1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will freely give water from the life-giving spring. (CEB)
This text is most often heard at funeral services, and we’ve had a few of those this week. While it is an appropriate text to hear and ponder as we experience grief a person’s death, there’s an aspect of Revelation that we don’t often consider. John’s vision does not merely point to the pie in the sky after we die, but also to God’s presence with us in the here and now.
We may forget, at times, that God is still at work. It isn’t the case that God redeemed the world with Jesus and went to the beach for a break until God decides to send Jesus back. We aren’t waiting for God to finish the glass of holy lemonade before God gets busy with us again. God has been working to redeem and save from the moment creation fell into sin. In fact, God has, is, and will continue to work for the restoration of the whole creation. Apocalyptic literature envisions newness through restoration and transformation, not annihilation or obliteration.
Earth has and continues to be the primary focus of God’s concern, activity, and care. God desires and is working for the healing of all creation. Paul wrote about that, too, how creation itself will be set free from the decay that we human beings subjected it to when we fell into sin. In fact, creation longs for that day. (C.f. Romans 8:18-22).
One thing the visions of Revelation definitely do not support is escapism. The idea of a rapture where all the good and faithful Christians get an emergency evacuation from earth to heaven before things get bad down here simply cannot be supported by the text or by the theology of this book. God created everything for the good of the human race, whom God created in God’s image. Why, then, would God want to get any of us out when this is the place God intends to be? God does not intend to abandon the earth. Rather, God intends to restore the earth and all of creation.
“I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:2-3 CEB).
Surely we realize that God has done this pattern before. God’s Son, Jesus, was sent to earth to be with us. God the Word came to Earth and, as John 1:14 put it, “the Word became flesh and made his home among us” (CEB). At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down and was poured out and passed around on all kinds of people. God has an already established pattern of coming to us. What John sees in his vision in Revelation 21, is not human beings going up to heaven to be with God. Rather, John sees a restored creation, a new city made by God, coming down out of heaven to be here with us and for us. This is a city where people live together. It’s a perfected embodiment of what human society and culture could be—indeed, what it’s supposed to be.
God has prepared a place for us, a home not made with human hands (Acts 7:48). God is making all things new. The old passes away, but God raises heaven and earth to new life: a new life where death no longer has a say because the sea is no more.
The sea is an important image in Revelation because it symbolizes chaos and disorder. This is no ordinary ocean. This is the sea of primordial chaos in Genesis 1:2, “the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea” (CEB). God’s act of creation brought order to the chaotic primordial sea. This sea is where Leviathan dwells. It’s where the dragon emerges in Revelation. This is what Isaiah saw in his own vision which says, “On that day, the LORD will take a great sword, harsh and mighty, and will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the writhing serpent, and will kill the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1 CEB).
Psalm 74:13-14 also speak of how God will split the sea and crush Leviathan’s heads. These symbols of chaos continually threaten God’s creation. So, when there’s no more sea, there’s no longer a threat.
It’s curious how the beginning of creation prefigures the end. Yet, also how Revelation speaks not of an end so much as a beginning. In much the same way, Paul used the first human beings as a prefiguration of Christ when he wrote, “Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came through one too. In the same way that everyone dies in Adam, so also everyone will be given life in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22 CEB).
So, New Jerusalem is the place—the city—where the God we love and worship stands beside us and lives with us. This is the place God will call home, because it’s with us. God’s home is with us. It almost requires a re-orientation of our imagination, doesn’t it? People always talk about going to heaven, but the vision of Revelation is that God will bring heaven and earth together so there is no longer a barrier between the two. In fact, the two shall become one, like a bride and groom.
Admittedly, Revelation employs some troubling assumptions about women. If we’re going to read the Bible and take it seriously, then we need to be honest about what it says, suggests, and how it portrays things. Revelation only sees women in terms of their sexuality. Cities like Babylon are personified as women who experience sexual exploitation and violence: a prostitute who is burned and devoured by her clients (c.f. chapters 17-18). New Jerusalem is personified as the virginal bride of the Lamb (21:2, 9). The woman clothed with the sun is pregnant and gives birth (c.f. 12:1-17). A woman of Thyatira, whom John identifies as “…that woman, Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet…” whose teachings conflicted with John’s, is portrayed as a prostitute who will be thrown onto a sickbed and have her children struck dead (2:20-23).
We have to admit that there are problems with this kind of imagery. At the same time, we can’t ignore it. Lynn R. Huber argues that, I few do ignore it, then we lose the power this imagery conveys (c.f. Connections, Year C, Vol. 2, 258).
The bride, who is beautifully dressed, suggests her preparation for a transition to a new identity, which is revealed in faithfulness to Jesus Christ that rejects all forms of idolatry and exploitation of others. The bride’s modestly contrasts with Babylon’s opulence. Babylon (which is Imperial Rome) gained its luxury through conquest, exploitation, slavery, and violence. The bride (which is New Jerusalem) provides goodness, safety, and security for all people who call it home.
The imagery also reminds us that weddings are not endings. Weddings are new beginnings. A wedding creates a new family and a new home. This particular wedding creates these things, too, in a restored creation where chaos and sin and death no longer exist.
The bridal imagery should also remind us that our faith in Jesus Christ must be embodied. We have to live it. Our faith should become who we are. Wedding celebrations are full of revelry, food, drink, dancing, and pleasure. I don’t know why we have these stupidly ridiculous images of heaven where people are floating on clouds and strumming on little harps when the image Revelation gives us is a city with streets to walk, life-giving water to drink, and food to enjoy.
If you read farther in chapter 21, you find that the streets are paved with gold and the foundations are set with gemstones. And, there are two ways to look at that. One way is to say that this new city is so opulent that it’s decorated with riches that are almost beyond comprehension. The other way is to say that the things we value on earth are so worthless in the New Jerusalem that they use them as building materials to pave the streets and hold up the walls. Who needs gold and jewels when we have the Living God with us?
In this city, our new home, God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death, and mourning, and crying, and pain will be no more because the former things, themselves, have passed away. In essence, death has died. We’re told in verses 7 and 8, which the Revised Common Lectionary leaves out, that those who conquer will inherit these things while sinners get tossed into the lake of fire and experience a second death.
Yet, there are also suggestions that God’s promise is incredibly inclusive. The nations walk in the illumination of God’s glory, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. (21:23-24). The gates of the city remain open (21:25) so the nations can bring their glory and honor into the city (21:26). The tree of life bears fruit and its leaves are for the healing of the nations (22:2).
As one scholar put it, “Dare we imagine that the saints’ victory accomplishes salvation for all peoples?” (G. Carey, in Connections, Year C, Vol. 2, 258). Dare we imagine that powerless believers can conquer the powers of this world through faithful witness? It’s a potent idea. Revelation strongly suggests that our faithfulness to God has consequences now as well as in the future, and that it has consequences for the nations. Can we imagine that? Can we imagine that our faithfulness—here and now—matters?
What have we to fear of faithful witness, whether it’s to people or powers? In the imagination of Revelation, death is hardly the worst thing that can happen to those who follow Jesus. God has already declared: “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 21:6a CEB). God has already accomplished the victory for us even if we can’t see it yet. John’s vision reminds us to repent and to remain faithful.
To me, home—our true home where heaven and earth are reconciled and made new—it sounds pretty good.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
~Rev. Christopher Millay