The Lord has graciously blessed our church over the past few years by enabling us to host international speakers and authors, courtesy of Christian Book Discounters in Cape Town and the Alpha and Omega Foundation. In August 2006 we will have the wonderful opportunity to host Philip Graham Ryken, author and pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church inPhiladelphia. Ryken is a brilliant theologian, whose great passion for the church is evident in his writings. Whilst he does not ignore the faults and foibles that are so evident in the church today, Ryken obviously believes that God will use the church in a mighty way to impact the world with the gospel.
No doubt, Ryken would love the apostle John, who also had a high view of and great passion for the church. John believed that the church was God’s instrument to bring hope and make a difference to the world. As God brings Revelation to a close, we see once again the outstanding theme of the prophecy: the glory of the church.
When John received Revelation from the Lord, the church was undergoing a tremendously difficult time. By that time, the gospel had been preached to the entire known world (Colossians 1:6, 23). But apostasy soon entered the churches. The “perilous times” of which Paul warned Timothy in2 Timothy 3certainly came to pass “in the last days” (i.e. the days between the ascension and 70 A.D.). Professing Christians had begun to lose their first love; doctrinal declension had invaded the Body of Christ; heresy had reared its ugly head. Moreover, there was intense persecution against the church from Jewish quarters, as well as from the Roman state. Thus, by the time that Revelation was written the church was in desperate need of an encouraging word from God, which is precisely what Revelation was to them. In this prophecy, Christ is revealed afresh to the church. The church is also told what to expect for the next few years: that the intensity of the persecution would increase but that Christ would eventually come in judgement uponJerusalem, at which time the persecution would effectively cease.
John has faithfully recorded this truth in Revelation 4-19. The closing vision of Revelation 19 shows the Lord coming victoriously, with His saints following Him. It is a picture of victorious conquest through the gospel. Revelation 20 continues where the preceding chapter had left off. After the destruction ofJerusalem, church history would continue as prophesied in Revelation 20: the church can expect victory with the gospel, for Satan is bound and then the church and human history will come to an end with the second coming, the general resurrection and the final judgement.
If Revelation 20 recorded the end of human history, it is easy for us to assume that Revelation 21-22 (which could very well form but a single chapter) records a vision of eternity. But things are not always as they appear, and Revelation cannot always be interpreted in a strictly chronological fashion. In this study, I wish to begin a several-part study of the closing chapters of Revelation. I will labour to show that the theme of these chapters is that the old world came to an end in the destruction of the temple and that, for the past two thousand years, we have been living in a whole new world, one that will continue until the Lord returns. Of course, if the present-day “new world” is all that we have to look forward to, then we are to be pitied; but I believe that these chapters teach that a whole new world has begun and that, one day, the world in which we live will be (after the return of the Lord) eternally perfect.
One vital principle of biblical interpretation that will help us in this study is: none of the Bible was written to us, though it is all for us. The Bible writers did not address John Smith ofJohannesburg,South Africain 2006. Rather, they addressed their own contemporaries, whilst God ruled in such a way to be sure that everything written to individuals and churches thousands of years ago still has great relevance for us. Thus, when we approach a particular text (and Revelation is no different) there are at least two questions we must ask. To whom was it written? How would the original recipients have interpreted it?
In answer to the first question, Revelation 21-22 was written to seven churches in Asia Minor in the late 60s of the first century. In answer to the second question, they would have interpreted it in at least three ways: prophetically, Judaically and relevantly. Prophetically in that they would have recognised the symbolic, figurative language of prophecy and would thus have used Scripture to interpret Scripture; Judaically in that they would have interpreted it within a Jewish context of Jewish worship and Messianic expectation, understanding the end of one age and the beginning of another; and relevantly in that they would have had a contemporary expectation, anticipating the fulfilment of the prophecies to at least begin within their own lifetime. For those wanting an outline of these chapters I offer the following:
- The Exclamation Concerning a Whole New World (21:1-8)
- The Explanation Concerning a Whole New World (21:9-27)
- The Expansion of the Whole New World (22:1-7)
- The Expectation of a Whole New World (22:8-21)
With these principles and this outline firmly fixed in our minds, let us begin our exposition of these chapters.
