What Happens Next?

| Revelation 21:1-8 | July 1, 2018

Week of July 8, 2018

The Point:  One day we will fully experience who God created us to be.

The New Heaven and the New Earth:  Revelation 21:1-8.

[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.” [5] And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” [6] And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. [7] The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. [8] But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”   [ESV]

“A New Heaven and a New Earth [21:1-4].  The opening statement of 21:1 provides some of the greatest encouragement that Christians could ever receive. The Bible states that when Christ returns, the heaven and earth, which is a way of referring to both the physical universe and the spiritual world order, will be cleansed and renewed in glory. We are reminded by this that the Bible places the final destiny of God’s people not in an ephemeral, wispy heaven but on a redeemed earth, where God’s creation beginning comes to a glorious eternal end. The New Testament contains abundant evidence concerning the cosmic transformation that takes place after Jesus’ second coming. Revelation 20 showed the removal of Satan, his followers, and even death and Hades, which were all thrown into the lake of fire [20:10,14]. With all His enemies thus finally defeated and forever put away, the victorious Christ advances to the crowning fulfillment of His work in the renovation of the entire cosmos. Paul anticipated this coming achievement in soaring terms of liberation: The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God [Rom. 8:21]. We see here the work of cleansing and renewal of the cosmos that will take place after Christ returns. No More Sea.  Revelation 21:1 adds a provocative statement that sums up the removal of all evil: and the sea was no more. In the symbolism of Revelation, the sea has a theological rather than topographical meaning. The sea is the realm of evil and rebellion against God. In Revelation 12:17, Satan stood on the sand of the sea, and then raised up his beast out of the sea [13:1]. In chapters 17-20, John was shown the removal of the dragon, his beasts, and the harlot, together with their entire wicked program. Finally, even the sea from which they came will be no more. Christians are to anticipate now the renewed creation, where there will be no evil, no transgression, and not even the temptation to sin. No More Corruption.  The second feature of the new creation ushered in by Christ’s return is a vision of the church as we will then be: And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God [21:2]. Isaiah had foreseen a redeemed Jerusalem that is made righteous by God’s coming and that receives a new name reflecting a marriage relationship of love with God [Isa. 62:2-5]. John sees this promise fulfilled not in Jesus’ first appearing but in the second coming of Christ. Jerusalem was the earthly center of God’s redeeming acts in history, especially in the atoning death of His Son. Therefore, just as creation is glorified in the new heaven and new earth, redemption comes to glorious consummation in the coming of the new Jerusalem. The first characteristic of God’s city is its holiness: the holy city. When believers come to faith in Christ, they are spiritually renewed for the sake of this destination. By calling the new Jerusalem the holy city, John identifies the chief characteristic and calling that is to define Christians and the church today. Second, God’s people are a community. A city defined not primarily by streets and buildings, but by its people. Eternity therefore consists not of a solitary pursuit of the beatific vision but of a corporate experience of God’s glory. Hebrews 12:23 identified the heavenly Jerusalem as the assembly of the firstborn … the spirits of the righteous made perfect. This city now comes down to earth in renewed and glorified form. Third, God’s city is marked by His sovereign grace. When John says that the new Jerusalem is coming down out of heaven from God [21:2], he means that God’s activity results in His people’s attaining to this place in eternal glory. The church was chosen, justified, adopted, and sanctified, and will finally be glorified by God’s sovereign grace. For this reason, believers in Jesus can be certain of this glorious destiny. The glory of the new Jerusalem belongs exclusively to God, reflecting on His people who are eternal mirrors of His grace. Fourth, the new Jerusalem is marked by loving intimacy, since she is prepared as a bride adorned for her husband [21:2]. This love is enjoyed by Christians