The Holy City – The Church Glorious
The first verse of chapter twenty one marks the most complete break in the whole Revelation narrative. It describes a moment in the future when all of creation will undergo a marvellous and thorough change.
The great sequence which began with the resurrected Christ taking his authority and opening the scroll has now been completed. The seventh seal led on to the trumpets, the seventh trumpet led on to the bowls of wrath, the seventh bowl led on to the defeat and sentencing of all God's enemies. The ministry of Christ was completed when he judged the world in righteousness and there remains an unnumbered multitude who have come through this period saved by His blood.
Another sequence of seven ends here. The open ended seventh day of Genesis 2:2 marks God's rest from creation. Unlike the six creative days which all ended with an "evening and morning" the seventh day of rest has continued. God has always been active in other respects, of course, as Jesus reminds us in John 5:17, but it has not been of the order of those first days.
Now, with the new creation, God arises from His rest and so the cycle of seven which began in Genesis 1:3 ends in Revelation 20:15 and a new day begins in 21:1. This is the new eternal day promised in Zechariah 14:6-11.
We have seen the earth shattered under a series of judgements and we would expect to see it renewed or replaced. What may be more surprising is that there will also be a NEW HEAVEN. Yet the whole theme of Revelation has been that it is events in the spiritual realm which shape and largely determine the events on earth. It is therefore appropriate that the new heaven is announced prior to the new earth.
Furthermore, there have been promises that a time will come when we shall know God in a new way; He is the One "who is to come" (Revelation 1:4 etc. ) and in 3:12 we have the exciting and mysterious promise of dwelling in the New Jerusalem, the City of God. Until now heaven has been represented in the imagery of the tabernacle or temple found in the Law of Moses. In the last two chapters of the Revelation new symbolism is used to describe the new degree of intimate fellowship which God will enjoy with his people.
The four living creatures (corresponding to the Old Testament cherubim) which were the guardians of the holiness of God are no longer required to mount guard. There is no longer any barrier to fellowship between the Holy One and His creation because every person and all things will be perfectly holy.
The Christian hope is not merely a renewed earth (of which Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims dream) and neither is it a non-human heavenly existence of "pure spirit". We hope for a new heaven and earth where the spiritual and material are perfectly wedded in a new order of existence. We anticipate a new creation rather than a renovation of heaven and earth.
Amateur sailors and swimming enthusiasts need not be disappointed to read that "there will be no more sea". This is a symbol of the restless sea of humanity out of which the beast arose (see the comments on Revelation 13:1). There will be no more of the chaos caused by opposition to God's rule.
The aim and goal of every Christian is in the future. Our hope is not for this life but for the resurrection and the abundant life to come. When we turn from our sin to faith in Christ we become citizens of the New Jerusalem.
Jerusalem - built by God
Jerusalem is not built by men. As this book slowly progressed in the East End of London the cranes and girders of the new Canary Wharf office development rose above the rooftops two miles to the south and now fill the sky. Canary Wharf and every other creation of men starts in the earth and works its way towards heaven; the City of God comes down out of Heaven. The direction of this movement is very important. The Kingdom of Heaven is given by God and cannot be built by us.
The building is going on now. As people turn to God and develop in the obedience of faith so they are built up as Christians and each one is part and parcel of the great work of God which we cannot see in its wholeness but which will be revealed at the judgement day. The only thing in this present age which is described as a "new creation" is the hidden work of the Holy Spirit in people as He creates a new heart and a new faith in those He saves (see 2 Corinthians 5:16-19 and Galatians 6:15). The great significance of this present work of God will only be fully revealed when we see believers of every generation resurrected and glorified together in the new Jerusalem.
God says "I am making everything new" (v5). This old creation is tired - polluted by the sin of men and weakened by the curse of God. When the wrath of God has come in its full severity the first creation will have been thoroughly disrupted. But a time is coming when the creative power of God will be unleashed in abundance and every cause of grief and pain will be banished.
The marvellous thing about v.4 is the personal promise that each believer will know the individual ministry of the Almighty wiping away each tear. Every loved one lost to Hell, every ingrained bitter memory, every scar of this life will be eased and healed by the direct gift of the Father. There is currently a vogue for "healing of memories" in the church, some of which skirts very close to magical practices. We may be rightly sceptical about the value and methods of such a ministry but the need which it attempts to address is real. Full healing awaits us in the new creation.
