The coming of the new heaven and new earth (preaching resource for 1/1/23)

This post exegetes Revelation 21:1-8, providing context for the 1/1/23 (New Year's Day) RCL Epistles reading. This exegesis draws on commentary from Osborne (Baker Exegetical Commentary) and Beasley-Murray (New Bible Commentary).

"A New Heaven and New Earth" (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Introduction

Revelation 21:1-8 is part of a section spanning Rev. 21:1-22:5. This section addresses the great and climactic event to which the book of Revelation (and, indeed, the whole Bible) points, namely the arrival of the new heaven and new earth. God’s purpose for the entire cosmos (humanity included) is now fully realized. In the first part of this section we are given a vision of the arrival of the new heaven and new earth and the descent of the New Jerusalem; then a voice from the throne tells us the significance of these things; and then God elaborates and challenges.

The vision (21:1-2)

1 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. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

The background here is Isaiah’s prophecy, where God promises to make “a new heaven and new earth” (Isa. 65:17; 66:22). In 2Pet. 3:13, Peter describes the arrival of this new heaven and new earth through the fiery destruction of the old. These accounts build on Gen. 1:1 where God created the first heavens and earth. Now we find God re-creating them—a necessity because the first cosmos fell into “bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:21). This new cosmos is said to be “new” in a qualitative rather than in a temporal sense—it’s a new kind of existence in which all the negatives of the first/fallen world are removed. Two ideas about this newness predominated in Judaism: one held that there would be total destruction of the present world and virtually a totally new creation of heaven and earth. The other idea held that the existing would be renovated or transfigured. The first idea seems to predominate here. But note that this new cosmos is viewed as having continuity with the existing one that it replaces. Heaven and earth, though transformed, endure. The added thought that “the sea is no more” is symbolic, with “sea” symbolizing both evil and the place of the dead. In the new heaven and earth there is no evil nor death.  

With the new heaven and new earth in place, “the Holy City, the New Jerusalem” is seen “coming down” (Rev. 21:2) to earth. The old dichotomy between heaven and earth is thus now remedied. Heaven (the place of God’s dwelling with us) is united with earth—God now dwells in the New Jerusalem with his people. This New Jerusalem is the “Holy City.” Earlier in Revelation, Jerusalem was far from holy. It was the place where the Lord was crucified (Rev. 11:7) and the two witnesses slain (Rev. 11:2)—a place likened to Babylon/Rome (Rev. 11:8). But now it is both “New” and “Holy”—it has become the eternal home of the saints and the place where God is “with” his people. This fulfills a rich history of prophetic expectation: We see this in Isaiah and Ezekiel presents a “new exodus” that leads to a new Garden of Eden (Ezek. 36:35) with God’s sanctuary in the midst of his people (Ezek. 37:26-27 = Rev. 21:3). In Ezekiel chapters 40-48 the new city is named “Yahweh is there” (Ezek. 48:35). It has twelve gates representing the twelve tribes (Ezek. 40:5-43 = Rev. 21:12-13). Then in Zechariah, it is the “City of Truth” (Zech. 8:3) to which the nations come in pilgrimage (Zech. 8:20-23). After Yahweh destroys the rebellious nations and delivers his people (Zech. 12:1-9; 14:1-7), he comes, and “living waters…flow out of Jerusalem” (Zech. 14:8), and there is “no more curse” (Zech. 14:11 = Rev. 22:3). 

These ideas are picked up in the New Testament. In Galaians 4:26, Paul contrasts “the Jerusalem that is above” (the New Covenant way, linked to the future Jerusalem) in contrast with “the Jerusalem that is now,” (the Old Covenant way, now obsolete). In Hebrews 11:10 there is a “city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” In Hebrews 12:22 the earthly Sinai is contrasted with the new heavenly Zion (Heb. 12:18-24), one replacing the other. In Phil. 3:20 believers are said to be “citizens” of heaven. Then in Revelation, the descending of the New Jerusalem frames the many “descents” by which God brings history to a close (Rev. 10:1; 16:21; 18:1; 20:1, 9) and reigns over the affairs of humankind. Now in this final descent, heaven and earth are united as one (Rev. chapter 21 is the last mention of heaven and earth as separate). 

Revelation places considerable emphasis on the heavenly temple (Rev. 7:15; 11:19; 14:15, 17; 15:5-6, 8; 16:1, 17). Now it descends from heaven to earth in the form of a city and becomes the eternal home of the saints. In its beauty and joy, the city is like a bride adorned for her husband (Rev. 19:7-8; 21:18-21). In Isa. 61:10 God clothes Israel, “with garments of salvation…as a bride adorns herself with jewels”; and in Isa. 62:1-5 Zion is given “a new name” (= Rev. 3:12) and Yahweh rejoices “as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride.” The New Jerusalem is presented as both God’s people (Rev. 21:9-10; 13-14) and the place of their dwelling with God (Rev. 21:3, 7-8, 24, 26).

