The Saviour works mightily every day, drawing men to religion, persuading them to virtue, teaching them about immortality, quickening their thirst for heavenly things, revealing the knowledge of the Father, inspiring strength in the face of death, manifesting Himself to each, and displacing the irreligion of idols; while the gods and evil spirits of the unbelievers can do none of these things, but rather become dead at Christ’s presence, all their ostentation barren and void. By the sign of the cross, on the contrary, all magic is stayed, all sorcery confounded, all the idols are abandoned and deserted, and all senseless pleasure ceases, as the eye of faith looks up from earth to heaven.
–St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation 
THE NEW CREATION
Well, finally we’ve gotten to a place in Revelation where everyone’s agreed, right? “The new heaven and earth” – that’s got to be literal, referring to eternity after the end of the world, right? Wrong. Or, to be absolutely precise, I should say: Yes and no. The truth is that the Bible tells us very little about heaven; just enough, in fact, to let us know we’re going there. But the primary concern of Scripture is the present life. Of course, the blessings of the final chapters of Revelation do refer to heaven. It is not really an “either/or” kind of an issue. But what is important is that these things are true now. Heaven is a continuation and perfection of what is true of the Church in this life. We are not simply to look forward to these blessings in an eternity to come, but to enjoy them and rejoice in them here and now. John was telling the early Church of present realities, of blessings that existed already and would be on the increase as the gospel extended and renewed the earth.
“Behold, I Am Making All Things New”
First, John said, he saw “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth passed away” (Rev. 21:1). To understand this, we need to remember one of the most basic lessons of the Paradise theme: salvation is a re-creation. This is why creation language and symbolism is used in Scripture whenever God speaks of saving His people. The Flood, the Exodus, and the First Advent of Christ are all seen as God making a new world. Thus, when God spoke through Isaiah, prophesying the earthly blessings of the coming Kingdom, He said:
For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth;
And the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create;
For behold, I create Jerusalem for rejoicing,
And her people for gladness.
I will also rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in My people;
And there will no longer be heard in her
The voice of weeping and the sound of crying.
No longer will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days,
Or an old man who does not live out his days;
For the youth will die at the age of one hundred,
And the one who does not reach the age of one hundred
Shall be thought accursed.
And they shall build houses and inhabit them;
They shall also plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build, and another inhabit;
They shall not plant, and another eat;
For as the lifetime of a tree, so shall be the days of My people,
And My chosen ones shall wear out the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain,
Or bear children for calamity;
For they are the offspring of those blessed by the LORD,
And their descendants with them. It will also come to pass
That before they call, I will answer;
And while they are still speaking, I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall graze together,
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
And dust shall be the serpent’s food.
They shall do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain.
This cannot be speaking of heaven, or of a time after the end of the world; for in this “new heaven and earth” there is still death (at a very advanced age – “the lifetime of a tree”), people are building, planting, working, and having children. We could spend the rest of this chapter examining the implications of this passage in Isaiah, but the only point I will make here is that it is clearly a statement about this age, before the end of the world, and shows what future generations can expect as the gospel permeates the world, restores the earth to Paradise, and brings to fruition the goals of the Kingdom. Isaiah is describing the blessings of Deuteronomy 28 in what is probably their greatest earthly fulfillment. Thus, when John tells us that he saw “a new heaven and earth,” we should recognize that the primary significance of that phrase is symbolic, and has to do with the blessings of salvation.
John next saw “the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a Bride adorned for her Husband” (Rev. 21:2). No, it’s not a space station. It is something which should be much more thrilling: it is the Church. The Bride is not just in the City; the Bride is the City (cf. Rev. 21:9-10). We are in the New Jerusalem now. Proof? The Bible categorically tells us: “You have come to Mount Zion and to the City of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and Church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven… ” (Heb. 12:22-23; cf. Gal. 4:26; Rev. 3:12). The New Jerusalem is a present reality; it is said to be coming down from heaven because the origin of the Church is heavenly. We have been “born from above” (John 3:3) and are now citizens of the Heavenly City (Eph. 2:19; Phil. 3:20).
This thought is expanded in John’s further statement. He heard a loud voice from the throne, saying: “Behold, the Tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them” (Rev. 21:3). Like Paul, John connects these two concepts: we are citizens of heaven, and we are God’s dwelling place, His holy Temple (Eph. 2:19-22). One of the Edenic blessings God promised in Leviticus was, “I will make My Tabernacle among you” (Lev. 26:11); this is fulfilled in the New Testament Church (2 Cor. 6:16). The voice John heard continued:
“And He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” And He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost.”
Ultimately, this will be fulfilled in heaven to the utmost extent. But we must recognize that it is true already. God has wiped away our tears. The proof of this is the obvious difference between Christian and pagan funerals: we grieve, but not as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). God has taken away the sting of death (1 Cor. 15:55-58). And most striking is the following phrase: “The first things have passed away…. Behold, I am making all things new.” Where have we read that before? It comes from 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if any man is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” Is this true now? Of course! The only real difference between the subjects of 2 Corinthians 5 and Revelation 21 is that Paul is speaking of the redeemed individual, while John is speaking of the redeemed community. But both the individual and the community are restored to Paradise in salvation, and the restoration has already begun. The water of life feeds us freely now, giving life to the individual and flowing out to give life to the whole world (John 4:14; 7:37-39). “He who overcomes shall inherit these things,” God says, “and I will be his God and he shall be My son” (Rev. 21:7); the child of God is characterized by victory against opposition (1 John 5:4). The language used here (“I will be his God”) is the basic covenantal promise of salvation (cf. Gen. 17:7-8; 2 Cor. 6:16-18). The highest fulfillment will take place in heaven for eternity. But, definitively and progressively, it is true now. We are living in the new heaven and the new earth; we are citizens of the New Jerusalem. The old things have passed away, and all things have become new.
