A Better Paradise Restored

Scripture Readings: Ezekiel 47:1-12 (text); John 7:37-38; Revelation 22:1-5

May 22, 2011 Download PDF sermon

 

Ezekiel by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel)

Ezekiel by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel)

Since the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, mankind has always longed for the restoration of the paradise of God. This is why the Secret Rapture and the Millennium are very popular concepts of the future. Who would not want to be “raptured” out of this world before the coming seven-year period of unbridled evil, persecution and suffering, and after that, enjoy a millennial “heaven on earth” with all his loved ones and material possessions for the next one thousand years? When believers read that “they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:6) over a perfect earth, images of dispensing power from thrones over lands of milk and honey populated by perfect, holy subjects are difficult to reject, even if these images are scripturally dubious.

The heaven on earth imagery is a powerful salve for a pessimistic world of continuous evil, corruption, and crisis. In recent years, the war on terrorism, economic crisis, gigantic earthquakes and tsunamis, and continuing Middle East conflicts and unrest have produced despair and uncertainty and fed the need for end time prophecies and the escapism of the Rapture view. For most evangelicals, all of these conflicts point to one of the signs of the Second Coming and of the end of the age in Matt. 24:6 – “wars and rumors of wars.” And since famines, earthquakes, and lawlessness are on the increase, believers can look forward to the picture in Matt. 24:40 of two men who are in the field from which “one will be taken” by Christ to enjoy heaven, “and one left” behind to suffer God’s wrath on unrepentant mankind.

This “Great Escape”—a popular term for the so-called Rapture—does not refer to an escape from God’s wrath but to an escape from Hal Lindsey’s “the late great planet earth.” The popularity of Harold Camping’s failed Rapture prediction is but another symptom of a world in desperate need of escape from the troubles of this world.

As well, most of these same Christians believe and teach that Ezekiel’s vision of the temple in chapters 40-48 will be fulfilled in the temple to be rebuilt in Jerusalem during the thousand-year reign of Christ. They think that Jesus will reign in a paradise-like earth where there will be no sickness, crime, war, death, or any other kind of suffering.

But Ezekiel’s temple vision is not to be read literally. We can easily see this in the New Testament’s interpretation of our text, particularly in John’s Gospel and in Revelation. John points out that the fulfillment of the temple is Christ, not the millennial temple. Our text also tells of a river of life that flows out of the temple. John’s Revelation again tells us that Christ will give eternal life to many multitudes of people through the river of life and the trees of life along the river.

Ezekiel was a priest who was exiled to Babylon around 593 B.C. after the Babylonians conquered the southern kingdom of Judah. His entire prophetic ministry lasted until 571 B.C., and was conducted during the Babylonian exile. His prophecy can be outlined into three main parts: judgment against Judah and Jerusalem (1-24), judgment against foreign nations (25-32), and the restoration of Israel after the exile (33-48). Our text is part of the third section, specifically in his vision of a restored Jerusalem and the rebuilt temple. It is this restoration and salvation that Israel hoped for after they suffered the punishment of the exile.

So it is only to be expected that when we read prophecies like these, we cannot but look forward to a time when God will restore paradise to us. But when this new paradise – called the holy city or the heavenly Jerusalem – is restored by God, it will be a much better paradise. It will be much better than the Garden of Eden that we imagine in our minds. Today we will consider three features of this heavenly city-temple that make it “A Better Paradise Restored”: (1) Its Life-Giving River (1-9); (2) Its Bountiful Fish (9-10); (3) Its Nourishing Trees (12)

Its Life-Giving River (1-9)

"Garden of Eden" by Jacob Bouttats (ca. 1675)

"Garden of Eden" by Jacob Bouttats (ca. 1675)

Ezekiel’s vision of the river of life flowing from the temple in the last days comes from Ezekiel 47:1-12. As the river flowed it became wider and deeper. Wherever it flowed it gave life to whatever it touched, even the Dead Sea that has no fish. The saltwater of the Dead Sea became fresh and fish swam in it. How can this river give life to this lake that has ten times more salt content than the Pacific Ocean?

If you’ve been to the Great Salt Lake in Utah, you’ll find out that it is not as salty as the Dead Sea—only six times saltier than the Pacific Ocean. Yet, there are no critters living in the Great Salt Lake, except for the brine shrimp, which serve as food for migratory birds. In comparison, the Dead Sea is so salty that salt precipitates out and piles up at its bottom, and any fish that accidentally swims into it almost instantly dies and then encrusted in a salty shell. How can the river of life from the temple cleanse this lifeless body of water to make it fresh so that it teems with all kinds of fish?

This is so because this river of life is not going to be fulfilled by a literal river flowing out of a literal, reconstructed temple in Jerusalem. Rather, the water represents the life-giving Spirit of God flowing out of the better temple, Jesus Christ himself, who offered his own body as a sacrifice so that we may have eternal life (John 2:21).

