and our heads bowed down! The next time someone says, “Let us pray,” sneak a peak. Watch the heads bow and the eyes close automatically. Some pastors go so far as to specifically instruct worshipers with the words, “Every head bowed and every eye closed.” Why is that?

Heads bowed and eyes closed may be the customary posture for prayer among Christians today, but it’s certainly not biblical. Jesus never gave instructions to bow your head and close your eyes when you pray. Neither did anyone else in the Bible. So why do we do it?

I have a theory.

In Jesus’ parable of the Praying Pharisee and Tax Collector, the Pharisee stands where he can be seen as he thanks God that he’s better than other people because he fasts a lot and gives a lot of money. But . . .

. . . the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' (italics mine) (Luke 18:13)

Maybe this is why we Christians face downward and close our eyes when we pray, so as to imitate this tax collector’s humility. We avoid looking up to heaven by bowing our heads.

Is there any other place in scripture where someone bows his head to pray? Sort of. Though prayer is not specified, it could be implied in four verses in the Old Testament (Gen 24:26, 48; Ex 34:8; Ps 35:13) where someone bows his head to worship.

What about the New Testament? Matthew says that Jesus once prayed with his face to the ground (Matthew 26:39), which is sort of like bowing your head. A man healed of leprosy bowed with his face to the ground and begged Jesus to heal him (Luke 5:12), which sounds like a prayer. A healed Samaritan fell with this face to the ground at Jesus’ feet (Luke 17:16) expressing thanksgiving, which could be seen as a prayer. And the disciples once took hold of Jesus’ feet and worshiped him (Matthew 28:9), perhaps including prayer.

Paul also wrote:

NET 1 Corinthians 14:25 The secrets of his heart are disclosed, and in this way he will fall down with his face to the ground and worship God, declaring, "God is really among you."

So there is evidence in the Bible, though weak, that sometimes people bowed their heads when they prayed. But are there biblical references to closing one’s eyes to pray? No. While there is some precedence for falling on your face for worship, perhaps meaning to include prayer, I can find no biblical instructions specifically to bow your head and to close your eyes when you pray.

Frankly, I don’t think Jesus intended to regulate praying postures with his parable of the Praying Pharisee and Tax Collector. It was the man’s heart—not his posture—that was “justified.” Should you press your palms together or fold them? Should you stand or kneel? Should you raise your hands or hold hands with others? Do you want to know what I think? I think you could pray standing on your head wearing a pink tutu if you wanted to, but it wouldn’t help. Prayer’s effectiveness has little to do with body position, though the creator of this imaginative chart obviously disagrees.

Nevertheless, on several occasions our New Testament says that Jesus looked up to ouranos (sky or heaven) when he prayed. Is that why his prayers always “worked”? Is there magic in looking heavenward? Was he showing us how to properly posture ourselves for prayer? If so, why do so few Christians today do it that way?

I often open my eyes when I pray. I like looking outward or upward because it reminds me that I have come to believe that the kingdom of heaven is near us, around us, among us, and within us, as Jesus insisted. I don’t have to close my eyes to imagine the kingdom. I can see it all around me with the eyes of faith.

On the other hand, many whom I’ve spoken with about this topic have told me that closing their eyes to pray helps them to block out distractions.

So, do we avoid looking toward heaven as the tax collector did in Jesus’ parable? Or should we pray with eyes heavenward as Jesus did on occasion?

Again, I don’t think it matters. I’ve never had the sense that the position of my eyelids makes God any more attentive. If it did, I’d pray upwards every time, rub my rabbit’s foot, avoid stepping on any cracks, and contort myself into the Lotus position—whatever worked.

Standing? Kneeling? Prostrate on the floor? Eyes closed? Eyes opened? Head raised? Head bowed? It doesn’t really matter, it seems to me. I doubt that posturing manipulates God. And I doubt that anyone but a religionist would monitor your prayer posture.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Un-Religion

You know what makes me angry? The Christian religion and its prominent pastors today look too much like the Jewish religion and Judean leadership of Jesus’ day:

NAB Matthew 23:15 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You traverse sea and land to make one convert, and when that happens you make him a child of Gehenna twice as much as yourselves.

