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As a book with eschatology (teaching on last things) as one of its main themes, the last book of the Bible has much to say about the final destiny of God’s people. In order to encourage the churches to be faithful witnesses in the midst of a hostile world, the book of Revelation looks to the consummation of God’s redemptive promises as the reward for those who persevere in faithful obedience.
At the heart of Revelation’s vison of the final destiny of God’s people are the final two chapters (Rev. 21–22). They come at the end of a series of judgment scenes, in which God removes everything opposed to the establishment of his kingdom and its enjoyment by his people (19:11–20). First the two beasts (19:11–21; cf. Rev. 13); then the dragon, Satan (20:1–10; cf. Rev. 12); then a comprehensive scene when everything is removed in judgment (20:11–14), including the earth (20:11). Now all that remains is the establishment of a new creation and its enjoyment by God’s people.
This final vision is not meant to satisfy our curiosity of what life will be like in heaven, but to inspire hope now—to assure us that God will indeed fulfill his purposes in bringing about judgment for the wicked, but salvation for his people. So let’s take a look at what he has in store.
Inhabiting the Land Forever
Chapter 21 begins with John: “I saw a new heavens and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). These words recall the prophecy of Isaiah 65:17, which anticipates a day when God will create new heavens and new earth when he restores his people, Israel. But the words also go all the way back to Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
This final vision is not meant to satisfy our curiosity of what life will be like in heaven, but to inspire hope now.
God made the world “very good” (Gen. 1:31). And yet according to the Bible’s storyline, sin entered and marred God’s good creation, and humanity is under a curse and subject to death (Gen. 3). The rest of the Bible could be seen as the story of how God will restore his creation, with his people living on a renewed earth and God dwelling in their midst. That is exactly what we find in Revelation 21–22.
Revelation is not clear about whether God will destroy the creation and replace it with a newly created one (as in Gen. 1–2), or whether he will renew and redeem this creation (see Rom. 8:21). The image of the first earth’s removal in Revelation 20:11 may simply symbolize the complete renewal and regenerating of the created order, to stress its qualitative newness as compared to the creation affected by sin. In any case, God’s intention has always been for his people to inhabit the land, the earth (Matt. 5:5; Rom. 4:13).
What’s Present and Absent
Inhabiting the new creation is the New Jerusalem, the Bride of the Lamb (Rev. 21:2, 9–10). The phrase “New Jerusalem” probably refers more to the people than to an actual city, since it is clearly identified as the Lamb’s bride, the perfected people of God (cf. Eph. 5:25–27). All the measurements are multiples of 12, the number of the God’s people in both the Old Testament (12 tribes of Israel) and the New (12 apostles).
Unique is what is absent in the new creation. John tells us that where he might’ve expected to see a temple, there was none (Rev. 21:22). The temple played a crucial role in mediating God’s presence to his old-covenant people (see 1 Kings 5–7), and therefore factored in the expectations of a future restoration (Ezek. 40–48). Israel’s life in the land was centered on the temple, the place of God’s presence with his people. But now in the new land, there is no temple.
The rest of the Bible [after the fall] could be seen as the story of how God will restore his creation, with his people living on a renewed earth and God dwelling in their midst.
John tells us the reason is that God and the Lamb now dwell directly and immediately with their people on the new earth. The old order of things has passed away, the world affected by sin has been judged, so the very things that required a temple in the first place (human sinfulness and the old order) have been dealt with and removed (20:11). Therefore, God and the Lamb reside directly with their people on the new earth.
To return to Genesis, this is the way it was originally in the garden of Eden. Before sin entered the world, God lived directly with his people. After the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, a temple was necessary in order for God to live among his people on the earth. But now that sin and the earth have been removed in judgment (Rev. 20:11; 21:1), the Lord is immediately present with his people, without a separate physical structure. It’s no longer needed to mediate God’s presence, so John doesn’t see one.
Our destiny is not to ‘float around in heaven on the clouds.’
John even portrays life in the new creation as a return to the Garden of Eden. He sees the water of life flowing from the throne to give life to the entire new creation, reflecting the rivers that watered the original garden (Rev. 22:1–5; cf. Gen. 2:10–14). In the new creation stands the tree of life (22:2), which also stood in the first Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:9).
In short, the life that God intended for his people to enjoy in Eden in his first creation is now fulfilled in the life God gives to his people in the new creation. God’s people will serve him in his presence (22:4–5).
Vision of Hope
What these chapters say about the final destiny of God’s people is profound. Our destiny is not, to use the well-worn expression, to “float around in heaven on the clouds.” Our final destiny is a new earth. It will be a physical, earthly existence, as God has always intended it (Gen. 1–2) suited for life in our resurrection bodies (Rev. 20:4–6). But it will be an earth stripped of all the effects of sin and evil. As John says, those things that accompany life on this earth—“death or mourning or crying or pain”—will be no more.
But the most important feature of the new creation, by far, is the presence of God and the Lamb (Rev. 21:3, 22; 22:3). They are with their people! The long-awaited goal of God’s redemptive plan is finally reached with him living closely with his people in a new creation. That is a vision that can inspire hope and sustain us to live faithfully now, no matter what the consequences.