The renewal of all things: this is the message of Revelation 21, our 25th study in the encouraging book. A recording of this study will be made available on the Shofar Youtube channel.
What do you deeply desire for the future, your future? What is your ultimate hope? If every problem is fixed and every desire is met, everything is made right again, what will your reality be like? How confident are you that this will happen?
This hope for God’s renewal of all things is the focus of John’s vision Revelation 21. His only invitation to the reader is to “behold”, to picture the beauty of God’s renewed creation.
A physical future. Often we are tempted to think of life after this as spiritual, eternally living disembodied lives. We imagine floating on the clouds, enjoying the bliss of an unending spa while singing praises with the angels. We think that when Jesus returns we will once and for all be rid of our sensual bodies, of the earth, because in this material world the problems lie.
The idea that matter is less good than spiritual comes from Greek philosophy. Yet the Bible teaches that God is the creator of our material world, and that everything he made “was good”. Mankind he made with body and soul, breathing His very spirit into them, and affirmed them as “very good”. Then came the fall and the corruption of sin. Still we are called to “glorify God in our bodies”, even in the most mundane things like “eating or drinking” (1 Corinthians 6:20, 10:31). God is the one who gives us these material things to enjoy (1 Timothy 6:17). Our material world is not inherently the problem – the corruption of sin is, and that affects both our earthly and heavenly realms.
The first thing John notices of God’s great renewal is the continuity of our lives as we know it – that our eternal existence will be both physical and spiritual, lived out in “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1; compare Isaiah 65:17-25). God’s promise is the renewal of both our physical existence and spiritual existence. So Paul’s cry for deliverance “from this [wretched] body of death?” (Romans 7:24-25) is not answered by being eternally free of a body. No, “when we see [Christ], we’ll be like him” – having the same resurrected body as he has. We don’t know much, just that our resurrected bodies will be “imperishable”, “glorious” and “powerful” (1 Corinthians 15:42-43). Eternally free of corruption and at peace – as it was in the Garden.
Free of fear and flaw. The next thing John notices of this renewed creation is that “the sea was no more” (21:1). In this apocalyptic genre John is not trying to say that the new earth will be one big continent without oceans. (Do I hear the surfers and divers sighing relief?) As mentioned in a previous post the sea in ancient literature represents everything that is mysterious and dangerous, all the hidden forces of evil. In stating that the “sea was no more” John sees a world where there is no more evil, and therefore no need to fear. It speaks of a life without terror, loss, and lack. John clarifies this by writing “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (21:4) O, what peace awaits us!
A glorious city. The Bible records the story of mankind beginning in a garden, but ending in a city. Yet God’s renewal does not take mankind back to agricultural living, but “to the holy city, the New Jerusalem coming out of heaven” (21:2). This new creation will be familiar to us, yet gloriously beautiful.
For most of us, cities are synonymous with hard work and the struggle to survive within a culture of greed and competition, leaving its inhabitants anxious, depressed and lonely. Cities are breeding places for violence, corruption, addiction, and perversion that drain the souls of men. But cities also boast the best of humanity – filled with beauty in the diversity of its architecture, music, arts, and feasting as well as creative collaboration that bring pleasure and progress. Even fallen people displays something of God’s intended purpose for humanity, the crown of His creation.
The city was always God’s plan. Man’s mandate to work, to “keep and cultivate the earth” (Genesis 2:7), implies serving one another with our unique passions and abilities, building culture together. In the renewed creation we will still work, still plant, produce, build and trade (Revelation 5:10; 21:24-26; Isaiah 65:17, 21). Yet in the new heaven and new earth we will be free of selfish ambition and fear. Now imagine our combined collaboration in a world driven by brotherly love. This is the city John sees.
God’s dwelling place. The city John sees is God’s city, the New Jerusalem where he dwells (21:2). But unlike the earthly Jerusalem, this city does not to close its gate for protection, nor does it need the sun or moon to light it up, because God is “the wall of fire all around her, and the glory in her midst” (22:23, 25; Zechariah 2:5). It has no temple, “for the Lord God almighty and the Lamb are it’s temple” (21:22).
To accentuate this point, John records an angel measuring the city (21:15; an allusion to Ezekiel 48). The clutter of measurements and details invite us to seek out the message. (Remember, apocalyptic genre does not allow us to take the measurements as literal!) John hints at the point of the numbers in verse 3 “Behold! The tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them…” (21:3; compare Leviticus 26:11). Like Moses who was called up to a high mountain to see the heavenly Tabernacle, John is taken up to a high mountain and sees this tabernacle-city “descending out of heaven from God” (21:10). But there is a twist. John records the dimensions of the city as being cube-like, “it’s length, breath, and it’s height are equal” (21:16). The Most Holy Place in the Temple was a cube. Within this temple/tabernacle metaphor, we are called to see this city as the Most Holy Place, the room where the ark of the covenant stood, separated from the Holy Place by a heavy curtain (Hebrews 9:3).
