A Study on Revelation 21:1-22:21 - Part I
I can’t think of anything more important for the understanding of eschatology than the biblical doctrine of the new heavens and new earth. One of the greatest misconceptions of amillennialism, of which I am an advocate, is that it empties the Old Testament land promises of all meaningful content, either by spiritualizing a wide array of passages or interpreting them as figurative of some ethereal existence in the clouds. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anthony Hoekema, in his excellent treatment of eschatology, The Bible and the Future, explains:
“The doctrine of the new earth, as taught in Scripture, is an important one. It is important, first, for the proper understanding of the life to come. One gets the impression from certain hymns that glorified believers will spend eternity in some ethereal heaven somewhere off in space, far away from earth. . . . But does such a conception do justice to biblical eschatology? Are we to spend eternity somewhere off in space, wearing white robes, plucking harps, singing songs, and flitting from cloud to cloud while doing so? On the contrary, the Bible assures us that God will create a new earth on which we shall live to God’s praise in glorified, resurrected bodies. On that new earth, therefore, we hope to spend eternity, enjoying its beauties, exploring its resources, and using its treasures to the glory of God. Since God will make the new earth his dwelling place, and since where God dwells there heaven is, we shall then continue to be in heaven while we are on the new earth [emphasis mine]. For heaven and earth will then no longer be separated, as they are now, but will be one (Rev. 21:1-3) . . . . Secondly, the doctrine of the new earth is important for a proper grasp of the full dimensions of God’s redemptive program. In the beginning, so we read in Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth. Because of man’s fall into sin, a curse was pronounced over this creation. God now sent his Son into this world to redeem that creation from the results of sin. The work of Christ, therefore, is not just to save certain individuals, not even to save an innumerable throng of blood-bought people. The total work of Christ is nothing less than to redeem this entire creation from the effects of sin. That purpose will not be accomplished until God has ushered in the new earth, until Paradise Lost has become Paradise Regained. We need a clear understanding of the doctrine of the new earth, therefore, in order to see God’s redemptive program in cosmic dimensions. We need to realize that God will not be satisfied until the entire universe has been purged of all the results of man’s fall,” (pp. 274-75).
Hoekema finds such OT prophecies as Isa. 65:17; 66:22; 32:15; 35:2; 35:10; 35:7; 11:9 which speak of the restoration of the created order, both human and animal, to be fulfilled in the new earth, not the millennium. Furthermore, the many OT prophecies which speak of a glorious future for God’s people on the earth “should not be interpreted as referring either to the church of the present time or to heaven, if by heaven is meant a realm somewhere off in space, far away from earth. Prophecies of this nature should be understood as descriptions – in figurative language, to be sure – of the new earth which God will bring into existence after Christ comes again – a new earth which will last, not just for a thousand years, but forever” (pp. 275-76).
Hoekema finds support for this view in the fact that the initial covenant promises of the land of Canaan to Abraham (Gen. 12,13,15,17) undergo considerable expansion in Scripture, an expansion of such a nature that the ultimate fulfillment could only be realized on the new/redeemed earth. For example, he refers to Gen. 17:8 and the land promise to Abraham, and says
“Note that God promised to give the land of Canaan not just to Abraham’s descendants but also Abraham himself. Yet Abraham never owned as much as a square foot of ground in the land of Canaan (cf. Acts 7:5) --- except for the burial cave which he had to purchase from the Hittites (see Gen. 23). What, now, was Abraham’s attitude with respect to this promise of the inheritance of the land of Canaan, which was never fulfilled during his own lifetime? We get an answer to this question from the book of Hebrews. In chapter 11, verses 9-10, we read, ‘By faith he [Abraham] sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.’ By ‘the city which has foundations’ we are to understand the holy city or the new Jerusale which will be found on the new earth. Abraham, in other words, looked forward to the new earth as the real fulfillment of the inheritance which had been promised him --- and so did the other patriarchs,” (p. 278).
“When we properly understand biblical teachings about the new earth, many other Scripture passages begin to fall into a significant pattern. For example, in Psalm 37:11 we read, ‘But the meek shall possess the land.’ It is significant to observe how Jesus’ paraphrase of this passage in his Sermon on the Mount reflects the New Testament expansion of the concept of the land: ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’ (Matt. 5:5). From Genesis 17:8 we learned that God promised to give to Abraham and his seed all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, but in Romans 4:13 Paul speaks of the promise to Abraham and his descendants that they should inherit the world --- note that the land of Canaan in Genesis has become the world in Romans,” (pp. 281-82).
