Is there a more beautiful Scripture than Revelation 21-22?
As incredible as it might sound, once I understood the truths I've explained in this series, when I read these verses again, their beauty increased ten-fold.
Let me show you why.
Welcome to the 40th post in my series of rethinking Christian eschatology. Because these posts build upon each other, if you've not already done so, I invite you to read the previous posts in this series before continuing here.
New heaven and earth
In Revelation 18-20, Jerusalem was judged.
Rome and the nations who persecuted the Christians were judged.
Satan was judged.
And all the dead, righteous and wicked, were judged.
The old heavens and earth/land passed away, fleeing from Jesus' presence.
Death and Hades (the realm of the dead) were cast into hell.
Every enemy of GOD's people had been eliminated.
That brings us to Revelation 21, where John wrote:
1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
(Rev. 21:1-5 NIV)
John saw the new heaven and earth/land, which was described as the New Jerusalem, the bride of Christ.
In previous posts, we have seen from the Scriptures that:
- The new heaven and earth/land is the spiritual Israel, a metaphor for the spiritual kingdom of GOD, which replaced the destroyed physical kingdom of Israel.
- It's capital is New Jerusalem, not like the physical city which was just destroyed because of GOD's judgment, but the spiritual city, the church.
- Similar metaphors are used, such as the mountains of Israel or "My holy mountain."
They are all references to the same thing: the replacement of the old physical things with the new spiritual ones.
This explains why New Jerusalem is seen:
- Not as heaven, but coming down from heaven.
(Note: Previously, when I used to think Rev. 21-22 was describing heaven, it always puzzled me why "heaven" [i.e., New Jerusalem] would come down out of heaven. Now I see. That didn't make sense because it wasn't what the passage was communicating!)
- Like a bride, beautifully dressed for her husband (Jesus).
All of those prophecies we've studied about:
- the feast and the wedding,
- the bride and bridegroom and wise and foolish virgins, and
- Paul's teaching about Jesus preparing the church for Himself like a bride, having no spot or blemish...
...they all pointed to this event.
So, what was happening here in these verses?
Now that the old things (e.g., Satan and Jesus' other enemies; death; and the old covenant with its Law, temple and sacrifices) had been taken out of the way, there could finally exist a perfect union relationship between GOD and His children.
Unlike in Eden, where sin hadn't yet corrupted humanity, this new perfect union between GOD and His people is not based on a sin-free environment, but on Jesus' cleansing blood which covers our sins.
Let us strive to avoid underappreciating the blessing of a perfect union with GOD in spite of living in a sin-cursed creation.
With old Israel with it's physical temple eliminated, GOD's dwelling place would be solely among His people because of the perfect union between Jesus and the church.
Paul explained the Christ-church union this way:
29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.
(Eph. 5:29-32 NIV)
Why did Paul use the sexual marriage relationship to describe Jesus' (then-future) relationship with the church? Because it is in that union, the two become one.
Paul was not suggesting Jesus and the church have a sexual relationship as with a physical marriage. Yet the two have indeed become one (spiritually), which is HOW Christians become members of Jesus' body.
What about Death? Why do people still die?
4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
(Rev. 21:4 NIV)
I explained this in detail during the 1 Corinthians 15 post, but I'll quickly recap it here:
- Yes, people still die physically. GOD has chosen to retain the consequence of physical death for our sins.
- What is different now, though, is that when we die, we no longer sleep in death awaiting a future resurrection. Instead, we immediately receive our judgment and reward.
- As a result, the sting of death has been removed. Rather than an indefinite waiting period in Hades, our soul separated from a body, physical death is now a moment of instantaneous transformation from our physical body to our immortal spiritual body.
Holiness (still) required
Continuing in Rev. 21:
6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
(Rev. 21:6-8 NIV)
In these verses, GOD warned the first century Christians in these seven cities that He expected them to live holy lives. If they lived sin-filled lives, they would suffer the same fate as all the evildoers: the lake of burning sulfur which is the second death, as seen in the judgments of Rev. 20.
