In a few moments I’m going to read all of Revelation 21 and part of Revelation 22, but I want to begin with three prefatory remarks. First, there is a sense in which this sermon is bound to be a kind of review. A couple of us at Trinity teach first-year students an introductory course in biblical theology, and one of the things we sometimes require of our students is an essay explaining all the ways in which Revelation 21 and 22 pick up themes from elsewhere in the Bible. They’re everywhere, just everywhere.
The book of Revelation rarely quotes the Old Testament, but almost every verse alludes to it, picks up something from the Old Testament. The ideas of the book come to culmination here; this brings it all together. Do you want to know something more about the holiness of God or the temple? Do you want to know something more about the dwelling place of God? Something of the Lamb? Of the throne? They’re all here. They’re coming to culmination here.
The second thing I want to say is the symbolism that goes into apocalyptic writing needs to be viewed on several axes. It’s strange to us at first. A friend of mine some years ago was giving out copies of the New Testament to undergraduates on a British university campus, just passing them out preparatory to doing some evangelism.
This particular student received a copy, promised he’d read it, and some months later the chap who had given out these New Testaments came across this student again and asked if he had enjoyed the book. The student replied, “Well, I did. It was a bit repetitious at the front end. It sort of tells the same story several times, but I sure liked that bit of science fiction at the end.” Of course, it’s not science fiction, but he’s struggling to find a literary genre, a form, that he can relate to.
An illustration I’ve sometimes used to try to help people understand why God chose to disclose big chunks of the Bible in this form is this: I have an older sister who, for some years four decades ago, served as a missionary with her family in Papua New Guinea. She worked in a tribe that was pre-Stone Age in its technology. That is to say, they didn’t even use stones for arrowheads or spearheads or the like, they used hardwood like teak to bamboo shafts. So technologically, it was a very primitive tribe.
Suppose someone from that tribe came out and enabled you, a linguist, to learn their language very well. For five years, eight years, you worked with that tribal person, and you learned their language extremely well. Then you had the responsibility of going into that tribe (dropped in by helicopter or something) and explaining to them, without any objects to show them, just with words in their language, what electricity is. How would you go about it?
“I have come here to talk to you about.… Well, there’s no word for it in your language, so we’ll coin a new one. We’ll call it electricity. Electricity is like a powerful spirit that runs through hard things like vines. These hard things don’t grow, however. They’re things that we make in very, very big mud huts that we call factories. We loop them from tree to tree. Actually, we cut down the tree, take all the branches off, put the tree back.… Nevermind. We just loop them from tree to tree.
This electricity we pump in to these hard things like vines at one end, and then these hard things like vines come through our roofs and into squarish things where the electricity goes round and round and round, lickety-split (however you say lickety-split in their language). It goes around so fast that it makes things hot, and you can actually boil your water in your clay pots without having smoke in your huts,” because so many of the huts (I’ve seen them; I’ve been in them) have roofs that have a central hole for the smoke to get out of, meaning you don’t have a full roof.
“No hole, no smoke, and you can boil your water there. You can put that same electricity in little round things we put up in our thatched roofs. It goes lickety-split in there, and it gives you light like a little sun right in your thatched roof. Now why you want to stay up late at night, I don’t know, but if you want to, in fact, you can have a little sun in your …” How am I doing at explaining electricity?
I haven’t mentioned anything about the electronic nature, the subatomic nature, of the universe. I haven’t talked anything about AC and DC or resistance. I haven’t talked about watts or volts. I haven’t talked about power generation or storage. I certainly haven’t gotten into the digital world and talked about semi-resisters, transistors, and then all the way down to chips. What’s the matter with these people? Are they stupid or something?
No, of course not. They’re no more stupid than we are, or just as stupid as we are, depending on your point of view. The problem is they have no categories for latching onto these things. They haven’t seen these things. Our children grow up with computers and switches and wires and power generation. They learn it at school. It’s part of their whole social environment.
So how will we talk about the throne room of God? One of the reasons why God uses so much symbolism is because we are so dead to God … so blind, so unable to understand, so without categories, without vocabulary … that when someone like Paul is caught up into the third heaven, the things may be forbidden to Paul to explain, but they are also inexpressible because we haven’t been there. You are finally forced to resort to symbolism, apocalyptic, and the institutions God has placed … temple, holy city.
Strange institutions like kings and priests. We’re a republic here. We don’t hold kings in very good favor, do you know? The last one, King George III, didn’t turn out too well. And priests? We’re not really enamored in our culture by a whole lot of reflection about priests. The Bible is full of kings and priests. These are the categories God has chosen to begin to open our eyes (open our categories) to begin to understand the glory of what is yet to come. So, in some sense, my job now is just to bring it together. The pieces are there.
The last thing I want to say, still by way of preparation, is in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Then he adds this aphorism: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
I think we sometimes misunderstand that aphorism. That is, it is frequently taken to mean that followers of Jesus should guard their hearts or they will be mis-focused on purely transient treasures. After all, elsewhere the Bible does say, “Guard your heart, for out of it are the wellsprings of life,” but that’s not what Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount. He doesn’t say, “Guard your heart.”