The Exclamation Concerning a Whole New World
Although we will only examine the opening verse of Revelation 21 in this study, it is important to remember that this verse is part of a whole:
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.
And thus we need to study these verses within the overall context as well as the individual text of Scripture. There is much emotion and tradition that attends one’s view of biblical doctrine, but we must be sure to study the text and to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. It is easy to cast stones at those with whom we disagree, but there is nothing godly about this; we must be committed to studying Scripture and to know why we believe what we say we believe the Scriptures to teach. And nowhere is this truth more applicable than in the study of the closing chapters of Revelation.
What I will present in our next few studies in Revelation is what I believe Scripture teaches. Having compared Scripture with Scripture, I have no doubt that I am presenting the truth. As you read this, you may disagree. And you certainly are entitled to your opinion. But at least listen to what I have to say before you write me off.
At least two preliminary observations must be made before we nail down the theme of this verse. These two principles have to do with the context and the contrasts of Revelation.
First, the context is important. Revelation 19:1-10 records the results of the destruction ofJerusalem. The language used is that of a marriage: the marriage supper of the Lamb. God is glorified and the church is liberated as believers are joined to Christ in holy wedlock. But then John switches gears: 19:11-20:15 gives a brief overview of world history after the fall ofJerusalem. In short, history will be a time characterised by gospel blessing for the church.
As we turn the page to Revelation 21, John again picks up the theme that he had introduced in 19:1-10. The language once again switches to that of a marriage. Thus, 19:11-20:15 can be described as something of a parenthesis, with 19:1-10 and 22:1-22:21 describing, in prophetic, symbolic language, “the church age.” Thus, these verses apply to the present, but are rooted in the past.
Second, the contrasts in Revelation are important. We have already seen a contrast between the bride and the harlot, between that which is removed and that which replaces it, and between those who enter the new world and those who are excluded. Now, another contrast arises: that between the oldJerusalem and the New Jerusalem.
As we shall see, Revelation 21-22 highlights the end of Judaism, the “Jewish world,” and the arrival and development of the new world: the world of a global “nation,” a multiethnic church. And this is described in glorious language, “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea” (21:1).
Lest we be tempted to immediately assume that “a new heaven and a new earth” speaks of a new, physical cosmos, let us ask and answer two questions. First, is the language of this verse found anywhere else in Scripture and, if so, what did it mean in that context? Second, is “creation language” (“create,” “heaven and earth,” etc.) ever used figuratively in the Bible? A biblical answer to these questions will go a long way to helping us understand these chapters in a biblical manner.
Old Testament Precedent
In answer to the first question, we can answer with a resounding, “Yes!” For the language is clearly seen at the end of Isaiah’s prophecy, “For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind” (Isaiah 65:17). If we can determine the proper interpretation of Isaiah’s words we will discover the proper interpretation of John’s words.