Jesus wasn’t warning Jews about being Jewish. He was a practicing Jew! But he saw in the Judaism of his day what we are seeing in Christianity today. Jesus saw religion perverting faith. He saw that it was killing people spiritually. And he didn’t like that.

Religious people, he said, are children of the Hinnom Valley (Gehenna), a site of child sacrifice to idols, a valley just south of Jerusalem’s ancient walls where the garbage burned day and night. Could Jesus have expressed any clearer his view of religion?

What Is Religion?

Religion is any program that promises heaven, nirvana, enlightenment, peace, happiness, or the like. It begins with the observation that you don’t have these things, and the assumption that you can’t get these things unless you _______________ [fill in the blank].

Religions, all of them, including the Christian religion (not to be confused with knowing and trusting Jesus), put it all back on you. You have to please the gods by doing something to fix things up with them.

The Christian religion, however, has competing teams. Most of those teams want to recruit you, usually by trying to persuade you that their method is the one that works in terms of fixing you up with “God.” Some go a step further by discrediting the other teams. After all, there can only be one right religion. Right? Then it follows that within the Christian religion there can only be one right practice. Right?

The irony in this line of reasoning is that it is religion itself that is wrong, if the Jesus of Scripture is to be believed. The Judaism of Jesus’ day was, in his estimation, a hellish, legalistic, burdensome, condemning, cruel religious program. Its leaders, he said, had become children of the devil and a brood of vipers. He railed against them.

Matthew 21:13 "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers."

John 2:16 "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!"

Religion and religious leaders outraged Jesus, and rightly so. Outrage is the appropriate emotion when something is outrageous. And the sacrificial system in the temple in Jerusalem, as Jesus saw it, had become a religious racket. Today’s religions are no different.

Why Does Religion Appeal to People in the First Place?

Billions of people, including you and me if we are honest, are snookered by too-good-to-be-true religious spiels of one flavor or another. We human beings seem to be tailor-made suckers for it! And I think I know why.

It’s about your conscience. No, Sigmund Freud didn’t make that word up and stick it in our vocabularies. The word is in the Bible 30 times. The New Testament Greek word is suneidesis, and it refers to that “thing” inside of you that distinguishes what is good from what is evil. The Bible calls that thing your suneidesis. In English, that’s your conscience.

It is said that you should let your conscience be your guide, but the Bible disagrees. It’s not that your conscience isn’t a handy thing to have sometimes, but it can be wrong, warns Scripture. It speaks of a weak conscience, a defiled conscience, and even an evil conscience.

Hebrews 10:22 . . . let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience . . .

Wow! With a warning like that, it seems wise to use your conscience as a reference, not your guide. Your conscience can condemn you when no one else is, including God.

Remember the new covenant in Jesus' blood:

Hebrews 8:12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.

If your sins are forgiven and forgotten as far as the Lord is concerned, then who do you think might be condemning you now? Why do you feel condemned all the time? What flawed interior judge constricts you and convicts you and contradicts God’s mercy to you in Jesus? It’s your conscience.

The Genesis story of “the fall” comes to mind. A friend of mine, Australian medical doctor Bruce Wauchope, points out something that makes perfect sense. In the story of Eden, what was the name of the tree that the Lord God tried to protect Adam and Eve from? It was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Bruce says that this story is describing how human beings came to have consciences! (Remember the Biblical definition of conscience. It’s the thing inside of you that distinguishes good from evil.) If Bruce is right, and I think he is, then our conscience is a product of “the fall.”