What he says is, “Choose your treasure because what you treasure the most is where your heart will go.” Your whole being, your mind, your emotions, your fixation, your time, your imagination, your fantasizing.… Where your treasure is, that’s where your heart will go. Now if we are to treasure the new heaven and the new earth (heaven in the language of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount), it is extremely important for Christians to maintain a high valuation of our destiny.
I suspect there are many reasons why we don’t really treasure heaven all that much. Even when we take the Bible seriously, it becomes a creedal point but not something that is evoking images in our imagination and causing us to say, “Yes. Yes. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” In some cases, it’s biblical ignorance. In some cases we’ve been seduced by the treasures of this world.
In some cases, it’s because we have subjected ourselves to visions of the new heaven and the new earth that are pathetically small. All these little cartoons that you get in various publications with people sitting around on puffy white clouds in white nightgowns, strumming harps, with a funny-looking little halo on their heads.… We’ve all seen them.
If we reflect on them at all, we start thinking every once in a while, “You know, I’m pretty broad-minded about music. I don’t have anything against harps; it’s nice to have at least one in a good orchestra. I wouldn’t mind learning to play someday, but after the first billion years or so, it might get a wee bit boring. Quite frankly, white nightgowns don’t suit my complexion. If that’s what heaven is about, I’m not sure I want to go there, to be quite frank.” But what you find in the Scripture is a multitude of images of life to come.
We forget the diversity and the richness. For example, in the parable of the talents, those whom Christ blesses at the end are told, “You have been faithful over a few things …” Fabulous amounts of money, actually, but a few things “… I will now make you ruler over many things. Come and enter your Master’s happiness.”
So in other words, it’s going to involve not only happiness but work with greater responsibilities, but it’ll be fun, with hard work and challenges that we can barely conceive of. The new heaven and the new earth are going to involve fantastic opportunities for growth and service. We sometimes think the new heaven and the new earth will mean we suddenly know everything, but omniscience is not a communicable attribute of God. That is, it is not an attribute of God he can share with non-God.
God has many, many attributes that we must imitate (we’ll come to that), but omniscience is not one of them. I cannot see why, from Scripture, there is any reason for thinking when we get to heaven we’ll somehow suddenly know everything. I think we’ll just be on the next stage of learning a great deal. After all, we’re told there will be people there from every tongue and tribe and people and nation. Those distinctions, apparently, are going to continue in heaven.
Tribe and nation? With different backgrounds. They’re all not going to be pale faces like me. So when it says “every tongue,” I suspect all the languages will be there too. If it takes me a million years or so to learn Mandarin, who cares? We’ll be growing and multiplying forever and ever in the diversity and richness. It’ll be fabulous! Those are parts of the images of heaven too. We haven’t even begun to get to these chapters yet. Hear the Word of the Lord.
“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. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 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. “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.’ 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.’
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. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 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.’
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.’ 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. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.
It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls. The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long. The angel measured the wall using human measurement, and it was 144 cubits thick. The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass.
The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass. I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.
The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.
The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Let us pray.
Holy Father, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Through Jesus Christ, amen.
So what do we find in this section of Scripture? We find first what is new; second, what is symbol-laden about the New Jerusalem; third, what is missing; and fourth, what is central. On some of these pictures we’ll spend time and on others we’ll dance through very quickly, but there’s a wholeness here we must grasp.
1. What is new.
Chapter 21, verses 1–8. What is new is nothing less than a new heaven and a new earth. Then as soon as that’s been stated, there is a New Jerusalem.
A. The new heaven and the new earth. These images already come from the Old Testament. In Isaiah 65, verse 17, God says, “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. 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. 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.”
So here we have new heaven and new earth and a newly-created Jerusalem in a prophet who is writing in the eighth century before Christ, but the same sort of language can be picked up by the apostle Peter. In 2 Peter, chapter 3, we read (beginning at verse 10), “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?
You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”
I’m old enough to remember the apocalyptic horror of nuclear exchange and its threat. Some of you who are older will remember that in the 1950s in schoolhouses all across the United States and in Canada, we were told what to do if there was a nuclear exchange: hide under the desks. I practiced it. It’s unbelievable in retrospect. There were a lot of people who were building nuclear underground safety chambers with a year’s supply of food and water and so forth.
I remember asking my dad did he think that we should be thinking about something like that? He put his hand on my shoulder, and he said, “Don, when Jesus comes, the very elements will melt with fervent heat. Until then, don’t worry about it.” There is something that far eclipses mere nuclear holocaust here. There is such a renovation of everything that language fails to describe it. Then, without using exactly the same language, in Romans you read these words (beginning at verse 18):
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
Listen. This is not mere ratcheting up to some new level of improvement. This is massive renovation, massive transformation. Exactly what this entails is doubtless beyond our capacity to imagine. Exactly what the relationship is between the new heaven and the new earth and the old heaven and the old earth I can scarcely articulate. Yet there are hints, and they are all spectacular.