Jerusalem is a bride
Twice Jerusalem is introduced as the bride, the wife of Christ (21:2,9). Perhaps we should imagine Mendelsohn's Wedding March playing as the city makes its grand entrance! We have already been introduced to this bride in Revelation 19:7-8 where we have seen that the beautiful clothes are the white robes of righteousness. The engagement, the time of the pledge of faith, is over and the relationship between God and His people now enters a new stage of joy and satisfaction.
In this life we are betrothed to Christ, pledged through faith by baptism. Yet we are apart from our divine husband and know him only through the go-between work of the Holy Spirit. Just as engaged couples look forward to a deeper relationship to come, so we look forward to knowing Jesus better.
It is our business to stay faithful to him and love no other. God must have no competitors for our adoration and obedience. Like a skilful bride making her wedding dress we need to make ourselves ready by doing those good deeds He has already prepared for us. Even as we serve him we remember that our lives have no merit in themselves but only as they are "washed by the blood of the Lamb".
Jerusalem - home of the holy
Only those who overcome will inherit the joys of Jerusalem (21:7,8). Here is an echo and restatement of the promises and warnings of the seven letters to the churches. The Revelation is an intensely practical book which shows us the future so that we may live and act now in a way which prepares for it. We have a part to play in the great purposes of God and a hope of sharing in the new work which He will do.
Christians must be saints. Yes, even you! Right now, we are made holy by the blood of Christ and our adoption by God. In the resurrection we shall be fully and actually holy by nature. But those who stuck to the path of sin and refused Christ will be lost for ever (vs.8,27).
The saints of both Old and New Testaments will be there - Jerusalem's gates are open for the tribes of Israel (v.12) and her foundation stones are the apostles of Jesus's church.
We have seen that the relationship between the synagogues and the churches was a matter of great concern to the early church. Their bibles promised a day when Jew and Gentile would be united in the Kingdom of the Messiah but their experience was one of ever-deepening hostility on the part of those Jews who would not believe in Jesus. The letters of Paul make clear the tensions within the church caused by this breach with many Hebrew christians feeling the strain and some falling away.
The 144,000 saved Israelites are an important element in Revelation which shows that God's purposes for Israel did not fail. They will join with Gentile believers in the new City of God. There is only One God and Saviour so there will ultimately be only one people of God. We find it impossible on earth to have social unity without uniformity. The greatest oppressors of mankind have been those who wanted to bring us to unity! In the new City whatever is good in the religious heritage of God's people will be maintained; both the Patriarchs and Apostles will be honoured and remembered (Revelation 21:12,13).
Even during this vision of the future there are sharp warnings to avoid sin and to be brave in the face of suffering (v.8,27). There are also promises that we will have help as we travel as pilgrims towards our new home (v6 is a promise of refreshment and help from the Holy Spirit). We must be SAINTS. If we don't make ourselves ready and keep persevering we cannot share in the promised world.
Those of us who believe in Christ should be meditating often on this picture of our future. It sums up and gathers together all the promises of God and all the hopes of His people in a wonderful whole.
It is impossible to judge how literally we should take this vision. The transparent gold and the 1,400 mile cubic shape are almost certainly symbolic but we should fully absorb what these symbols are saying. We have a wonderful future, better than we can imagine, in a new creation in unhindered fellowship with God. We are people who live for that future.
Jerusalem, God's Home
The main message of chapter twenty one is announced in verse three: God and men living together.
This is an astounding and wonderful promise to think about and is the fulfilment of a theme which recurs throughout scripture. God's intention to have His people, among whom He can dwell, is contradicted by the fact that unhindered fellowship is impossible between sinners and the Holy One. In the sacrifice of the cross Christ has mended the breach and the full fruit of His work will be enjoyed in the new world of the resurrection.
The city is a huge cube (v16). The reason for this strange shape is because that was the shape of the Most Holy Place in the temple of Solomon (1 Kings 6:20). That was the place where man (in the person of the high priest of Israel) briefly came near to God.
In the resurrection man and God will live together in the closest possible relationship. There will be no temple because fellowship with God will be completely unhindered (v22). Just as the Sun floods the Earth with light so the light of the presence of the Trinity will flood the city (v23).
