Tomorrow night I'll be speaking at Saint Andrews University on Revelation. At the start of this new week, you might find some reflections on heaven to be encouraging and stimulating.
REVELATION 21:1-22:5 “THE GLORY REVEALED”
Our little baby boy Joel has many bright, colourful stories which always finish on a positive note. Sometimes they close with the words: “and they lived happily ever after”. Some adults sneer at that type of ending – thinking it’s too predictable or not realistic or gritty enough. But it’s not just children that wish for a happily ever after – that’s how most of us wish the story of our lives would go too. And what if such a happy ending wasn’t just ‘wishful thinking’?!
Over this term you’ve been walking through the five acts of the greatest story ever told – the Bible (Creation, Fall, Redemption Initiated, Redemption Accomplished, Glory). We arrive tonight at the final act, found in the Book of Revelation. It’s a weird and wonderful book – which presents its truths in a colourful, picture book format - technically called apocalyptic imagery. These apocalyptic scenes have inspired many epic CGI scenes in end of the world, disaster movies. But “apocalypse” actually means: the ‘unveiling’. Revelation takes us behind the curtain, on a VIP ‘behind the scenes’ tour to see where human history is going. We are invited into the throne room of God - the control room of the universe. Sinclair Ferguson has said “Apocalyptic is God’s picture book” – showing us things we otherwise could not otherwise comprehend.
But there’s a deeper reason why God has finished the Bible in this multi-sensory apocalyptic experience. God intends that this book of pictures would capture our imaginations, and fuel us on our journey through this world and onto glory in the world to come. Listen to NT scholar Richard Bauckham explain:
“Revelation’s readers in the great cities of the province of Asia were constantly confronted with powerful images of the Roman vision of the world.... All provided powerful visual impressions of Roman imperial power and of the splendour of pagan religion. In this context, Revelation provides a set of Christian prophetic counter-images which impress on its reader a different vision of the world: how it looks from heaven. The visual power of the book effects a kind of purging of the Christian imagination, refurbishing it with alternative visions of how the world is and will be.” (Bauckham)
In our media driven and image saturated secular culture, more than ever we need this purifying of our imaginations – to see the hope (the happy ending) that Jesus is preparing for us, His people.
You started this series in Creation (Genesis 1-2) and tonight we will finish it looking at the New Creation (Revelation 21-22). Between these two book-ends of the Bible story there’s the drama of the conflict of two kingdoms: the kingdom of God (associated with Jerusalem) and the kingdom of Satan (associated with Babel/Babylon).
Revelation displays how this conflict will end, with the triumphant Second Coming of Jesus and the establishing of His kingdom on the earth. In Revelation 17-19 John sees the destruction of the City of Sin – facing God’s judgement for its immorality, injustices, inhumanity and idolatry. This evil empire is pictured as The Prostitute of Babylon. And then, in contrast, in Revelation 21-22 John introduces us to the glorious City of God, described as “the Bride”. This vision is what we’re going to focus on tonight together.
First we’ll unpack the vision to understand what it shows us about the future. Then we’ll explore the implications of this vision to see how it affects our lives in the present.
(1) UNLOCKING THE GLORY
The key for unlocking the significance of the visions of Revelation is found in the Old Testament. In the descriptions of the New Creation and the Holy City are clear allusions to the Garden of Eden and the Temple. They give us a sneak-peak, a glimpse of what life will be like when God’s people are in God’s place, enjoying God’s good rule over all things.
- The Glorious Marriage of Heaven and Earth (21:1-8, 22:1-5)
The vision begins “I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1) and God declares “Behold, I am making all things new” (21:5). That word “new” isn’t like throwing out an old dying laptop and replacing it with a new one. Rather it’s like getting the laptop refurbished and upgraded so it is as good as new. God won’t let Satan win:
“The art vandal doesn’t get the satisfaction of destroying his rival’s masterpiece. God doesn’t throw away his handiwork and start from scratch – instead he uses the same canvas to repair and make more beautiful the painting marred by the vandal” (Alcorn)
God will radically renew and renovate the earth, bringing the wonders of heaven down on earth to make all things new. One day Belinda Carlisle will be right in singing “heaven is a place on earth”.
So what will the new creation be like? Well it will be a lot like this world, except better and without the bad bits. Specifically, there are seven features of the old order, which has been corrupted by evil, that John tells us are “no more” in the New Creation:
- No more sea (v.1) – Does that mean no surfing, swimming or sailing in the new creation? I don’t think so! You see earlier in Revelation 13, the sea was a symbol of the untamed forces of evil. When John sees no sea in the new creation, I think he means that there is no presence of evil, to corrupt and distort God’s perfect new world.
- No more death (v.4)
- No more mourning (v.4)
- No more crying (v.4)
- No more pain (v.4)
- No more curse (22:3)
- No more night (22:5)
This is all wonderful good news. In Tim Chester’s little evangelistic book, “The World We All Want”, he points out that if you were to go out into the street for an afternoon to survey how people wish the world was – then you’d hear a lot of familiar themes: a world of safety and plenty, a world filled with happy and healthy people, who don’t grow old, suffer or die. Then he points out the good news that the world we all want is also the world that God wants!
C.S. Lewis would add “if I find in myself a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, I can only conclude that I was made for another world”. The new creation is the world and the home that people are longing for! The new creation is the world and true home that we all long for and dream of – and it’s the gift of God freely offered to us, paid for by the work of Jesus.