There’s no more sea. This is symbol-laden language. I’m from Canada. I was born in French Canada, but my parents were both born in the United Kingdom, an island nation. So I was brought up in literature that remembered island nation mythology. Do you know John Masefield’s “Sea Fever”?
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.
The sea represented adventure, empire, and triumph. Not in the Old Testament: “The wicked are like the tossing sea … which churn up mud and mire.” That’s Isaiah 57. What do we read here? “I saw a new heaven and a new earth … and there was no more sea.” This is not talking about the hydrological details of resurrection existence. It’s a symbol-laden description of the absolute, utter, complete abolition of chaos, of evil, of mud and mire in all of its moral dimensions. “There was no longer any sea.”
B. The New Jerusalem. “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem.” We have seen already that there is expectation of this from the Old Testament Scriptures, and the theme itself is going to be unpacked in a few moments. Right away you can’t help but remember (if you read your Bible at all) that the Holy City is not just any old city …
It’s the city of the Great King! It’s the city of the Davidic dynasty. It’s the city of the tabernacle, then the temple. This is the city where God rules and where God has provided a sacrificial system that addresses all of human sin and enmity. This is Jerusalem. Already that language, even apart from apocalyptic metaphor, is picked up in the New Testament.
The church, as we see in Hebrews, chapter 12, has already been gathered to the New Jerusalem. Galatians tells us (one of the first letters, if not the first, written in the New Testament) that we have come, too, to a New Jerusalem, the city of the Great King, the city of sacrifice. It’s a social vision.
Some years ago, I was lecturing in Korea, and there were some students there in the school from India. On one occasion, I was having a meal with them. There was this particular chap from India who found out I was from Canada. He said, “How many citizens are there in Canada?” At the time I said, “There’s something like 28 million or something like that.”
“And Canada is big.”
“Yes, the land mass is considerably larger than the continental US.”
“You poor man.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“In my state, which is a very, very small state, we have 147 million. That’s wonderful. You only have 28 million, and you’re so big. You poor man!”
I thought, “Uh oh. There’s a culture clash going on here.” There are an awful lot of people in the Western world, when they think of retirement, they think of going out into the country and getting away: a little cottage by a lake, no near neighbors, peace and quiet, fishing, maybe five or ten miles to the nearest village where you can buy something. Maybe even your cell phone doesn’t work anymore. Blessed release.
Increasingly, there’s a new generation coming along that likes to be urban, but there’s an awful lot of this mythology of living out in the country in the Wild West and being away from people. That’s not the mythology of India! In the New Testament, cities are held up in ambivalent ways. We are inclined, because so many of us have come from rural stock and suburban areas, to think of the cities as cesspools of iniquity. In reality, cities just have more people. Where you have more people, you have more sinners, and you have more people acting righteously too, which is why in the book of Revelation there are two cities!
There is Babylon, which represents all that is evil, and there is the New Jerusalem, just as there are two women. Somebody has called this book A Tale of Two Cities: The Harlot and the Bride, because you come across this evil woman in chapter 17 who represents all that is wretched. Now you’re going to be introduced to this city which is simultaneously a bride (bifurcation). But the New Jerusalem is a social vision, a city vision, where people come together. It is David’s city. It is the city with this background heritage of the temple.
Now this is going to be teased out in spectacularly fresh ways. Here, the city is likened to a bride: “Coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” That’s going to become much more intense in a moment, as we’ll see. “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.’ ” That language is drawn from passage after passage in the Old Testament.
Here’s Leviticus 26, in context, dealing with God dwelling with his people in the framework of the tabernacle: “I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt …” There’s the Exodus. “… so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.”
Then there is Jeremiah, six centuries before Christ, promising a new covenant: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Same language but ratcheted up in terms of the new covenant. Ezekiel 37 (also sixth century): “My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
Now, similar language, verse 3: “And I heard a loud voice … 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.’ ” In other words, although the same language is used, you can feel it pointing forward, pointing forward from the structure and framework of that old covenant.
The presentation of God manifested in the context of the tabernacle, then the temple, and now in terms of the structure of the new covenant, now coming to fulfillment with God (our God) and we (his people), so unrestrictedly, so spectacularly, so unqualifiedly, so much without footnotes, that everything is brought to a climax. It’s an end.
What does it mean? “ ‘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.” That’s not the way it is right now, but when we get there with God (our God), we (his people) will be so perfected (a pair of statements) that death itself can’t survive, and no more tears, no more mourning!
You see, this is the new heaven and the new earth, and the old order (the order that has been cursed by sin, that has attracted the wrath of God, that is stamped by death), it is characterized by decay, despite all the mediating grace of God, the grace that we sometimes call common grace so that all kinds of good and lovely and beautiful things are still here, yet it is a creation that is under the curse. Now the old order is gone.
I can’t imagine the dimensions of grief and tears represented by 3,800 women, but there will be no more tears. There will be no more death. There will be no more mourning, for the old order of things has passed away. Here, of course, eternal blessedness is still couched in negation. That is, the new heaven and the new earth will not be like the old one that is passing away.
