Friday 13 August
With Chris Wright
Revelation 21:1-4 and 21:22-22:5
Today we come to the last great acts in the Bible story – the final judgment ushering in the new creation, acts 6 and 7 in my diagram. This sends us to the very end of the Bible, of course, to Revelation chapters 21-22 but as we shall see, there is plenty earlier on in the Bible to point us forward to these great future events.
Now I’m sure we are aware that all kinds of weird and wonderful teachings and predictions are around (and always have been) about the so-called “end times”. I don’t want to discuss any of those, but simply try to focus on what the Bible itself says about the end of its own story – which is not so much an ending, really, as a new beginning. And, in line with our theme throughout this week, to ask what shalom will look like when it is fully and finally restored throughout all God’s creation when Christ returns.
Do remember that this comes as part of John’s great vision in the book of Revelation – a vision that is pictorial and symbolic, and full of imagination to help us grasp the essential truths of what God has in store for us, not to get us speculating literally about the details.
Shalom will mean a new creation (21:1)
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… for the old order of things has passed away. Revelation 21:1, 4
Now John is not talking here about a totally different creation but a totally renewed creation. Notice that the last phrase explains the earlier one. It is “the old order of things” that has passed away. This is not the obliteration of the whole universe but its restoration and renewal to a whole “new order of things.”
That’s why God says, “I am making all things new” – not “I am making all new things”.
Did you notice that the phrase “a new heaven and a new earth” are in inverted commas? That’s because John is quoting from the O.T. here – Isaiah 65:17-25, where God says, “See, look, behold, I will create [or literally here I am creating] new heavens and a new earth…” And then Isaiah goes on to describe that in wonderful pictures of human life in all its abundance and fulfilment with fruitful work, satisfying engagement and family life and harmony within the community, between the nations and in nature itself. That’s the imagery that John is drawing on here.
As we saw right at the start of our journey, the Bible affirms the goodness of God’s creation. Of course, it also tells us that the ground is cursed because of our sin and rebellion. But the hope of those OT believers was, NOT that the earth itself should be destroyed but that the curse would be lifted from the earth.
That was the reason Lamech named his son Noah (meaning “comfort”), because, he said, ‘He will comfort us in the labour and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed.’ Genesis 5:29
Well, as we shall see, God will indeed remove the curse – but not in Noah’s lifetime!
In the NT, Paul exults in God’s great plan for all creation. In Ephesians 1:9-10, he says that God’s plan is to bring the whole creation into reconciled unity in Christ. In Colossians 1:15-20, he tells us that the whole universe was created by Christ and for Christ, is held together by Christ, and has been reconciled to God through Christ’s blood shed on the cross. And then, in Romans 8:18-23, Paul links together the destiny of creation with the resurrection of our bodies.
For 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. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship,
the redemption of our bodies.
Now, can you see that vital connection that Paul makes between the resurrection and redemption of our bodies with the “rebirth” of creation. It’s not just that we will need our resurrection bodies (that Paul tells us in Philippians will be like Christ’s) to live in the new creation. It’s also that the analogy is so helpful. Thinking first of our bodies: there will be both discontinuity and continuity between our resurrection bodies and the bodies we now have in this creation – and the resurrection body of Jesus is the vital clue.
The risen Jesus was clearly not quite the same as He had been before His crucifixion – He could now appear and disappear, inhabiting a new order of existence, a whole new dimension that transcends our physical space and place. And yet, equally clearly, He was the same Jesus, recognisable by the disciples – with the marks of crucifixion still visibly there. Not a ghost, as He said but with flesh and bones; able to eat food and cook breakfast. And Jesus is the “first-fruits”. So the same will be for us – we will be different, and yet recognisable as the persons we are. As Paul puts it in Philippians, God will transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body.
And so it will also be, then for creation as a whole. It will not be just this old earth spruced up a bit, any more than the risen Jesus was just the earthly Jesus come back from the dead. There will indeed be transformation and renewal. But we will recognise it as our earth, our home; God’s creation restored, renewed and resplendent.
Now if you’re thinking, “What about that passage that says the whole universe will be destroyed by fire?” – wait just a minute. We’ll get there! So that’s our first point. Shalom at the end of the Bible story is not just “heaven” but a whole new creation.