In John 7:37-38, Jesus uses the same imagery of living water, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (cf. John 4:12; Rev. 22:17). In the next verse, John explicitly connects this living water that Jesus gives with the Holy Spirit whom he will send to his disciples after his resurrection, “Now this he said about the Spirit whom those who believed in him were to receive” (John 7:39). Jesus uses the symbolism of living water for the Spirit from Isaiah 44:3, “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants” (cf Isa 32:15; Ezek 39:29). So when the Holy Spirit came upon the church in Acts 2, Peter quoted Joel 2:28, saying that the Spirit will be “poured out on all flesh” (Acts 2:17-18). This is not lost on Paul when he alludes to the same verse in Isaiah, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).

Ezekiel’s vision of the river of life also takes us all the way back to the Garden of Eden where a river flowed to satisfy the thirst of Adam and Eve and nourish the animals, trees and plants. The river then flowed out of Eden where it branched into four rivers to water the whole earth. Just as the river from the Garden of Eden and Ezekiel’s temple vision gave life to every place it flowed, the water that the Spirit of Christ gives eternal life to everyone who drinks it.

Jesus invites you to taste the free gift of eternal life. If you find yourself spiritually thirsty in this earthly desert, he has an oasis from where you can drink of the Living Water. Drink deeply of the abundant life that only his Spirit can freely give, “[Come!] To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life” (Rev. 21:6; cf Isa 55:1). Just as he offered the Living Water to a Samaritan woman who was thirsty for righteousness, Jesus invites you to drink of the eternal life he gives by believing and trusting in him. He invites you who are weary and burdened with sin and the troubles of life to come to him and to learn from him who is gentle and lowly in heart, whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. And he promises to give you that rest and peace that the world cannot give.

The river from Ezekiel’s temple vision breathes life into the multitude of fish and water creatures that have been buried and fossilized in the Dead Sea for thousands of years. And this dead lake will once again swarm with bountiful fish ready for harvest.

Its Bountiful Fish (9-10)
As the Dead Sea swarms with fish, fishermen will flock to its shores and have an abundant catch. The river will give life to not only one kind of fish, but a great variety of species. Engedi is a place on the western shore of the lake, while Eneglaim is a place on the northwestern corner. This means that fish of every kind will be harvested by fishermen all around the lake. Ezekiel compares the diversity and abundance of life that will be found in the Dead Sea to the variety of fish in the Great Sea, the Mediterranean: over 900 species and 1.5 million tons harvested yearly!

Does this mean that in the age to come, in the future Paradise, the Dead Sea will literally teem with all kinds of fish? Again, the New Testament is our key. Do you remember how Jesus uses the fish of the sea to illustrate the Kingdom of God? When he called the first disciples, he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19). The kingdom of God began with a few men—Jesus and his twelve disciples—like the river that started from the temple narrow and ankle-deep. But Jesus poured out his Spirit on this small band of fishermen on Pentecost Sunday, and a small catch of twelve disciples harvested 3,000 souls from every region in the first-century world in a single day. The kingdom of God is like this trickle of water without fish, transformed into a deep sea teeming with all kinds of fish.

Ezekiel was not talking about a freshwater-irrigated Dead Sea in the millennial period. Rather, he saw the kingdom of God wherein all kinds of fish—Jews and Gentiles from every nation, tribe, and language of the world—would be harvested by the preaching of the gospel to the ends of the earth. The Holy Spirit would give life to every soul who had been chosen to repent and believe in Christ.

Jesus used Ezekiel’s vision in teaching the Samaritan woman about the living water that gives eternal life. When his disciples came back, they were shocked to see him talking to a Samaritan woman. But Jesus told them, “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest” (John 4:35), and they are also to do the sowing and reaping by preaching the gospel, as Jesus did to the woman. In this way, the kingdom of God would be built.

The river from Ezekiel’s temple vision gives life to everything it touches. And all fishers of men will be given a bountiful harvest of souls. Is this the temple in Jerusalem that many dream of rebuilding, from where Jesus would reign in the millennium? No, this is impossible, because in the age to come, there will be no physical temple. In fact, from the measurements of the temple given by Ezekiel, the temple would be bigger than Mount Moriah on which it is supposed to be built! The Temple Institute, a Jewish organization dedicated to rebuild the temple, admits, “According to Ezekiel’s measurements, the new Temple will be so large that it will occupy the entire area of the city of Jerusalem.” 1

Solomon's Temple (click to enlarge)

Solomon's Temple (click to enlarge)

In addition, Ezekiel 40:2 says that the temple would be built on a “very high mountain,” one that would be “established as the highest of mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills” (Isa. 2:2). Mount Moriah is obviously not this highest of mountains, thus what Ezekiel means is that God’s temple is exalted above the whole earth, just as the psalmist exults Mount Zion, the city of God, “His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth” (Psa 48:1, 2). This is why the writer of Hebrews also glories when the church assembles for worship, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12:22). And a river of humanity will defy gravity to worship in this lofty temple in heaven, “all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord’” (Isa 2:2-3). Yet, wasn’t this fulfilled when Christ was crucified on the cross, because he himself prophesied, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”?
(John 12:32)

John also confirms Ezekiel’s temple as heaven itself—not an earthly temple—in saying that in the new heavenly city, there will be no temple, “for the temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb”
(Rev. 21:22). He also tells us that Jesus’ words about the temple were so astonishing to the Jews: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus himself is the temple! Many today who confuse the symbolism of Ezekiel 47 with a literal temple would no doubt be astonished like the Jews if they were listening to Jesus’ words in John 2:19-21.