We are given a glimpse into what will no longer be there: death, sorrow, and decay. We still have not yet seen what will be there. There are hints, in that transparently we’re going to see the opposite of this negation. This language too derives from the Old Testament. Here is Isaiah 35: “And the ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
Or a little earlier in the book of Revelation, in Revelation, chapter 7, we read these words (again in anticipation of this climactic vision): “ ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ ”
As Isaiah 25 puts it, “God will swallow up death forever.” Suddenly your mind goes to other parts of the Bible that anticipate the end. The great resurrection chapter, 1 Corinthians 15, where we will have bodies like Christ’s resurrection body, somehow connected with ours. The best analogy that Paul can think of is the relationship between an acorn and a tree but so spectacularly different. A real connection, yet he’s fighting for words to describe it.
He actually says it’s a spiritual body, but it’s a spiritual body that can be touched and handled, that eats and drinks. We will have spiritual bodies like his, that are to that degree physical, as well in the new heaven and the new earth. This is not merely going to heaven in some sort of ethereal existence. “I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth.’ ” Resurrection existence, consummated existence.
Now in verse 5, God speaks. The language is weighty. It’s as if every significant clause has to be separately introduced to give you time to stop and think about it. “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ ” Pause. “Then he said, ‘Write this down …’ ” That’s why we’re reading it … unlike revelations that have been sealed up for a later time.
“Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Pause. Weigh. “He said to me: ‘It is done.’ ” The Savior on the cross cried, “It is finished.” Here the voice from the throne calls, “It is done.” When Christ called, “It is finished,” he was saying that all the needed sacrifice had been accomplished. There was no more payment for sin needed, for all the sins of the past, all the sins that would take place in the future. Christ’s holiness was utterly and completely satisfied. “It is finished.”
That does not mean there was no more struggle. As Revelation 12 points out, precisely because Satan knows that he’s defeated, defeated at the cross; therefore, he is filled with fury because he knows his time is short. That is why we Christians have found ourselves in the place where we are not wrestling against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness in high places.
But now, “It is done.” All the gospel promises, which we have enjoyed in taste, which we have enjoyed in powerful reality but still only in anticipation, now come to consummation. The voice from the throne says, “Write this. It is done.” The voice who is speaking like this declares himself, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” He, finally, is the only one who could bring it all to pass.
That’s why the lion-lamb described so eloquently in chapter 5, this lion-lamb actually emerges from the center of the throne. He doesn’t have to approach God from the outside. He emerges from the center of the throne, yet he is himself the lion-lamb who alone is qualified to take all of God’s purposes, held in this scroll in the right hand of the Almighty, and bring them to pass. The Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega, has brought it to be and, “It is done.”
This is addressed to people who hear these words of announcement (the consummation is not here yet) and hear the gracious God saying, “To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.” Again, the language is drawn from the Old Testament. We are told in Isaiah 55, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” “To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.”
It’s without cost to those who receive it; it was not without cost to him who provided it. Verse 7, in the translation from which I’m reading, is badly translated. I’m a pedant at the end of the day. That’s what people who write books are like. So, inevitably, I occasionally find myself at odds with just about every translation. That’s why we still train pastors in Greek and Hebrew.
Verse 7 rightly puts it in the singular and mentions a son. “The one who is victorious …” The one who is victorious, who is a conqueror. “… will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.” My text reads, “Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children,” which, conveniently, includes both men and women.
Of course, at the level of whether men and women are included, there’s no dispute. In some instances, it’s helpful to point that out, even in the translation, but in this instance, son is so much bound up with a symbolism that runs right through Scripture that you’ve just got to preserve the word. You’ve just got to.
Let me explain. In our culture, the overwhelming majority of sons do not end up doing what their fathers did vocationally. The overwhelming majority of daughters do not end up doing what their mothers did vocationally. Where I have tried taking a poll of hands, under 5 percent of contemporaries actually end up doing vocationally what their parents did at the same age.
In the ancient world, it wasn’t like that. If you were a boy in the ancient world and your father was a farmer, you became a farmer. If your father was a baker, you became a baker. It was part of the heritage. Thus, your identity was bound up with your family name and your father’s job if you were a boy.
Out of this, then, comes an array of biblical metaphors. Several people are called sons of Belial, sons of worthlessness. If you are called a son of worthlessness, it doesn’t mean you’re male or female; it means your character is so disgustingly worthless that the only explanation is you belong to the worthless family. That’s what it means. It’s not even casting aspersions on your literal father or mother.
When Jesus says in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God,” he’s not trying to eliminate women. It’s picking up the same metaphor. God is the supreme peacemaker. Insofar as we are making peace, then we’re acting like God. We’re showing ourselves, thus, to belong in that axis to the God family. It’s not saying how you become a Christian is to make peace and become a Christian. It’s saying, “God is the supreme peacemaker. If, in this respect you act like God, you’re showing yourself to be a son of God.”
That’s also why Abraham is held up as the father of the faithful; he believed in God. Those who believe as Abraham believed are then called the children of Abraham. It’s why Jesus, in John 8, can say pretty harsh words in his back and forth with the Jewish people who were disputing with him. They claimed to be children of Abraham. He said, “No, no. That really can’t be, because Abraham recognizes my day. You don’t recognize me. You can’t really be children of Abraham.”