Do you still want to use your conscience as your guide? If so, consider this. In the story, the Lord God knew Adam and Eve would be better off without one! Why? There are many reasons why:

  1. Our consciences force us to judge ourselves as good or evil based on our performance, and when it comes to self-judgment, our consciences are unkind.
  2. Our consciences can over-function, restricting us unnecessarily, and robbing us of the freedom to enjoy life.
  3. Our consciences can project self-judgment onto others, damaging relationships and isolating us.
  4. Our consciences can be weak, forcing us to fight constantly to do the good thing rather than the evil thing.
  5. Our consciences may tell us what the good thing is, but when we find that we can’t do the good thing, our consciences judge us as not being a good person.
  6. Our consciences may tell us what the evil thing is, but when we find ourselves doing the evil thing, our consciences judge us as evil persons.
Your conscience, then, biblically speaking, is an unfortunate result of the fall in Eden. It’s a resource that can sometimes help you distinguish good from evil, admittedly. But it’s a merciless judge also, quick to condemn you for doing what is evil and failing to do what is good.

Let’s get back to religion. (Oh, joy!)

The story of Adam's and Eve’s “fall” depicts the birth of religion. We spend much of our lives hiding behind bushes and fig leaves, mightily struggling with right and wrong, seeing what is good but unable to do it, seeing what is evil and ending up doing it, and moment by moment condemning ourselves for our weakness and failure, ready to do anything to fix it all up. What in the world can we do to fix it all up?

Religion relies on your conscience. There is no religion without it. Religion counts on the undeniable fact that your conscience is both a spiritual hypochondriac and a hanging judge. Your constant internal self-uncertainty and self-condemnation have made you an easy mark for religious programming, even doomsday cults. Religion banks on your conscience forever preaching to you what is right and wrong, while forever condemning you for failing to do good and avoid evil.

Y’all, there is a counterfeit gospel out there—omnipresent in our culture—that is merely echoing the message of your own jittery, judging conscience.

That is why we are susceptible to religion. This unstable conscience of ours puts us in a panicked state, not unlike Adam and Eve in Eden. When they ate the fruit, they were shocked that the first thing and the most horrifying thing that they saw were themselves. They saw themselves, not through the eyes of their friend, the Lord God, but through the lenses of a fallible human conscience, this “thing” in us that has the ability to discern good and evil (sometimes). They looked such a mess to themselves, and they condemned themselves for their action, and they were certain that the Lord God was going to kill them for what they’d done.

Each of us are self-evident messes. We’re hurting, broken, confused, angry, vulnerable creatures who mess up. But we also, deep inside, want to be happy and free. So what can we do? We can try to be so good that our consciences will shut up. Or we can try to be so bad that our consciences will give up. Either way, we want the pain to go away, and we want to believe that it is possible to make that happen, somehow, someway. But how?

That’s where religion comes in. Religion promises a plan to fix everything. It has programs. But what too few realize is that religion uses our own consciences against us. With the encouragement of today’s scribes and Pharisees of Christian media, our weakness can be exploited. It’s not that hard, really, to convince us that the eyes of our consciences are the eyes of God. We tend to do that anyway.

Religion, like the serpent in the garden, has no problem convincing us that we are not like God, or that we are not made in his image. The Christian religion, especially in modern evangelical circles, makes “God” in our own consciences’ image. He’s a legal “God” who is obsessed with good and evil, right and wrong. This conscience-god is a judge. And we stand before this judge condemned.

Once a person equates his own conscience with God, he’s primed for the hamster wheel. Just look at every book title from major televangelists today, even the subtle ones. They all give you a program. They tell you how to be the best you can be, how to know that you’re saved, how to unlock the storehouse of heaven, how to get your miracle, how to take your spirituality to the next level, and on and on.

The legal god of your conscience requires that you work yourself out of this mess, or I should say perceived mess. There are do-gooder lists to please “God.” There are steps to salvation. And there are keys to prosperity. Don’t laugh. These programs are selling. Add desperation to the condemning voice of your own conscience-god, and you are ready for religion.