An angel speaks (21:3-4) 

3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 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."

Now, a “loud voice from the throne” (probably of an angel) interprets the significance of the heavenly city, again drawing on Old Testament imagery. Indeed, the covenant established at Sinai is now fulfilled, as seen in Lev. 26:11-12, “I will put my dwelling place among you…I will walks among you and be your God, and you will be my people.” This promise was repeated often (Ex. 29:45; Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 37:27; 43:7-9; Zech. 2:11; 8:8) as a note of comfort for God’s beleaguered people. “Now” (KJV = ”behold”) calls us to pay close attention. “The dwelling of God” translates the Hebrew idea of “Shekinah,” which was the cloud and pillar of fire at the exodus and the “cloud” of God’s presence in the tabernacle and temple. Shekinah meant communion between God and his people, and it came ultimately when the Son of God, the Word (Logos), “became flesh and tabernacle among us” (John 1:14, literal translation) and now in Revelation, God dwells [tabernacles] with his people in the ultimate sense.

The rest of the verse expands the idea: “…They shall be his peoples, and God himself shall be with them—their God” (YLT). All other Old and New Testament passages use the singular “people.” John alone uses the plural (as correctly translated in the YLT), indicating all the peoples of the world (Rev. 5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15). In the new heaven/earth, all ethnic and racial distinctions disappear, and there is one people. This probably reflects Jer. 31:33b (= Heb. 8:10), “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” That promise is fulfilled in the person of Jesus, now seen with all “peoples” in a New Jerusalem. It also reflects 2Cor. 6:16, where Paul states that we are the temple of God and quotes God as saying, “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Paul saw this promise fulfilled spiritually in our present union with God, and now it comes to fullness in a final physical completion as God’s people begin to live with him in a new heaven united with a new earth. 

After this eternal covenant promise is presented, the benefits to the inhabitants of the new heaven and new earth are presented (Rev. 21:4), benefits that center on the peace and joy God gives his people. First, God wipes away every tear from their eyes. This reproduces Rev. 7:17, which looked back to Isa. 25:8 where God promises to “swallow up death forever,” and to Isa. 35:10; 51:11 where “sorrow and sighing…flee away.” Second, God removes the sources of sorrow—“death and mourning or crying or pain.” Now there is everlasting joy and bliss, for the debilitating effects of sin and suffering are taken away. John is here describing the time when “the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23) is fully accomplished. This is the universal hope of God’s people. Death, the primary stepchild of sin (Romans 5:12; James 1:15), is the malignant force tormenting humankind. But now death itself is destroyed (1Cor. 15:26; Rev. 20:14), and all its precursors (mourning, crying, and pain) are gone with it.

The concluding thought here ties it all together: this transformation has occurred because “the old order of things has passed away” (a quotation of Rev. 21:1). This old order (which includes death, mourning, crying and pain) were part of “the first world” and have no place in this “new [re-created] world.”  This declaration sums up all the promises given the overcomers in the seven churches (Rev. 2:7b, 11b, 17b, 26-28; 3:5, 12, 21). They all relate to promises that will come to pass in their fullness when the old order has ended and the eternal state has begun in a new heaven and new earth. 

God elaborates (21:5-6)

5 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." 6 He said to me: "It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.”

God himself now directly affirms all that this book has said. It comes down to this: “I am making everything new!” This  profound and powerful statement is a prophetic guarantee from God that what is pictured in this book will indeed happen, and it’s all about a new creation. This statement alludes to Isa. 43:19a, “See, I am doing a new thing,” and Isa. 65:17, “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.”  Paul uses these same passages in Isaiah to speak of the Christian life: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” God gives us now a foretaste of the new creation, which John now pictures as arriving in its fullness at the eschaton.

John is commanded to write down God’s words (which are said to be “trustworthy and true,” see Rev. 19:9; 22:6). The word “trustworthy” in Greek is “pistoi,” which means faithful, and builds on all the passages dealing with Jesus’ own faithfulness (Rev. 1:5; 3:14) and the believers’ sharing in that faithfulness (Rev. 2:10; 13; 17:14). These words can be trusted because they are “true”—a term also used of Jesus (Rev. 3:7, 14; 19:11) and of God (Rev. 6:10; 15:3; 16:7; 19:2). In Isa. 65:16-17 it is “the God of truth” who creates “new heavens and a new earth.” The new creation is certain because the faithful and true God guarantees it.

God then exclaims, “It is done.” This reminds us of Jesus’ exclamation on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), meaning God’s redemptive plan for his sacrificial death. This also points us back to the outpouring of the seventh bowl with the proclamation, “It is done” (Rev. 16:17), starting events rolling toward the intended conclusion. Now all of these steps along the way have brought us to this grand finale, including the destruction of the old order and the revealing of the new. And all of this progress in salvation is anchored in the character of God as sovereign over history. He is “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End” (Rev 21:6). This echoes Rev. 1:8, and then in Rev. 22:13 these titles are applied to Jesus. Our triune God is the sole origin and goal of all things. John’s words echo Isa. 44:6; 48:12 where Yahweh is said to be sovereign at the beginning of the nation and will be in charge at the end. Now God is shown to be sovereign over all history—he is the origin (Creator) of all and the end (goal) of it all at the eschaton. This also implies that he is soveregn over everything in between.