He’s not denying the genetics. He’s pushing at something deeper. They don’t get it. They up the ante and say, “Well, in fact, we’re sons of God.” Jesus say, “Oh no, you’re not. I know God. God knows me. You don’t recognize me; you can’t possibly be sons of God. Let me tell you who your daddy is. You are of your father, the Devil, and the lusts of your father you will do. He was a liar from the beginning; you’re telling lies. He was a murderer from the beginning; you’re trying to bump me off. The Devil is your father.”
You see, if you were reared in a family of farmers, then your dad taught you how to farm, where to plant, when to plant, how to dig ditches, how to sink fence posts. He gave you your identity. That’s why Jesus, in the days of his flesh, is sometimes called the carpenter’s son. Apparently after Joseph has died, in one remarkable passage in Mark he’s actually called “the carpenter.” He’s taken over the family business. That’s his public identity at that juncture.
So son of God language is remarkable. In the Old Testament, Israel is called God’s son: “Let my son go, that he may worship me.” Individual believers are sometimes called God’s son. The king of Israel is called God’s son. When he embarks on his role as king, he enters into this sonship because, in this respect now, he is supposed to be acting like God. God is the supreme ruler, and the king now rules in the name of God, in the place of God, reflecting God. He is God’s son.
But now. Now there are no caveats. There are no footnotes. There are no sidebars. “To the one who overcomes, to the one who is victorious, I will be his Father,” God says, “and he will be my son.” What that means now is we who are Christians (whether we’re men or women) will so perfectly reflect God.… After all, we were originally made in his image, and if the image has been horribly distorted and soiled, now we’re coming into a fullness that is even greater.
We will reflect God. We will be like him in every way that human beings can be like him without, in any sense, trying to be like him in ways in which we cannot be like him. The Bible does say, “Be holy, for I am holy.” It does not say, “Be omnipotent, for I am omnipotent.” So there are some ways in which we cannot be like God and must not try to be like God, but in every way in which we ought to be like God, we will now be like God. “I will be his Father, and he will be my son.”
We’re sons already by adoption, according to the apostle Paul. It has started. In God’s vision, God’s mind, because Christ has provided everything, we are his sons now! God help us, there’s so much tension yet, is there not? One day all the tension will be gone. There will be no more sin, no death, no sorrow, no two-facedness, no hypocrisy. Do you realize that for all eternity, we’ll never, ever have to ask forgiveness again? Not of each other, not of God himself. Never. For we will be his son!
The contrast, therefore, is painfully, desperately sharp: “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.” The second death has already been mentioned several times in this book.
This destruction of fire is mentioned in the previous chapter as that which befalls the Devil and his cohorts. Revelation 20:10: “The devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night forever.” So then we’ll either be the son or we’ll be the cowardly and the unbelieving.
As far as I can see in Scripture, there is no hint anywhere that people in hell genuinely repent. Even in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man lifts his eyes in torment and somehow he is enabled to see, in the story, Abraham and Lazarus afar off. Considering how he had treated Lazarus during the days of his flesh, what do you think the rich man in hell should say? What do you think he would say?
Wouldn’t you expect him so say, “Oh Lazarus, did I get that one wrong! I am so sorry. Will you please forgive me?” Wouldn’t you expect that? He doesn’t even address him; he was a nobody in the days of his flesh. The rich man doesn’t deal with nobodies. He goes right to the top. “Father Abraham,” he says, “tell Lazarus to go and dip his finger in water and bring me something to cool my tongue. It’s pretty hot here.” Where’s the repentance in that?
He still thinks he’s at the center of the universe. He’s still going to order Lazarus around. There’s no brokenness, there’s no contrition, there’s no shame. Before the story is over, he’s actually arguing theologically with Abraham: “No, Father Abraham, you got that one wrong. If someone rose from the dead that would really make a difference. Don’t you see?”
Hell is not filled with people who are deeply sorry for their sins. It’s filled with people who for all eternity still shake their puny fists in the face of God almighty in an endless existence of evil, corruption, shame, punishment, and the wrath of God. You sometimes hear people saying stupid things like, “I want to go to hell; all my friends will be there.” There are no friends in hell, because when we sinners get together for very long, it’s one-upmanship, backbiting, sniping, jealousy, hatred, malice.
So who doesn’t get in? It’s the people who are described: the cowardly, the idolaters, people playing magic arts and defying God. The separation is absolute and eternal. In this text, the very sharpness of the polarity makes the glory of the new heaven and the new earth all the more imminently, superlatively attractive, for there is no more sin, no more sorrow, no more mourning. We haven’t even seen the good stuff yet, except the abolition of the bad stuff.
2. What is symbol-laden about the New Jerusalem.
Here we will go a little faster, running all the way from verse 9 to 21. At one level, of course, there’s symbolism everywhere in these chapters, but in what follows, the interpreting angel in the vison goes to great lengths to make John reflect on particular elements of the symbolism.
Verse 9: “One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues …” Going back to chapter 16 in context. “… came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City.”