Here’s modern evangelicalism’s hamster wheel:

The bad news is that you are separated from “God” because you are a sinner. You’ve displeased “God,” and you know it. “God” can’t come near you and your dirty sins, and he has no alternative but to punish you forever. (That’s the setup for the hamster wheel.)

BUT, “God” doesn’t really want to punish you, they say, though he will if you are unresponsive to his offer. There is a tiny loophole in the law. You have a chance to get saved from “God’s” punishment. It involves a procedure:

  1. The Sinner’s Prayer: To become a Christian, you must confess that you’re a sinner, and that you deserve punishment, and you must repent of every evil thing you’ve done, and state that you believe Jesus died for your sins and rose from the dead, and promise from this moment to change and do good, and ask Jesus to come into your heart and save you from the punishment of “God.”
  2. Church Attendance and Contribution: A real Christian, a person who has sincerely prayed the sinner’s prayer, joins and attends and gives money to a church. That’s walking the Christian walk. That’s the way to stay saved and thus avoid backsliding.
  3. Daily Prayer and Bible Reading: A real Christian has a daily discipline, preferably very early in the morning, of prayer time and Bible reading. At least thirty minutes.
  4. The Rules: A real Christian doesn’t smoke, drink, do drugs, have sex outside of marriage, gamble, or cuss. He obeys all of the Ten Commandments. And he listens only to Christian music.
What if you follow these steps, but you slip up? No worries. There are thousands of books and videos showing what you did wrong and how to fix it. Maybe you aren’t running hard enough. Maybe distractions, family curses, or addictions are causing you to fall off. Maybe it’s your attitude. Maybe it’s your lack of communication skills. Maybe you don’t know the Bible well enough. Maybe you weren’t as sincere as you should have been when you prayed the sinner’s prayer. Whatever your failure, there is a product to fix it. That’s what religion is for. It’s there to help you get and keep things fixed up with God to avoid his punishment.

Show Us the Father and We Will Be Satisfied

John 14:8-9  Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." 9 Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

We have Philip’s disease. We think of Jesus and the Father as being different. We see God like our consciences: obsessed with good and evil, legalistic, judging, and condemning. But we see Jesus as a bit more user-friendly! He speaks of mercy and grace.

Do you know what modern evangelicalism does with this? Rather than correct Philip’s error, as Jesus did, it accentuates these false differences. The Father is an angry watcher-god who intends to punish you, they say. But, since somehow he still loves you(!), his loving side sends a sinner-friendly Jesus to the world to offer a stay of execution.

Do you see what this means? It means that “God” sent Jesus to save us from himself! And if that’s not crazy enough for you, some modern evangelicals go so far as to say that Jesus came to let “God” vent his anger on him instead of us!

It’s so easy to blow this boat out of the water. Actually, Jesus already did it 2000 years ago, and we’re still not listening because we have Philip’s disease. Jesus is just so different than what we expect God to be like. But Jesus came to show us exactly what God is like. He and the Father are One, he said. To see him, Jesus assured Philip, is to see the Father.

Jesus’ mercy and grace look nothing like our god-consciences’ legalism and condemnation, do they. So, something is wrong. If Jesus is the very image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), and if in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Colossians 1:19), then maybe we’ve got God the Father all wrong. Maybe our consciences fooled us. Unlucky for us, religion is tailor-made for fools.

The Un-Religion

True Christianity is the un-religion. It’s a non-religion. Moreover, real Christianity is the end of all religion. Religious people are dancing with a corpse and don’t know it. Here’s why.

Is it our desire to reach a distant God? In Jesus, God reached us. Is it our desire to make things right between us and God? In Jesus, we are reconciled to God making everything right. Is it our desire to escape the prison of sin and death? In Jesus, sin and death are defeated. This is the message of the Bible. No religious fervor necessary on our part. Jesus did it all.

But what about my conscience? It’s still going off! It still knows I’m not good enough. It knows oh too well that I’m a sinner, that I don’t do the right thing, that I often do the evil thing, that I hide these truths about myself, and that I pose myself, propping up my pretend-self. It may be true that Jesus has fixed everything up and religion is dead, but what if I don’t feel that way?