Shalom will mean “God with us” (21:3)
You know, it’s amazing how many Christians imagine that the end of the world will mean us all flying off up to heaven. Unfortunately, it’s a picture that draws more from a lot of Christian hymns and songs about “going to our heavenly home above”, or God coming to “take His servants up to their eternal home”, “when Christ shall come… and take me home…” and so on. But that is NOT how the Bible ends. The Bible does not end with us going anywhere but with God coming to make His home here. John sees the Holy City, the Bride of Christ, “coming down out of heaven from God.”
Once again, John is drawing heavily on the Scriptures. The hope of OT believers was NOT that they should leave the earth behind and go up to God but that God would come here and sort things out once and for all. “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down”, cries Isaiah (64:1) – and I can hear God saying “Don’t worry, I intend to…”
For of course, God did come down, in the incarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ. But Jesus and the apostles affirm that He will come again, and when He does, then God will come to dwell with us permanently, intimately and forever.
Look at verse 3. Three times it speaks of God coming to dwell with His people, placing His tabernacle among them, as He had done in the wilderness and when the Word became flesh.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people (literally “with mankind”), and He will dwell with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. Revelation 21:3
This is the ultimate fulfilment of the “Immanuel” sign. Remember that Immanuel means “God with us” – not us going off somewhere to be with God. That is the great expectation of this passage – God dwelling in our midst, in our resurrection bodies, in the renewed creation.
Now of course, when believers die before Christ returns, we know that they are safe with the Lord. Paul affirms that. Death is like “falling asleep in Christ”, and he knows that when he dies he will be “with Christ.” In that sense, we may rightly speak of “going to heaven when you die” –that is going into the presence of Christ. But heaven after physical death is not our final destination. The “intermediate state” as it is called – the intermediate time period between personal death and the return of Christ – is exactly that: “intermediate”, not final. No – Christ will return to take up His kingdom and authority over all the earth and all creation, and, as John says in Revelation 5:10, we shall reign with Him on the earth – not up in heaven.
Now someone may ask – “What about the ‘Rapture’, when we all go up to meet Christ in the air?” I’m afraid that passage in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is much misunderstood. Paul is talking about God’s arrival and the return of Christ. He uses two images – one is Mount Sinai, and the loud trumpet blast that announced God coming down to Mount Sinai in Exodus (there’s nothing secret about this!) and Paul’s other image is the arrival of a Roman emperor to a city within his dominions. The people of the city, or their leaders, would go out for a meeting with him outside the city on his way in, to greet him and welcome him into their city.
When Christ is on His way to claim His kingdom, we who are alive will welcome Him – going up, as it were, to meet and accompany Him as He comes. He does not turn round and go back up to heaven. No, He is coming to reign and we rejoice to welcome Him to His rightful inheritance.
So then, shalom will mean God dwelling with us – here in the tabernacle or temple of His renewed creation. That’s why John tells us that he did not see any physical temple in the City of God. There was no need. The whole new heaven and earth will have become God’s cosmic temple, His dwelling place, and we shall dwell there with Him and He with us. That will be perfect peace!
Shalom will mean the end of all evil (21:4, 8; 22:3)
Going back to the beginning of the Bible story, we know that it was our sin and rebellion that shattered the shalom of creation. And so, at this end of the Bible story, we see God destroying all that is evil from His universe altogether – as the necessary precursor to making all things new. In terms of our analogy and diagram, this is act 6 of the great drama – the last but one.
And so, before we reach these wonderful last two chapters of Revelation, we have several chapters – 18, 19 and 20, that portray the fall of Babylon (which meaning the ending of the idolatrous and oppressive order of our evil world and its rapacious rulers), and then the final judgment in which all the enemies of God, satanic and human, will be defeated and destroyed. And all this – though it is dark and terrible – is actually good news, part of the gospel (which is why the final overthrow and destruction of Babylon in Revelation 19 resounds with fourfold Hallelujah).
It is good news because it assures us that evil will not have the last word in God’s universe; that evil-doers who never repent will not “get away with it” forever because tragically those who persist in refusing to obey the living God and continuing to do evil without repentance, will finally be excluded from God’s new creation. There is, as Paul would put it, “the wrath to come”. There is the Day of Judgment, when God will deal with all wrongs and wrong doers, and will ultimately put everything right. The Day of Judgment will be the great and final “rectification” of all things.
