We need to first attempt to imagine how difficult a task this was for John. He had to try and describe something that is beyond our limits of experience, and to do that, he was greatly hindered in his description, because he had to use human words that we are able to understand. Think about how difficult this must have been for John.
In some ways, I think what John was trying to do must have been similar to what we would have to do if we were able to somehow speak to a baby, still in the womb of his or her mother. Imagine what it would be to try and explain to this little one what our present world is like – the world outside of the mother’s womb.
There are perhaps some things that this baby possibly could relate to. For instance, the little baby in the womb would have a consciousness of his or her own being. He knows that he is alive and that he has feelings. We could perhaps relate to the baby on that level.
The baby must also have an awareness that there are other people. He knows about his mother, certainly, because the baby is living within the very womb of his mother. He must also know about his dad, who gets down close and talks to them through the belly of the mom. With these few bases of knowledge that we have in common with this little baby in the womb, we could perhaps begin to tell him about the family that he will be born into.
But then what? How would you describe to this little unborn one the forests and the lakes of Wisconsin? How would you begin to tell him of the grandness of the earth on which we live? And more pertinent to our subject of today, how would you begin to describe what a city looks like? Where would you even begin?
So it was with John as he tries to explain to us what he was shown. That which John was seeing was far beyond any experience that we would know or anything that we have seen. He must have had a difficult time knowing how to describe to us what he was witnessing. There is very little about our present existence that we can relate to it.
Why the New Heaven and New Earth?
With all of these limitations of vocabulary in mind, here is how John begins: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.”
The fact that God intends to create a new heaven and a new earth is something that the Prophet Isaiah wrote some seven hundred years before John had his vision. When God created this present heaven (speaking of the heavens of the physical universe) and this present earth, when he had completed his work, he looked at all that he had made and saw that it was “very good.” God was happy with what he had made.
If God was happy with this first creation, why then does he see the necessity to create an entirely new heaven and a new earth? We could say that this first earth has been corrupted by sin, so God sees the need to start over. But I do not think that this is the answer. If God considered his first creation very good, I believe that all that has happened to this first earth is not something that was unforeseen by God. He knew of the disasters that would eventually befall his creation.
Why would he let this happen to his creation? Could he not have made a creation that would not fall into such a disastrous state?
Certainly he could have, but just as in our own individual cases and vital to any creative act of God, he allowed for the free will of man. Many of the disasters that befall the earth today have been brought about by men and women who refuse to live under the Lordship of God. These people instead seek power for themselves. These types of disasters that befall us include the wars we begin, of course, but also many environmental disasters, such as food shortages, many forms of pollution, and even nuclear radiation disasters.
There are also some natural disasters that we refer to as “acts of God,” since they seem not to be results of what man has done. These include earthquakes and volcano eruptions, and also several weather-related disasters. However, the Bible tells us that even these have been caused by our activities, as indirect as it may seem. In Romans chapter 8, Paul speaks of the whole of creation of having been affected by the rebellion of man against God. He writes of the creation “groaning and suffering” because of the present circumstances. All these things occur as we await the “revealing of the sons of God,” as Paul puts it (from Romans 8:18-25).
What we are awaiting, and indeed what the whole of creation is awaiting, is the new heavens and the new earth. This is what our passage in Revelation 21 is talking about.
There will be no Sea
It is interesting to me that, among all of the things that John probably could have said about this new heaven and new earth, he first chose to mention he saw that “there was no longer any sea.”
I find myself wondering about this in at least a couple of ways. The first thing I wonder about is why John, among all the other things that he probably could have mentioned about what he was seeing, he first chose to say this. “There was no sea.” Then secondly, I find myself wondering if this is even something that I find desirable.
I have had the opportunity a couple times in my life to live at the sea shore, once in a little hut right on a tropical beach. I have also visited for shorter periods of times many beaches in several parts of the world. In each of these times, I enjoyed being by the sea and watching the sea. I will not say that I am a “beach person,” as some people are. I do not like to spend hours lying about under an umbrella, or alternatively lying out in the sun, working on my melanoma. But I like the sea. I could tell you of many experiences.