That’s where trust comes in. You can stop all the religious striving, and you can rest in the biblical message that God in Jesus has reached you, reconciled you, saved you from sin and death, and raised you. Or you can prefer to believe that your condemning conscience is right: that you are on death row begging for a deal.
The choice is yours, but before you make it, look at the Hebrews quote about an evil conscience once more.

Hebrews 10:22 . . . let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience . . .

Hebrews acknowledges that our consciences can be evil, condemning us when God is not. But he invites us to approach the Father who in the Son is already near. He invites us to have hearts full of assurance, hearts resting in God’s nearness and mercy. John put it like this:

1 John 3:19-21  And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God;

Hebrews and John pretty strongly imply that we can have our hearts sprinkled clean of an evil conscience, and that we need not listen to our condemning hearts, and that we can trust that God is greater than our hearts, and that we can believe that it is even possible for our hearts to stop condemning us. How bold we might be if the voice of condemnation would stop!

The good news of The Un-religion is that you don't have to work your way to God the Father to get forgiven. He came to you with unconditional forgiveness in God the Son. So why not just say "thanks," and then ask him to help you make your condemning conscience shut up!

This blog was posted as a feature article in Plain Truth Magazine. Great layout: The UN-Religion

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like Gravity

Although Jesus refused to come right out and say what the kingdom of heaven is, he did speak constantly about what it is like and to what it can be compared. He spoke in mysteries. You may be wondering why. Here’s one pretty cool reason.

Defining something for you doesn’t mean you experience it. Jesus was more interested in your experiencing it than in your pocketing a portable definition. To me, trying to define the kingdom of heaven is like trying to define gravity. It almost defies definition. Let me show you.

Gravity doesn’t work in a direct line between two objects like most people think. Take the earth and the moon, for example. Gravity doesn’t exist as a straight-line attraction between the earth and moon like when you whirl a ball on a string over your head.

In the illustration above, the mass of the earth warps space toward it. It is hard to imagine, which is why most illustrations of gravity use a bowling ball on a trampoline model (left), which is less accurate but easier to "get" intuitively.

Imagine the earth is a bowling ball resting on a trampoline, and its weight is bending the trampoline fabric. Now imagine rolling a golf ball, representing the moon, past the  bowling ball. What happens? If you roll it with too much force, it will fly past the bowling ball and off the trampoline. But if you roll it just right, it might “orbit” the bowling ball a time or two before falling into it. It falls into it because of friction. But what if you imagine a frictionless trampoline surface? Round and round she goes! At just the right speed, the moon neither slingshots into space nor “falls” into the earth, illustrated by a perfectly rolled golf ball on a frictionless trampoline surface. Likewise, imagine our earth is a planet orbiting our sun, and our sun is a star orbiting the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

Can you see it? The trampoline represents gravity! Gravity is the fabric of spacetime bent by mass.

It is a bit counter-intuitive, but an orbit is really just something falling. The moon is falling around the earth. The earth is falling around the sun. The sun is falling around a black hole.

Imagine you’re skydiving. We call that falling. As I just suggested, gravity does not operate as a straight line force. It is fields of bent spacetime. So when you skydive, you aren’t really falling in a straight line because of an invisible magnetic-like force pulling you straight “down” to earth. You’re actually sliding down curved spacetime. You’re the golf ball wanting to “fall” directly into the bowling ball.

Can anyone actually see gravity? No. Can you observe its effects? Constantly! It is there whether you can see it or define it exactly. You experience its power whether you see or understand its substance. You interact with it and you trust it in everything you do.

If I didn’t trust gravity, I would never walk without holding onto something that would anchor me to earth. I certainly wouldn’t risk jumping! But since I trust gravity, I not only can let go of whatever I’m clinging to and walk, but I can run and jump without worry of sailing off toward Alpha Centauri.

