The New Heavens and New Earth (Revelation 21:1-8)

Published on Saturday, 02 September 2017 04:48
Many people are frightened by what they imagine is over the horizon. The future is unknown, and they prefer the confusion of an uncertain present to thinking about the world that is to come. Yet God in his love and mercy sent to John a message about the future that was conveyed to him by his Saviour, Jesus. It is beneficial to imagine how joyful Jesus would have been as he revealed to his servant some of the things that would shortly come to pass.

The phrase ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ indicates that God is about to do something new. It was used previously in Isaiah 65:17ff to describe the restoration of Israel after the Babylonian captivity. Calvin argued that it was fulfilled in the reign of Christ that commenced with his first coming and which lasts to his second coming. According to Calvin, ‘By these metaphors God promises a remarkable change of affairs; as if God had said that he has both the inclination and the power not only to restore his Church, but to restore it in such a manner that it shall appear to gain new life and to dwell in a new world.’

Whether or not Calvin is right in his opinion about the time of fulfilment, we can see from the description following verse 17 that the new heavens and new earth that Isaiah saw was not a state of perfection, because death of individuals still occurred. Yet the prophet uses remarkable illustrations – such as the age of individuals and the harmony of the animal kingdom – to depict the great development that took place when the Messiah came.

John is not using the phrase in exactly the same way as Isaiah did because death, which continued to exist in Isaiah’s vision, is removed from John’s vision. Therefore, when John uses the phrase, he has in mind a perfect universe. Yet it is possible that he uses illustrations to depict the great improvement, such as when he says that there is no sea.

Clearly, the absence of the sea is significant, because its absence is highlighted by John. The sea was regarded at that time as a place of danger and of separation, and as far as John and his fellow exiles were concerned it ensured their confinement in exile. Moreover, the horrid beast who had instigated the persecution of the church had arisen from the sea. All those reasons would have caused John to rejoice that the sea would be no more.

Maybe there is an allusion here to Genesis 1, where when God started his work of creation, it was all sea, yet with the progression of days the space allotted to the waters was reduced. The sea at the beginning was not a suitable place for humans to dwell, so land had to be formed. But now there is a new world about to begin and the sea has gone, with all its negative influences.

Yet at this stage the new earth has nothing on it. The first event that John sees with regard to the new earth is that the people of God come to inhabit it. They are described as the holy city and we are told that they are dressed for a wedding, which is a reminder how she was attired for the marriage supper of the Lamb that is described in chapter 19. This wedding occasion is going to be endless. The heaven that she comes from is not the sky, but rather the heaven where God dwells.

There may be another contrast here with what happened at the beginning. In Genesis 1, the man and the woman were created last and they did not see God’s previous works of creation. However, in this passage, before anything is formed, the King and his bride are brought together, meaning that they will observe whatever is made subsequently by God.

The picture of a city reminds us that the people of God are a community that is organised. Calling it a city has been common throughout the Bible. Abraham looked ahead to it, a psalmist sang about it Psalm 87, and Ezekiel prophesied about its coming and reminded his listeners that its significant reality would be that the Lord is there. Of course, the first city was erected by Cain to celebrate the triumph of man, but at the end it will have no celebrations. The final city, however, will celebrate the grace and abilities of God.

The voice of Jesus
We now hear several utterances and the first speaker seems to be Jesus because he is distinguished from God, which is usually the way the Father is described. Yet since the voice comes from God’s throne, the speaker must be divine. So I think the Saviour is speaking here. The announcement concerns the quality of life that will be experienced in the new world. First, God has a new dwelling place. Obviously, since the Lord is omnipresent, it does not mean he is confined to this new location. But this new location will be where he reveals his glory in particular ways to those with whom he will dwell.

The new earth is the place where the covenant of God is fulfilled. We know that the story of the Bible is God looking for a people, his people. Abraham was called to become the one through whom the worldwide family would come; the vision was enlarged through the creation of Israel who were intended to be a light to the nations; then Jesus came and sent out his servants to gather in the number that none can count. Yet the obvious detail about the people of God is that they were never all together on this earth. But they will be together in the new earth and they will be so forever. It will be amazing to see God’s covenant intentions fulfilled exactly.

