Yesterday's post may have left the impression that I believe I am sealed by the Holy Spirit because I feel like I am, and Ephesians ought to have been written for me because I like it so much. But there is much firmer ground for the idea that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and will reign with Christ.
What I noticed yesterday is that wherever the words "heaven" and "earth" occur together in the Bible, Jehovah's Witnesses read them as two distinct places - one for the elite, anointed ones and one for the average Christian. (Or, ironically, one as symbolic for earthly governments and the other for society). But this is a misunderstanding of the way these words work in the Bible! And I think it's the root of a number of their false beliefs. The fancy word for this figure of speech is merism, which is where two words are meant to represent everything in between. We use merism in English when we say "she was wet from head to toe." Do we mean that her head was wet and her toe was, too? Are we giving special emphasis to her head and toe over other body parts? No. We simply mean that her whole body was wet.
Genesis 1:1 tells us that "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." The Hebrew word for "heavens" functions just like the Greek word for "heavens" and the English one, too (I suppose because of the Bible's influence). It can mean the sky, or it can refer to the place where God dwells. Context tells us which meaning is in view. Was God, in Genesis 1, making a place for Himself to live as well as for us? I don't think so. "Heavens and earth" is a figurative way of talking about ALL OF CREATION. If you go on to read the rest of the chapter, you'll see that God creates the sky and the land (and everything else).
In many places after that the Bible speaks of the "heavens and the earth." Take, for example, Isaiah 1:2, "Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth! For the LORD has spoken." Is God here addressing two locations - one spiritual and one physical? No! He is calling all of creation as His witnesses in the court case that He is about to bring against Israel. They have rebelled against Him and creation is ready to testify. At the end of Isaiah he declares, "Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth" (Isa 65:17). Are these two new places God will make? He clarifies in the following verse what he means: "I will create Jerusalem...". That's it. One place. A new Jerusalem.
Fast forward to Revelation 21:1. John announces, "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away." Does he then go on to see TWO places? One for the anointed, and one for the rest of us? No! He sees ONE place: "the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God." (This should ring a bell). John sees the new creation, pictured as a garden-city-temple where God will at last dwell with us as He intended from the start. Those who are welcome to enter this paradise are "those who wash their robes" (22:14). Is that referring to a set number of individuals (144,000 to be exact) who have been given special passes? My JW friends would say so. But look at Revelation 7:9ff. There we see a "great multitude that no one could count ... wearing white robes." These are the ones from all over the globe who will enter into the new creation and eat from the tree of life. That's you and me!
They carry this idea to many other places in the Bible. Look at the beatitudes in Matthew 5. Instead of taking this as a list of counter-cultural attributes which should characterize all the people of God, they read verse 3 and verse 5 as talking about two distinct groups of people! One (the poor in spirit) will go to "heaven," and the other (the meek) will stay on "earth." They are not recognizing that Matthew consistently uses "kingdom of heaven" as a label for God's Kingdom, not a place in the sky where only some will end up. I would be very hesitant to draw a line between items 1 and 3 on a list of 9 attributes that should characterize all believers.
It all boils down to a misunderstanding of a Hebrew figure of speech. In their desire to take the Bible "literally," JW's have excluded themselves (most of them anyway) from some of the most precious promises of Scripture. I, for one, am looking forward to walking through those pearly gates!
Friday, January 8, 2010
heaven and earth
Dr. Carmen Imes is the Associate Professor of Old Testament at Prairie College in Three Hills, Alberta, and serves the broader church through teaching, speaking, and writing. She earned a PhD in Biblical Theology (Old Testament) from Wheaton College under Dr. Daniel Block, an MA in Biblical Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a BA in Bible and Theology from Multnomah University. She and her husband, Danny, served as missionaries with SIM 15 years. They have three children: Ana, Emma, and Easton.