New Heavens & New Earth
The book of Revelation has long puzzled Bible readers and commentators. Opinions vary on the meaning of key passages; denominations divide over the interpretation of certain texts. Some, perhaps, consider Revelation too obscure to be of much value for the church in the modern world.
Yet obscuration was the furthest thing from John’s mind when he penned the final book of the Bible. This was a revelation — an apocalypse or unveiling — in which the Holy Spirit, through the apostle John, intended that we should see things more clearly, not have them more clouded. In this capstone book of the Bible, the curtain is raised, and we are permitted access to the nerve center of the universe, precisely so that we will not have the eyes of our faith befogged by the circumstances in which we find ourselves at present.
For John on the isle of Patmos, the present earth was a cold, hostile place — the theater of trial and persecution (Rev. 1:9). As the waves of the Mediterranean Sea beat on the shores of Patmos, heaven must have seemed a long way away.
So to encourage John, and through him the people of God in every age, Jesus gave him a vision of the future. Jesus lifted the veil, and allows us to “hear the words of the prophecy of this book” (22:18). And in a remarkable show of grace and condescension, the vision John saw was couched in terms, images, and pictures with which the early New Testament church was very familiar. There is for them, and for us, little that is new in the book of Revelation; there is instead a glorious coalescence of all the grand themes of the Bible revealed to Daniel and Zechariah, Ezekiel and Moses long before. If we were as familiar with the Old Testament as the early Christians were, we might understand the themes of Revelation as readily as they surely did.
It is no surprise to discover, then, that as the book of Revelation comes to a conclusion we find ourselves back at the beginning. The wheel has come full circle. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1). In the end, God creates a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1). Drawing on the original creation narrative of Genesis, John writes of a new — and final — Paradise, reflecting details of the original Paradise but far exceeding it. Perhaps echoing God’s provision of a bride for the first Adam (Gen. 2:22–25), John writes of the church as a bride adorned and prepared for her marriage to Jesus, the last Adam. Drawing on the importance of the tabernacle, which was itself replete with creation imagery, John writes of an ultimate tabernacle-presence of God with His people.
John’s vision of a new dwelling place for the people of God is suffused with Old Testament allusion, language, and metaphor, drawn not least from the first book of the Bible. But this is because from the beginning, God had the end in view. This present creation, like the tabernacle, was patterned on things in the heavenly places (Heb. 9:23), drawing its full significance from the ultimate reality to which it points. Even in the first creation, God had the last creation in view. When he made earth, God was thinking about heaven.
So in John’s vision, grace has finally restored what sin took away. Expulsion from Paradise is now replaced with entry into the new Paradise. Whether we understand the new heaven and the new earth to mean a brand new creation, or whether we take it as a renovation of the existing creation, it is for this final place that the people of God wait (2 Peter 3:13), longing for the day when the groans of the present creation will be silenced (Rom. 8:22–23).
One interesting feature of the new creation is that the sea will be no more (Rev. 21:1). For John, banished to an island, the removal of the sea means that never again will God’s people be separated from each other. But in the context of the experience of the people of God, it also means that there will be no more danger — the sea, after all, was the element from which the beast arose (13:1), the great antagonizer of the church and the one who received worship from men. It was by the sea that the prostitute represented by another ancient city — Babylon — made herself rich (18:17–19). The absence of the sea is symbolic of the extermination of the curse and of the fact that the last battle has been fought and won.
Drawing, therefore, on the grand themes of the Bible’s narrative, John paints a word picture of the final state of the blessed, in which God recreates Paradise for His people, completes His work of sanctification in them by making them a fit bride for His Son, and dwells among them.
But God does more than that. He plays the part of a gentle parent, wiping away the tears of His children (21:4). The things that made them weep — death, sorrow, and pain —will be banished from the new world of the redeemed. There will be no more thorns in this garden, for the one who carried the thorns as a crown on His head has now made a place fit for kings and priests to serve Him. Jesus, at last, is the glory of the new world.