1Then 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. 2And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And 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, 4and 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.”
As with many of the visions of the Bible, this one from near the end of the book of Revelation (Chapter 21) appears too good to be true — or at least too big and broad to be believed.
To make sense of it, we’ve got to find a way to limit it. First, it can’t be referring to the planet, and the known universe, because the literal statement here is that heaven and earth… that is, everything in the Universe, will cease to exist. And then, just like that, a new heaven and earth is created… except the new one doesn’t have any oceans. (Which with what we know of life on earth as we know it, simply couldn’t happen. The ocean is the key to biological life.)
And to complicate the picture, we have a description of a city arriving on planet earth from some distant place in the cosmos. But how could this be, because the cosmos just ceased to exist. Also, verse 3 says that God is now going to live with mankind…. but how could this be? Didn’t we just lose the earth? Where are the people now? Is this why they’re crying… because the earth ended?
So let’s try viewing this as metaphorical. Let’s think of heaven as the spiritual or religious realm of human society. Turns out if we do this it can help dozens of places in Revelation and elsewhere in the Bible seem more reasonable.
A new heaven would then mean a new way of thinking about religious things, and therefore new people in charge, new rules, new values, new perspectives. The old religious scene is simply gone. “Imagine there’s no heaven.” John Lennon could picture this, and I can too.
And a different earth … the physical part of human society. That’s gone, too. No republicans and democrats arguing about who is right. No supreme court justices needed to interpret laws, because … well Jeremiah and Isaiah saw the picture with all the laws written in people’s hearts. No courts are needed to explain or enforce obedience among reluctant citizens. And thus no angry youth afraid of police, and no police harassing them.
Now, a major change in this new imaginary scene is where God is. In the old picture, the one we’ve grown up with, God is basically nowhere to be found. He “hides himself”, as Isaiah puts it. And those who claim to have found him have trouble convincing others that they really have. Is it because the ones who seem to know about God aren’t very good examples of what we would logically expect a spokesman for God to be — or is it because the people who they are preaching to are just plain bad … and don’t want to know about God, no matter how nice the preachers are? Or maybe could it be a mixture of both?
So now we have this new picture, and in it God isn’t hiding somewhere or speaking through ancient Jews or weird people who show up on TV or surrounded by stained glass, dress funny, ask for donations, smile too much, and generally just irritate us. All those folks are gone, but God is living with us. Right next door. Maybe even in our spare bedroom.
Now who are the people of God? Is it still the church folks… a small percentage of the population? No, the way John seems to see this picture, all the people are now God’s people.
We know this because they’ve been crying, they’ve been dying, they’ve been in pain… but God is suddenly standing there next to them, wiping their tears. He’s removing their pain. He’s ending death.
How many of the tears are being dealt with in this way? All of them.
How much of the pain is being eradicated? All of it.
How much death is being thwarted? All of it.
Now, here’s where the picture makes us furrow our brows and clench our fists.
Wait a minute! I understand the picture that is being painted. But why is this artwork being created? What does it mean to me? Is this really a true picture of the way things are going to be, or is this some kind of cruel joke? Is this really just saying that the ones who are already setting them up to be the God-people are going to have THEIR pain and tears wiped away, but the rest of us are just going to see them off in the distance, wishing we could be there … and suffering on forever and ever while the lucky few get to live in their own paradise?
The Hope Diamond.
Well, the guy who painted this picture thought of this… so he put the Jesus followers into the picture too. He put them in there as the “holy city”, which comes out of heaven — the religious world … and comes down to earth. It’s a city with some features like Jerusalem, with its protective walls and its government buildings and its houses and its festivals where lambs die to restore people to God — and its temple where priests mediate between God and man … restoring everyday people to full fellowship and access to God, by making payment for their sins.
And this picture doesn’t only refer to the truly good guys as Jerusalem… he also compares them to a bride who is married to the Lamb… Jesus. How is this bride pictured? Well, she is dressed in white, and she’s beautiful, and the Lamb really, really loves her. What does this bride do? She is attractive to her husband … and that leads her to become like a mother to the rest of the human race. It might even be thought of as the new mother of humanity, in the same way that the Lamb is the new father.
The human race in this picture was orphaned when their first father messed up, and left them outside of paradise, living under curses that mom and dad are to blame for. Now there’s a new father and mother … Jesus and his bride. And all the people who were related to the original father … every human who has ever lived … are released from their curses and welcomed back into this expanded, updated Garden. A garden with no Serpent. A garden with no weeds. And with no Angel of Death to keep people from living there forever.
Too good to be true? No, redemption is the plan. A redeemed and restored earth is precisely what we must learn to expect, to hope for, and to pray for. And whether we pray or not, believe or not, even whether we survive until it arrives or not … it’s a gonna happen.