A significant passage that addresses this issue is found in Hebrews 11. We begin with a question: "How do we explain that when Abraham finally arrived in the land of promise he only sojourned there, 'as an alien . . . as in a foreign land'?" (Heb. 11:9,13). Philip Hughes rightly asks: "In what sense could he be said to have received this land as an inheritance when it was a territory in which he led no settled existence and to which he had no claim of ownership?" (467). We need not speculate an answer, for the text provides its own in v. 10, "for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God."
What is this city? It is that city which God has prepared for them (v. 16), mentioned again in Heb. 12:22 as the "city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem." See also Heb. 13:14, where we read, "for here [that is, on this present earth] we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come." This surely refers to the heavenly Jerusalem of Heb. 12:22, the city which has foundations (v. 10). Note also Rev. 21:1-2, esp. v. 2 where we read that John "saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God" (cf. 21:9-11). The reason, then, why Abraham was a sojourner and exile in Canaan was because he viewed that earthly land to be a type of the heavenly and more substantial land/country. Hughes explains:
"Thus Abraham did not view the earthly territory to which God's promise was attached as an end in itself, but understood it, sacramentally, as a sign pointing beyond itself to a distant and transcendental reality. He saw and greeted the fulfillment of the promise from afar as his gaze of faith penetrated beyond all earthly values to that eternal and heavenly country which is the true homeland of God's people."
Note well: although it is "transcendental", "eternal", and "heavenly", it is still a country. The point is that the patriarchs did not seek in the physical land of Canaan their everlasting possession. The focal point of the OT land promise was on land, to be sure, but on the heavenly land of the new earth with its central feature, the New Jerusalem.
Abraham, the one to whom the land of Canaan was originally promised, is said to receive the fulfillment of that promise, not in geographic Canaan, but in the heavenly Jerusalem. Abraham is heir, not merely of Canaan, but of the world! Indeed, according to Heb. 11:9-10, it was Abraham's expectation of permanent and perfect blessing in the heavenly city that enabled him to submit patiently to the inconvenience and disappointments during his pilgrimage in Canaan.
Look also at Heb. 11:13-16. The reason these died not having received the promise, but having only seen it from afar, is that their hope was not focused on any this-earthly-inheritance, but, as v. 16 indicates, on a heavenly one. F. F. Bruce sums it up well by noting that, according to v. 16,
"their true homeland was not on earth at all. The better country on which they had set their hearts was the heavenly country. The earthly Canaan and the earthly Jerusalem were but temporary object-lessons pointing to the saints' everlasting rest, the well-founded city of God" (305).
The Abrahamic land promise, as well as prophecies such as Isa. 65:17; 66:22; 32:15; 35:2,7,10; 11:9, which speak of a restoration of the cosmos, are to be fulfilled on the new earth in the new creation, not on a millennial earth in the old one.
It’s with this mind that we now turn our attention to the description of the New Heavens and New Earth in Revelation 21-22. But before I begin our study, two introductory observations are called for.
First, although most regard Rev. 21-22 as a description of what is yet future, of what will follow either the second coming (amillennialists) or the millennium (premillennialists), some have argued that it is a symbolic portrayal of life now in the church. According to the preterist view of Revelation, as represented by Gentry, “the new creation” that John describes in these chapters “begins in the first century” (Four Views, 87). The New Jerusalem of these chapters replaces the old Jerusalem immediately following the latter’s destruction in 70 a.d. Thus, Gentry believes that “John is expressing, by means of elevated poetic imagery, the glory of salvation” (89).
Gentry tries to find support for this view in Isaiah 65:17,20 which describes the new heavens and new earth: “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. . . . Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.” He points to the fact that Isaiah portrays the new creation as still experiencing sin, aging, and death. Thus, he concludes, “it cannot refer either to heaven or the consummate, eternal new creation” (88). However, if the Isaiah text appears too imperfect and limiting for a future heaven it appears too exalted and expansive for a present earth! The fact is, this passage is problematic for all eschatological systems.