together with our Lord, the triumphant Jesus Christ. God blesses us with marital intimacy now in order to ready our hearts for loving intimacy with Christ as His bride forever. The experience of heaven is the bliss of being utterly and eternally loved. Revelation 21:1 showed a new heaven and new earth, a regenerated creation in which all of Christ’s enemies are removed. In the new Jerusalem, we see God’s renewed people no longer condemned by sin. Believers are qualified to enter eternal loving intimacy with God’s Son because we are cleansed of our sin by His blood and justified in the garment of His imputed righteousness. This is why John says that the church is prepared as a bride adorned for her husband [21:2]. By the atoning sacrifice in His blood, Jesus has forever removed our sin, gaining forgiveness before God for all who believe. So perfect is Christ’s preparation of His bride that John sees the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you [Isa. 62:5]. Here, too, Christians are reminded of their destiny as an incentive to loving zeal for Jesus now. Revelation says that we are destined together to be the resplendent bride of God the Son, having been cleansed and glorified for the sake of His love. Realizing this, we are to live our present like a bride preparing for her wedding day, pursuing in faith the beauty of the holiness that our Savior loves. No More Death or Tears.  Our present fallen world suffers the tyranny of Christ’s enemies, so that we now live in a spiritual wasteland of corruption and temptation. To make matters worse, we have the calamity of our own sinful nature. A third evil of our present age is seen in the consequences of sin in terms of the ravages of grief and sorrow. Revelation 21:1-2 saw the sea and all evil removed from our future environment and God’s people cleansed and adorned for glory. Now the life of the age to come is made new, with no more misery under the cursed reign of sin and death [21:4]. We currently inhabit the land of the dying – the land of the living is the heaven to which our beloved departed have gone. The sorrows of this life put tears on our cheeks and pain in our hearts. But when Christ returns, those who are joined to Him by faith will experienced the fullness of eternal life. The imagery of Revelation 21:4 poignantly has us entering into glory with the tears of our sorrowful lives still upon our cheeks. What image can more fully express the sheer pain of life in this fallen world! But our loving heavenly Father greets us, wiping the last tears we will ever shed from our faces, and bidding us to weep no more forever and ever. Indeed, in Revelation 21:4, God’s hand reaches to us even now, gathering up our tears and showing us a time soon to come when Christ has returned and grief will be no more. Encouraged by His grace, we face the sorrows of this life with courage heartened in our pilgrimage toward the promised land ahead. Dwelling Forever with God.  So far, Revelation’s picture of the new creation has been primarily by way of negation: there will be no sea, no stain of sin, and no more weeping or sorrow. At the heart of the passage, however, is the great positive blessing awaiting Christ’s people [21:3]. This verse has been described as the climax of that entire process whereby God comes to His people. The voice speaking from God’s throne literally says, “The tabernacle of God is with men and he will tabernacle with them.” This fulfills the promise given in Ezekiel 37:26-27, looking ahead to the time when God’s Spirit came through the new and everlasting covenant in Christ. God made this promise to Abraham: an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you [Gen. 17:7]. This was God’s purpose in the founding of Israel: I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God [Ex. 6:7]. When God had Moses construct the tabernacle in the desert, God said, I will make my dwelling among you …. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people [Lev. 26:11-12]. Christians enjoy greater privileges than God’s people knew in the Old Testament. Then, only Moses and the high priests could enter God’s tabernacle and see His glory, whereas now God’s glory tabernacles in the heart of every believer through the Holy Spirit [2 Cor. 3:18]. But in the age to come, the longing of every spirit to know God and see His face will be perfectly fulfilled. The communion that God has eternally purposed to enjoy with His people will be achieved. Without this vision of the new heaven and the new earth, we will live without the hope Christ offers, without the purpose He supplies, and without the glory He promises.