John is shown that this tabernacle-city is special in that it allowed unequaled access to all its citizens to the presence of God. No need for an outer court that catered for the gentiles/ outsiders, because there are no “gentiles” and no defiled after Christ’s judgment (21:8, 27). There is no need for the altar or washing basin because the Lamb of Heaven was slain for our sins once for all (Hebrews 10:1). There is no need for the Holy Place separated by the veil, because the veil was torn at Jesus’ death making a way for us to God forever (Hebrews 10:19-20). In short, when Christ returns, there is no need for ritual to meet with God: the blood of the Lamb has brought us near and reconciled us with God (Ephesians 2:13; 2 Corinthians 5:18). We will enjoy what Psalmists dreamt of: to dwell with God in his House forever (Psalm 84:1-4).
Firm foundations. The gates of this city are named after the twelve tribes of Israel (21:12; compare Ezekiel 38) and the foundations named after the twelve apostles of Christ (21:14). These foundations are decorated with precious stones – the exact stones on the High Priest’s breastplate (21:19-20; Exodus 28:17-20). The twelve gates are twelve massive pearls. This alludes to Christ’s parable that the kingdom is like the pearl of great price, calling the one who wishes to enter to forsake all else and pursue this treasure only (Matthew 13:45-46).
Together, these images reveal to us that this new creation is not an afterthought or Plan B, but God’s redemptive plan in the making from the very beginning. From the choosing of Abraham and his decedents Isaac, Jacob (Israel) and his twelve sons, through to Jesus and his twelve apostles, God was redeeming and renewing his creation. The saints through the ages were waiting for this city where they would feel at home (Hebrews 11:13). Israel and the NT church are heralds of God’s gospel of redemption and renewal, and all who repent and return to Him are recorded in the “Lamb’s Book of Life” (21:27) – this city register of this New Jerusalem.
A Living city. Make no mistake – John vision of “the New Jerusalem” is not dead angelic architecture, but living people. John sees an image of “the Bride, the Lamb’s wife”, the church of God (21:2.9-10). We are God’s temple “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” (Ephesians 2:20; compare 1 Corinthians 3:10-16). This glorious image John sees is the beauty of us, God’s renewed people.
Not of this world. It must be noted that the vision of the New Jerusalem in chapter 21 is structured to invite comparison to Babylon the Great in chapter 17, and the contrast is striking. Chapter 17 opens with “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore who is seated on many waters.” (17:1) John sees Babylon the Great, “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” (17:5) It is a vision of the kingdoms of this world, secular culture filled with perversions and greed and deceit. Her enticing beauty is only skin-deep: “gilded with gold and precious stone and pearls.” (17:4) but she is inherently gruesome and violent (17:6).
In contrast, John is invited “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” (21:9) It is a vision of God’s Kingdom. John sees the church, the New Jerusalem, the Holy City in whom there is “nothing impure…shameful or deceitful” (21:7). Its beauty is genuine, goodness its essential nature, as “the wall was made of jasper [clear as a diamond], and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass… foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone.. each gate was made of a single pearl.” (21:18-21)
The end of Babylon is utter destruction for her deception, perversion and violence. The end of the church is eternal security and delight in God’s presence and peace. To a tired and suffering church these images are very encouraging indeed.
Bringing it Home.
This glorious chapter is a window of hope, through which I can see God’s “renewal of all things” (Matthew 18:19). That indeed there will be a day when there will be no more fears and no more tears because of painful labours, lack or loss. All these will pass away as God “makes all things new” (21:5).
Revelation 21 also calls us to look in the mirror and recognize that much of what see in ourselves and the world will remain. God comes to purify, to redeem, to renew – not to destroy everything he had created. All evil, sin and death will be burnt as with fire, so that what is good will remain (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). It calls me to discern what is of God in this world, and what is not of God so that I may not miss His prompting or be mislead by the evil one. In particular it invites me to see the Church, the Bride of Christ in a new light.
This vision from Christ is also a door that asks me to participate with God in his work of redemption of mankind and renewal in my city. Firstly it calls me to flee from all things “that defile, or cause an abomination, or lies” (21:27). Secondly it urges me invite my neighbours to enter through those pearly gates to delight in God’s eternal goodness along with me. And thirdly, it prompts me to witness the coming Kingdom by my efforts to bring renewal in the city or community where I live, praying “let Your Kingdom come!” (Matthew 6:10)