Although others have tried to find here a description of the millennial kingdom on earth prior to the eternal state, the evidence from the text supports the traditional view: this is the eternal state, the consummated and perfected form of the kingdom of God.
Second, one cannot help but notice that the letters of chps. 2-3 stand in antithetical parallelism to chps. 21-22 (I pointed this out in my earlier study on the seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor). In other words, the imperfections of the church in the old creation, as seen in the seven letters in chps. 2-3, find their counterpart in the perfections of the church in the new creation, as seen in chps. 21-22. Consider these unmistakable parallels identified by Meredith Kline:
·false prophets (2:2) / 12 true apostles (21:14)
·false Jews (2:9; 3:9) / the names of the tribes of true Israel (21:12)
·Christians dwell where Satan’s throne is (2:13) / Christians dwell where God’s throne is (22:1)
·some in the church are dead (3:1) / all in the new Jerusalem are written in the Lamb’s book of life (21:27)
·the church is a faltering, temporal lampstand (1:20; 2:5) / God and the Lamb are the eternal lamps (21:23-24; 22:5)
·the church is filled with idolatrous impurities (2:14-15,20) and liars (2:9; 3:9) / there will only be purity and truth in the new creation (21:8,27)
·Christians face persecution, hoping in God’s promises to overcomers (2:8-10,14) / in the new creation they reign, having inherited these promises.
Similarly, Paul Minear (I Saw a New Earth) has noted that each of the promises made to the “overcomers” is perfectly fulfilled in the final vision of the consummated new creation:
·food (2:7 and 22:2)
·the temple (3:12 and 21:22ff.)
·identification with an eternal city (3:12 and 21:2,10)
·a great name (3:12 and 22:4)
·eternal security (3:5 and 21:27)
·incorruptible clothing (3:5 and 21:2,9ff.; cf. 19:7-8)
·a bright stone and a luminary (2:17,28, and 21:11,18-21,23; 22:5,16)
·a share in Christ’s kingly power (2:26-27; 3:21 and 22:5)
·exclusion from the second death (2:11 and 21:7-8).
Eternity: the New Heaven, the New Earth, the New Jerusalem – 21:1-22:5
A.John’s vision of the New Heaven and New Earth – 21:1
If “earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them” (20:11), it is so that a new heaven and new earth might take their place! The relationship between the former and the latter is ambiguous. Certainly there are elements of continuity, even as there are between our present, corruptible bodies and our future, incorruptible and glorified bodies. We will be in heaven the same, though transformed, people that we are now. Yet, the heaven and earth to come are also said to be “new” or kainos, a word which typically indicates newness of quality, not time. See also 2 Peter 3:10. For specific elements of both continuity and discontinuity, see the exposition that follows.
One element of discontinuity is the absence of the “sea” in the new creation. Why the “sea”? The “sea” was typically regarded as symbolic of evil, chaos, and anti-kingdom powers with whom Yahweh must contend, see Isaiah 17:12,13; 51:9-10; 27:1; 57:20; Rev. 17:8; 21:1; Jer. 46:7ff.; Job 26:7-13. Here, too, in Revelation we note that the “sea” is the origin of cosmic evil as well as the rebellious and unbelieving nations that oppose the kingdom of God (cf. Rev. 13:1; 17:2,6). It is also the place of the dead (Rev. 20:13) and the location of the world’s idolatrous trade activity (18:10-19). As Ladd has noted, in ancient times the sea “represented the realm of the dark, the mysterious, and the treacherous” (276; cf. Ps. 107:25-28; Ezek. 28:8; Dan. 7:3ff). Thus, this is John’s way of saying that in the new creation all such evil and corruption and unbelief and darkness will be banished. Was this foreshadowed in our Lord’s calming of the turbulent waters of the Sea of Galilee in Mt. 8:23-27?