Notice that I just did what Jesus did. I didn’t tell you what the kingdom of heaven is exactly. I spoke instead about gravity. I made gravity a parabolic analogy. The kingdom of heaven is like gravity in that it is something invisible, it is nearly indefinable, yet it is powerful, it is all around you, it has a hold on you, and it facilitates everything you do.

When I hit a grounder to the shortstop and try to run out the throw to first base, however, I’m not asking any questions. I’m just playing baseball! Yet I would not have been able to hit the ball and run out the throw if gravity were not acting on me, on the pitcher, on the ball, and on the shortstop I hit it to. Gravity, a mysterious invisible force throughout the universe, made every bit of the fun possible, though I may not have been thinking about warped spacetime as I hustled for first base.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Giant Flying Cube (No, not the Borg. The Bride.)

It’s strange, isn’t it, that John mixes his metaphors for the church side by side? The church, he says in the Book of Revelation, is both the Bride of Christ and a giant cube-shaped city called the New Jerusalem

Revelation 21:2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Why both a woman given in marriage and a city? It’s really quite simple. 

John is contrasting fornication with a whore (Rome – the unholy city) and marital union with a virgin Bride (the church – the holy city).

Compare Revelation 21:2 (above) with selected verses from Revelation 17:1-9:

Revelation 17:1-9 "Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore who is seated on many waters, 2 with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk." 3 So he carried me away in the spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. . . . 7 But the angel said to me, "Why are you so amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. . . . 9 . . . the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated . . .”

(This is referring symbolically to Rome’s seven surrounding hills for which it is famous.)

Fornication with the whore in the unholy city of Babylon (Rome and her idolatrous abominations), or union with the lamb-husband in the holy city called the New Jerusalem (the Lamb-husband’s kingdom and marital union with him)? Which will it be? John asks.

In John’s vision: Jesus is a Lamb, a groom, and a husband. The church is a bride, a wife, and a city. Rome is evil Old Testament Babylon, the unholy city, and the great whore.

Mixed metaphors? Yes. Strong language? You betcha!

So should we literalize John’s vision? Look to these mixed metaphors for your answer. Are Christ’s company of believers literally a bride? Obviously not. The bride is an image in a vision. Then is his New Jerusalem literally a massive cube flying down from the sky? Of course not. But see for yourself:

Revelation 21:16 The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal.*

*This New Jerusalem is in the form of a cube. Fifteen hundred miles cubed has a volume of eleven thousand million cubic kilometers, which is about half the volume of earth’s moon.

The New Jerusalem is a giant flying cube? If you take John’s image literally, yes! It’s a cube that’s about half the size of the moon with walls 1,500 miles tall (John’s highly symbolic 12,000 stadia or furlongs). 

A mile is 5,280 feet. Commercial jets fly at an altitude of about six miles (31,680 feet). So a wall that is 1,500 miles tall is about 8,000,000 feet high. That’s over 250 times higher than a commercial jet. That’s outer space, people! Earth’s atmosphere is only about 100 miles thick.

A cube that huge stuck to the side of our planet would destroy earth’s atmosphere, disrupt earth’s orbital spin, and catastrophically distort earth’s solar orbit and the moon’s earth orbit. In a nutshell, a cube that big landing on our planet would result in the extinction of all life, if not the tearing apart of the earth.

This is clearly not what John has in mind by marriage

John is trying “by means of the reported measurements to give the impression of a city which in magnitude, symmetry, solidity, and splendour transcends the power of man to envisage.” He’s bursting “the bonds of language in an attempt to hint at what is essentially beyond imagination.” (Caird, The Revelation of Saint John, p. 272) 

John is sharing the inexpressible Good News of God’s eternal, earth-heaven uniting presence in the Lamb-Groom and his New-Jerusalem-Bride. John is telling his churches that we are his Bride and we are his City, and that he is our husband and he is our home. What we will become is beyond words.

