Revelation 21-22 and Christian Hope
Last Sunday the lectionary took us just about to the end of the last book of the Bible. Here’s a bit of my sermon drawn from Revelation 21-22. I don’t know about the sermon itself, but the conversation afterward was really interesting:
This morning let’s reflect a bit on what it is we learn about our future hope from the end of John’s Revelation. So if you want to put your thumb in a passage of the pew Bible, do so at Revelation chapter 21. First, though, a question: Why is Easter season connected to the topic of Christian hope? Isn’t Easter a historical topic and hope a future one? The answer is that the link between the two is actually quite strong, even though the order of things wouldn’t make it seem that way. The resurrection of Jesus is a sort of prequel event. It happened in the past, but what happened to Jesus the biblical writes believed will happen to us all.
I don’t know if you’ve even been cliff jumping, but it seems to me that the resurrection is a bit like that. When you cliff jump there’s always someone who has to go first. Of course you check the water depth and you look things over, but someone still has to be the first one to jump. When they do, everyone else waits to see what will. If the first person makes it we know it’s possible. The resurrection of Jesus is that moment just after the first person has jumped, when he bobs back to the surface, a smile on their face. The rest of us breathe a sigh of relief. There’s life after the jump.
Those who study Revelation intently tell us that chapters 21 and 22 are part of the seventh and final vision described by John. This vision begins in chapter 19. Verse 11 of that chapter begins like this: “I saw heaven standing open . . . .” John is given a glimpse of mysterious things; the curtain is drawn back. The rest of the book is about that vision. The rest of chapter 19 along with chapter 20 are about God’s judgment.
We sometimes think of God’s judgment as though God were a picky old man, making sure we cut the lawn just so, or as though God were an umpire who makes up random rules that we have to play by just because he says so. Sometimes this feeds our own moralism and we portray the Christian life in legalistic, judgmental ways to others. Worse than that, we sometimes make God look like the picky old man, the self-obsessed umpire—rules just because.
Really, though, that’s not what God’s judgment is about at all. The more I listen to the stories of evil and abuse, the more it becomes clear to me that God’s judgment, his ‘wrath’, is an expression of his love. Because God loves his creatures, to treat them as less than human, using and abusing them for one’s own satisfaction requires correction. Ultimately the Bible is a book about God’s hospitality; but for hospitality to have any worth, the door must be barred against evil and abuse. That’s what Revelation 19-20 is all about: God says a final ‘no’ to things that harm people.
The passages we read come after a dramatic turn that happens at the beginning of chapter 21. The skin of the old heaven and earth are shed and John sees a new heaven and a new earth emerge. What scholars tell us is that we should read the term ‘new’ here, more like ‘fresh’ or something that is of ‘superior quality’. It doesn’t mean the latest model or an entirely different thing altogether.
And this brings us to an important question: What comes to mind when we think of “heaven”? What is it that we hope for after we pass though death? This is a popular topic today, several books that claim to describe someone’s time in heaven have sold really, really well. But what is heaven and what do we expect life after death in the presence of God to be like? I don’t know about you, but I know I’ve had all sorts of pictures in my mind about these things. The Christian media aren’t at all shy about depicting heaven or life after death: chubby angels flying about, people in bathrobes eating fluffy white cake in lounge chairs.
But the more I’ve considered the issue, including these last two chapters of Revelation, the more it has become clear to me that the question about heaven and the question about the eternal state of God’s people are not the same thing. The biblical writers believe that heaven exists and has a role distinct from our hope for life beyond death.
We should not anticipate being carted off to some extraterrestrial space. Life in the world to come will not begin by being vacuumed up off the earth, zipped up through the clouds and jettisoned to some other corner of the galaxy while watching the earth burn in the rear view mirror. Notice what John reports in verse 2 of Rev. 21: “I saw the Holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” The same picture is given in the verse we read, verse 10: “[A]nd [he] showed me the Holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God . . . .”
Here’s how I think we should understand these things: Heaven, as the biblical writers understood it, is the dwelling place of God within creation, not within the cosmos as such, but within creation more broadly. It’s not a place we can find; rather, heaven interlocks with the cosmos in such a way that we can access the triune God who dwells there from any corner of it. Heaven is God’s seat of power, the place he and the angels reside. It’s not a place where we will go after the end of time. Notice gain in Rev. 21, verse 2 that the new city comes down from heaven to earth. The image of a bride tells us that heaven and earth are made to be together, made to be united like a newly married couple. What were two separate realms, what are two separate realms presently, are brought together in John’s vision of the future.
The image of the new city is drawn in part from Ezekiel. Ezekiel chapters 40-48 present a similar vision of a renewed city, and especially of a renewed temple. That’s too much to explore today, but we should notice one thing, the name of the city in Ezekiel’s vision. It’s given at the very end of the book, chapter 48, verse 35; “And the name of the city from that time on will be: THE LORD IS THERE.” Revelation 21:3 reads “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.”
Our eternal dwelling, what we expect after death, is not out there somewhere. No, we are creatures of the earth, which is what the term ‘adam’ means after all. In verse 5 of Rev. 21 the one seated on the throne says, “I am making everything new.” As one commentator has observed, he doesn’t say “I’m making a new everything.” The resurrected Jesus was remarkably similar to the previous version. Our future hope is that the things that already are will be made new, not replaced by see-through holograms or glowing orbs.
John’s Revelation is informed by Isaiah in addition to Ezekiel. In Isaiah 65 we read (v. 17) “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth.” In verse 20 we get a sense of what this will be like: “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days or an old man who does not live out his years.” As well in verse 21: “They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyard and eat their fruit.” What we should expect is not an escape from this world, but a renewal of it: a renewal of it and God’s real presence in it.
The end of history, as the biblical writes saw it, is not a series of events, but God—God who is the “Beginning and the End.” John makes the point another way in verse 16 where we read that the city was itself a cube, as long as it was high and wide. The original audience would have been reminded of the Holy of Holies where God’s presence rested. Here the whole city is the Holy of Holies. In fact there is no temple, verse 22 says this, for God dwells throughout. What we anticipate is that heaven and earth come together and God dwells among us. The wedding of creator and creation is kicked off with a feast.