B.John’s vision of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem – 21:2-22:5
1.the descent of the city – 21:2-8
a.the city adorned for her husband – 21:2
Here we see that the descent of the New Jerusalem from heaven to earth is compared to a bride coming to her husband. It would appear that John is equating the New Jerusalem with the bride of Christ, hence the church = the New Jerusalem. See Rev. 3:12; 19:7-8. This identification is explicitly reinforced by Rev. 21:9:ff. where John is told, “’Come here, I shall show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away . . . and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” In other words, whereas in one sense the people of God shall dwell in the New Jerusalem, in another sense the people of God are the New Jerusalem. See also Heb. 11:8-10,13-16.
b.fellowship with God – 21:3
Is the speaker in v. 3 an angel or God? The point of v. 3 is to interpret the significance of both the city and the marriage metaphor in v. 2. In other words, the imagery of v. 2 is designed to portray intimacy and spiritual communion between God and his people (in fulfillment of such OT texts as Lev. 26:11-12 and Ezek. 37:27; cf. 2 Cor. 6:16). Here we see the recurrence of a common theme in Revelation: OT texts that prophesy Israel’s glorious future applied to the experience of the church, the entire redeemed community of both believing Jews and believing Gentiles.
Although Richard Bauckham does not believe in absolute universalism, he does argue on the basis of 21:3 that the nations, in general, will be converted at the end of the age. “We should take ton anthropon to mean, not just (some) human beings as opposed to angels or animals, but the human race. It has the universalistic sense which it commonly has in Revelation’s usage (8:11; 9:6,10,15,18,20; 13:13; 14:4; 16:8-9,21; cf. 9:4; 11:13; 16:2)” (The Climax of Prophecy, 311).
c.the absence of sin, death, and sorrow – 21:4
The fullness of God’s presence among his people necessarily demands the banishment of any and all forms of suffering associated with the old creation. Gone forever are the debilitating effects of sin.
·Gone are the “tears” caused by grief and pain and sin (in fulfillment of Isa. 25:8). The tears, notes Mounce, “are not tears of remorse shed in heaven for failures on earth, but tears of suffering shed on earth as a result of faithfulness to Christ” (372).
·Gone is “death”, because its source, sin, will have been eradicated.
·Gone are “mourning,” “crying,” and “pain.” All such experiences are linked to the “first things” which have now “passed away.”
d.a word of assurance – 21:5-6
The prophecy of Isaiah is in view throughout this passage. Verse 1 appealed to Isa. 65:17 and 66:22. Verse 4 alluded to 65:17 and 43:18. Now verse 5 draws from Isa. 43:19, “Behold, I make new things” (cf. 66:22). See also 2 Cor. 5:17 where Paul describes our new life in Christ as an inaugurated aspect of what is yet to come in fullness at the end of time. Also, lest any think that such is too good to be true, God himself provides this reassuring word: “these words are faithful and true. . . . it is done [lit., “they are done”, i.e., the new things].” The reality of this promise is wrapped up in the faithfulness and truthfulness of God himself! This is only the second time in Rev. where God is explicitly quoted (cf. 1:8). For the metaphor of water as life, see Rev. 22:12-13; Isa. 49:10; 55:1. Note two things about this water:
·It is given only to those who “thirst”
·It is “without cost” (i.e., free, apart from works; all of grace).
Question: If there is a condition one must meet in order to drink of this water, namely, thirsting, how can it be said that the water is free and unconditional, i.e., without cost? In other words, how does one fulfill a condition for receiving grace without earning grace? Part of the answer is that “when God’s grace is promised based on a condition, that condition is also a work of God’s grace” (Piper, Future Grace, 79). Or again, “God graciously enables the conditions that he requires” (235). The water of life is given “without cost” because it is God himself who graciously provokes and elicits the “thirst” as the condition on which the water is bestowed.
e.application to the believer – 21:7
For “overcomer,” see the letters to the seven churches. The overcomer is the one whose life is characterized by persevering faith in spite of persecution. Note also that what was collectively or corporately described in v. 3 is now individualized in v. 7.
f.application to the unbeliever – 21:8
This catalog of sins concludes with “all liars” (pseudes; see also the list in 22:15). In Rev. 2:2 this word was used of those who “called themselves apostles” when in fact they were not. The related verb form was used in 3:9 of ethnic Jews who “lie” by claiming to be God’s people even though they reject Jesus. The word is also used in 1 John 2:4,22; 4:20; and 5:10 of those professing church members whose doctrine and behavior reveals that they are in fact unregenerate. Thus, the emphasis isn’t so much on telling lies in general as it is on professing to be a Christian when in fact one is not.