City on a Hill
John is carried away in the Spirit “to a great and high mountain” (Rev. 21:10) to see the beauty of this consummate Paradise, which glows with the glory of God. The twelve gates of the City have the names of the twelve tribes of Israel inscribed on them, and on the twelve foundation stones are the names of the twelve Apostles (Rev. 21:12-14). Is this symbolism difficult to understand? This clearly represents the fact that the City of God contains the whole Church, the entire people of God, comprising both Old Testament and New Testament believers-which, as Paul wrote, is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20).
The absurdity of the “literalist” misinterpretation is painfully evident when they attempt to deal with the measurements John gives of the City (Rev. 21:15-17). John says that the City is a pyramid (or cube), 12,000 “furlongs” on each side, with a wall 144 “cubits” high. The numbers are obviously symbolic, the multiples of twelve being a reference to the majesty, vastness, and perfection of the Church. But the “literalist” feels compelled to translate those numbers into modern measurements, resulting in a wall 1,500 miles long and 216 feet high. John’s clear symbols are erased, and the unfortunate Bible reader is left with just a jumble of meaningless numbers. The “literalists” find themselves in the ridiculous position of deleting the literal numbers of God’s Word and replacing them with meaningless symbols!
John goes on to describe the City in terms of jewelry: each of the foundation stones is adorned with precious stones, each of the gates is “a single pearl,” the wall is made of jasper, and the City and the street are “pure gold, like transparent glass” (Rev. 21:18-21). From our study of the minerals connected with the Garden of Eden, we understand that this, again, is symbolic language, speaking of the restoration and fulfillment of Paradise in salvation. Eight hundred years earlier, Isaiah had described the coming salvation in terms of a City adorned with jewels:
O afflicted one, storm-tossed, and not comforted,
Behold, I will set your stones in fair colors,
And your foundations I will lay in sapphires.
Moreover, I will make your battlements of rubies,
And your gates of sparkling jewels,
And your entire wall of precious stones.
It is interesting that the word translated fair colors is, in Hebrew, eye shadow. This sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Walls are intended for protection; this wall is merely decorative. Who would build a wall out of jewels, using cosmetics for “mortar”? Someone fabulously wealthy, and supremely confident against attack. This, Isaiah says, is the future of the Church, the City of God. She will be rich and secure from enemies, as the rest of the passage explains:
And all your sons will be taught of the LORD;
And the well-being of your sons will be great.
In righteousness you will be established;
You will be far from oppression, for you will not fear;
And from terror, for it will not come near you….
No weapon that is formed against you shall prosper;
And every tongue that accuses you in judgment you will condemn.
This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD,
And their vindication is from Me, declares the LORD.
John saw that in this new City of God there is no Temple, “for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its Temple. And the City has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22-23). This is also based on Isaiah (see Isa. 60:1-3, 19-20), emphasizing that the Church is lighted by the Glory of God, indwelled by the Cloud, shining with the original Light. This is the City on the Hill (Matt. 5:14-16), the light of the world, shining before men so that they will glorify God the Father. Drawing from the same passage in Isaiah (Isa. 60:4-18), John tells of the City’s influence in the nations of the world:
And the nations shall walk by its light, and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it. And in the Daytime (for there shall be no Night there) its gates shall never be closed; and they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; and nothing unclean and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
–Rev. 21:24-27; cf. Ps. 22:27; 66:4; 86:9; Isa. 27:6; 42:4; 45:22-23; 49:5-13; Hag. 2:7-8
This is written of a time when the nations still exist as nations; yet the nations are all converted, flowing into the City and bringing their treasures into it. As the light of the gospel shines through the Church to the world, the world is converted, the nations are discipled, and the wealth of the sinners becomes inherited by the just. This is a basic promise of Scripture from beginning to end. This is the pattern of history, the direction in which the world is moving. This is our future, the heritage of generations to come.
The River of Life
We look forward to the turning back of the Curse in every area of life, both in this world and the next, as the gospel flows out to all the world. We studied in an earlier chapter how the image of the Eden River is used throughout Scripture to indicate the blessings of Paradise returning to earth by the power of the Spirit through the Church (cf. Ezek. 47:1-12; Zech. 14:8). John fittingly closes his picture of the New Creation with this picture, taken from Ezekiel’s vision of the Church:
And he showed me a River of the Water of Life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. And on either side of the River was the nee of Life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the Tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall no longer be any Curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His bondservants shall serve Him; and they shall see His face, and His name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall no longer be any Night; and they shall not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God shall illumine them; and they shall reign forever and ever.
The River of Life is flowing now (John 4:14; 7:37-39), and it will continue to flow in an ever-increasing stream of blessing to the earth, healing the nations, bringing an end to lawlessness and warfare through the application of Biblical law (Mic. 4:1-3). This vision of the Church’s glorious future, earthly and heavenly, mends the fabric that was torn in Genesis. In Revelation we see Man redeemed, brought back to the Mountain, sustained by the River and the Tree of Life, regaining his lost dominion and ruling as a priest-king over the earth. This is our privilege and heritage now, definitively and progressively, in this age; and it will be ours fully in the age to come. Paradise is being restored.