The new heaven and the new earth
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Let us pray. Glorious and gracious God, may this vision of a new heaven and a new earth inspire and encourage us as we realize that you are the one who has given us new life as a foretaste of making all things new. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
With this sermon today and our studies this week we conclude this look at The Revelation, the last book of the Bible. However, we have no more finished with this book than we have with the whole of Scripture. I’m not sure what expectations you brought to this study eight weeks ago. My suspicion is that some of you have been a little disappointed or at least a bit surprised. You came to this book thinking that some of what it offered was like a VIA schedule. You look at that and discover that Train #60 leaves Toronto at 6:40 a.m. every day but Sunday, arriving in Montreal at 11:25. You thought there might be something in the last book of the Bible like that, God’s schedule for the return of Christ and putting the world to rights; and that is not what we have found. We have not found a word that allows us to say, “There, I have figured it out, or at least the preacher has figured it out and we can put a check mark beside this part of God’s Word.” Instead what we find is the Lord encouraging us in the walk of faith. “See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophesy of the book.” My focus today will be helping us decide just how we do that.
An insightful theologian once said that it is unwise for a Christian to claim any knowledge of either the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell. One of the things of which I am aware is that a right understanding of chapters 21 and 22 suggest the opposite of what I grew up believing. The church of which I was a part as a child and teenager pushed me to believe in Jesus as my Saviour so that one day, either when I died or when Jesus returned, that I would join him in heaven. I suppose if I had thought about it long and hard I might have come to the conclusion that directions were somewhat irrelevant in this conversation, but perhaps I never did engage my brain for long enough. If I were going to heaven, that move would be up. Heaven was up and hell was down.
Our text for today appears to be saying that my spiritual destiny is a new earth, the most prominent feature of which is a new holy city, the new Jerusalem. As we have found all through this book, our text is rich with symbols and images. I think it is most important for our understanding that we see today that what John has been given insight into is the fulfilment through God’s victory of the promises God has made from the very beginning of time as we know it. The first of those images is found in 21:1. …the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more. The major idea here is that a reversal has taken place. That sets a theme for most of what John tells us about the holy city that comes down from heaven.
If you have your Bible with you today you are going to get a little more exercise than usual, flipping back and forth. Selected verses will also be on the screen behind me. The first flip is an easy one from the last book of the Bible to the first, Genesis 1:9. And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together in one place, and let the dry land appear.” From this picture in the creation story comes the notion that the sea is a place of chaos and disorder. The sea has to be tamed in order for the earth to appear. In the Exodus story the parting of the Red Sea is necessary, the taming of the sea, in order for God’s people to reach the place of salvation from the Egyptians. For John to be told that the sea was no more is for him to understand that the way of ultimate victory is being opened for believers. Of course, we should also remember that during his exile it was the sea that separated John from his friends and churches.
This image of a new heaven and new earth that has no sea around it is a fascinating one. I think there are two details on which we are meant to focus. It does not make sense for us to get bogged down in a list of the ways in which the oceans are a benefit to us; of course they are. Simply accept it as a matter of fact that among God’s people in the ancient world the sea was a symbol of chaos and often the place from which evil originated. Some of you likely tire of me making these fine linguistic distinctions but it is true that in Greek, the language of the New Testament, there were two words for new. For example, you might look at what I’m wearing today and ask me if it is a “new” suit. When you use new in that way, you are asking if it is a recent purchase. But you also might find me particularly patient with the children, uncommonly gracious to everyone I meet, and more relaxed than I have ever appeared to be on a Sunday, causing you to ask yourself if Bill has become a “new” person. You know I am not new in the sense of recent, but there is a newness of quality to my character, a freshness that you had not seen before. This is the newness that John saw in his vision of a new heaven and a new earth.
This new heaven and new earth are the gifts of God to his people. There are a couple of things going on that I think we should see. Turn to Isaiah 60 in your Bible. Here is a promise, in the midst of exile, of Jerusalem being restored and not only being the home of Jews but all the world’s people. Your gates shall always be open; day and night they shall not be shut, so that nations shall bring you their wealth, with their kings led in procession (Isaiah 60:11). Flip back to Revelation 21:25, 26. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and honour of the nations. In other words, God is going to fulfil all his promises when this new heaven and new earth are given to his people.