Whereas, the first Adam brought sin and death into this creation; the last Adam, Jesus, has succeeded bringing life and hope of a new creation. While our first human parents were exiled from the Garden of Eden and died without access to the “tree of life”… Jesus brings a New Eden, Paradise Regained, where we will eat from the “tree of life” (22:3) and drink from the “river of the water of life” (22:1) that flows from God’s presence. A similar picture was seen in Ezekiel 47 centuries before, where a fresh river flowed out of God’s presence into the Dead Sea, which for the first time was filled with fish – meaning God is going to make all things right and well in our lives and world. He is going to heal our broken bodies, heal our broken hearts, and heal this broken world. We can look forward in hope to these things with confidence, because we can look back in confidence to Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead, which is the firstfruits of the new creation!
- The Glorious Marriage of God and His People (21:9-27)
At the heart of the vision of the new creation is the New Jerusalem, where we’re told “the dwelling place of God is with man” (21:3). This is no ordinary city because it’s also called “the wife of the Lamb” (21:9). Sometimes the covenant relationship between Christ and His people is described as a married relationship between a husband and wife (Ephesians 5:25). Take it a step further, this city is a bit like my wedding ring - it’s a real thing… but it’s also a symbol: it’s made of precious metal to symbolise the value of our marriage, and it’s an unbroken circle which symbolises the permanence of our promises. Likewise, this city is full of symbols about our relationship with God, but it’s also a real place that He has prepared for us to live with Him!
Let me take you on a quick guided tour of the wonders of the New Jerusalem:
- 21:12-14: Drawing on Ezekiel’s vision of the New Jerusalem and Temple, John sees its 12 pearly gates and 12 foundation stones. The gates bear the names of the 12 tribes of Israel, the foundations bear the names of the 12 apostles of the Church. This is a statement that this is city is the home for all God’s people, the OT saints and NT believers all have a place prepared for them here. It will be like a great family reunion with all those we know and love who have died trusting in Christ.
- 21:15-17: Drawing on the Holy of Holies, the room in which God’s glory dwelt above the Ark of the Covenant, in the Tabernacle/Temple – John is told the dimensions of the city. It is absolutely massive – 12,000 stadia by 12,000 stadia or 2200km – scholars estimate it could house comfortably more than 100 billion people. But what’s interesting is the fact we’re told that “it’s length, width and height are equal”. It’s a cube, just like the Holy of Holies. Remember that only the High Priest could enter God’s holy presence, and only one day in the year, the Day of Atonement – a reminder that our sin had separated us from God. But now John tells us “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (v.22). We’ll be in God’s presence again, walking and talking with Him – as Adam did in the Garden. We’re told we “will see His face” (22:4).God’s people will enjoy living in the direct, unhindered, joyful and loving presence of the LORD.
- 21:18-21: Drawing on the uniform of the High Priest, John sees the dazzling walls, golden streets and the 12 types of jewels that decorate the foundations of the city. All of these things appeared on the High Priest’s breastplate as He represented the people before God in His work of making sacrifices and atonement. It’s a reminder that the way into this new creation is through the work of Jesus, our Great High Priest, who has made the ultimate sacrifice that takes away our sins and makes us right with God, as Saviour and Friend.
So there’s our preview of what it will be like for God’s people in God’s place, enjoying God’s good rule.
(2) LIVING IN LIGHT OF THE GLORY
For centuries this vision of the future resurrection from the dead and the new creation has inspired Christians in how they live now in the present.
Let me suggest at least four implications for how this vision helps us live in the light of the future:
- Implications for our pain in this world: We live in a pretty comfortable and prosperous part of the world, but still we have our own struggles and experiences of suffering. It makes a big difference as you walk the painful path of loss in this world, knowing you have this hope that is safe and secure in Christ in heaven. It brings great hope to know that this broken world is not all there is. The apostle Paul could say: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). C.S. Lewis once commented: “They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven once attained will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory”.
- Implications for our pleasures in this world: There’s an old hymn “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through”. It’s easy to forget that we are pilgrims in this world, seeking the city that is to come which is our true home. There’s a great temptation in our consumerist society to get too attached to things here-and-now; our Instagram generation encourages you to ‘best life now’ and try to ‘have it all’. However, this vision reminds us that for the Christian ‘the best is always yet to come’. We need to cultivate a holy homesickness for heaven! Again C.S. Lewis once wrote: “I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside … Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”
- Implications for our work in this world:
- Because we know God will wipe every tear from His peoples’ eyes, today it’s good for Christians to care for the sick, comfort the hurting, feed the hungry, and help the homeless.
- Because we know that God is going to remove evil, it is good for us today to oppose it wherever we find it in ourselves and in our society – today it’s good for Christians to champion all that is right, true, good and beautiful – it is right that we would speak up for the voiceless and defend the weak and vulnerable.
- Because we know that God will renew the earth, today it’s good for Christians to care for the environment and its non-human inhabitants, as we seek to develop culture and advance technology.
- Because we know God will bring peace and harmony on the earth between nations and people, how we treat and love other people matters today!
- Implications for our evangelism in this world:
Lastly, but not least, don’t miss that John tells us that there are two possible destinies. There is the New Creation or the Lake of Fire – the picture is contrasting Jerusalem, the City of God, with the Valley of Hinnom the City Dump, filled with refuse, rotting things and perpetually burning flames. There is more than enough room for all in the City, enjoying the party that will last throughout the endless ages of eternity – all are invited and welcome to come in, through faith in Christ. But those who remain in the sins and fail to RSVP to the invitation will be left on the outside. The stakes could not be higher: eternal life or eternal death, endless joy or endless misery.
This is where your mission as a CU and your witness as a Christian comes in. God wants to extend His invitation to your flatmates, to your friends, to your team mates, to your class mates, to your family – through you! Your witness, in words, deeds and love in the name of Christ is of eternal significance!
As we finish, let me give the last word to C.S. Lewis as he concludes his Chronicles of Narnia. His description of heaven and eternity has deeply moved me ever since I first read it as a child:
“So they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
That is the Christian hope of glory!