The new earth is the place where the effects of sin are removed. What is life like in this world? Sorrow, weeping and pain. How you ever counted how many sad faces appear on our news programmes? Such things will not exist in the ages to come on the new earth. We know that God could deal with those memories in more than one way. He could use his power to wipe them from our minds and arrange for a communal forgetfulness. Yet would that be a fatherly way to do so? Or he could deal with us personally and spend a couple of seconds with each of his people. That would be effective, but it is not what Jesus says will happen. Instead, God will wipe away every tear. If we saw a child crying, or a widow mourning, and the would-be comforter did not spend much time with them, we would not regard him as much of a comforter. But if he spent as long a time as was necessary to go through the process, we would call him a man with a heart. If a creature can do this, how much more can God do? He will take the time to deal with all the issues that caused distress to his people.

The voice of God
John is then told what is going to happen next. We have seen that the new earth has become the dwelling place of God and it will be the place where the comfort of God is experienced in its deepest way. But as yet there does not seem to be anything for the people of God to see. Then they hear the voice of the heavenly Father saying from the throne, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ I think it is the Father who is speaking here because it is the same person who speaks the next couple of sayings, and the third one indicates that it has been the Father who is speaking.

There is a marked contrast with the process that God followed in Genesis 1. At the beginning, God took a week to make the perfect world. On this occasion, when the new beginning occurs, he speaks the word and the whole space is remade. We are not told what will be there. Instead we are told that everything will be new, fit for the Saviour and his people to enjoy forever. It is usual in the Bible for its readers not to be told about the details of heaven.

It looks as if John had been so overwhelmed by what he had just seen that he had stopped recording what he was viewing. So he is told to resume recording. Maybe he had a look of astonishment on his face because he is told that what he has been told is reliable and accurate. John saw many great sights in his life as he moved around the ancient world. Yet the fact is that the glory and splendour of the world of glory was infinitely superior to anything that had appeared in this world. At the moment, it is indescribable by human words.

The assurance
The voice from heaven concludes with words of great encouragement for God’s people and with a list of those who will be in the place of punishment. The encouragement begins with an announcement of completion – ‘It is done.’ Maybe this is a reference to the completion of the salvation of sinners because those saved are now in God’s presence. It is a plural pronoun, pointing to the idea that everything has been completed.

Then the divine speaker says who he is. Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters in the Greek language and here mean the same as the beginning and the end. The Lord does not mean that he had a beginning and will have an end. Instead, this title is a way of saying that he is eternal. He existed before the beginning and will exist after everything else has had its day. Moreover, the title is a reminder that he is the sovereign of time and of all that happens within it. He decides when something begins and ends. He did so with regard to the first heaven and earth, and now he begins the new heaven and new earth.

He mentions that in the world to come, he will give the water of life to the thirsty. This refers to a spiritual longing being satisfied. The water of life is a reference to God and the grace he provides – he is the fountain of living waters. We were made to know God, not only intellectually, but also experientially. This experience is connected to all believers entering into the fullness of adoption, of life in the family of God. The new universe is their inheritance which they will enjoy forever. This fits in with what Paul says in Romans 8 will be the experience of the Lord’s people when they are glorified with the Lord.

A brief look at the sinful practices mentioned in verse 8 contains a couple of surprises perhaps. We would expect those who are guilty of murder, immorality, idolatry, witchcraft and lying will be there if they don’t repent of their practices. Who are the cowardly and the faithless? Probably they are those who gave up the faith during times of persecution and chose not to return in repentance.

We should observe the focus on the word ‘new’. New does not mean that the earth is a different earth as if it was a second one. Rather, new points to the new features that mark it as against what was there before. The earth is new because God dwells there in a new way, because his people are there in a new way, and because it can never lose its newness.

We can also see the delight that God has in speaking about this new order that is yet to come. There is fellowship or communion between the Father and the Son as they describe what will yet occur. Above we suggested who was speaking from the divine throne.

Finally, we should note that we are told about the future in order for us to have spiritual comfort and not to satisfy unbecoming curiosity. Therefore we should express our gratitude to the Lord for revealing these details to us. Whatever we may be going through, we can turn to this brief passage and focus our minds on the certainties that lie ahead for the people of God. For them to know that they will be with him in a new world is amazing.

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