And it is in that context that we need to think about the passage 2 Peter 3 that speaks about the whole creation being “destroyed by fire” on that day of judgment, the “day of the Lord. 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 (2 Peter 3:10).
We need to take this in the context of the whole chapter. Peter is responding to people who were denying the very idea of a future judgment (see vs. 3-4). But they forget, says Peter that God did once judge the earth, through water – speaking of course of the Flood. And he uses the same word there – “destroyed”. But what was “destroyed” in the flood was not the whole planet earth but the sinful human race living on it – apart from Noah and his family. And so, says Peter, God will do it again, judge the earth “by fire” – meaning the purging, cleansing fire of judgment, “the destruction of the ungodly”. Here’s how Peter makes the parallel:
By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed.
By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for
the Day of Judgment and destruction of the ungodly.
So, Peter’s language (destruction by fire) is the imagery of purging judgment, not of total obliteration. His picture is not of some cosmic incinerator in which everything is consumed and nothing is left but ash but of a cosmic smelting furnace in which all the dross is consumed and what is left is pure gold.
That’s why he can immediately follow that act of God’s fiery judgment with the promise of new creation:
But in keeping with His promise, we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells (v. 13).
And that brings us back to our text in Revelation 21-22. Because this cleansing judgment will have taken place – look at all the things that John tells us will be no more. Count the number of times he says, “no more”, or “no longer”, or implies it. It fills us with such hope and anticipation!
- 21:4 – No more tears, no more death, or mourning or crying or pain
- 21:25, 22:5 – No more night or darkness – the time of crime and violence
- 21:8, 27; 22:15 – No more evildoers , all wickedness and evil of all kinds will disappear.
- 22:2 – No more war because there will be “the healing of the nations”, the fulfilment of the vision of Isaiah and the Psalmists that nations will no longer take up arms against one another. There will be “healing” – a beautiful picture of true peace, God’s shalom, as the tree of life banishes the reign of death. And as a climax…
- 22:3 – No more curse! – This is what we have longed for throughout the whole long drama of Scripture, ever since that terrible word of God in Genesis 3 – “cursed is the ground because of you.” Like Lamech, father of Noah, in Genesis 5, who longed for God to lift the curse on the earth. Like Paul, who in Romans 8 portrays the whole creation eagerly longing for it liberation from frustration, bondage and decay, into the glorious freedom of the sons of God. That’s what John sees in this last great chapter of the Bible. The curse gone, creation reconciled to God, the water of life and the tree of life bringing abundant fruitfulness, and the intimacy of God with us as it was in the Garden of Eden restored, and we shall see the very face of God and reign with Him forever.
So if those are some of the things that will not be there, what will be there? How does John picture for us some wonderful features of the new creation? I wonder what your mental picture of “heaven” is? The trouble is, our minds are already stuffed with a combination of medieval art with angels and chubby babies with wings flying around, saints in long white robes and haloes, stained glass window pictures.
And then all the popular caricatures as well, happy saints floating on clouds with haloes and harps. God as an old man with a big white beard – a weird, science-fiction kind of spiritual existence, singing hymns for all eternity. I mean – it’s either funny or horrendous, depending on your mood!
What does John see? Please let’s remember that this whole book is visionary, it is filled with imagery that is intended to communicate truth to us in imaginative pictorial form. It is not intended to be translated into literalistic reality. John sees a mountain, and a city and a bride – all of which are also Old Testament images for the people of God in union with Him.
But the city that John sees is somehow also like a garden, or rather like the garden or the garden of Eden. It seems like a redeemed combination of the remarkable achievement of humanity (cities), with the gift of God Himself – the kind of world that both takes us back to the beginning (God’s own wonderful creation), and yet also includes within it all the accomplishments of history (humanity’s inventive creativity as well).
So the great drama of Scripture that began in the garden, ends in the city but a garden-city – the best of both, as it were. Shalom is the city of God, enriched and glorified also by the redeemed and purified accomplishments of humanity as well.
Shalom will mean the redemption of human civilization
Now human beings have built cities ever since the dawn of civilization (the first is attributed to Cain himself), and we do so for several reasons. One is security – we build cities to keep ourselves safe. Another is to be able to work and trade more conveniently. But we also try to make them attractive and beautiful, with architecture and parks and plenty of living space (at least, we do when we take the trouble to plan them sensibly).