The context ofIsaiah 65is the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon (586 B.C.). Let me quote the verse in its larger context:
I am sought of them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not: I said, Behold me, behold me, unto a nation that was not called by my name. I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people, which walketh in a way that was not good, after their own thoughts; A people that provoketh me to anger continually to my face; that sacrificeth in gardens, and burneth incense upon altars of brick; Which remain among the graves, and lodge in the monuments, which eat swine’s flesh, and broth of abominable things is in their vessels; Which say, Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou. These are a smoke in my nose, a fire that burneth all the day. Behold, it is written before me: I will not keep silence, but will recompense, even recompense into their bosom, Your iniquities, and the iniquities of your fathers together, saith the Lord, which have burned incense upon the mountains, and blasphemed me upon the hills: therefore will I measure their former work into their bosom. Thus saith the Lord, As the new wine is found in the cluster, and one saith, Destroy it not; for a blessing is in it: so will I do for my servants’ sakes, that I may not destroy them all. And I will bring forth a seed out of Jacob, and out of Judah an inheritor of my mountains: and mine elect shall inherit it, and my servants shall dwell there. And Sharon shall be a fold of flocks, and the valley of Achor a place for the herds to lie down in, for my people that have sought me. But ye are they that forsake the Lord, that forget my holy mountain, that prepare a table for that troop, and that furnish the drink offering unto that number. Therefore will I number you to the sword, and ye shall all bow down to the slaughter: because when I called, ye did not answer; when I spake, ye did not hear; but did evil before mine eyes, and did choose that wherein I delighted not. Therefore thus saith the Lord God, Behold, my servants shall eat, but ye shall be hungry: behold, my servants shall drink, but ye shall be thirsty: behold, my servants shall rejoice, but ye shall be ashamed: Behold, my servants shall sing for joy of heart, but ye shall cry for sorrow of heart, and shall howl for vexation of spirit. And ye shall leave your name for a curse unto my chosen: for the Lord God shall slay thee, and call his servants by another name: That he who blesseth himself in the earth shall bless himself in the God of truth; and he that sweareth in the earth shall swear by the God of truth; because the former troubles are forgotten, and because they are hid from mine eyes. For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying. There shall be no more thence an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days: for the child shall die an hundred years old; but the sinner being an hundred years old shall be accursed. And they shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them. They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain, nor bring forth for trouble; for they are the seed of the blessed of the Lord, and their offspring with them. And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent’s meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord.
You will notice that the verse cited in Revelation 21:1 (Isaiah 65:17) is in the midst of God’s prophecy of the destruction of His disobedient people. He speaks of those that “forsake the Lord, that forget my holy mountain” (65:11) and promises destruction upon these. But it is also to these that He promises the new heaven and the new earth. The new heaven and new earth language is further tied to the forgiveness ofIsrael’s sins and their restoration: “the former troubles are forgotten, and because they are hid from mine eyes” (65:16). Thus, Isaiah’s language is not future for us, although it was for his initial readers. It describes a time in which God’s covenant people would be greatly blessed. This would begin in the restoration of the Jews to their land, but would be fully realised in Christ. Hear John Calvin’s comments on this verse:
For, lo, I will create new heavens and a new earth. By these metaphors he promises a remarkable change of affairs; as if God 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. These are exaggerated modes of expression; but the greatness of such a blessing, which was to be manifested at the coming of Christ, could not be described in any other way. Nor does he mean only the first coming, but the whole reign, which must be extended as far as to the last coming, as we have already said in expounding others passages.
Thus the world is (so to speak) renewed by Christ; and hence also the Apostle (Heb ii. 5) calls it “a new age,” and undoubtedly alludes to this statement of the Prophet. Yet the Prophet speaks of the restoration of the Church after the return fromBabylon. This is undoubtedly true; but that restoration is imperfect, if it be not extended as far as to Christ; and even now we are in the progress and accomplishment of it, and those things will not be fulfilled till the last resurrection, which has been prescribed to be our limit.
The former things shall not be remembered. Some refer these words to heaven and earth; as if he had said that henceforth they shall have no celebrity and no name. But I choose rather to refer them to the former times; for he means that the joy at being restored shall be so great that they shall no longer remember their miseries…
Let us remember that these things take place in us so far as we are renewed. But we are only in part renewed, and therefore we do not yet see a new heaven and a new earth. We need not wonder, therefore, that we continue to mourn and weep, since we have not entirely laid aside the old man, but many remains are still left. It is with us also that the renovation ought to begin; because we hold the first rank, and it is through our sin that “the creatures groan, and are subject to vanity,” as Paul shews (Rom. viii. 20). But when we shall be perfectly renewed, heaven and earth shall also be fully renewed, and shall regain their former state. And hence it ought to be inferred, as we have frequently remarked, that the Prophet has in his eyes the whole reign of Christ, down to its final close, which is also called “the day of renovation and restoration” (Acts iii. 21).
