Longings for a Heavenly City

This blog was written by Emerging Leaders Director John Sarver.

I stand by, mesmerized, as she towers over me in all her brilliance: intricate and strong, she nearly reaches the heavens. Larger than life and exuding creative genius, the Eiffel tower attracts the masses, each of them eager to feel awe-struck and to capture her in time with the perfect selfie. Earlier that day, we saw the Arc de Triomphe, and later we saw the Lourve (including the happy-lady), and an entire city whose design and architecture is inspired and inspire awe. From the buildings to the cuisine, the city simply radiates imagination and goodness.

The past few weeks have been pretty unique for me. I taught at a pastor’s conference in Hyderabad, India, as well as a Bible School in Belgrade, Serbia; each trip was accompanied by a small layover in either Paris or London. In Hyderabad, I was captivated by a city of 10 million people and 10 million senses: the city was full of rich color, smells, sounds, breathtaking temples and masses of people. So large and altogether different, the city functioned more like a river: organic, moving and meandering. Each of these cities built by human hands articulated in one way or another creativity and grandeur, while inspiring worship.

Yet, being gone for nearly three weeks, I longed to be home, and I longed for rest. I longed to walk through the soft-yellow door of my house and be greeted by gray and white walls, familiar faces in frames and a soft mattress. I longed to breath familiar air. I longed for my home that transcends the physical. I missed rooms full of laughter, memories, meals, comfort and joy. I returned home last week and felt all those things. I entered my house and immediately entered into that rest. I experienced a familiar city with my home, familiar sounds, smells, tastes and friends.

The next day, I woke up in the city I longed for, and I continue to feel rest, but it was rest mingled with unrest and sadness. You see, in Hyderabad, I fell in love with far more than a just city. I taught at a pastor’s conference to a group of men and women who are the first followers of Jesus in their entire people group of 6 million. It’s hard to wrap my mind around that. These men are without any formal training, yet they came alive as we opened up the scriptures with them. All of them eager to take what they learned back to the churches they pastor. I fell in love with 400 elementary students at a school in an Indian village. Every day, we would play cricket and have dance parties for hours. I fell in love with my new friends: Abraham, Sukesh, Mahash, Vijay, and the Niak family.

In Serbia, I fell in love with 30 students who are a part of the .07% Christian minority of Serbia. We gave them nearly 60 hours of bible teaching; we ate meals with them, worshiped with them and played sports with them. One day, some of Jess’ and my friends from last year’s class drove up to the school to surprise us. We screamed with joy and nearly cried as we embraced them. That evening, we got dinner with them in a neighboring village. It was a night of good food, Turkish coffee, hugs and worship to God as we recounted his goodness in our lives over the last year. We told story after story of how God has been at work in our lives, rejoicing and worshiping over table fellowship.

So after three weeks of traveling the world, building friendships, teaching through the bible and longing to be home and to rest, I find myself in my house. I’m home, yet I find myself both satisfied and unsatisfied, both rested and restless, both happy and sad. I just visited four of the world’s greatest cities and experienced some of the planet’s richest history, art, cuisine, monuments and people, and now I find myself in my favorite city on earth, and I’m sad. Why? Is it because I miss those cities? Or perhaps because I miss teaching through the Bible? Or because I miss my brothers and sisters from around the world? I think that’s all part of it, but not the underlying reason.

I’m finding myself home yet with healthy discontent because I’m longing for a different city, a heavenly one. In Genesis 12, God makes a promise to Abraham. God tells Abraham that he would make him into great nation, would give him a land, and from his offspring all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Later on, God would seal this promise with a covenant with Abraham. Abraham believes God, and it’s credited to him as righteousness. Paul tells us in Galatians 3 that God was actually preaching the gospel to Abraham, and when Abraham believed in Genesis 15, he was saved. So Abraham is promised a land and he is told that from his offspring (Jesus) all the nations of the earth would be blessed. From this offspring, the effects of the curse would be reversed (Genesis 3). Our relationship with God, each other and the created order would be made right. What a promise made to Abraham! Although God promised land to Abraham (Canaan), Abraham didn’t experience it; he didn’t even inherit A FOOT of the land (Acts 7:5). It would not be until Joshua leads a conquest into the promise land that the promise finds its contemporary fulfillment (Joshua 21:43-35). It is then that Israel receives the land, rest and its inheritance.

So what about Abraham and the promise of God? Did Abraham miss out? No. Was God unfaithful? By no means. The author of Hebrews tells us that by faith Abraham left his land, and even though he lived in tents, he was looking forward to a city whose designer and builder is God himself. In fact, they weren’t looking for physical land; they desired and were seeking a BETTER country, a HEAVENLY one. They were longing for a heavenly city that God had created for them (Hebrews 11:8-16). Abraham knew that the land pointed toward a better land that God had made, and he longed for it. The author of Hebrews goes on to tell us that we’ve received a kingdom that CANNOT be shaken, a heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:18-29). The author ends his book by telling us that we have no lasting city here, but we are to seek a city that is to come (Hebrews 13:14). So Abraham was living on earth and had a promise of land, but he longed for a heavenly land. We too are told to long for this “heavenly city.” Today, I find myself wondering what it’s like there.