All Things New [21:5-8].  The God of Truth.  In Revelation 21:5-8, the apostle John’s long tour of church history brings him finally to the end of the world. Previous visions have brought us to the brink of the end. But the sixth cycle of visions, starting in chapter 17, has seen the judgment and removal of all of Christ’s enemies. The great harlot Babylon has fallen, the beast and false prophet have gone into the lake of fire. Satan the dragon has also been cast into the fiery lake, together with even death and Hades. The sea itself – the symbolic source of chaos and evil – is no more. Now the end of history has been reached in the final verses of the sixth section of Revelation. And here, at the end, John and his readers face God Himself:  And he who was seated on the throne said [21:5]. On only two occasions in the book of Revelation does God Himself speak directly. The first occasion was at the beginning: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty’ [1:8]. Now, at the end of history, we face God Himself once more. In this way, Revelation makes a vital point: every living soul must deal with God. All through life we may follow the distractions that keep us from reckoning with God, but in the end we must all face Him. Have you stood before God? Are you afraid to think of God, to realize that God sees you and knows you? Are you afraid to speak directly to Him? Because we must all face God, we have no greater need than to know Him. Revelation 21:5-8 shows God as He is and as He will be at the end of the world: a God of truth, a God of life, and a God of justice. We see Him taking delight in His victory over all things, declaring His final purpose: Behold, I am making all things new [21:5]. The truth of John’s message was of vital importance to his first-century readers. Throughout Revelation they are exhorted to overcome in the face of deadly opposition. Some would have to sacrifice their lives rather than deny Jesus and submit to the imperial cult. Here in 21:5, God Himself bears witness to the truth of His Word: Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true. In writing down the words that God has given him, John is fulfilling his apostolic office. When Paul said that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets [Eph. 2:20], he meant that by writing down the New Testament, they secured for us the truths committed to them by God for us to believe. Ultimately, it is by the Word itself that we know the truth of the Bible, as God speaks directly to us just as He did to John. God reveals the truth of His Word by His Word as the Spirit applies it to our hearts. John needed to write the book of Revelation, so that the persecuted believers of his day would receive God’s truth by God’s Word just as tempted believers today need the same. Not only does God declare the truth of His Word by His own direct assertion, but He declares that the events foretold in Revelation are already fully established: And he said to me, ‘It is done!’ [21:6]. God is standing at the end of history, speaking to John in the midst of history to declare a future that is already certain. Christ’s death achieved the ground of salvation, the judgment of sin provided the context for salvation, and now God declares the arrival of salvation, having stated, Behold, I am making all things new [21:5]. In addition to declaring the truth of His Word and the accomplished reality of His promises, God declares to John, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end [21:6]. Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and omega is the last. By calling Himself the Alpha and the Omega, God speaks of His eternal being: He is the Creator who brought all things into existence, and He is the Judge who brings all things to their final end. The point is God’s sovereignty over all things: He can ensure the end because He was Lord at the beginning and remains sovereign through every moment of history. As the Alpha and the Omega of history, God rules absolutely over all things in between. God’s sovereignty provides another reason to be certain of the truth of His Word. God told Jeremiah, I am watching over my word to perform it [Jer. 1:12]. Knowing the truth of God’s Word is essential, since we are trusting it to reveal the way of salvation and eternal life. Knowing God’s trustworthy and eternal nature and His sovereign control over all things, Christians who are called to suffer for their faith are comforted with the certain knowledge that they will not have believed in vain. The God of Life.  The God who stands at the end of the world is not only the speaker of truth but also the giver of life. He declares: Behold, I am making all things new [21:5]. History records one failed human scheme after another to make a new world. Man has sought his own utopia through education, legislation, peace programs, and skillfully engineered environments. All of these fail because of the corruption of sin that has permeated all of life after the fall. God alone can truly renew because of the Spirit that He sends. He is doing this work now in the hearts of those who believe in Jesus. The old life under the domination of sin begins with power from God for purity, truth, and love. What God is doing now on a limited scale in His people He will extend to all things at the end. Those who are justified in Christ so as to stand before God in the end will have the glorious experience of witnessing the renewal of the entire creation. The great tragedy of the world is that lost sinners resent God and avoid Him as much as possible. Men and women recoil at the idea of facing God and try as hard as they can to avoid even thinking about Him. Yet the God they are fleeing is a merciful giver of life. God thus says to John, To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment [21:6]. This is God’s message to you, if you have never turned to Him in faith. He offers you a life that has its origin in the spring of His own eternal vitality and being. He offers through His Son everything that the soul needs in order to have eternal life: mercy, grace, pardon, peace, and strength from above. God offers you eternal life as a free gift because of the grace of His generous heart. God says, To the thirsty I will give [21:6]. This is the sole requirement to receive His gift of life: to thirst for God and the spiritual life that He has to give. We come to God