The old temple was full of beauty and wealth, a glimpse of heaven on earth. Everywhere there was to be gold and precious stones. These symbols are taken up, stretched and filled with profound meaning in these chapters. Just as it was very important that the most beautiful place in Israel was where God had promised to dwell and be known, so we are meant to learn that the New Jerusalem, where God will be fully known, will be the most beautiful thing even the angels have seen. "How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts!".
In Jewish weddings the bridegroom would come to his bride's home, take her to a wedding feast and then take her to His home. After the wedding feast of ch.19 comes the homecoming of ch.21..
Often our hopes of heaven are pathetically unambitious. We may just look forward to meeting deceased loved ones or simply to a measure of relief and rest but God invites us to let greater hopes and ambitions fill our hearts. We shall be glorious, holy, and totally in love with God in a beautiful new universe.
Jerusalem is where God rules
God's blessing is found where He is King. The gospel is Good News about a KINGDOM (Matthew 3:1, 4:17 etc.). Therefore we cannot go to heaven where God's Throne is established if we are not His subjects now.
The blessing of being in God's immediate presence is only for those who willingly serve the Lord (22:3) - in fact it is the highest of all titles to be styled a servant of God. The "mark of the beast" was a shameful label but the mark of God's name will be worn with pride. This honour can be ours now and will be our greatest privilege in the world to come.
From God's throne comes the light and life of the city (21:1-5) such that everyone basks in that constant radiance. Furthermore, the Spirit of Abundant Life flows in a pure, life-giving torrent from that same throne, bringing joy to every inhabitant.
We are so anti-authoritarian that we find it difficult to understand how it can be such a blessing to be under the direct rule of God. We are right to suspect the motive of earthly rulers when they try to seize absolute power but God is utterly different from man in this regard. We can only receive blessing from the throne - i.e. it is in full and willing submission to His authority that we find the blessing and peace we desire.
Even in this life, every faithful christian will confess that the service of God is our most perfect freedom and highest blessing. In the life to come that joy will be complete. As Isaac Watts once wrote "Blessings abound wher'ere He reigns".
The description of the church in these verses is so beautiful that we may be tempted to see it as an impossible dream or some high ideal towards which we may strive but which we will never attain. God wants us to know this will CERTAINLY happen (v.6) and the time is "soon" - sooner than we think. God's Kingdom will come.
Jerusalem is a city
Heaven is a city. The infancy of man was in a garden, our coming of age will be in the City of God.
For many people the work of Christ is seen as being merely restorative - picking up the stitches dropped by Adam and returning to something like the position he enjoyed before the fall in Genesis three. This is a serious failure to understand the creative scope and power of Christ's achievement on the cross.
The history of the world, with the development of technology, culture and society is not to be totally wiped out but will be redeemed. We can not go back to the garden because that was never meant to be our destination but was merely the beginning of mankind's journey of development.
Sometimes we assume that we are nearer to God when we are in the country or a lonely place. I wonder if we have really understood that we are being prepared for redeemed city life!
Can we speculate on what might have been had Adam not fallen? Everyone might imagine different consequences but the command of God in Genesis 1:28 to "fill the earth and subdue it" was obviously pregnant with possibilities of creative development. Those possibilities have been perverted and high-jacked but they are not evil in themselves. Man has inevitably become an urban creature in the last few centuries and the evils of urbanisation are everywhere to be seen but the answer which God will provide is not a return to primitive innocence but a redemption and transformation. At least a part of the city is being washed by the blood of Christ and prepared for a glorious future.
The idea of a city is of a holy SOCIETY in which each person is related to the whole and within which there can be great diversity. Even now we find a joy in each other which is a hint of the holy society to come. The Christian life is a team experience with each member of the church having some gift of grace to be shared as the church builds itself up. The goal for a mature christian is not heroic independence but loving interdependence. This ideal will be complete in Glory.
I write as a member of a relatively poor inner London church and I look with sadness on the great numbers of christian people who have turned their backs on this intensely urban experience of life for the more urbane life of the suburbs (and everywhere outside the City in Britain is a suburb now). It is my personal belief that a real and deep revival of faith will come out of the heart of the city since such things are always creative works of God and He is building a CITY.