We get one final picture of this heavenly city in Revelation 21. God creates a new cosmos with a new earth in it, and John sees “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” John hears the voice of God saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people… He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” John then hears God say, “I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:1-5). In the same way that we’ve been made new creations, and the old has passed away, so God renews the universe and fully consummates his Kingdom.

Something incredible happens: John sees heaven, the heavenly city Jerusalem, come down to earth, and there’s no distinction between heaven and earth anymore. God will perfectly dwell with his people forever! There is perfect, complete access to God! This city is simply amazing. Because God perfectly dwells there, crying, the things that hurt us, and death are no more. There will no longer be hatred, racism, arrogance, war, prejudice or loneliness. People won’t go hungry, bully each other or take their own lives. God will take all those things away from us; so much so, we won’t even remember the names of our Idols (Zech 13:2), and we’ll dwell perfectly with God for eternity. It’s simply amazing.

The story of the bible is truly the story of a God wanting to be with his people, yet we continually rebel against him. So God makes all things right through the life, death and resurrection of his Son. Here, we have the final picture of God consummating his Kingdom, renewing everything and in doing so reversing all the effects from the fall. John notes that there’s no temple in the city because there’s no need for one! The city and the cosmos themselves are the temple of God. God will fully fill his creation and dwell with his people perfectly. It is an even better, newer Garden of Eden, with a river, and the tree of life giving healing to the nations. The city is so breathtaking that John describes it as being made of gold and the most precious jewels. There is not even a need for a sun because Jesus is the light in the middle of the city! We will worship Jesus and finally see his face (Rev 21-22). What a city worth longing for!

As I saw Paris, London, Belgrade and Hyderabad, I was awe-struck. The cities were beautiful and creative, and displayed the innovation, authority and rule of man. These cities are to point us to the heavenly city, whose Architect and Builder is God. If we find ourselves worshipful at the sight of the Eiffel Tower or British Parliament, can you imagine when we find ourselves in the heavenly city looking upon Jesus and seeing his creativity and power as we walk around the New Jerusalem? Can you imagine a city where there is no longer any death, crying or pain? I cannot wait for that day, and it will surely happen.

I long for the day that an infinitely more perfect “Paris” will not and CANNOT be bombed, shot at, or a target of terrorism; a place where people don’t hate or hurt each other. Can you imagine a new “Hyderabad” where there are NO slums, NO social caste system, and NO children who are disabled, without parents and dying of hunger? Can you picture a more perfect “Memphis” where there is not prejudice, racial divide or social injustice? A place where God has put out all the wicked, has made all things new and protects us for eternity. I long for the day that I see Niak, Sukesh, Mahesh, Sasha, Sladjan, Rusa and Igor again. I will embrace them, and we’ll recount the faithfulness and grace of God as we “catch up.” I picture us walking through every moment of our lives and fully seeing the power and protection of God at work in every scene. We’ll shout out praises to God, worshiping and laughing in perfect, infinite joy forever. We will receive the inheritance and the rest that we’ve longed for our entire lives. The city is perfect. Its King and Builder is perfect, and we’ll dwell there with Him perfectly forever. Can you imagine it?

So here I am in Memphis, reflecting on recent travels. England, France, Serbia and India were amazing, but I’m longing for a better, heavenly country. I’m back in my own city and have found a piece of rest and happiness, but I’m restless and sad. I long to see my King’s face and my brothers and sisters from around the world. I long to fully enter into the rest of Jesus and receive my inheritance in the new heavens and new earth. I long to stand in awe in the heavenly city. I long to dwell in safety and perfection forever.

So I’m longing for this heavenly city. Does that mean I become a recluse until I die or until Jesus’ returns? Do I live in fear of how people might hurt me physically or emotionally? Do I spend as much time as possible within the confines of a church building? No. You see, Jesus tells us to pray that God’s kingdom would come to earth and His will would be done on earth in the same way it’s seen or is happening in heaven (Matthew 6:10).

We shouldn’t hide, but should live in such a way to advance the Kingdom of God here and live here in light of the Kingdom that will one day be fully consummated. Jesus, the incarnate God, took God’s holiness outside the cubic walls of the temple and walked around touching unclean people and healing those who could have never entered the holy of holies themselves. He spent time at parties with those who would have never lifted their faces to heaven as they prayed because they were so unworthy. Jesus was a walking and talking heaven on earth. We should love our neighbors, share the gospel with them and disciple them. We should enact social justice, bring healing to our city and create good things. We should fight for those who can’t fight for themselves and care for the widows and orphans. These are all true expressions of our faith. We are to live in light of the Kingdom that is here in part but will one day fully come. So here I am today: rested yet restless, and happy yet sad. Living in a broken city, longing for a healed city. I am longing for a heavenly country. Here, I have no lasting city, but I have hope, so I seek the city to come.