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The Olympics, Lausanne III, and the New Creation — By Christopher J. H. Wright
Well, the Olympics have come and gone. As a Brit, I am happy that our team in Beijing won more medals than at any Olympics for 100 years and stood fourth in this world festival of international sport. As a Christian, I share the concerns of many around the world about the dissonance between the public face China presented to the world and the facts of the suffering and oppression that still go on in that country for many minority groups including some Christians.
But it was the opening ceremony that took people’s breath away. Did you see it? Absolutely spectacular, imaginative, lavish, and mesmerizing with its technical wizardry, it combined glorification of China with the celebration of a multi-national world in the parade of nations.
Immediately afterwards I got an email from someone suggesting that we ought to have a Christian equivalent – a spectacularly magnificent demonstration to the world of the multi-national body of Christ, from all the nations of the world. I wrote back to say that God has already had that idea, and we’ve all got booked seats for the greatest show on earth when Christ returns to usher in the new creation. Not only will there be ‘a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language’ (Rev. 7:9), but also there will be a great parade of the nations, as they bring their glory, wealth and splendour into the city of God.
This is a prospect that fills me with great excitement. Here is an extract of what I wrote about it in my forthcoming book, The God I Don’t Understand (Zondervan, January 2009).
The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it… (Rev. 21:24-27, NRSV).
This is a wonderful promise. But we have to ask carefully: What constitutes “the glory” of kings, and the “glory and honour of the nations”? This cannot be imagining some pageant of crowned heads, parading their own pomp and pride in a great procession of the powerful into heaven. I don’t think the Bible, after all it has said about God’s rejection of the arrogance of the great, and after all that Jesus said about “the last being first”, means to end with the idea that the great and powerful of the earth get to stay that way “when we all get to heaven”.
What makes kings glorious (to the extent that they are at all) is the accumulated work of their subjects – whether in creating the wealth their kingdom is built on, or (in our sinful world) fighting to protect it or to extend it. What brings honour to nations is the accumulation of cultural achievement over many generations. Art, literature, music, architecture, styles of food and dress, the richness of language and culture – and so much else – these are the things that national distinctives are built on, which at their best enrich our humanity and at their most trivial support the tourist industry. And these are things that all human beings participate in and contribute to, however humbly. These, I think, are what is implied by the language of national glory and honour, as represented by “the kings of the earth”. These are the things they will be bringing into the city of God, in John’s vision.
Now of course, all such national glory and honour is shot through also with human pride, greed, violence and immorality. Cultural glories go along with cultural horrors. The splendour of all civilizations has been built on shameful foundations. We know that all too well in our fallen world. But if only human civilization could be purged of all such marks of the fall… How glorious then would it be! Then we would be able to see in all such national cultural achievements not merely the proud posturing of arrogant human beings, but the stupendous product of human creativity through the ages. It would all resound in praise of the God who created us in his own image with such limitless capacity. The glory of humanity and the glory of God would at last be in harmony and not opposed to one another. But what we have in Revelation is not just a longing – if only this could be true. The Bible promises that it will be so. It’s not a matter of “If only…” but “When…!”
All that has enriched and honoured the life of all nations in all history will be brought in to enrich the new creation. The new creation will not be a blank page, as if God will simply crumple up the whole of human historical life in this creation and toss it in the cosmic bin, and then hand us a new sheet to start all over again. The new creation will start with the unimagineable reservoir of all that human civilization has accomplished in the old creation – but purged, cleansed, disinfected, sanctified and blessed. And we shall have eternity to enjoy it and to build upon it in ways we cannot dream of now as we will exercise the powers of creativity of our redeemed humanity.
Speaking personally, I find enormous comfort and hope in this thought, precisely because it goes way beyond what I can understand. I don’t understand how it will be so, but the firm biblical affirmation that it will be so fills me with great excitement and anticipation.
Think of the prospect! All human culture, language, literature, art, music, science, business, sport, technological achievement, – actual and potential - all available to us. All of it with the poison of evil and sin sucked out of it forever. All of it glorifying God. All of it under his loving and approving smile. All of it for us to enjoy with God and indeed being enjoyed by God. And all eternity for us to explore it, understand it, appreciate it, and expand it.
If this is the new creation that the Bible promises, you can understand why I don’t want just to “go to heaven when I die.” Who wants just heaven, when God promises heaven and earth?
So you can see that, although I was just as astonished as everybody else at the scale and drama of the Olympic Opening Ceremony in Beijing, when I reflect on it in the light of the prospect that Revelation holds before us, it paled into rather pathetic insignificance – particularly since it was staged in a country, and involved a parade that included many countries, where injustice and oppression still tarnish the façade of ‘One World One Dream’.
But that led me to one other thought, when I wrote back to the friend who emailed her suggestion of a great Christian “parade of the nations”. Such an event is indeed being planned in the near future! (This is not an “End Times” prediction). In October 2010 there will be a third great meeting of the Lausanne movement for world evangelization: Lausanne III, Cape Town 2010. (The first was in Lausanne in 1974; the second in Manila in 1989). You can check it out at www.lausanne.org.
Lausanne III will also have a great opening ceremony – but it will be very different from the Olympics. For a start, it will be fundamentally an act of worship, bringing glory and honour to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is planned to include a colourful demonstration of the multi-cultural nature of the body of Christ. But the Lausanne Theology Working Group (which I chair), has urged the planners of the event that this should not be a parade of national flags.
Flags symbolize states, and in many cases, states that are exercising oppressive power, or power achieved by violence, or states that are the historical legacy of colonialism but still riddled with its effects. But the fact is that the worldwide Body of Christ now includes people from communities, tribes and languages that are themselves sometimes the victims of violence and persecution by governments that fly those flags. Would Karen Christians want to parade under the flag of Burma? Under whose flag might Kurdish believers march? And what about believers among various aboriginal peoples under flags of modern nations that were birthed in the genocide of those very peoples? The fact is that there are far more “tribes, languages and peoples” than there are sovereign states with flags, so flags are a very poor way of showing the diversity of God’s people around the world. They are demographically inadequate and tainted with aggression, pride and bloodshed. Sometimes they symbolize a very dangerous and idolatrous combination of patriotism and religion which harnesses God to the service of national self-interest (just like Jeroboam, the son of Nebat “who made Israel to sin”, 1 Kgs. 12:26-33).
So I look forward to Lausanne III in 2010. It will not be an arrogant celebration of human prowess and national pride. We trust it will be a celebration of the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, marked by the humility of the crucified servant. And by showing the rich cultural diversity of his body throughout the world, we hope it will be an anticipation of the greatest show on earth when Christ returns - which will have the wonderful opening ceremony described in Revelation, but no closing ceremony a few weeks later!
Dr. Chris Wright is International Director of the Langham Partnership International. He also serves as chair of the Lausanne Committee’s Theology Working Group and chair of the Theological Resource Panel of TEAR Fund, a leading Christian relief and development charity. He has written several books, including Old Testament Ethics for the People of God and the award-winning The Mission of God. In January, Zondervan will release his The God I Don't Understand.
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