Revelation Week 11
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1–22:9)
By Rob Wall
Seattle Pacific University Paul T. Walls Professor of Scripture and Wesleyan Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: Revelation 21:1–22:9
One of my favorite Bible passages is 2 Corinthians 1:19–20, where Paul writes that “In [Christ] it is always yes. All of God’s promises have their yes in him.” After God’s resounding “no” at the final battle, which ends the reign of terror led by the two beasts and their evil minions (Revelation 19:11–21), and then God’s equally decisive “no” in condemning the devil and death to the fiery lake (20:1–15), it’s about time the reader hears God sound a resounding “yes.” And we finally hear that “yes” spoken from the throne to a cleansed and purged creation in John’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth (21:1–8).
The unfortunate break between chapters 20 and 21, put there by ancient scribes rather than by the prophet John, interrupts the natural flow of his vision of “the great day of God the Almighty” (16:14). John’s sighting of a new creation forms the final piece of an integral triad of visions: the final battle, the millennium, and now the new creation all present different perspectives on that final day of the history of God’s salvation, when Christ returns to earth to complete his messianic mission and “all of God’s promises have their yes in him.” When the new day dawns, eternity will begin.
God Remodels Creation
Scripture usually depicts God creating something new out of something old. Even the Bible’s opening sentence — its thesis statement — tells us that when God created the heavens and the earth, earth was already there but without shape or life. Later Scripture teaches us that God breathed life into a man already formed from the dirt — a lump of clay brought to life. We shouldn’t expect that a new creation promised by God (Isaiah 65:17–25) will be a brand new heaven and earth. The biblical idea of “new” rather refers to a radical remodel of the “old.” God takes something, demolishes what’s there, leaves the bones in place, but then completely remodels it into something much better than before.
This is always God’s way of salvation: God takes bad news and remakes it into good news — powerfully, decisively, and graciously. God’s remodel of creation is not quite a restoration back to the original, since the new production is even better than the original. Yet at the same time God’s original reversal of earth from chaos and darkness into something “very good,” narrated by Genesis 1, never reverts back to chaos and darkness. God’s prevenient grace prevents this from happening. But the dimmed light and disorder of a fallen, broken creation are repaired and improved for eternity.
John’s initial sightings and auditions seem to make this point. He recognizes that all kinds of former things are “no more” (21:1, 4): there is no place in the new creation for the “former heaven” or “former earth” (20:11), and the “sea,” once home to the beast (13:1; cf. Genesis 1:10), no longer exists either since the beast is now toast. He observes that every tear is wiped away since there is no more death or the experience of suffering caused by it. The bad news of death and all its painful appetites and nasty effects will be a thing of the past in that moment when Christ returns to earth and commences “the great day of God the Almighty” (16:14) to demolish the old creation and rebuild the new. The motion of God’s salvation follows creation from bad news to good.
New Jerusalem, Christ’s People
Along with his sightings of new things and his non-sightings of former things, John hears a commanding voice that redirects his attention to “the holy city, New Jerusalem” (21:2). He first observes the city not as a city but as a person beautifully adorned like a bride on her wedding day, walking down the aisle leading from heaven to her husband, the Lamb, to make their home together with God in a renewed creation (21:2–3; cf. Isaiah 65:17–19).
The old city, Babylon, and the prostitute who personifies its repulsive evils, are replaced by this new city, Jerusalem, and the bride who personifies its sanctified goods. We have already met this woman: she represents God’s people, forgiven and redeemed for God’s sake (19:7–8; 7:9–17), who follow the Lamb wherever he goes (14:1–5). She is all those overcomers whose names are written in the scrolls because of the works of repentance they have done (20:12). John observes that the New Jerusalem is not so much a holy city as it is a holy people, the bride of Christ.
And then God speaks (21:5–8)! God’s first words in Revelation (1:8) and these last words declare who God is: “I am Alpha and Omega” (i.e., the beginning and the end). From beginning to ending, John’s vision of what was, now is, and is to come is grounded in this theological affirmation of divine providence: God is “Alpha” (the first letter of the Greek alphabet), whose first words give life and shape to all things, and “Omega” (the last letter), whose final words give fresh life to God’s people while destroying creation’s destroyers.
Revelation is a book about God not letting go of creation and making good on the promise to put creation to rights through God’s Lamb, the faithful witness and conquering warrior. At the epicenter of John’s vision of the real world (for God’s reign is the real world) we hear the victorious declaration of Alpha and Omega: “Look! I’m making all things new” (21:5). Gospel, people, gospel!
Living Water for the Overcomers
Two promises are made based upon this theological affirmation. Each is directed to us who hear “the words of this prophecy” (1:3, NIV). First, God promises life-giving spring water to the thirsty. If we read the Bible in the order the Church has arranged its various books (I contend under the direction of God’s Spirit), we will have read John’s Gospel before hearing John’s Revelation read aloud. We will know that Jesus offers water that bubbles up eternal life (John 4:14). We will know that all those who thirst for life should trust Jesus and receive the Spirit from him who pours out “rivers of living water” that replenish and renew life (John 7:37–39). Gospel, people, gospel!