God’s sovereignty over history is then applied to the future blessings of the faithful. “Him who is thirsty” (Rev. 21:6b) refers to those who have persevered and remained faithful to Jesus. In keeping with God’s speech of Rev. 21:5-8, it is addressed as much to the reader as it is describing those who inhabit the New Jerusalem. The “thirsty” imagery is drawn from Isa. 55:1; Psa. 23:2; Jer. 2:13; Ezek. 34:10-16; and Joel 3:18. We are also reminded of Rev. 7:17: “The Lamb who is at the center of the throne will shepherd them and will guide them to life-giving springs of water.” As in John 7:37, the “thirsty” are those who turn to Jesus rather than to the world, and as they do so, they are open to drinking deeply of the Lord’s free gift of living water (John 4;10). Once again we see the evangelistic thrust of the book of Revelation.  

God challenges (21:7-8)

7 “He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars-- their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death."

The section concludes with a challenge to recognize the difference between “overcomers” (v7a, better translated “conquerors”) and “cowards” (v8a). The idea of overcomers points back to the conclusion of each of the seven letters. Overcomers (conquerors) are those who stand with Jesus, the supreme Overcomer-Conqueror. These faithful ones drink freely from the water of life, having conquered by the blood of the Lamb (Rev.12:11). Ironically, though the beast “conquers” them by taking their lives, they conquer him by giving their lives. As a reward they “inherit all this”—likely a reference to all God’s promises enumerated in this book, with the greatest promise being that God will be their God, and they will be his son (i.e. children)—language that echoes covenant promises to Abraham and David. Heretofore in Revelation, the father/son relationship is reserved for God and Jesus (Rev. 1:6; 2:27; 3:5, 21; 14:1), but now it broadens to embrace God and believers. There is, of course, an inaugurated sonship now (Romans 8:14-17), yet the full enjoyment of our adoption as God’s children is a future reality (Romans 8:23). In an objective sense, all humanity has been adopted already as God’s children in Jesus. In the present age, believers, through trusting in Jesus, enjoy a foretaste of their adoption in a personal-subjective sense. But the fullness of joy as God’s adopted children is the blessing for believers in a new heaven and new earth.

In contrast, those who repudiate Jesus—“the cowardly, the unbelieving….” (Rev. 21:8a)—do not now, nor (unless they repent) will they in the future enjoy their adoption as God’s children in Jesus. Instead, “their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur,” which is “the second death” (Rev. 21:8b). The list of the sins that characterize these unbelievers is a typical “vice code” of the type developed by the Stoics and Cynics and found often within Hellenistic Judaism, and used frequently in the New Testament (Rom. 1:29-31; Eph. 4:25-32; 5:3-5; Col. 3:5-8; 1Tim. 1:9-10; James 3:14-16; 1Pet. 2:1; 4:3, 15). Revelation has three such lists (Rev. 9:21; 21:8; 22:15), the longest of which is here given to sum up the depravity of the unbelievers with each term reflecting sins mentioned elsewhere in the book. “Unbelief” is the root cause of all the other sins because it prevents them from responding affirmatively to God’s many overtures to bring them to repentance (Rev. 9:20-21; 14:6-7; 16:8, 10-11). That the unbelievers are also called “cowards” stands in contrast to the faithful who are the overcomers-conquerors through faith in Jesus. In mind here are probably those within the fellowship of the church who give in to the pressures of the world and turn away from Jesus. Thus the readers of this book (we included) are challenged to consider their (our) allegiance—is it to the false trinity and this evil world with all its lies, or is it to the Triune God of truth?

Conclusion

Here in Revelation we get a glimpse of the glorious eternal state, which is presented as the union of heaven and earth in one eternal order. We must remember, of course, that the language used to describe this future, eternal state is apocalyptic, and thus we must not press the details. But what we can understand is that the dichotomy between heaven and earth which is seen in this present sinful age will be broken. In the eschaton, the new heaven and new earth become one, and God will dwell there ineternal bliss with his children. Since heaven will be one with earth, the deprivations of the old order (tears, death, mourning, crying, pain) will be gone (Rev. 21:4). And so we are comforted and reassured. Yet we are also challenged to make certain that we are indeed among those who are “thirsty,” for they are the ones given “the spring of the water of life.” We are challenged to be “overcomers” (conquerors)—those who stand in allegiance with Jesus, the Overcomer-Conqueror—it is these faithful ones who will, in the eschaton, “inherit all things.” Amen.