So what John sees here is the perfection of all these things and more. The new creation will be all that we ever wanted cities to be but without the squalor and crime and violence – and perfected by the very presence of God and the beauty of His creation. And that will be where we shall find our perfect shalom. Look at the imagery John shares with us to make these points about the new creation
- It will be the home of all God’s people, 21:12-14 – Old Testament and New Testament (the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of the Lamb)
- It will be a place with space for everyone (21:15-16). The vast dimensions (1,500 miles cubed) express enormous size and space. Let’s not try literal calculations on this! Like the website that informs us that the city will have 240 vertical layers of about seven miles each (giving room for complete atmospheres), so that the redeemed population of an estimated 20 billion believers (don’t ask), will have a density of about 41 persons per square mile, which is the same as Hawaii in 1920, when it was a pristine paradise! ) The point is simple: the new creation will be vast and spacious for all God’s redeemed people.
- It will be stunningly beautiful (21:18-21) – all those precious stones, gems and metals and colours. Again, the details are not literal but combine to dazzle us with gorgeous beauty.
- It will be totally secure (21:12, 17) – with vast high and thick walls but with open gates, since in any case there will be no thieves or robbers or enemies to attack.
- It will be filled with life, abundance and fruitfulness (22:1-2) – the water of life and the tree of life and its constant fruit.
- It will be a place of work and service (22:3, 5). We shall reign (22:5), and we shall serve (22:3). Those were our creation mandates – to rule and to serve within God’s creation, and as John heard back in 5:10, we shall be kings and priests to do exactly that. The new creation will not be an unending vacation, but the joy of eternally satisfying work and rest in the presence of God. And that leads to our last, exciting point.
- It will include the glory of human civilizations (21:23-27). Look at these are amazing verses.
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 splendour into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honour 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 who are these “kings of the earth” and “nations”? All through the book of Revelation, these have been the “bad guys”. They are the enemies of God and of God’s people, in rebellion, violence, bloodshed, war, and satanic deception. BUT NOW, in the startling reversal in the new creation, the kings of the earth submit to God, they walk in His ways and in His light – the light of the Lamb Himself! This is the transformation of the old order of things, of human rebellion into the new order of the city of God – for all nations, as God promised Abraham.
But what we also need to see is that, the most prominent feature of these nations and kings earlier in Revelation, is their economic activity. Look at Revelation 18. It describes the whole system of world trade, the products of human work, skill and craftsmanship, ships, cargoes, animals, fabrics, foods….
BUT, in this fallen world in rebellion against God, all these things that are good in themselves (part of God’s creation and human work), have been corrupted and perverted for greed, oppression, luxury for some and poverty for others – that is, they all serve Babylon – the great Prostitute – a portrait of the wicked City of Man – arrogant, lustful, destructive and violent. BUT Babylon will fall! Hallelujah – cries the world in Revelation 19. The old order of sin, corruption and death will be destroyed forever! That is the good news of Revelation 18-19.
AND THEN, all the product of human nations, empires and kings – all the splendid achievements of trade, art, business, architecture, music, engineering, and all that makes human life so wonderful, will be purified, cleansed of evil and perversion, and it will all be put to its proper use, to glorify God and for the blessing of redeemed humanity.
All the accomplishment of human civilization will adorn the City of God, not the city of Babylon. Notice how v. 23 speaks of the glory of God, and v. 26 speaks of the glory of the nations – this is God’s glory and human glory but now no longer in arrogant competition but glorious combination.
That is what these verses look forward to. We cannot even begin to imagine how God will accomplish this but it encourages us in our daily lives and work to know that nothing is ever wasted; nothing is too small or insignificant. The God who can redeem and resurrect our humble bodies, the God who has already reconciled His whole creation through the blood of Christ, the God who will make all things new as the old order of things passes away, this same God will redeem and purify our humble work and have it contribute in some way to the glory of the city of God.
Our shalom lies in knowing that we can live here and now in the light of that wonderful prospect. That is why, even though Jesus warned us that in this world we shall have trouble, He could also say, don’t be afraid for I have overcome the world, and assures us, “My peace, my shalom, I give to you.”
Let me finish then, with three wonderful prayers of the Apostle Paul, which help us look forward to that day.
The peace of God, which transcends all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Now may the Lord of peace Himself give you peace at all times and in every way.
The Lord be with all of you. 2 Thessalonians 3:16