Second, God promises this to all those who are “victorious” (Revelation 21:7) (the translation “overcomer” is better). This is one of Revelation’s catchwords, designed to attract our attention when John uses it. Recall the Lord’s address of the seven congregations in Revelation 2–3 when the risen Jesus repeatedly uses the Greek verbal noun “overcomer” to promise salvation to all those who obey “what the Spirit is saying” and overcome evil (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22), even as he overcame evil to broker God’s salvation on their behalf (3:21; 5:5; 12:11; 17:14).
At the same time, those who do not overcome evil and avoid the “second death” (cf. 2:11; 20:14) are classified in a catalog of the rejected ones (21:8). At the head of this catalog are the cowardly and faithless — doubtless meant as a warning to those believers tempted to compromise their faith for the evils of Babylon (18:4). To do so is an act of cowardice, when faith is exchanged for the niceties of the “good life” offered by the beast. The courage to resist the comforts of Babylon and follow the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4–5) requires deep faith that this Lamb is the risen Lord who himself is the exemplary overcomer (so 3:21; 17:14).
A Tour of the Holy City
One unique way that visitors tour Seattle is from the seat of an amphibious landing craft called a Duck. Both by land and by sea, visitors to our city see its sights while being entertained by the commentary of a Duck tour guide/driver. Previously the prophet is invited by “one of the seven angels” to observe the judgment of “the great prostitute” (17:1–6), only then to be given a “Duck’s tour” of the city she represents, evil Babylon (17:18). But this is a happier season because a new creation has dawned. This time John is invited by “one of the seven angels” — we presume the same tour guide as before (17:1; 21:9, 15) — to observe the Lamb’s wife (21:9). Once again John is not shown a woman but instead the city she represents, the New Jerusalem that he tours in the Spirit.
The contrast between Babylon and Jerusalem could not be drawn more sharply. The holy city’s vastness is everywhere observed: its great size, its high walls, its jeweled brilliance, its many gates open in every direction, and its firm foundation, all built with precious materials suitable for the Creator’s dwelling place. And unlike Babylon, observed as a two-dimensional city, Jerusalem is measured in three dimensions (its length, width, and height are the same). Its gates and foundations number twelve for the great multitude of twelve tribes that make up the Lamb’s people (21:12; cf. 7:9), whose faith is built on the foundation established by his twelve apostles (21:14). It’s a place of great beauty, a home suitable for the Lamb’s bride. God’s creations are beautiful things. Streets of pure gold shining like a mirror, bejeweled foundations, and decorated walls evoke a breathtaking city.
In the history of interpreting Revelation’s Jerusalem, much has been made of the metals and jewels that John notes during his city tour and what each may symbolize about Christian life and virtue. I doubt this figuration is a useful exercise at day’s end. The vision is rather an evocation of the city’s beauty, and as such the reader should be impressed that God’s “Omega” — God’s salvation at day’s end — is such a gorgeous, abundant creation. However, if one detail is lifted up and given expanded meaning it is this one: every one of the city’s twelve gates is made from a single pearl. No matter the direction from which the faithful arrive at the city, they enter into the presence of God through a gate no different than any other. John’s Jesus reminds us that he is the only way to God (John 14:6–7); he is that one pearl of great price from whom all twelve gates are made.
The main point of John’s Duck tour of the New Jerusalem is this: John’s tour is not really of a city but of a people. The New Jerusalem is the bride of Christ, the one holy, catholic, and apostolic people of God. His repeated use of “twelve” in describing the city provides the clue: the biblical “twelve” symbolizes God’s people (as in “twelve tribes” or “twelve apostles”).
God, the Source and Center of New Jerusalem
After taking notes on what he sees, John also makes the surprising observation that “I didn’t see a temple in the city” (21:22). John has in mind Old Testament prophecy of New Jerusalem’s temple (Isaiah 60; Ezekiel 40–48; Zechariah 14), which he interprets as fulfilled not by the building of a third temple (as some Zionist evangelicals suppose) but as the living presence of God and the Lamb, which fills the city top to bottom (21:22; see Isaiah 60:19–22; Ezekiel 48:35; Zechariah 14:20–21). The glory of God supplies the city’s electricity (21:23); there is no darkness that requires the gates to close at night for safety (21:24–25). All twelve gates remain open in every direction to welcome the Lamb’s faithful people from every nation and from all directions into God’s presence (21:26–27).
Is there found in Scripture a more glorious image of the scope of God’s salvation than this? God’s glory is home to the glorified from every nation and people — but precisely because this place is home to a sanctified people and off-limits to the faithless, the cowards, the vile, the despisers of God, the destroyers of earth, and all those other occupants of Babylon. The people who populate the New Jerusalem form a very different community: one that makes good at long last what the Church confesses about itself today: we are one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. This endgame is gospel, people, gospel.
