All Things New! (Revelation 21: 1–8)
John’s visions are drawing to an end. He has seen the final overthrow of the enemies of God. But what remains for the future? The prophets of the Old Testament had promised “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17, cf Rev 21:1), but what will they be like? In one of the most moving passages in the Bible, John briefly answers this question. But the complexity of his description reminds us it is not an answer we can easily translate in terms of our own experience.
This is brought home to us by the fact that the ‘bride of Christ’? (which in 19:7-8 and 22:17 is clearly the church consisting of the saints) has become the dwelling place of the saints in this final vision. Instead of seeing a woman, John sees a city descending from heaven (21:2). And yet we are reminded that the prostitute of Babylon was also a ‘?womanly city’. Moreover, there is a close parallel between 21:9-10 and 17:1-3. So we see again that the New Jerusalem is both the church and the antitype to Babylon.
This vision, however, relates to a theme which has run throughout scripture, of the redeemed people of God as his bride and God as the heavenly bridegroom. This underlies, for example, the message of the whole Hosea and of Ezekiel 16 and is found in Isaiah 54:5-6 and Jeremiah 31:32. Significantly, Jesus also applied the concept to himself (Matt 9:15; Mk 2:19-20; Lk 5:34-35, cf Matt 25:5-6). Similarly, John the Baptist saw himself as the “friend of the bridegroom” in relation to Jesus (Jn 3:29-30).
In theological terms, the picture has already been completed by Paul in Ephesians 5:22-32. There, what began as the relationship between Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 is seen as being completed by Christ and the church. Not surprisingly, therefore, Paul elsewhere pictures his work as an evangelist in terms of ‘marriage brokering’ (2 Cor 11:2). The concept of the church as the body of Christ surely derives more from the notion that through marriage ‘the two become one single flesh’ (1 Cor 6:16) than it does from the existence of various gifts in the church being a parallel to the many parts of a body, even though that truth is conveniently illustrated by the ‘body’ image (cf 1 Cor 12:12-31).
We thus conclude that human marriage is modelled on and reflects a spiritual reality which will be consummated when all things are brought together in Christ as their head. The mind boggles as to what this might be like, but the Bible is reticent on the details. Unlike in the Qur’an, for example, there is no description of the pleasures of paradise in terms of earthly pleasures.
There is, however, an assurance that the pains and griefs of this life will be no more (21:4-5). The reason for this is that there is to be no more division between heaven and earth (21:3), and therefore the final scenes of the book of Revelation are, as we will see further in chapter 22, a ‘recapturing’ of what was lost in Eden.
At the outset of Revelation, we heard the voice of God, “the Alpha and the Omega … who is and who was and who is to come” (1:8). Now, as we near the end of the book, we hear his voice again (21:6), but this time announcing that things to come have finally arrived:”? It is done!”. Accompanying this pronouncement is a further restating of the gospel – that the “water of life” is available “without payment” (21:6). Those who overcome through remaining in this gospel will live forever as sons of God (21:7, cf 1 Cor 15:1-2). But there is also a warning. It is possible to miss out even on a gracious gospel freely offered, and the route to this is not only through obvious sin but through being “cowardly” and “faithless” (21:8).
Though we rejoice now in the hope of heaven, we are therefore not to become complacent but, as the writer of Hebrews warns us, to lift our drooping hands, strengthen our weak knees and make straight paths for feet (12:12-13).
John Richardson is Senior Assistant Minister to St John’s Church, Stratford Broadway, and author of Revelation Unwrapped