[From Ted Grimsrud, Triumph of the Lamb. Herald Press, 1987; reprint edition: Wipf and Stock, 1998.]
The New Jerusalem
(1) What is the meaning or significance of the word “new” in 21:1? Does the remainder of the passage throw any light on its meaning?
(2) Why is the consummation of God’s purpose described in terms of a city? And why, specifically, Jerusalem?
(3) Consider each statement of the one on the throne. How are they related to each other? What is the idea of the whole?
(4) Note how the city in chapter 21 is portrayed. What is the meaning of the following: “coming down out of heaven” (21:2,10)? “as a bride,” “the bride” (21:2,9)? the measurements of the city (21:15-16)? the absence of the temple (21:22)? the gates, the wall, and the names of each (21:12-14)? the gates are never closed (21:25)? the river…flowing from the throne” (22:1)? “the tree of life” (22:2)?
(5) What is the meaning of 21:22-23? Account for the relation of the nations to the city.
(6) Verses 6-21 of chapter 22 function as an epilogue. What important points are made here?
(7) How do you understand the statement “I am coming soon” (22:7,12,20)?
(8) How is the experience in 22:8-9 related to others in the book? Is this an additional one? What is its value here?
(9) Who speaks in 22:10-15? Note the ideas included in the paragraph. What is their interrelation? Explain the expectancy.
21:1-4—The New Jerusalem: Creation Transformed
God as “all in all” is what the New Jerusalem is all about. Verses 3-4 proclaim that reality: “Behold, the dwelling of God is with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
The passing away of the old order of things is pictured in 21:1 as the passing away of the first heaven, first earth, and the sea. These symbolize the ambivalence of the way things are now. Heaven is the spiritual reality, which includes both good and evil. Earth is where the church is. But it is also where the inhabitants of the earth and those who are rebellious against God are. It may also symbolize the abyss out of which the beast came.
The new heaven and earth are cleansed of the forces of evil. They are heaven and earth as purely good—the way they were created to be.
The holy city (21:2)—the beautiful bride—stands in stark contrast to Babylon. Only with a vision of the holy city can the allurements of Babylon the harlot be perceived for what they are and be resisted.
The New Jerusalem “coming down” indicates that God is transforming, not destroying and recreating. Note that there is something here to which it “comes down”—something already in existence which it transforms. God remains faithful to the Noahic covenant of never again destroying the earth (cf. the rainbow in 4:3).
21:5-8—The Consummation of History
The “newness” emphasized here is in the consummation of history, not a junking of history in order to start over with something entirely different.
This is the first time since the beginning of the visions in chapter 4 that John hears the voice of God. What God has to say, in speaking from the future, is for the present: “I am making everything new!” This activity of God is not reserved for the new creation, after the old has been discarded as garbage. Rather it is the process of re-creating by which the old is transformed into the new.
Verse 8 reminds us of the threat that those who choose to identify with the destroyers of the earth in their anti-God work will also identify with them in their fate of separation from God. By their own choice they will remain in Babylon.
21:9-14—The Holy City: A Radiant Bride
These verses are a vision of the holy city. In one sense it is future, but in another sense it exists in the present and, like Babylon, invites people to come into it. What is at stake for us now is our choice of cities.
The New Jerusalem is actually constructed of people. The people of God are the bride, which is to say that we are the walls and foundations of the city and we inhabit the city. The twelve tribes of Israel make up the walls (21:12) and the twelve apostles make up the foundation (21:14). Together they are symbolic of the whole people of God.
The city metaphorically represents a people. The earthly temple and earthly Jerusalem are destroyed. They have been replaced by the people living in the direct presence of God. (161)
21:15-21—The City’s Measurements and Decorations
The city is measured—like the temple in 11:1—to show that every inch of it is accounted for by God.
The city is said to be, in effect, cube-shaped: “as wide as it is long.” The holy of holies in the ancient temple was a cube (1Kings 6:20). But John insists that the city of God has no temple (21:22). This absence of the temple is something totally unparalleled in Jewish writings, which always picture the temple as being part of the future kingdom. For John, the New Jerusalem is all temple, filled with the presence of the Lord Almighty and the Lamb.
21:22-27—God’s Glory Fills Everything
Everything that the temple of old represented is now transferred to the life of the city. God’s glory fills everything. Merely to be in the city is to be with God. God Almighty is seen in the Lamb (21:23). Jesus defines who God is. The light of the world becomes also the light by which the nations walk (21:24). They will no longer be deceived.
In John’s earlier visions, the nations are deceived by Satan and are subservient to the antichrist and “the kings of the earth.” But the deceiver is defeated and finally removed. Now the song of 15:4 is fulfilled: “All nations shall come and worship you.”
The nations who once offered their riches to the city of the antichrist will yield them instead to the city of God and the Lamb (21:24,26). This implies a sanctification of the whole order of the created world and its products. Nothing from the old order that has value in the sight of God is kept from entry into the new order.
