How do you define the word “perfect?” Do you really have any referent in this world that would help you to fully understand the meaning of the term perfect? The reality is, we all live in a broken world. Nothing in it works the way it should. Take for instance our bodies. One thing I’ve learned about my body is that it is decaying. The older I get the more things go wrong with it. One constant reminder is how I feel the day after playing tennis. My joints are pretty sore, especially my knees and hips. It takes me longer to recover a day after playing than it did say five to ten years ago. My point is, even if we’re able to define the word perfect, we really have not experienced what it means for something in this world to be perfect (at least not yet).
In this essay we close out our look at the history of redemption, the great storyline of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. We end where the Bible ends, with the new heavens and the new earth. Revelation 21–22 gives us a glimpse into the consummation, the fulfillment, of God’s redemptive work. What we find in these two chapters is allusion after allusion to the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. One of the reasons it’s imperative to know the Old Testament is so that one can properly interpret the New Testament. Let’s take a moment to look together at the glory that awaits all whose names are written in the book of life.
The New Creation (Rev 21:1-8)
Following the judgment of the dead (Rev 20:11-15), the apostle John is shown “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1). “Heaven” and “earth” are simply a reference to the world as we know it, sky and land. The Bible tells us that the world will be transformed from its broken state when it is “brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). When God’s people are glorified, that is, receiving “the redemption of [their] bodies” (8:23), then the world will be soon to follow in its renewal.
What makes these things “new” is described in verses 1-8. First, John sees that “there was no longer any sea” (Rev 21:1). This doesn’t mean there will not be a physical sea in the new heaven and new earth—although there may not be any sea. The point isn’t to give a detailed typography of the new heaven and new earth. Rather, it means there will no longer be any threats or chaos, but instead peace and security forever. The Jewish people were not seafaring folks. They had no navy with which to explore the Mediterranean Sea. The sea for them was a fearful and tumultuous place. So the absence of the sea is intended to indicate tranquility and the absence of hostility (cf. 21:25).
Second, “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (21:3; cf. 21:7). God dwelt among old covenant saints in the tabernacle and Temple occasionally, and only on prescribed days. God dwelt among the very first new covenant believers in the person of Jesus Christ. But this, too, was limited, for Christ returned to heaven after his resurrection from the dead. But something different happens in the new heaven and new earth. God’s people will always be with him, and he will always dwell with his own.
Third, God’s people will be free from death, sorrow, crying, and pain, “for the old order of things has passed away … I am making everything new” (21:4-5). Sin and its destructive consequences will be obliterated in the new creation. With the power of his word, Jesus, God’s agent in the first creation (Gen 1–2; John 1:1-3; Col 1:15-20), is also the one who declares “everything new” in the new creation (Rev 21:5).
Fourth, those who are “thirsty” will have unfettered access to the water “from the spring of the water of life” (21:6). Those who thirst represent all those who recognize that they are spiritually dehydrated. The thirsty turn to the only source that will quench their longing for water, the Lord himself. In John 4, Jesus states that the water he gives quenches one’s thirst, one’s longing for God, and “will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:14). God graciously gives this water to all who thirst—it is given “without cost” (Rev 21:6).
Fifth, only “those who are victorious will inherit all this” (21:7). They are victorious, not in their own strength, but “by the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony” (12:11; see also chs. 2–3). Everything already mentioned in 21:1-6 is included in the inheritance. But there are those who will not inherit the new creation. They will inherit something altogether different: “the fiery lake of burning sulfur … the second death” (21:8). However, Christians will escape the “second death” (cf. 2:11; 20:6). The second death is none other than hell itself.
The New Jerusalem (Rev 21:9-27)
John now turns to a description of the New Jerusalem, which the angel calls “the bride” (21:9; cf. 21:2). One of the interesting things about Revelation 21:9-21 is its emphasis on the number twelve. There are: (1) “twelve gates” with “twelve angels” at the gates (21:12); (2) the “names of the twelve tribes” of Israel written on the gates (21:12); (3) the wall of the city has “twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles” (21:14); (4) the city measures “12,000 stadia” in length, width, and height a perfect cube (21:16); (5) the walls of the city measure “144 cubits thick,” 144 is twelve squared (21:17); (6) the lists of the twelve foundation and their building material (21:19-20); and (7) the twelve gates and their building material is mentioned (21:21). What does this mean? It doesn’t necessarily mean that the New Jerusalem will have these exact proportions and measurements; rather, it reminds us that there is one people of God, made up of Jews and Gentiles, represented by the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles (cf. Eph 2:11-22). This point is picked up again in Revelation 21:24, 26 with the mention of the “nations.” The Greek term from which we get the translation “nations” is ethnē, which refers to people groups, not political boundaries.
We also find that the New Jerusalem bears a striking resemblance to a particular old covenant structure: “The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide…” (Rev 21:16f; cf. 21:10). There is only one other cube in the entire Bible. It’s the most holy place, where the Ark of the Covenant resided, and where God would come and dwell among his covenant people (1 Kgs 6:20). As we read further, we discover there is no more physical temple in the city, “because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev 21:22). God no longer resides in just a temple, but his presence envelopes the new holy city in its entirety. Those “whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” will have unencumbered access to the presence of the Triune God (21:27).
The Garden Restored (Rev 22:1-5)
The beginning of Revelation 22 describes a restored Garden of Eden. It begins by noting the head or source of “the river of the water of life,” which is “the throne of God and of the Lamb” (22:1; cf. 21:6). The “tree of life” that was in the original Garden of Eden is here once again. We find that it is on each side of the river, and it is there “for the healing of the nations” (21:2). The “healing” envisioned here is total and complete healing. Remember, there will be no temptation and no sin in the new heaven and new earth. We who are believers “will serve him,” not ourselves (21:3). We are told “the curse” that was brought upon the human race because of the sin of Adam, the curse that exiled he and Eve from the Garden, the tree of life, and the presence of God, is no more (21:3-4). This section closes with the encouragement that there “will be no more night … for the Lord God will give them light” (21:5a). Night is often a metaphor for wicked deeds; particularly here are envisioned deeds that would threaten the people of God. This will not and cannot happen, because the wicked are consigned and confined in hell. Those whose names are written in the book will reign with King Jesus “for ever and ever” (21:5b).
Theological Reflection & Application
- All Christians should live with the end in view. That means we do not hold too tightly to things or people in this life, but willingly let go of the good things and people the Lord has blessed us with if he sees fit. Those of us who live in affluence (that is almost everyone in the Western world) will likely struggle to live in such a manner. But passages like this remind us that this world is broken and in need of repair. This isn’t the end. There is something far greater to come, something, rather, someone for whom our hearts should long.
- Christians will inherit the new heaven and new earth not on account of what they may or may not have done, but on the ground of all that Christ has done for them, particularly his substitutionary atoning death.
- The picture in Revelation 21–22 is that God wins. He will have a people for himself from every people group. This should encourage the local church to engage in missions both at home and abroad in difficult and dangerous places. These impossible places are filled with people who will inhabit the new heaven and new earth. We should go confidently into these tough places with the gospel of grace, trusting God to save souls, thus bringing us closer to the reality described at the end of the Bible.
- While we sin and will continue to sin until we take our last breath, there will come a time when we will no longer sin or feel the damaging effects of sin. That time will take place when we see our Jesus face to face.