GOD has always expected His children to strive to live a holy life. Many times people push back at this, thinking that emphasizing holiness somehow automatically equates to earning salvation—a gospel of works.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Christians understand there is nothing they could ever do—no amount of good deeds—to cause GOD to be indebted to us and owe us salvation.
I recognize works-based-gospels have been a problem in the past and perhaps some still go too far in emphasizing good deeds. But I think, at least in modern American culture, we suffer more from underemphasizing GOD's expectation of holiness than we do preaching a gospel of works.
Balance should be sought, of course.
The point is that GOD has never and will never accept a lackadaisical attitude towards sin. The moment we stop trying our best to live sin-free lives is the moment we become in danger of becoming one of these GOD described in Rev. 21:8.
The Scriptures (including the New Testament) abound in statements emphasizing holy living. If holiness is unimportant to GOD (and therefore nonessential to Christian living), then those passages are meaningless. And we know they aren't meaningless.
The description of the bride, the New Jerusalem
The dividers in our modern Bible translations don't help here in Rev. 21-22.
From Rev. 21:9-22:5 is a visual description of the church from the time of the wedding feast throughout all future generations.
The section begins as follows:
9 One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.”
(Rev. 21:9 NIV)
And what does Jesus' bride look like? A city.
10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.
(Rev. 21:10 NIV)
This should not surprise us, as this is not the first mention of this concept in the Scriptures.
Isaiah spoke of New Jerusalem in connection with the new heavens and earth/land:
17 “See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.
(Isa. 65:17-19 NIV)
Paul explained that faithful Christians are children of the New Jerusalem:
21 Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23 His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.
24 These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.
(Gal. 4:21-26 NIV)
And the Hebrew writer plainly stated that New Jerusalem is the church of Jesus:
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
(Heb. 12:22-24 NIV)
Thus, the description which follows—the radiant jewels, pearly gates, foundations of the names of the apostles (see Eph. 2:19-22 for an interesting parallel to this), dimensions and walls—is of the land GOD's people had been seeking since the Fall.
Regarding this land and city, the Hebrew writer said:
8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
(Heb. 11:39-40 NIV)
Abraham, and all of these faithful who conquered such formidable foes and who suffered great persecution because of their faith, were looking for the New Jerusalem, where perfect union exists between themselves and GOD.
The Hebrew writer said that GOD had something better planned for the primary audience—the first century Jewish Christians who originally received this letter—that only with those Christians, the great faithful of past generations would be made whole.
He emphasized that the heroes of faith would receive this blessing "together with" himself and the first century Christians to whom he wrote. The Hebrew writer said this because Jesus returned in the first century and these things we are studying transpired during their lifetime.
This clarifies some big questions
When I used to understand the New Jerusalem to be a synonym for heaven, this text presented some big questions that I wrestled with:
- What difference would it make if there were a temple in New Jerusalem? GOD and Jesus are in heaven, so why explain that there was no temple present?
The New Jerusalem exists in both the physical realm (in the sense that living Christians are citizens while yet living on earth) and in the spiritual realm (because it is the reward of the faithful after death, as well).
The Jewish temple represented GOD's presence with Israel. John, as a Jew, was used to seeing this physical temple.
Yet, in the new heaven and new earth/land, the absence of a physical temple did not signify a lack of GOD's presence among His people, and that needed to be made clear. Quite the opposite, in fact. GOD dwells within the very body of His children now. Our physical body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.
- Why would the nations walk by the light of heaven or bring their splendor into heaven?
GOD was saying here that kings of earth would be citizens of New Jerusalem and their lives (and the outcomes of their righteous deeds) would bring glory into the church.
- Why would it matter whether heaven's gates were never shut?
In heaven, no evil can exist and therefore there would be nothing to worry about getting inside the gates anyway. If all evil were punished at the judgment at the end of time, as I previously understood Rev. 20 to teach, then the fact that heaven's gates were always opened seemed like a meaningless statement to me. Cities have gates for protection. If there's no threat of harm, why mention gates?