Verse 27 reminds us that the city is truly holy and pure. Those who enter it do not do so because God compromises, but because they themselves have been transformed, they themselves have been made holy and pure.
22:1-5—The River and Tree of Life
In 22:2, the fruit of the tree of life symbolizes life in its fullest. The river of living water even more powerfully expresses the idea of life in inexhaustible supply. The “healing of the nations” from the “leaves of the tree of life” likely refers to healing the hurts caused by the plagues judgments. The nations are healed from the awful effects of the dragon and his cohorts. This is an assertion that God is truly a God of healing who is faithful to God’s promises.
The curse is no more (22:3). In Genesis 3:24, we are told that God “placed [on the east side of the Garden of Eden] the cherubim, and a flaming sword who turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.” But in the New Jerusalem, there will no longer be a guard. The tree of life will be accessible to all who are in the city.
This section serves as an epilogue and emphasizes two themes in particular: the authenticity of the work as a revelation from God and the nearness of the fulfillment of its message.
These verses end the letter (cf. 1:4) of which the visions are a part. John refers to his own role and authority. He echoes motifs from the first three chapters.
As early Christians understood communion, the Jesus who died and rose comes in a tangible foretaste of his final coming, which will be blessing to those who are ready; disaster to those who are not. This foretaste is powerful now—for good or ill. So their liturgies included sorting out the worshipers, excluding the unfit so that they might repent and become fit. This scrutiny is built into the structure of the seven letters. But in this closing section we stand beyond the scrutiny, on the brink of Jesus’ final coming, when the door will be shut and knocking will be in vain (cf. Matt. 25:10). There is a last call to the hearer to choose and a final prayer to Christ to come.
God as “all in all” is what the New Jerusalem is all about. The new neaven and earth are cleansed of the forces of evil. They are heaven and earth as purely good, the way they were created to be. The New Jerusalem “comes down” and transforms existing creation.
The “newness” of God here should be seen as the consummation of history. God makes all things new, not all new things. Redemption is the process of recreation by which the old is transformed into the new.
The New Jerusalem is actually constructed of people. The earthly temple and earthly Jerusalem are destroyed. They have been replaced by the people living in the direct presence of God. For John the New Jerusalem is all temple, filled with the presence of the Lord Almighty and the Lamb.
The nations who once offered their riches to the city of the antichrist will yield them instead to the city of God and the Lamb. The healing of the nations from the leaves of the tree of life perhaps refers to healing the hurts caused by the plague judgments and the effects of the description and work of the dragon and his cohorts. The tree of life will be accessible to all who are in the city.
From start to finish, the Bible records the fulfillment of God’s purpose in creation. There has always been a longing for the time to come when true peace shall reign over all the earth. Fear, hatred, and bitter tears will be no more.
The affirmation of Revelation 21 and 22 is that this fulfillment, this conclusion of history, will be worth all the pain and struggle which humankind has experienced throughout the ages. The completion of God’s work is the New Jerusalem—the establishment of the holy city—within which God’s people will reign for ever and ever.
If the city of Babylon is characterized by terror, deception, and injustice, the New Jerusalem is the exact opposite. There the nations walk in harmony and justice and peace, where the light of the glory of God guides everyone’s path.
Reflecting on this vision of John’s is encouraging in two ways. First, it strongly affirms that the powers of evil are not ultimate. God will have the final word. The book of Revelation is unsparing in its portrayal of how strong and powerful evil is in the world. What we have, of course, is a picture—a vision—not a rational, detailed description. It is painted with bold and lurid colors and does not correspond in every detail to reality as it is discerned by human eyes.
It is obvious enough to us, however, that the beast, the dragon, the harlot, and their cohorts greatly affect human existence. Widespread suffering and destruction have been caused by military violence throughout human history. But war is just one concern among many. It is easy for me to despair and to believe that things are getting worse and will inevitably keep getting worse.
However, Revelation 21 and the vision of the New Jerusalem claim that this evil will not last forever. God is not powerless to stop it. The powers of love and compassion and forgiveness will win. This means that the coming of God’s city is a realistic goal. The hope that this city is coming is a hope worth living for (and dying for)—worth shaping one’s life by.
The second reason for encouragement has to do with the emphasis in this vision on the renewing of creation. God is “making all things new,” not “making all new things.” We can thus affirm and appreciate God’s creation in a fresh way. We can love the beauty and mysteries of nature. We can appreciate all the cultural and scientific accomplishments humankind has achieved that genuinely make life better. We can appreciate and create art of all kinds.
We do not have to feel alienated from these good things as if they are part of the old order which is passing away. That the harpers, minstrels, flute players, and trumpeters will not be heard in Babylon after it is destroyed, and that the craftsmen will not be found there anymore does not mean that there will not be music and crafts. There still will be art and creativity in the New Jerusalem; the splendor of the nations will be brought to the city (21:26).
Creation was intended to contribute to human fulfillment. Tragically, it is often misused. When creation is worshiped, rather than the Creator, it becomes an instrument of oppression and bondage. The harlot, Babylon, is destroyed so that this deception might end and so that legitimate human accomplishments may be enjoyed.