1 John 3:2 . . . what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

So let’s not take it literally. If the New Jerusalem is not a giant cube coming in for a landing, then what is it? 

It’s clear to me that The End in John’s apocalypse is not a distant time or a massive place. The End-time Place John is describing is an eternal union with the person who is the Alpha and the Omega, the Great I AM. He is the Eternal Emmanuel, God with us, forever. All that is required of us is to open ourselves to trusting our “husband,” says John. Prepare to be his Bride and his City as he always meant for you to be. Be his bride and his home.

I call your attention to John 14:2 where Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you.” (italics mine) He goes (via death, resurrection, and ascension) to prepare a “room” (mone = abode) for you in his Father’s “house.” He goes to prepare a place, yet he is the place, he promises to bring you to himself (John 14:3) and he is in the Father:

John ..1:18.. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart (literally “in the bosom of the Father”) who has made him known. (italics mine)

The closeness of the relationship between God the Father and God the Son is expressed biblically by speaking of close proximity in space. They are in a place together, yet they are the place.

When Jesus spoke of an afterlife place he painted it symbolically by picturing a house with guest rooms. By preparing a place for you in the house of God, Jesus is preparing a place for you in the heart of the Father.

He’s speaking of something much more heavy duty than lodging. Jesus is talking about being “moved in” to the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and their relationship of mutual love, admiration, and respect. He’s talking about utter union, not unlike a marriage.

In the archaeological excavations of Capernaum, Bethsaida, and other New Testament Jewish villages, we have learned that rooms were often added onto houses. It’s believed that when a son married, his father added a room on the house for the son and his bride. The new wife thus joined the household of her father-in-law. 

Among Palestinians in the West Bank there is a similar practice. The Quran prohibits borrowing money even to build a home, and Palestinians, even if they aren’t particularly religious, might nevertheless avoid borrowing. So they only build the first floor when they have the money saved. But, they put very tall rebar in place to support another floor that they plan to build later when funds again are available. The purpose of such an addition is often a marriage. 

Not long ago, a friend of mine who lives on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem completed the third floor of his home on the occasion of his second son’s marriage. But rather than give the new third floor to his son and new daughter-in-law, my friend moved up to the third floor with his wife (with a great view of the Dead Sea and Jericho up there). The oldest son (already married with children) moved up from the first to the second floor. The newlyweds got the first floor.

So when Jesus said that he goes to his Father to prepare a room for you in his Father’s house, he’s exactly referring to what would happen in his culture when a son expects his father to help him prepare a room for him and his new bride

Jesus calls his followers “brides.” The bride lives in a new room readied by the Son in the Father’s house. The relationship the believer has with Jesus is likened to a marriage relationship, arguably the most intimate human union possible. The two become one flesh. (Genesis 2:21; Matthew 19:5-6; Mark 10:8; 1 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 5:31) 

This bride and groom analogy matches the verses in the Bible that refer to the church as Jesus’ Bride.

Ephesians 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,

Revelation 19:7 Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready;

Revelation 21:2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Revelation 21:9 "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb."

These are John’s powerful portraits of Jesus’ followers, members of John’s congregations, those Christians who endure faithfully to their wedding day, their New Jerusalem day. And John’s key portrait of Jesus is that of a lamb, the one who is your lamb-groom and your lamb-husband. No need to remind you to avoid taking that literally!

I’m confounded by those today who insist on a literal cubed city coming down from a doomsday sky. If Jesus is not a literal lamb, if the lamb is not a literal groom and husband, and if the church is not the lamb’s literal bride and wife, then the church is not a literal flying cube-shaped city either!

John isn’t showing us future catastrophe. He’s showing us marital bliss in the newlywed’s abode—symbols of our eternal union and mutual indwelling with Christ.

For more on the Book of Revelation see my blogs 666Rapture InterruptedThe MillenniumPearly Gates and Streets of GoldNames In the Book of Life, and The Lake of Fire Defined.