When the first thing that John says about this new heaven and new earth is that there is no sea, I at first find this a little disappointing. Perhaps you do too. Of course, I do not know what John’s first reaction may have been to this, but remember, before John became a disciple of Christ, he spent his life on the sea. He was a fisherman, mostly on the Sea of Galilee. Certainly, this is not a huge ocean, but it is a body of water of substantial size, and because of the surrounding terrain, its proximity to the Mediterranean, and the abrupt temperature differences that can occur between the Sea of Galilee and the land, it is a body of water that can produce great storms. The Sea of Galilee has been called “moody” by many, simply because it is completely changeable in just a matter of moments.
John, even though he once made his living from the sea, also had a healthy respect for it, and perhaps even a latent fear of it. In one of the stories of the Bible, when the disciples were caught in a fierce storm on the sea while Jesus was in the boat with them, Jesus was sound asleep, but the disciples woke him saying, “Save us Lord! We are perishing!” (Matthew 8:25)
Another thing that I find interesting in these words of John’s is how they relate to the original creation. Do you remember some of the first words involving the creation?
“The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the deep” (Genesis 1:2).
These are dark words concerning the deep. Foreboding words.
The place where my family and I once lived in a hut on the beach was on the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. We lived there for one year. At times, during that year, I would occasionally take an inner tube that came from a truck tire and paddle myself out into the gulf until I was out of sight of the land. All that I could see were the tops of the palm trees on the beach. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?
It was idyllic, until my mind started to imagine things. I began to imagine what shark or sting ray or what unknown monstrous creature was lurking under my little inner tube, just waiting to take me in one gulp. In those thousands of feet of dark water that lay below me, there was nothing but danger and chaos, at least that is how it seemed in my mind. In those short forays of mine out into the sea, it was never long before I found myself turning my little inner tube around and paddling back to the beach – back to the safety of land.
In the original creation, God brought order out of chaos. He made a place of security. Instead of darkness, he brought light. Where there was once only the deep and dark waters, he allowed dry land to appear.
When John says that in the new heavens and the new earth there is no sea, I am not quite sure whether I should take this literally, or if in John’s mind, he simply saw a place of total safety. In that place, he saw absolutely no danger that could befall man. He saw that every part of this new creation was under the complete security of God. Unlike what he felt on the Sea of Galilee on that day some years before, he saw that in the new heavens and the new earth, there is no fear of perishing. There will be no reason to cry out as the disciples did at that earlier time, “Lord save us! We are perishing!”
The deep and foreboding places that existed on the face of the earth before the Spirit of God caused dry land to appear have completely disappeared in the new heavens and the new earth. John noted that there was no place that could swallow you up. In the new heavens and the new earth, there will be no life-threatening storms, no floods, no natural disasters that can take someone’s life.
That is why John writes, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
The Holy City
But now John writes something that is even more intriguing to me.
“And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them” (Revelation 21: 2-3NAS).
It is here that John begins to describe a city, at least what he calls a city. However, like babies in the wombs of their mothers hearing about life outside the womb, we probably have very little in our realm of experience, or perhaps nothing at all, with which we can relate to what John was actually seeing. But John does call it a city, so we have to begin with that.
The City from Heaven
When John speaks of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, my mind goes back in the New Testament to the book of Hebrews, where the writer there is talking about the patriarch Abraham. This man, as you remember, was called by God to go to a place that he did not know. This was to be land of permanency for Abraham, and one in which he was to live in as his own.
We usually think of this land as being the “Promised Land,” the site of present-day Israel, and in some regards this is true. But this present day Promised Land was never the complete fulfillment of what God was talking about with Abraham, and Abraham always realized that it was not.
In the book of Hebrews, we read that he lived in that “land of promise,” as if in a foreign land, never being able to make himself completely at home in that place. He never even built a permanent structure there, but continued to dwell only in tents. Abraham knew that that present “promised land” in which he lived was never his real destiny. Not the true destiny that God had promised him. The fact that he continued to live only in tents demonstrated that.
Instead, we are told that Abraham was waiting for the time when he would dwell in “the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” His desire had always been for a heavenly place, a city that God had prepared for him. (from Hebrews 11:8-16).
A Home of Permanency
Now, in the book of Revelation, John tells us that he saw “the holy city, coming down out of heaven from God.” The fact that John saw this city descending from heaven indicates that this is a structure (if it can be called that), that God had previously prepared in heaven. This is no earthly city, nothing that could be made on earth. What John saw was no doubt nothing that our imaginations can picture. It is a place that God had prepared for those who love him.
