21 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. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home[a] of God is among mortals.
He will dwell[b] with them;
they will be his peoples,[c]
and God himself will be with them;[d]
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.
3 Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants[a] will worship him; 4 they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail,
And a few lilies blow.
And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.
Gerard Manley Hopkins writes about that heavenly place that we all desire to go to. A place where spring never fails, where no storms come and a few lilies blow. That perfect place to reside forever. John Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress also describes the Heavenly City as a place where the populace has harps, sing plenty of praises and the streets are paved with gold. These are classic images from literature and prose, but what is Heaven actually going to be like? I think that we will be surprised at what scripture actually says about heaven.
I love Eugene Petersen’s paraphrase of the Revelation text for today:
21 I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. 2 I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband.3-5 I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.”
21-27 The main street of the City was pure gold, translucent as glass. But there was no sign of a Temple, for the Lord God—the Sovereign-Strong—and the Lamb are the Temple. The City doesn’t need sun or moon for light. God’s Glory is its light, the Lamb its lamp! The nations will walk in its light and earth’s kings bring in their splendor. Its gates will never be shut by day, and there won’t be any night.
These biblical images are very different than most poems or stories that we have heard about residing with God. Yes, we hear that “Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone,” but not about harps, white robes and halos.
We do not get transported into some vapory realm of wisps and clouds and all things ethereal when history’s curtain rings down. No, the dwelling (literally, the skene/“tabernacle”) of God comes DOWN here. “God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women!” As in John 1:14, when the Word became flesh, he pitched his tent (skene/tabernacle again) on THIS earth and lived among us right here. The old earth and heavens might pass away but what we are promised over and again in Revelation 21 is not something in their place that will be novel and new but something that is REnewed. The vision is not of creation passing away in favor of something totally different the likes of which we’ve never experienced. No, it’s “all the old familiar places” (to quote a song) of this creation that will be renewed and restored to their original splendor before being sullied by pollution, decay, species extinctions, and the like.
Since we are told that God’s dwelling would be in the midst of all the renewed creation, it is clear that the incarnation of Jesus was just a preview for a longer-term goal of God: dwelling within his own creation. The notion of God’s dwelling coming down into (and so being, as it were, “inside” the New Creation) speaks theological volumes as to the value God has all along placed on his physical creation.
Revelation 21 tells us that whatever distinction there is for now between God’s realm (“heaven” in popular parlance) and our realm (“earth” in contradistinction to “heaven”), in the end there won’t be such a hard and fast distinction because what we now call heaven will somehow be here on earth. All in all, this is a more radical, curious, and wonderful vision of the New Creation / the Eternal Kingdom of God than is appreciated most of the time even by people who are very familiar with this idea of Heaven. This passage is not just future hope but future wonder and awe at just how (and “where”) God is going to be with us forever. That is what heaven will be – living in the presence of God for all eternity in a RE-created world.
God’s new creation must replace this deadly, torn, raped, angry, sick, evil, revengeful, hurtful, and painful world, and that is where you and I must get involved in building God’s kingdom in preparation for this new Godly thing. The church is called to make a choice. First, the church is called to be on the side of God and to be part of the new creation. Second, the church is called to make a choice to turn to God or to the world. Dying to old life and living into the newness of God is the call and message of Revelation John of Patmos sees and experiences the new heaven and the new earth and summons all believers to see what God allows him to perceive. Like in the book of Genesis, readers are informed that God is the origin of all things and in Revelation, interpreters are given an envelope message, namely: God is the origin and the end of all things. It is this envelope that God’s people are called to always live into, to remember, to be shaped and informed both spiritually and theologically.
It is probably hard to persuade Christians in North America to think about heaven as not as the “sweet by and by” or as a place where “the morning breaks eternal, bright and fair,” but as God entering into His creation. Christians from the Global South are born and raised in a worldview that orients them to an understanding of heaven, which in many African villages is referred to as “Village.” In African theology, a village is a place where all humanity will be gathered and it is not an ordinary world but a spiritual world where God resides with so called “Living — dead.” The point I seek to make is that this text from the Book of Revelation challenges us not to settle into this contemporary global empire but to have a working understanding of a “new heaven and new earth.”
In another way, John struggles to find a language to express and describe a new created world order. Spiritually, John calls readers to see this world as one in which God will transform what we know today into something that is beyond human imagination. All we can do is to desire to be part of the new heaven and the new earth. Scholars of the New Testament are aware of the pagan oracles predicted by Greco-Roman gods about a future of bliss and this is not what John was shown but rather, he was privilege to view a future filled with life, hope, and peace. In this new heaven and new earth, all the pain of humanity such as crying, mourning, death, terrorism, HIV/AIDS, cancer, and human brokenness will be no more (Revelation 21:4). This new heaven and new earth is only a divine world and it is a vision in which the Dream of God is made manifest to those who are loved by God and the ones who have faith in him (Isaiah 65:17 -25).
Christians are not called to escape into this new world but rather to partner with God in ways that will allow the power of God and the Lamb be experienced in this world. That is the reason why God comes down into the world to dwell with his people and that coming down is basically the New Jerusalem that comes out of heaven.
In other words, Revelation does not rely on the notion of eternal life and John does not deny it either but what he believes is that this New Jerusalem begins in the present moment and every human being must experience its joy and goodness in the present moment. The dream of God is not an eternal world but a world that must be realized in human history. It is a world where zip codes do not divide people but that all God’s people have access to every area, including access to health care, education, transportation, housing, worship, and authentic life. It is a world described by friends on my social media feed when I asked, “How would you describe heaven?” And people responded with the following descriptions:
- No Stress
- A Reunion
- No more sickness
- No more sorrows
- Glorifying God and Enjoying God’s presence
- Free Tacos & Burritos
All of these responses are accurate answers, but don’t have to take place behind the pearly gates on gold paved streets, but happen when God dwells with us in our neighborhood. The call is to see that God’s new creation will be here on earth and we are to be involved in the work of God as Fleming Rutledge proclaimed about God’s heavenly kingdom:
“In our world, something is terribly wrong and it must be put right. If, when we see an injustice, our blood does not boil at some point, we have not yet understood the depths of God. It depends, though, on what outrages us. To be outraged on behalf of oneself or one’s own group alone is to be human, but it is not to participate in Christ. To be outraged and to take action on behalf of the voiceless and oppressed, however, is to do the work of God.”
Commentary provided by John Bunyan, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Scott Hoezee, Lewis R. Donelson, Julie Rafferty and Fleming Rutledge