The kingdom of God is being built from the temple of Jesus’ body and the river of life that flows from it will satisfy the thirst of its people. We, as the body of Christ and the temple of God, are to be wholeheartedly involved in the building of his kingdom. Although many churches today support missionaries and ministries outside their own congregations, they spend a disproportionate amount of resources to having all kinds of music, worship, youth, and adult programs to entice more people to come. Let us be aware that a bountiful catch of fish throughout the world is waiting for fishers of men from whom will spring wells of water that give eternal life and blessings to others.

In Ezekiel’s vision is a river of life flowing out of the temple. This river not only gives eternal life to all who drink from it, but it also gives food to nourish and heal—through the trees of life.

Its Nourishing Trees (12)
As the river of life flows out of the temple, fruit trees will grow on the banks of the river. These trees will bring benefits to all those who are near them. They will bear fruit year round for nourishing food. And the leaves of the tree are for healing. In John’s vision of the heavenly city, he says that the leaves of the tree of life are for the “healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2). What does the “healing of the nations” mean?

John’s vision of the trees along the river of life is an allusion to Ezekiel’s vision, and he alludes farther back to the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden had a river flowing through the midst of it to water it. In the middle of the Garden stood the tree of life (Gen. 2:8-10). When Adam sinned, God banished him from the Garden to prevent him from eating from the tree of life. Because if he ate from the tree of life, man would have lived forever, but under the curse of God. That would have been the most dreadful consequence of sin. But God was gracious to Adam even in his rebellion, providing a solution to lift the curse of sin and death from mankind. He sent his Son to bear the curse on the cross—the tree of death. He opened up the way for us back to the tree of life.

The tree of life will be in the heavenly city. It is the sign and seal of God’s grace towards his people, and of his dwelling with his people. All of God’s people will now be allowed to eat from the tree of life. And God’s people will come from all nations, tribes, and languages of the earth. All the nations will be healed from the curse of sin and death. The curse that began after sin entered the Garden of Eden will never be able to enter the heavenly city. John says that the curse on mankind would be lifted forever: no more tears, no more death, no more mourning, no more crying, no more pain (Rev. 22:3; 21:4). Can you imagine a place where there are no doctors, lawyers, psychologists, hospitals, courts, prisons, or cemeteries? No one will call you for advice on marriage problems. No one will call you about a sickness, accident, or death.

This is the promised blessing to the church in Ephesus, and to us today, “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev 2:7). When the nations eat from the Tree of Life, they will be healed. Ezekiel and John are not talking about physical healing, for the Scripture treats physical sickness as analogous to spiritual disease. In being “crushed for our iniquities,” Jesus healed us with the stripes of his suffering (Isa. 53:5; quoted in 1 Pet 2:24). Even Egypt, representing the Gentile nations, will be healed from their sin: “And the Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing, and they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them” (Isa. 19:22).

Conclusion
When we look back to the Garden of Eden, we long for the restoration of its perfection, beauty, and peace. And God will not disappoint us. He will restore Paradise to us, a much better Paradise than the Garden of Eden. In this Paradise Restored—the new heaven and new earth—our Savior Jesus Christ is the Living Water, who gives eternal life to all. In this heavenly Jerusalem, he is the Tree of Life, who nourishes our body and soul forever. In this holy city, John says Christ is the Light, giving the city its radiant glory, illuminating its perfection, beauty, and peace. It is a heavenly city whose builder and architect, Christ, came down from heaven to earth, to clothe it with his righteousness.

Today there are still many tears shed because of this sin-infested world; so much loneliness, sickness, and death. But in Paradise Restored, there will only be rejoicing. God will dwell with us forever, and we will see our Lord and Savior Jesus face to face. We will have perfect communion with God.

Do you want to be assured of eternal life in the holy city? Do you want to be healed of sin and death? Jesus invites you to drink from the Living Water and eat from the Tree of Life. By believing in him, you will have eternal life, and your souls will be nourished forever.



Notes:

  1. The Temple Institute, “How do We Understand the Vision of the Future Temple as Described in the Book of Ezekiel?” http://www.templeinstitute.org/future_temple.htm. Accessed May 25, 2011.
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