The prophet Ezekiel, from whom John draws much of his language to translate the various visions he receives, uses the image of a temple — a place of worship and praise — in imagining Israel as a restored people, whose life of worship realizes the primary activity of God’s new creation (Ezekiel 40–48). The mingling of images from the creation story (“river of life-giving water;” “tree of life;” the abundant “fruit;” the presence of God) with those of a worshiping community from Ezekiel in Revelation 22:1–5 provides this photo album of “the great day of God the Almighty” (16:14) with a final snapshot of salvation’s endgame. This is the New Jerusalem’s “Central Park” (or Woodland Park in Seattle!), and in the middle of this park is God’s throne, now with the victorious Lamb dwelling “in it” with God (22:3), that orders all of life as an act of unending worship. The source of the river that feeds the never-ending crop of the tree of eternal life is God’s throne; the God who is worshiped is the same God who cultivates a people who live on “forever and always” (22:5).
Curse Ended; Relationships Restored
Even though this snapshot should be viewed with the one that begins Scripture in Genesis 1–2 to form the “bookends” of Scripture’s story — the one promising a life that the other says will be fulfilled in Christ — John observes several elements that belong to this new and improved order. Even though the observation that there is “no longer […] any curse” (22:3; cf. 21:27; Zechariah 14:11) may allude to Eden’s curse, it probably has an even more general implication that covers everything banned by God, including the prohibition to eat the fruit from the “tree of life.” Clearly the fruit of eternal life, banned by God after the fall, is now eaten. Not even in Isaiah’s great vision of the new creation was the prospect of eternal life envisioned (see Isaiah 65)! Of course, all other covenant-breaking practices cursed by God need no longer be banned because there is no longer any evil or agent of evil to prompt a people’s disobedience or idolatry. This is all in the past tense.
The prophet also notes that the people “will see [God’s] face” (22:4; cf. Exodus 33:20–23; 1 John 3:2–3). The distance maintained between God’s people and God underscores the disparity between them: God is holy; God’s people are not yet. But it also symbolizes the inability of God’s people to have a deep level of intimacy with God this side of the end time. The relational effect of the new order is to break down any barrier left that prevents or inhibits personal access to God. To see God is to love God in a profoundly intimate, knowing, fully wakeful way.
Even more striking, however, is the relationship between God and the Lamb. Throughout Revelation, although the Lamb shares God’s status and worship, the first sightings of the Lamb place him alongside or in front of God’s throne (5:6) engaged in redemption’s activities that are “for God” (5:9). It is God alone who sits on heaven’s throne. But now heaven has come to earth, and what is so in heaven is now realized in this new creation.
Not only does the Lamb’s messianic service result in a people’s full participation in the reign of God (22:5; cf. 5:10), but the Lamb himself now shares equally and fully in the Godhead: the throne come to earth belongs jointly to “God and the Lamb” (22:1), with the Lamb now in “the throne of God” (22:3). In fact the two, God and Lamb, are here so closely intertwined that the singular “him/his” used in 22:3–4 refers to both as though one person, a single object of worship and joy. Such is the eschatology of the Holy Trinity.
God’s Victory Must Elicit Worship
John’s vision of the New Jerusalem as an expansive metaphor of God’s people is brought to conclusion in the same way it begins (see 19:9–10): the angel who carries divine revelation to the prophet to write down confirms its truth (22:6; cf. 19:9). In this case, the angel confirms the truth of what John sees when heaven opens and he is able to see, in a series of stunning visions, what soon must take place: the return of the messianic warrior to destroy the defeated enemy once and for all time.
This is what John called in the prologue “the words of this prophecy” (1:3; cf. 22:7a), which “must soon take place” (1:1; 22:6b); and this prophecy is what is written down on the scroll the Lamb retrieves from God (22:7; Revelation 5) that he then opens to begin the last days (Revelation 6–11). The angel’s words sound the final amen to the final vision of “the great day of God the Almighty” (16:14), the very last of the last days, which happily concludes in the Eden of the renewed creation.
Once again, as though unable to constrain himself at what he sees, John bows before the angel, who sharply rebukes the prophet for worshiping someone other than God (22:8–9; cf. 19:9–10). This final command of Revelation is “Worship God!” (22:9), which repeats the angel’s earlier command that added “hold firmly to the witness of Jesus” (19:10), reminding the reader of the correct posture elicited by this vision of God’s final victory: worship God, the only God. Amen.
Questions for Further Reflection
- The new creation is clearly a work of God, not of humans, which comes after the apocalypse. Why should Christians concern themselves now with righting a corrupt, globally warming, unjust world?
- It is unlikely we’ll see streets of gold in heaven, but something much better regarding the holy interactions available to God’s people. Imagine what this looks like in one’s relationship to God and to others.
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thanks again! gospel people gospel! blessed are ears that hear!