Just as in chapter 5, the lion is the lamb, there are not two animals parked side by side, so in chapter 21, the bride is the city. At the beginning of chapter 21, the New Jerusalem is well adorned like a city, like a bride. Here the identification is made. It’s tight. “ ‘I’m going to show you the bride.’ So he takes me up on a high mountain, and I look over a city.”
For those of you who are not yet married, I earnestly hope that on your wedding day, after you’ve come down the aisle and taken the arm of your groom, he doesn’t turn to you sweetly and say, “You are so gorgeous. You look like a city,” but apocalyptic can get away with that, precisely because it mixes its metaphors. It’s not only symbol-laden; it’s not only pictures. It’s pictures that don’t have to cohere on the same palette. They’re word pictures. They’re not even painting pictures.
You go to some of the cathedrals in Europe, and there you can picture on some stained glasses Jesus looking like a lion with a sword coming out of his mouth with part of his body looking like a lamb. I think it just looks stupid, because it presents Jesus as sort of half lamb and half lion, not quite one or the other and with a sword sticking out of his mouth. Why doesn’t he spit it out for goodness’ sake? They’re not just pictures; they’re word pictures that you’re not supposed to paint.
That’s one of the reasons why preaching is so important. You can’t do a mural of this. You end up with something that’s frankly laughable, but the word pictures themselves are so powerful. The lion is the lamb. Here the bride is the city, and all the different components have got to be brought together in your mind. You’re playing with them all at the same time.
We’re now on the edge of the marriage supper of the lamb. That brings together a massive typology running right through Scripture. In the Old Testament, Yahweh himself is the groom and Israel is the bride. In the New Testament, Christ is the groom; the church is the bride. Out of this structure come many, many other extenuating metaphors.
That’s why, for example, apostasy in the Old Testament from Deuteronomy on is regularly depicted as a kind of spiritual adultery. Some of the language used to get that idea across is really grotesque to make sure we get the point. Not now, but later read Ezekiel 16 and Ezekiel 23; you’ll see what I mean. Go and pray your way through Hosea the prophet. It’s why Paul can come along and say to the church in Corinth, “I betrothed you … as a pure virgin to Christ.”
Now we have the marriage supper of the Lamb. Even that is spectacularly pushing borders, isn’t it? The most specular of them.… The bride of the Messiah, you can understand that, but the bride of the Lamb? You’ve got an image upon an image. Are we talking about lambs having weddings?
But this lamb is the slaughtered lamb who is also the lion, and he’s getting married to the bride, which is also the church, which is also the city. You take all of those components, and you start thinking through the individual bit that you’re supposed to see in each case. What’s bound up with this bride language? One of the intriguing things Jesus taught us in the days of his flesh is that there’s no marriage in heaven.
For those of you who are in really good marriages, you must have thought once in a while, “Boy, I’m sure going to miss it. It doesn’t seem like a very good idea.” Listen. God is no one’s debtor. As far as I can make out, the intimacies and joys, including even sexual intimacies and joys enthused over and enjoyed in a good marriage, are merely a tiny picture of the rapture of intimacy to come between Christ and the church.
For you who are single, I know it can be hard, but let me tell you, if you’re Christ’s, 50 billion years future it will never enter your thought to say, “I was robbed,” because the intimacy that you will enjoy in the new heaven and the new earth and resurrection existence corporately with the church as the bride of Christ.… I don’t even have the language to describe it. It will be such overwhelming joyful intimacy that the best, most ecstatic marriage is but the palest of comparison. It’s the best I can do.
At the same time, this bride is also the city. What do we learn about the city? “… the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven …” So it’s God providing this. “It shone with the glory of God.” This is the place where God is supremely manifesting himself. This is the perfection of God’s manifestation. We have seen again and again how God has manifested himself, described his holiness, and displayed it in glory. Now this is the epitome of all of that promise.
“Its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.” Most of our translations say things like, “Clear as crystal,” but in the first century, crystal wasn’t clear. They didn’t know how to cut class like that. It’s sparkling like crystal; that’s the idea. In every case where that word is used here and shows up as “clear” in our translations, it’s not translucent or transparent. It’s sparkling. It’s spectacular. It’s wonderful.
Some would say to think of Kate’s diamond. I sometimes mention the Crown Jewels. Have you been to the Tower of London and gone down to see the Crown Jewels? There are two paths through the Crown Jewels. There are security guards everywhere. There’s an inside path right to the cases where all of these spectacular swords, crowns, and individuals items from empire days are there with lights shining down on them.
If you’re on that inside path close to the glass cases, you have to keep moving. The signs say, “Keep moving. Don’t stop.” The guards will keep telling you, “Don’t stop.” Or you’re a yard or a yard and a half back, on another path, and in that case you can actually stop. If you stop and you’re looking at these jewels, you see all of the refracted light broken up into endless colorful beams.
Then you move your head a centimeter. The pattern changes! You move another centimeter. The pattern changes! You move your head back and forth, and there’s brilliance absolutely everywhere. In fact, the last time I went, I went on the inner path and then stopped so I could do it a little more closely. It’s spectacular! Then the guard says, “Keep moving. Keep moving.” It’s as if Scripture is trying to find something that will approach what it’s like for an animist with pre-Stone Age technology to understand something about electricity.
