The City of God

behold

Image by Brent Nelson via Flickr

1 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, 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, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Rev. 21:1-4

Chapters 21-22 of Revelation move us into the final stage: Eternity. Remember that at the end of the previous chapter (20:15) sin had been ultimately and permanently punished; Satan and his demons, the Antichrist and his prophet and all those people whose names were “not found written in the book of life” have been cast into eternal hell.

The victory is complete. God’s perfect justice has been carried out and His perfect holiness has been upheld. There is no longer any doubt as to whether He exists or what He wants from us. There is no confusion about the meaning of existence or the direction of history. It is done. All that remains is the incorporation of God’s people into their final destination: the glorification of the saints in the New Jerusalem.

There are many visions in Revelation that leave details to the imagination. But not this one. John devotes a surprisingly long section on the heavenly city, spending an eloquent 629 words to describe it (in the original). That alone should tell us something about its significance.

The first thing to note is the undoing of the entire universe as we know it, to be replaced with “a new heaven and a new earth” (v.1). Much can be – and has been – speculated about this “recreation of the world” or “restoration of God’s original creation”, but it is wise to tread lightly where the Scripture treads not. Of course, it is easy to spiritualise the whole vision, but it seems to me at least that John’s descriptions are too detailed and too extensive for this to be merely a nebulous spiritual world. For example, what would be the point of reporting on the precise, three-dimensional measurements of the New Jerusalem in vv. 15-17 if it is just a “spiritual” place? So it does make sense to take John’s descriptions of the new creation at face value. Whether or not it’s made of atoms and quarks is beyond our current ability to comprehend – just as Jesus’ resurrection body (cf. Luke 24:36-43).

From what the exiled apostle tells us, this is a completely new world (as opposed to a patch on the old one) that also seems to function differently from the current one. For one, there is no sea. The reason for its absence is not explained, but we can immediately understand that the New World’s hydrological cycle will be very different (though there is a river, mentioned in 22:1).

This isn’t the first time we hear about the New Jerusalem. It has already been explicitly mentioned in Rev. 3:12, where Christ tells the faithful believers of the Philadelphian church that whoever perseveres in faithfulness, He will “…write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem…” Describing the faith of OT saints, Heb. 11:10 mentions “…the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God”, and a little later, Heb. 12:22 talks about “…the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…”, while the apostle Paul, contrasting the old covenant of law with the new covenant of grace, says “…the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother” (Gal. 4:26).

From what John tells us, we can deduce that the New Jerusalem is also beautiful. It is described as “a bride adorned for her husband” (v.2), and, if you’ve ever been to a wedding, you will have no difficulty understanding what it means. And the fact that it has been built by God Himself (“…coming down out of heaven from God…”) can only mean that the new everlasting dwelling of the saints is the pinnacle of splendour in every conceivable and inconceivable way.

Excited? Wait – there’s more.

The most magnificent thing about this new, eternal, heavenly city is summed up in this phrase “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (v.3). These words hearken back to Ezekiel 48:35, where, at the end of his book, the prophet describes the eternal city and tells us that her name will be “יְהוָ֥ה שָֽׁמָּה(Yahweh sh’mah): The Lord is there. It speaks of an immediacy of God’s presence between His redeemed that has been unprecedented since the Fall. It is a closeness, an uninhibited, uninterrupted, crystal clear, direct, constant and all-consuming intimacy with God that we can’t even begin to imagine this side of eternity.

Let me take it a bit further: For those who are in Christ, it is where every single second of your life is leading you – to your Father’s indescribable presence, forever. It is where every trial, every persecution, every incomprehensible, bewildering, confusing and seemingly random event of our existence will be revealed as part of God’s overarching plan to glorify His name. It where every wound, every bitter tear and anxiety will be wiped away, consoled, and healed (v.4). It is where every puzzle, every mystery, every thing will be cast upon the altar of the eternal God and we will rejoice, sing, praise and worship Him like never before. It is where we will be perfected and know Him as fully as we have been known by Him (1 Cor. 13:12). It is a reality; it is our unshakable hope.

How can we read these words and still look at life at the same way? How can we despair as those “who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13) because they still remain in their sins? How can we become so overwhelmingly preoccupied with this passing world to the expense of the gospel? How can we sow to the flesh (Gal. 6:8) or set our minds on “the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2), when we know that one day, sooner or later, we will open our eyes to find ourselves in the new world and behold Almighty God? How can we not be consumed with an overwhelming desire to see this part of God’s Kingdom come?

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