Instead, what GOD is communicating here is quite beautiful. He's saying that the doors of the church would always and will always be open and welcoming to any who would come. Open gates communicates an open invitation.
- Why would GOD make a point that nothing impure will ever enter heaven if all the wicked have just been judged and time has ended?
If the judgment at the end of time had already occurred, why would GOD say nothing impure would ever enter heaven? The clear indication from v.27 is that life would continue, that evil would continue beyond this point in time. Otherwise, if there is no evil, then it is senseless to state that no evil will enter the city.
I've already spoken to GOD's expectation of Christians to live holy lives, so I won't repeat those thoughts here. But note that, in Rev. 21:27, recognizing that New Jerusalem is not heaven but Jesus' church, GOD reiterated the truth that sinful living will not be tolerated inside the city.
According to Rev. 21:27, only those whose names are written in Jesus' book of life can stay in the city (i.e., in the church). Christians who initially obey (and thus have their name written in Jesus' book of life) but fail to remain faithful in their walk (i.e., return to a life given to sin) will have their names blotted out from the book of life (see Rev. 3:4-6).
GOD never has and never will accept unrepentant, willful sinners, regardless of how much good they've done in the past.
Jesus closed with a final invitation
Recall that the Revelation letter was written to Christians in seven towns in the 60s A.D.
Jesus was warning, encouraging and prophesyng to these individuals what was about to happen soon.
Jesus closes this final prophecy with an invitation and a warning:
10 Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near. 11 Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy.”
12 “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.
14 “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. 15 Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.
16 “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”
17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.
18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. 19 And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.
20 He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.
(Rev. 22:10-21 NIV)
I have mentioned previously the contrast between what John was told (not to seal the scroll) and what Daniel was told (to seal the scroll, see Dan. 12:4, 9). Daniel's vision foretold events just a few hundred years into the future, yet GOD that timeframe long enough to seal up the message and wait. But in Revelation, eight times we find the word "soon," repeatedly communicating an urgent nearness of its events.
The book of Revelation doesn't discuss events thousands of years into the future, friends, but things that would occur within a few years of the vision being revealed.
Why this is a beautiful end to GOD's message
Why did GOD stop His written revelation to man with the Revelation letter?
I often wish we possessed more divine revelation from GOD. Perhaps you do too.
Here are 4 reasons I see as to why GOD chose to end His written revelation to man while life on planet earth continued afterward:
- The big picture of the Bible is about GOD replacing the physical creation with a spiritual creation. I stated this at the beginning of our journey and hopefully now you more fully appreciate why and how this statement is true. At the end of the Revelation vision, that process is seen as completed. But with time allowed to continue, GOD (and people) can reap the benefits of this recreation work forever more.
- Everything GOD intended to communicate to man had been written. Answers for all of humanity's big questions, solutions to all of our problems, wisdom for every situation we face, they are all addressed. We have a complete history of how we got here, why bad things happen, how eternity is placed within our heart, how GOD used a subset of His creation to bring about the Savior, etc., etc.
We know that Jesus is our savior, our example, our light for how to live, our compassionate intercessor, our victorious king and our head to Whom we submit.
- With everything having been accomplished, we are now free to peacefully live in the land before GOD as spiritual Israelites, free from harm to our souls and from war with our brother. Evangelism still matters today and GOD still provides the roles in the church that are needed for its healthy function.
- Now that Jesus and His bride are one through marriage, Christians lack nothing, spiritually. The greatest crescendo has sounded. The victory has been won. The old things of the old covenant along with Satan, our accuser, have been removed. There is simply nothing new to say.
What remains is for GOD's people to make their way to the city, the New Jerusalem, where they can enjoy the promised blessings long foretold.
As Isaiah so beautifully put it:
2 In the last days
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
3 Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
5 Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord.
(Isa. 2:2-5 NIV)
Want to go deeper into eschatology, including the Book of Revelation? Check out my 15 in-depth video lesson course: Understanding the Biblical Meaning of Revelation.
Got questions or comments? Leave them below. (I'm truly happy to help. But please, carefully read the entire series first.)