not with our feet but with our faith – with our hearts opened in need of His saving grace. Having thirsted, we simply drink. Our faith receives the gift of God’s grace in Christ and we take it into our souls. Coming to God means receiving Jesus, the Son He sent to be the only Savior of the world, and trusting ourselves to His care. It means bringing our sins to the cross, where Jesus’ blood was shed for our forgiveness. It means walking with Him in faith, our thirsty souls drinking daily from His Word, which is itself a spring of life [Ps. 1:3], receiving peace and purity and power from God. The marvel is that the spring that God provides both satisfies our thirst and awakens in us deeper thirsts for more. The new world that God brings in the end will provide the fulfillment of our deepest longings, but at the same time our experience of God’s glory will create still deeper longings so that our thirst is being eternally satisfied more and more. Another aspect of life concerns the relationship that the faithful will fully enter into at the end: The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son [21:7]. The citizens of God’s eternal city enjoy the privilege of knowing the true and living God as their own Father. The longing of every child’s heart is to know his or her Father and be sure of the Father’s blessing and love. This experience of rich, deep, and growing love will be the inheritance of all who come to God now as children through faith in Jesus Christ. Christians all have the foretaste of this heritage as we live now as God’s children through faith. When God makes all things new, we will through the final resurrection obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God [Rom. 8:21]. If it is the thirsty who are invited to drink from God’s living spring, it is the one who conquers who attains the heritage of eternal sonship with God. Together, these two descriptions capture the beginning and the end of the Christian life. We first receive salvation by bringing our thirst to God in simple faith. But Christians then walk in that faith so as to persevere to the end. Believers overcome in the grace of Christ and not in their own strength, and for God’s glory alone. Revelation 12:11 teaches that Christians conquer by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony. This victory takes place in an active life of striving as we trust God and follow Christ. The God of Justice.  At the end of the world, God sits enthroned in truth and in the life that He gives. Those who have thirsted for salvation so as to drink from His grace and who have conquered in faith so as to be granted the status of sons will meet God there for an eternal experience of glory. Yet God was speaking to John while the apostle was still living on this earth. This means that a warning must accompany these soaring statements of grace. The God of truth and love must also be revealed as a God of justice who punishes all unforgiven sins. The Lord therefore concluded: But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death [21:8]. Those who thirst for sin and for the pleasures of the world, together with those who collaborate in the world’s rebellion against God, will receive not the heritage of glory but the portion of condemnation reserved for all of God’s spiritual enemies in hell. The list given to John seems to have two groups, the first of which likely refers to those who had professed faith in Christ but abandoned their confession under worldly pressure or sinful enticement: But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable. The cowardly and faithless are not Christians who struggle with fear, but people who betray Christ under pressure. Such a person is the rootless one who Jesus said endures for a little while, but when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away [Matt. 13:21]. Such people do not lose their salvation but reveal by their faithfulness that they had never been saved [see 1 John 2:19]. Christians should therefore approach trials with determination, realizing that they test us, both to prove the genuineness of our faith and to purify the faith by which we are saved [1 Peter 1:6-7]. The remainder of the list involves sinners whose lives characterize the ungodliness of the world: murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars. These are the kinds of sins that Jesus rebuked in the seven letters of Revelation, calling believers to purge them from their lives and fellowship. Jesus especially demanded a rejection of sexual immorality and idolatry [2:14,20], although worldly violence, occult practices, and falsehood are also to have no place in the lives of those who are joined to  Christ through faith. This is not to say that Christians are people who have never committed such sins or that believers’ lives are completely free from any such sins now. God is not telling John that anyone who has ever committed sexual immorality or  who has lied is barred from eternal life. Christ came to redeem these very kinds of sinners [Mark 10:45; 1 Tim. 1:15], and the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses believers from all their sins [1 John 1:7]. The point is that those who are saved from such sins are called to renounce them in such a way that they cannot remain characteristic of a Christian’s lifestyle. At the end of the world, God sits enthroned. Every human being will face Him, and God’s sovereign rule will be the arbiter of every person’s eternal destiny. If God is the One who matters most in the end, then God also matters most now. For this reason, every person is called by God’s Word to be reconciled to God through the forgiveness offered by Jesus [2 Cor. 5:20].”  [Phillips, pp. 608-628].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Revelation is filled with Old Testament symbolism. Describe what John sees. What does the symbolism found in 21:1-4 tell us about a new heaven and a new earth? How will it be new? What changes will God make?
  2. What does the new Jerusalem represent? What are four characteristics of the new Jerusalem?
  3. How does 21:5-8 describe God? What actions by God does John tell us? What does God say? How is God truth, life and justice in these verses?

References:

Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, G. K. Beale, Eerdmans.

Revelation, Simon Kistemaker, Baker.

Revelation, Richard Phillips, REC, P & R Publishing.