The suburb is neither the garden of Eden nor the City of God and, with its shallow compromised religion, resembles closely the Laodicean church of Revelation 3:14-22. There is something sick and far from Godly in the anti-humanity of the suburban or rural dream which wants to get away from people.
In its healthy times, Christianity has usually been a faith of the cities. Christians who have a hope to share in the City to come might do well to come in and learn in the city today.
The city of God is fabulously wealthy. Just as the treasures of Egypt were showered on the Jews when God saved them (Exodus 12:36) so all the real treasures of human culture and history will come into the redeemed church (21:24-26).
Jerusalem includes the blessings of Eden
Nothing good has been lost from Eden. The garden was watered by the four great rivers of Genesis 2:10-14 but the city is watered with the water of life (22:1). The tree of life seems to have been a single tree in the garden but becomes a veritable orchard in the city 22:2. The image may be of a giant tree straddling the river but a more likely (and beautiful) image is of a profusion of trees lining the banks of the river of life.
The healing presence of the tree and the year-round provision of its sustaining fruit is the sign of unlimited blessing so we now understand what is stated clearly in 22:3 - "No longer will there be any more curse".
The banishment from Eden was just one of a series of curses spoken by God. The curse on the ground, the curse on child bearing and the curse of death have lain heavily on mankind ever since. Trivial and shallow thinkers attribute the hardships of life and death to mere chance or, if they are religious, to Satan or human sin. Much of human suffering and grief is the consequence of the curses spoken by God and if we are to have a happy future we need to know that the curse has been lifted.
The theme of the curse is neglected by modern writers and preachers but it does have a central place in biblical theology. It is therefore crucial to understand that on the cross the Lord Jesus Christ "became a curse" to save us from it (Galatians 3:10-15).
Because there will no longer be any curse we shall return to the peace with God which was lost in the garden.
The City is a "Garden City" hundreds of years before Welwyn or Hampstead. The tree of life grows both sides of the river.
The interesting about a city is that it is a man-made environment (so the environment of man is man) and every human city has the character of Babel about it since God is not a welcome partner in its formation. But what would a city be like if the humanity of it was in harmony with both the creator and all the created order?
After the judgement there will be no such thing as church; there will only be redeeemed humanity in fellowship with our Redeemer. (Rev 21:3)
The struggle between man and his environment will be over. Now we always live in dialectic with our environment. When we have spiritual bodies the old dialectic between spirit and flesh will no longer exist or even make sense. I suspect the dialectic between man's necessity/desire and the needs/demands of the natural world will also be over. The city will be a garden and the garden a city.
Remember the city of Ninevah in Jonah? The size of it (Jonah 3:4) and the relatively small population with the number of cattle (Jonah 4:11). A city need not be just flats. factories, railways and roads.
We can't see Jerusalem yet
Verse 22:6 tells us that this vision is true and should be trusted yet it is not yet fulfilled.
Many errors in the christian faith come from the natural human desire to create in the present those things which God has promised for the future. In particular the desire of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox denominations to create a visible "city of God" in the shape of a universal, uniform church on earth is an attempt to erect a structure which anticipates the New Jerusalem. Much ecumenism has the same desire.
All such efforts result in shame and repression because they are attempts to manufacture in this age what God will reveal in the next. To some extent the existence of the one true church of Christ is a matter of faith - we believe that one day we will be revealed in our glory - but not yet (Romans 8:18-21, 1 John 3:2).
This does not mean that we should give up on loving dialogue and mutual respect. We believe that all believers are one in Christ and that there is one universal church of all those, alive and dead, who have been redeemed by his blood. The mistake lies in trying to actualise and organise it in this stage of history.
The word "church" in the Revelation ALWAYS describes an actual body of people meeting together and it is NEVER used as a collective term for all christians in a country or in the world. We are in the unscriptural habit of talking about "the church" in this wider and more general way. Such a habit of speech is harmless in itself but we must regularly remind ourselves that the word refers either to this final manifestation of the whole city of God or to an individual congregation. Hence, Christ writes to the "seven churches in the province of Asia" (1:4) rather than to the "Asian church" or "Church of Asia".
We will not see the church in her unity and beauty now and yet we do gain a glimpse of what Jesus is building in heaven whenever we meet servants of God who humbly seek and do His will.