The task for us as Christians in this “millennium” before the fullness of the New Jerusalem is to live as free as possible from the deception. This deception cause us to want to replace God as the center of our lives with products of human culture, such as art, money, crafts, or our profession. When we are free from that kind of deception, we are free to enjoy and produce works of human creativity as part of our worship of God.
Just as the “city” of Babylon in chapters 17 and 18 is not a literal city but rather symbolic of the concentrated forces of evil, the New Jerusalem is also not meant to be a literal city. Babylon is the kingdom of the dragon; Jerusalem in this vision is the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God—the New Jerusalem—is made up of people. A key element in John’s vision is that the New Jerusalem, in all its brilliance and beauty, is not something people visit or take residence in. Rather, it is something people become. The people of God are often referred to in the New Testament as the bride of Christ. Here, in 21:9-11, we are told that John “saw the bride, the wife of the Lamb,” which was the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, possessing the glory of God.
In Paul’s terminology (see Romans 8:19), the “revealing of the children of God” takes place with the coming of the New Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem is where God dwells directly with his people. It is where all who have been made new and who see God’s face and reign for ever and ever with the Lamb.
The hope for all creation, as Paul describes it in Romans 8 is this revealing of the children of God as the New Jerusalem: “Creation will be set free from its bondage to decay.” No more will the creation be exploited and polluted by greedy humankind.
God makes all things new. The coming of the New Jerusalem means that all of creation will be renewed—that the redeemed people who make up the city will have with them all that is truly good and beautiful in this world. So the New Jerusalem, the city of God, is made up of people—the countless multitudes that John sees singing praises to the Lamb throughout the book. But along with these renewed people will be all of creation—purified and set free from the bondage of decay and death. It will not be worshiped instead of God, but cared for and enjoyed as part of God’s creation.
In Revelation 22:2 John sees a river flowing through the middle of the city on either side of which is “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” This healing of the nations is consistent with the renewal of creation and human culture. It furthermore implies the healing of the hurt caused by the work of God in destroying evil in human history.
Many people and many parts of creation are damaged by evil and greatly in need of healing. The message of this vision is that healing will happen. Wholeness is promised to the nations and the creation.
What are the implications of this vison of John’s for us today? One implication comes from the side-by-side placing of Babylon and Jerusalem. The big issue in this time between Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and the final revealing of the New Jerusalem is the loyalty of people. Are we part of Babylon or aqre we part of Jerusalem? The values and spiritual realities symbolized by these two cities stand together on earth. Each invites people to come and enjoy its blessings.
To John it is clear which city offers life and which offers death. To us, it is not always so clear. But we are constantly faced with the choice: Do we follow the way of the Lamb or not? The little choices we make now determine what kind of people we become and in which city we will be at home.
John’s vision is a vision of hope, of promise. The New Jerusalem will come down, heaven and earth will be one, and God will dwell with God’s people. This is meant to be an encouragement to John’s readers in their times of tribulation, persecution, and temptation. These things will not last. They will not have the final say. So be of good cheer. Hold strongly to what is true. Remain faithful to the way of the Lamb, the way of love. Do so because this is the way of God, the Creator of the universe and the Redeemer of his creation.
This is not just a vision of some far-off future about which we do not have to be concerned now. Rather, it is God’s perspective on the present reality. It is God’s current agenda. It will be completed in the future, but we are called to be a part of the process. We are called to identify with the Lamb now and walk in his ways, to have our lives shaped by the kind of sacrificial love and forgiveness that shaped Jesus’ life.
Questions for Thought and Discussion
(1) What do you tend to associate with the New Jerusalem? Do you see it as totally future? or in some sense present? Or is it pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by (i.e., a means of avoiding the present-day reality)?
(2) How does hope of the New Jerusalem impinge on your present, if at all? Can this hope help or even push one to suffer for justice in the present? Or does it more likely allow one to deny responsibility for such action?
(3) Does the promise that there will be no more mourning and crying help one to embrace mourning and crying in the present?
(4) Do you agree that the New Jerusalem “coming down” (21:2) indicates a transforming of things and not a destruction and recreation? Is this distinction important?
(5) How much continuity is there between human history and the New Jerusalem? How much,if any, of our work will be included there?
(6) What do you make of the assertion in 21:24 that “the kings of the earth” are inside God’s new city? How could this be? Is it something you would welcome? Why or why not?
(7) Do you see any evidence in your own experience (and what
you know of history) that God is in the process of transforming the fallen world into the New Jerusalem? If so, what evidence do you have? Is there any evidence that evil is not ultimate and all-powerful?
(8) Do you agree that the “healing of the nations” from the “leaves of the tree” of life (22:2) refers to healing the hurts caused by the plague judgments and the effects of the work of the dragon and his cohorts? Does this image make the plague visions seem less total, absolute, ultimate?
(9) How do you understand “Behold, I am coming soon” (22:7,10)? Is 2000 years “soon”? Do you expect him to some “soon”? How soon is soon?