“It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates.” Twelve, huh? “On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west.” That ordering is probably significant. “The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”
Then pretty soon we’re going to discover that the city was built like a cube, 12,000 stadia per side. Do realize how big that is? Twelve thousand stadia is about 1400 miles. So it’s built like a cube. I have a daughter in Santa Barbara. From Chicago to Santa Barbara driving is 2,100 miles; I know! If you fly, it’s just over 1,600 direct, so only a tiny little bit less. Think Chicago to California; that’s 1,400 miles, more or less.
Now it’s built like a cube. I live in Chicago. We’ve got skyscrapers and wonderful architecture and all of that, but when I fly into O’Hare and I look down at the city, despite its tall skyscrapers, it never makes me think of a cube, not once. This is a city.… This cannot possibly be Jerusalem in the Middle East or confused with it. This is the transformation, the fulfillment, the consummation. It’s a bigger thing.
It’s not even 1,400 miles in the new heaven and the new earth; those are separate visions. One way of looking at the end is a new heaven and a new earth. Another way of looking at the end is a New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. If you look at it in that way, it’s the city of the great King, the city of the meeting place between God and his sinful people now transformed, and it’s built like a cube.
Built like a cube? There’s only one cube in the Old Testament. Just one. It’s the Most Holy Place. The place where only the high priest could go, and only then once a year, and only then carrying the blood of bullock and goat, both for his own sin and for the sins of the people. But now the veil has been rent. It’s been torn. It is finished.
Now the entire city is the Holy Place. There is no need for a mediating priest in the order of Levi. There is no outer court. There is no court for the Gentiles or court for women or court for foreign tribes. No, no, no. The whole city is the place where God dwells. It’s the Most Holy Place, and it’s massive, with room enough for all, and with 12 coming up again and again.
There’s the 12,000 stadia. The wall, we’ll see, is a 144 cubits thick (12 times 12), a regular symbol in apocalyptic literature for all of God’s people: the twelve of the old covenant (the twelve tribes), the twelve of the new covenant (the twelve apostles). Put them together, 12 times 12, you’ve got 144.
You must not think numbers are always symbol-laden in Scripture. Many, many times they are not symbol-laden. They are symbol-laden virtually always in apocalyptic literature. I have a nasty habit of keeping files at home on difficult and disputed parts of Scripture just to see what kinds of screwball interpretations people have thought of.
In John 21, for example, where they catch 153 fish, I have a thick file of screwball interpretations about what 153 means. Did you know that 153 is the triangular number of 17? That means if you make an equilateral triangle with 17 dots on a side, you’ve got 153 in the whole lot. Now 17 is 17 plus 10, and 10 is the number of the Ten Commandments. The number of perfection is 7, and 7 is 3 plus 4. The number of the Trinity is 3, and four is the number of the church built foursquare.
Therefore, 153 means that your commission is to bring in all the fish in the world as fishers of men and teach them the Ten Commandments in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit in order to build the church foursquare. Preach it brother, sister! It is such unmitigated rubbish. There is a control to Scripture. You see symbol-laden numbers here and there in Scripture, and especially in apocalyptic, but don’t go thinking that all numbers everywhere are always symbol-laden or you will end up making a hash of Scripture.
But here the numbers are clearly symbol-laden. This is the city built like a cube (12,000 on a side), the place of Old Testament people of God and New Testament people of God brought together. I wish I had the time to work through these various stones, but I’m going to skip to the last two points. They’re the most important points of all.
3. What is missing.
Verse 22. “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” Of course, in one sense, you can’t imagine a temple in the city because the whole city is the Most Holy Place. Or to change the metaphor a bit, there’s no temple there, there’s no mediating structure. There’s no mediating structure necessary anymore. You’re actually there in the presence of God, so mediation is God.
So often in the book of Revelation, after Revelation 4 and 5, the reference to God is “him who sits on the throne and the Lamb,” or “the Lord God Almighty, who sits on the throne, and the Lamb,” to remind us that all God has brought about in his fulfillment, he’s brought about through the gospel, through the Lamb: through the Lamb who is the King, the Lamb who is the Lion, the Lamb who is the sacrifice, the Lamb who has made all of the plans of God held in the scroll in the Almighty’s right hand, and who has brought them all to pass.
Now there’s no mediation. “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need a sun or a moon to shine on it.” There was no sea; now there’s no sun or moon. Just as the absence of a sea is not actually talking about the hydrological features of the new heaven and the new earth, so the absence of the sun is not talking about the astronomical features of the new heaven and the new earth.
The point is far more profound; it’s symbol-laden. All that we know of light is mediated light, but now we’re in the light of God, unqualified, with no cycles of day or night. Night so often is bound up with the works of darkness where people are hiding, sneaking around, and skulking, but there’s no night. There’s no sun or moon because, we read, “… the glory of God …” God’s disclosed presence, all that he is. “… gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.”