John also wrote about this place in his gospel when he quoted the words of Jesus as Jesus was trying to reassure his disciples. The disciples were troubled in their hearts as to all that would happen in the coming days. Jesus said to them, “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places…for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 12:1-3 NAS).
A Place of Dwelling with God
In the gospel of John, Jesus is describing this place of dwelling as a house, “My Father’s house.” In the book of Revelation, when John sees this place of dwelling, he first describes it as a city, “the holy city, new Jerusalem.” The essential characteristic of this city from heaven that is important for us to see is that it is a place of dwelling, and a place of total peace and security where there will be no sad or difficult thing that can steal our joy.
As diverse a people as we are here in our Log Church, if there is one thing that perhaps all of us have in common, it is probably our aversion to living in a city. That is why we all live in the Northwoods, many of us even on the backroads of the countryside and the forests, even though it may be inconvenient for us in many ways. Despite these difficulties, probably not one of us likes the idea of living in a city.
But do you see that the main idea here, about the New Jerusalem, is not the concept of the city, but it is the concept of dwelling in the presence of God? When we think of the holy city, we need to get out of our minds the idea of a 3500 square foot lot where you fight with your neighbor because he put his property fence six inches over onto your lot, or of a tiny apartment in a high rise where you don’t even know who your neighbor is.
The fundamental and essential idea here about the New Jerusalem is not that it is a city as we know cities to be or how we might imagine it to be, but rather that it is a place of dwelling. Jesus called it “My Father’s house.” We will be dwelling with God. This is, after all, the whole purpose of God in creating us, and it has been from the beginning. The theme that runs throughout the entire Bible can be summed up in a phrase that is repeated numerous times in the pages of Scripture. That is the oft repeated words of God where he says, in one form or another, “I shall be their God, they shall be my people, and I will dwell in the midst of them.” (Exodus 29:45-46; Ezekiel 37:27; 43:1-7; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:20-22, as well as in many other places)
The City that is a Garden
When you read of the city of God, instead of thinking of the inner city of Milwaukee or Chicago or any other massive, congested and polluted city, think instead of this: When God first created Adam and Eve, “He planted a garden toward the east, in Eden, and there He placed the man [and woman], whom He had formed.” It is the garden where God himself came walking “in the cool of the day,” seeking the man and the woman, presumably to walk with them in conversation (Genesis 2:8; 3:8-9).
Would you not enjoy that? Would you not relish in the opportunity to walk throughout all of creation with the Creator of all that exists and hear him explain his thoughts in making the things the way that he did?
I would enjoy that. One day I will enjoy that. There are many things that I wonder about in all of the descriptions of the new heavens and the new earth—very many things. And there are very many things that I do not know. For most of these things, I do not even know the correct questions to ask. To have all of this revealed to me is what I will experience when I dwell with God in his house, in his city, the New Jerusalem. And so will you, if you, as Jesus said, believe in God and believe also in him.
Words from the Throne
After seeing this first view of our eternal home, John again hears a voice from the throne. It was not just any voice, but from “the One who was seated on the throne.
“Behold, I make all things new,” the One from the throne told John.
Then He said, “Write this down, for these words are faithful and true…It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.”
Then some words of encouragement and also of warning: “To the thirsty I will give freely from the spring of the water of life. The one who overcomes will inherit all things, and I will be his God, and he will be My son.
“But to the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and sexually immoral and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. This is the second death.” (Revelation 21:5-8)
The choice is ours – to live our lives overcoming the pressures and temptations of living in the culture of the word, or to live as cowards. I am afraid that many who profess to being overcomers and actually living as cowards, not willing to face the persecutions of the worldly system.
But the writer of the book of Hebrews gives us the encouragement that we all sometimes need. He writes, “Do not throw away your confidence, for it holds a great reward. You must persevere, so that after you have done the will of God, you will receive what He has promised.”
He then takes a quote from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk:
For the vision awaits an appointed time; it testifies of the end and does not lie. Though it lingers, wait for it, since it will surely come and will not delay. Look at the proud one; his soul is not upright — but the righteous will live by faith. (Habakkuk 2:3-4)
The writer of Hebrews actually quotes the last phrase in this way: “But my righteous one will live by faith; and if he shrinks back, I will take no pleasure in him.”
The choice continues to be our own—to shrink back as cowards, or to live as overcomers by faith.
The writer of Hebrews closes this section of his book with these words of encouragement: “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. (Hebrews 10:35-39)
Amen and amen.