John also tells us one feature of the city will be a river that flows with the water of life. More flipping—go back to the prophet Ezekiel 47:12. Again this is a vision of a restored Jerusalem and its Temple. On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing. Listen again to the description given to John of this new Holy City. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. The one vision finds its complete fulfilment in the other; do you see that? John says, its not just trees that will grow in the new city, but the tree of life. The leaves will not simply provide healing; John is explicit and expansive, the leaves are for the healing of the whole world. In Genesis, our ancient ancestors were put out of the garden, the way to the tree of life barricaded. When God sets the world to rights everyone who rightly seeks God will be welcome once again around that life-giving tree.
I will no doubt run out of time before I run out of ideas and images that come out of this final part of John’s vision. Here is the most important thing that is said about the city. It’s in 21:11—It has the glory of God. This is sort of like going to an event and having someone introduced with this qualifier, “he needs no introduction.” You listen and you wish the person doing the introduction had left it at that because in fact they don’t do the person justice. In our text it is as if John says, “This is indescribable, now let me try.”
For one thing the gates of the city, the twelve gates that will never be shut are not just made from pearls, each gate is one pearl. And then John tells us the city is a cube measuring 1500 miles, height, width and length. That is a city that stretches from Toronto to Winnipeg, that’s a big city. We think of Toronto as big—In other words everything about this holy city is beyond description. It has to be because the city possesses the glory of God.
One last thing—in this place that is the dwelling of God’s glory, there is no temple, no sanctuary, no church. There is no light needed either, for God himself is the giver of light. And take note of this—where we end up is a city. I suspect this might have come as something of a shock to John. There were some who thought the consummation of history would involve a return to a renewed Garden of Eden. It is true that the tree of life is part of what God gives the faithful but it is a city, not a garden, it is place of community, not an individual’s retreat.
This city is a place of welcome. It is big, and it is walled but the gates are always open. John wants us to juggle two images or ideas that might seem contradictory except both are part of the glory of God. A hymn that I love begins, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.” What a wonderful promise that is. I think all of us deal with this. I think my neighbours would tell you that they enjoy having Chris and I for neighbours. (If you pressed them they might say they’ll keep me along for the ride if it means having Chris as a neighbour.) So I am not the worst guy in the world; neither am I the best. Here then is a wonderful word from God. This city that possesses God’s glory is big beyond description and light beyond imagination and open beyond any reasonable expectation. On the other hand the newness of the city is going to be reflected in the newness of its citizens—Nothing accursed will be found there any more. Here’s how I take this—for longer than I can remember God has been working on me. I was 13 when I made a public confession of Christ as Saviour through Baptism, but for all my years as one of God’s children he has been chipping off the rough edges of sin and making me new. That newness will be complete in the holy city that comes down out of heaven from God. No wonder every tear will be wiped from our eyes.
This city is a holy place. One of the commentaries I consulted expresses this idea so well. “Holiness is not primarily moral correctness, but otherness. That God is holy means first that God is creator and not creature, that God is wholly other, that God is God. The holiness God demands of his people is more than compliance with a list of pious acts; God demands a different, distinctive life oriented to his will for them, rather than being conformed to this world” (Boring, Revelation, 222).
This city is an active place. One of the details that once fascinated me from the Revelation is streets paved with gold. That’s the sort of detail John gives us which when all is said and done has less to do with the lack of pot holes in God’s city than it being simply an image of perfection. What we will walk on and how we will get around and what in fact we will do—John is short on those details.
What he does say is that we will be involved in worshipping God and living through the power of God. We are told this in verses 3 and 5 of chapter 22. We will worship; we will reign or rule. These are the things we will do.
It is time then for me to finish this sermon and this series. Here’s the place where this vision aims its final few words—Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophesy of this book. You are holy people, set apart by God. The perfection toward which you are walking in Christ is characterized by a complete reshaping of your life according to the will of God. That, Christian, is where you are headed. There is nothing wrong and everything right about us getting a head start by living now as if all was new.