In other words, the language employed by Isaiah speaks not of a new physical cosmos, but of a new age in which Christ powerfully rules through His people and steadily renews the world, until it is perfected at His final coming.
This interpretation, however, hinges largely on the assumption that the “creation” language of Isaiah does not refer to physical creation. But is this a fair assumption? Can such “symbolic creation language” be clearly pointed to in other Scriptures? The answer is, yes, it can. “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This New Testament passage clearly refers to the Christian as a “new creation” in Christ. And similar language is used of the “creation” ofIsraelunder the old covenant:
But I am the Lord thy God, that divided the sea, whose waves roared: The Lord of hosts is his name. And I have put my words in thy mouth, and I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand, that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people.
Here, the Lord reminds Israel of her founding as a people. God divided the sea to bring Israelout of Egypt, and protectively covered them with the shadow of His hand in the wilderness. He put His Word in their mouth at Sinai. The reason for this? “That I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people.” Do you see that? The planting of the heavens and the laying of the foundations of the earth is not a reference to the physical creation but to the special selection of Israel as God’s people: “and say unto Zion, Thou art my people.” When God chose Israel to be His covenant people, it was in effect an instance of creation. For comment on these verses we turn to the 17th century Puritan theologian and pastor, John Owen:
The time when the work here mentioned, of planting the heavens, and laying the foundation of the earth, was performed by God, was when he “divided the sea” (Isa. 51:15), and gave the law (v. 16), and said to Zion, “Thou art my people”—that is, when he took the children out of Egypt, and formed them in the wilderness into a church and state. Then he planted the heavens, and laid the foundation of the earth—made the new world; that is, brought forth order, and government, and beauty, from the confusion wherein before they were. This is the planting of the heavens, and laying the foundation of the earth in the world. And hence it is, that when mention is made of the destruction of a state and government, it is in that language that seems to set forth the end of the world. SoIsaiah 34:4; which is yet but the destruction of the state ofEdom. The like is also affirmed of the Roman empire, Revelation 6:14; which the Jews constantly affirmed to be intended byEdomin the prophets. And in our Saviour Christ’s prediction of the destruction ofJerusalem,Matthew 24, he sets it out by expressions of the same importance. It is evident, then, that in the prophetical idiom and manner of speech, by “heavens” and “earth,” the civil and religious state and combination of men in the world, and the men of them, are often understood. So were the heavens and earth that world which was then destroyed by the flood.
Another instance of such use of language is to be found in the Book of Jeremiah, where creation language is clearly used to refer to Israel, with specific reference to Jerusalem:
I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was without form, and void; and the heavens, and they had no light. I beheld the mountains, and, lo, they trembled, and all the hills moved lightly. I beheld, and, lo, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens were fled. I beheld, and, lo, the fruitful place was a wilderness, and all the cities thereof were broken down at the presence of the Lord, and by his fierce anger. For thus hath the Lord said, The whole land shall be desolate; yet will I not make a full end. For this shall the earth mourn, and the heavens above be black: because I have spoken it, I have purposed it, and will not repent, neither will I turn back from it. The whole city shall flee for the noise of the horsemen and bowmen; they shall go into thickets, and climb up upon the rocks: every city shall be forsaken, and not a man dwell therein. And when thou art spoiled, what wilt thou do? Though thou clothest thyself with crimson, though thou deckest thee with ornaments of gold, though thou rentest thy face with painting, in vain shalt thou make thyself fair; thy lovers will despise thee, they will seek thy life. For I have heard a voice as of a woman in travail, and the anguish as of her that bringeth forth her first child, the voice of the daughter of Zion, that bewaileth herself, that spreadeth her hands, saying, Woe is me now! for my soul is wearied because of murderers.