All the different cultures bringing in what has been formed, shaped, and given by God’s grace, now completely purified, transforming. There will be people there with spectacular displays of cultural heritage, bringing all the treasures of the earth. “On no day will its gates ever be shut.” You shut the gates at night to stop robbers and thieves from getting in. This place is secure.
There’s no night. “There will be no night there,” we’re told. “The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” Now let me come at last to the high point. Not only what is missing but …
4. What is central.
The water of life from the throne of God and of the Lamb. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life …” Harking back to Genesis. “… bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
It almost sounds as if there will still be national structures of some sort. Why not if there are tribes and peoples and languages? But there will be no sickness, no decay, no fighting, no war, or anything like that. No, no. From the Water of Life, from the throne of God and of the Lamb, everything, finally, coming from God and the cross, is this utter transformation. “No longer will there be any curse.” The curse of Genesis 3 is gone; it’s been removed. It’s been paid for.
“The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him,” but the best part? It’s in verses 4 and 5. In the history of the Christian church, it’s often called the beatific vision, the blessed vision of the blessed One. “They will see his face.” Those great seraphic beings in Isaiah 11 had to cover their faces and could not look on the face of this God.
Even when you find visions where we’re told someone sees God in some fashion or another, the surrounding context always limits it in some way. So that, yes, “I saw the Lord,” Isaiah says, but what he really sees is a temple filled with smoke. He lifts his eyes heavenward, and he doesn’t see much more than the hem of his garment. Everything above that is not easily describable.
Or you turn to the vision of God sitting on his mobile throne chariot in Ezekiel, chapter 1. The description of the chariot is fairly detailed, but when you get to him who sits on it, then the vision of God is of “the likeness of the glory of the likeness of the Lord.” It’s all removed. You can’t draw it.
But now? Can you believe it? Something that angels can’t do? “They will see his face,” and they won’t die. They won’t be ashamed. They won’t be consumed. As much like God as his image bearers can be without being God. His son! You begin to sing with new eyes:
Face to face with Christ, my Savior,
Face to face—what will it be,
When with rapture I behold him,
Jesus Christ who died for me?
Only faintly now, I see him
With the darkening veil between,
But a blessed day is coming,
When His glory shall be seen.
I’ve talked to a lot of Christians who are eager to get to heaven so they can see their long-lost relatives. My mother died of Alzheimer’s. On the last day, the Lord Jesus will say, in effect, “Elizabeth Margaret Maybury Carson, arise!” and she will arise. When I read the apocalypse, I don’t find a whole lot of Christians saying, “I can hardly wait to see my daddy again.” The culmination of everything is to see God.
In some measure, by the eyes of faith, as manifested in Christ, as previewed in the transfiguration, in the glory of the shame of the cross, in the gift of the Spirit, the church itself already the temple of God, we have some wonderful tastes, but one day we will see his face.
Usually when I go somewhere to speak, it’s far enough away that I fly, but sometimes it’s not too far away and I drive. When I drive, I often bring talks, sermons, music with me. My musical tastes are pathetically eclectic. Some time ago, I was listening to Roger Whittaker sing folk songs from around the world. One of the ones he sang was a song of Cape Breton. Any Canadian will appreciate that. He sang a song of Cape Breton, and when he got to the third verse he sang,
If my time could end perfectly,
I know how I’d want it to be.
God’s gift of heaven would be made up of three:
My love, Cape Breton, and me.
I thought to myself, “My dear Roger Whittaker, you’ve just defined hell,” because Roger Whittaker and his love will breed like rabbits, a generation of more sinners, until pretty soon we’re threatened with nuclear holocaust, hate, enmity, war, and malice all over again, and Cape Breton itself will be a wasteland under the curse of God.
Heaven is made up of three? Heaven centers absolutely on the One, the one triune God, and we shall see his face. Every joy will be perfected. Every ecstasy will be beyond measure. Every intimacy will be superb. This in the framework of rejoicing, choirs, work, growth, learning, knowing more of God, exploring the dimensions of his grace for all eternity. Even then we’ll only be scratching the surface, and we will see his face.
This book, not surprisingly, ends in spectacular invitation. I’m sure in a crowd this size there are some of you who have never trusted Christ Jesus. I beg of you, even where you sit right now, will you not say, “God be merciful to me a sinner. Lord I begin to perceive that I deserve this lake of fire, but I hunger for the new heaven and the new earth. Will you not wash me in the blood of the Lamb? Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”
For we read in 22:17, “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 to take the free gift of the water of life.” For all of us, we join Christians across every continent, across every generation, across every tribe. We join Christians in every age, and we say, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon,’ ” and we respond, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” Let us pray.
So make us, we beg of you, homesick for heaven, and so work your purifying work in us that we are just as pure as pardoned sinners can be this side of that blessed transformation. O Lord God, help us to lay up treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not corrode, where thieves do not break through and steal, not because this is some bitter self-sacrifice but because it is investing in the spectacular heritage that is ours, secured by Christ when we will see you face to face.
All the limitations of our language, the brokennesses of our experience, the failures of our lives, are all gone and everything is new, secured by the lion-lamb. “Yes. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” We dare to pray in his name, amen.