What will heaven be like? Is it about cloud fights, harp lessons and choir practice? Do you have to talk your way around St. Peter to get in? I recently prepared a talk on Revelation 21, the chapter that answers these questions. Here are the notes I took on the passage as I read it in the Thai Basil Café, Wollongong, eating deep fried icecream with caramel sauce.
21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
We don't “die and go to heaven” we live on a new earth.
First heaven and earth pass away—but the new heaven and the new earth are permanent. C.S. Lewis depicted the permanence of the new creation by everything being rock hard and unchangeable—the person who wasn't from heaven couldn't even walk on the grass—it would pierce his feet. (The Great Divorce)
Hebrews 12:26–27 says it in terms of what can and can't be “shaken”: “At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken...”
This affects all of our thinking about this world, e.g. how we view our possessions, environmentalism
“No more sea” Not necessarily literal but what is the symbolic meaning? Could be:
21:2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
Why is God marrying Jerusalem?
Jerusalem is a lot more important than we think (Zion is the mountain Jerusalem is built on):
Psalm 128:5 “The Lord bless you from Zion! May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life!”
Psalm 137:5–6 “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!”
Psalm 135:21 “Blessed be the Lord from Zion, he who dwells in Jerusalem! Praise the Lord!”
Psalm 125:1 “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever.”
Ezekiel 16: the story of God's love for Jerusalem. It is shocking that he is still marrying her given her chasing after other lovers and prostituting herself.
“Out of heaven from God” Perhaps Jerusalem is God's gift for the earth? It's set in place like a jewel in a crown—the greatest part of the new creation, the capital city of the world.
“Prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” Ephesians 5:25–27 “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
21:3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.
The Bible is the history of God wanting to live with his people:
Now it is accomplished permanently in the new creation—the problem of sin is dealt with.
21:4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Knowing that such a future is coming helps us to endure the pain and suffering of these “former things”.
“Death shall be no more” So we live forever. Nothing will separate us from God.
21:5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
“Making all things new” The new creation started with us (2 Corinthians 5) and is now completed.
21:6 And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.
“It is done!” Similar to Jesus on the cross: “It is finished”. Taken together these statements indicate that God's purposes are accomplished.
“Alpha and the Omega” It all begins in God, ends in God. God began everything for his purposes and brings it to completion.
“To the thirsty...” Are you thirsty? Aware of your spiritual poverty? John 4:10: “Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’”
“Without payment” It's all grace—we can't contribute to our salvation, we just need to admit we're thirsty.
21:7 The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.
“The one who conquers” See the letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3—it's the Christian who makes it to the end who gets this inheritance. Starting as a Christian and getting distracted won't do any good.
“He will be my son.” Not only talking about men but symbolically about all Christians. Girls (in Bible times) get married to other people's heirs and leave the family—these sons (men and women) are all God's heirs, receiving his inheritance.
21:8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
Why cowardly? Is it those who've denied Christ?
Evil is destroyed for ever by destroying people. “God hates the sin but loves the sinner” is mistaken. It's the sinner that must be destroyed.
Lying is characteristic of evil, which doesn't love the truth.
21:9 Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.”
Change of scene. Verses 1–8 have been one picture, now a more detailed picture of the same thing.
“the wife of the Lamb” Jonathan Edwards said that this was “the end for which God created the world”: giving a bride to his son. I think it is only part of the picture and shouldn't be taken too literally.
Earthly marriage is (in part) to help us understand closeness of relationship that we will have with God.
21:10–11 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.
Jerusalem, God's people, have the glory of God. That is, when you see them, you see how good God is; you can tell they are of God; he is seen in them.
“like a most rare jewel” The city, the bride, is very precious and very beautiful.
21:12–14 It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed—on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
The great high wall indicates that it is a secure place, with angels at the gates. But later we learn that the gates are always open for the nations to come in.
“on the gates (were) the names of the twelve tribes” Israel is the way in to the kingdom of God. The world has been blessed through Abraham's offspring; salvation is of the Jews.
The foundations of the kingdom of God are the apostles (see Ephesians 2). The kingdom of God is built through the preaching of the gospel, a message which was taught and written down for all time by the apostles. The church is built on their testimony about Jesus.
They are the apostles of the Lamb—his servants and the means through which his message is proclaimed in the world.
21:15–17 And the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare; its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, 144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel's measurement.
The city is enormous! 12,000 stadia is 2220km (see picture).
“Length, width and height are equal” Two options as to what this means:
The measurements are multiples of 12—remember there were also 12 gates with the names of the 12 tribes and the foundation was the 12 apostles. 12 may indicate completeness or perfection.
21:18–20 The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst.
The city (the church) is extraordinarily beautiful.
The 12 precious stones remind us of the 12 precious stones in the breastplate of judgment of the high priest where they symbolised the 12 tribes of Israel (Exodus 28:15ff).
21:21 And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass.
This is where the clichés of pearly gates and streets paved with gold come from. (St. Peter with the keys comes from Matthew 16:19 but notice he's not actually part of the picture here except as part of the foundations.)
21:22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.
You don't go to a temple to worship God—you go directly to him.
21:23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.
This whole chapter is like a readers' digest of the later chapters of Isaiah. This is from chapter 60. Note this is better than the garden of Eden where the sun and moon were needed. The new creation is not attempt number two, Eden was always only temporary.
2 Corinthians 4:6 “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Psalm 119:105 Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
21:24–26 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.
More Isaiah. Just as a big, important city like New York or even Sydney attracts people from all over the world, all the nations come to Jerusalem, the new capital of the world, God's city. They bring all the good things of their culture into it, like Thai food coming to Sydney!
Are the nations here different to God's people in the city? Earlier in Revelation Jesus said:
Rev. 2:26–27 “The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father.”
My guess is that the nations that are ruled with a rod of iron are destroyed in the judgment (“broken in pieces”) and that the nations in this chapter are just a symbol of how Jerusalem is the centre of the whole new creation where all humans are welcome (gates not shut).
21:27 But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life.
Earthly nations now also bring crime and corruption to the big cities but only what is good comes to the heavenly city.
“Only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life” So the nations are the Christians, the saved ones, and not the same as the nations who were broken to pieces.
Isaiah 60:12 “For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you (Jerusalem) shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste.”
22:1–2 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
Life (so much more than just “being alive”) comes from God and heals the nations.
22:3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.
Sin has been the barrier and the reason we were separated from the original true life. Now all evil is gone and nothing gets in the way of our worship of God.
22:4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.
Amazing! We will see God face to face. His name on our foreheads shows we belong to him.
22:5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
No more night—no darkness—no need to rest because it's all rest?
“Reign forever and ever” Remember the original creation mandate:
Genesis 1:28 “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
We'll rule the earth as God intended.
22:6 And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.”
You trust this picture of heaven and it can comfort you now. God has shown us ahead of time what will inevitably take place.
22:7 “And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”
Jesus is coming soon to bring this all to pass. He was the one able to read the scroll and begin the end in chapter 5.
How do you keep the words of the prophecy of this book? Know that it is trustworthy and true and be the one who overcomes the temporary period of suffering with the knowledge of this certain future.