The creation language here is undeniable: “the earth…was without form, and void…they had no light,” etc. (4:23; cf.Genesis 1:2). Is Jeremiah, then, having a vision of what it was like at the beginning of time? No, for he interprets his own prophecy, “The whole land shall be desolate… The whole city shall flee for the noise of the horsemen and bowmen” (4:27, 29). Thus, Jeremiah prophesies the fall ofJerusalemtoBabylonin “decreation” language. David Chilton correctly identifies this passage as speaking of “the imminent fall ofJerusalem” in “decreation” language.
One final passage that we will consider in this study is located inIsaiah 64:
Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence. As when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the waters to boil, to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at thy presence! When thou didst terrible things which we looked not for, thou camest down, the mountains flowed down at thy presence. For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him.
Again, many have interpreted Isaiah 64:4to say that we have no idea what heaven will be like. Whilst heaven may be a mystery in some ways to us, that is not what Isaiah is teaching. Instead, Isaiah is prophesying the institution of the new covenant, which would be unimaginable to those living under the old covenant. But it is not so for us, for Paul tells us that these things have been revealed to us (2 Corinthians 2:7-10). Unlike the old covenant saints, we have some concept of the blessings of the gospel age.
In short, we live in a new heaven and earth, a new age, which we often refer to as “the church age.” The new heaven and new earth came into being in 70 A.D. with the destruction of the Jerusalem, the temple and thus Judaism. The new age does not revolve, as did the old age, around Israeland physical Jerusalem, but around the new covenant church and New Jerusalem. The Judaistic order has been removed and a new order, a New Jerusalem, has replaced it. Indeed, we live in a whole new world; in the new heaven and new earth of which Revelation 21:1 speaks.
Does this then mean that the world is not going to be destroyed and replaced with a new, physical cosmos? Whether or not it will be is debated, but the Bible nowhere clearly teaches that this will happen. Of course, in order to make a statement like this, I must deal with the one passage of Scripture that seems initially to suggest that the cosmos will be destroyed:
But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.
(2 Peter 3:10-13)
Does this text not clearly teach the fiery destruction of the cosmos at “the day of the Lord”? Consider the language: “pass away,” “a great noise,” “melt with fervent heat,” “burned up,” “dissolved,” “being on fire,” etc. After these things, it appears, the “new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” will appear.
Whilst this passage certainly appears to teach a fiery destruction it must be asked, the fiery destruction of what? This question can be answered by a close examination of the text and, once again, by comparing Scripture with Scripture. The key word here is “elements” (3:10, 12). This word (stoicheion) is used a total of seven times in the Greek text of the New Testament. It is translated variously as “elements” (Galatians 4:3, 9; 2 Peter 3:10, 12), “rudiments” (Colossians 2:8, 20) and “principles” (Hebrews 5:12). In every case outside of 2 Peter, the word speaks of the basic teachings and practices of Judaism. Thus, it is no stretch of the imagination to assume that Peter is using it in the same context. And this interpretation fits the evidence. When the temple was destroyed, the “elements” of Judaism literally went up in flames. Furthermore, the phrase “shall be dissolved” is a present participle, which could legitimately be translated “is being dissolved.” The process of dissolving, thus, had already begun when Peter wrote, thought it would only be completed in the destruction of the temple. Thus,2 Peter 3:10-13 corroborates, rather than contradicts, the preterist interpretation of the Scriptures.
We will examine these chapters in greater detail in the studies to come but, for now, let us rest upon one basic principle: we must allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. It matters not what teachers, books or study Bibles say; what matters is the text of God’s Word. Yes, we live in a new heaven and a new earth. And, yes, the new heaven and the new earth (the church) will grow better and better until, after the second coming, the general resurrection, and the final judgement, heaven and earth will be perfect! A day is coming when all of creation will be glorified. And what a wondrous day that will be. For now, let us know that we live in a whole new world in which the church is glorious and in which she will be victorious!