From Follow the Lamb: A Pastoral Approach to The Revelation
Then I saw a new Heaven and a new Earth, for the first Heaven and Earth had ceased to exist, and the sea existed no more. And I saw the holy city—the new Jerusalem—descending out of Heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Look! The residence of God is among human beings. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist anymore—or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist.”
And the one seated on the throne said: “Look! I am making all things new!” Then he said to me, “Write it down, because these words are reliable and true.” (Revelation 21:1-5)
We have a hard time imagining Heaven. We live in a culture where most people believe that death ends all and the best that can be said at a funeral is that the memory of the deceased lives on. Life is like a scene in Castaway, where the main character, played by Tom Hanks, digs a shallow grave to bury the dead pilot who has washed up on shore. His two-word eulogy sums it up: That’s that. Many have a hard time believing in life after death, let alone a whole new order of creation. John’s vision of the new Heaven and the new Earth corresponds with the Apostle Paul’s vision of the new, glorified, resurrected body. Without the resurrection, the gospel of the Lamb not only doesn’t make sense, it is in fact dishonest and deceptive. If there is no resurrection from the dead then death ends all and “that’s that.” If Jesus Christ is not “the firstborn from the dead,” then there is no hope of Heaven. If the bones of Jesus disintegrated in a Palestinian tomb, the Christian faith dissolves in a sad delusion. But Jesus was “not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay.” On this side of eternity, bodily death is part and parcel of biological living. It factors into everything, from reproduction to digestion to circulation. But in the new creation, bodily existence will be characterize by life, not death. Life as we know it is characterized by death and dying, grief and humiliation, frailty and weakness – but a new day is coming when the key to life will not be death but life. The inevitability of decay, shame, and weakness will be eliminated by the life, glory, and power of the resurrection. And this new, glorified, resurrected body will surpass the limitations of a natural body. It will embrace the fullness of personal identity and experience the richness of community life. This risen body will include the whole person and will be nothing like the Greek notion of a bodiless, immortal soul or the modern idea of the spirit of a person living on in people’s memory. The spiritual body will be no less real than the natural body. The resurrection of Jesus is the “firstfruits” of a whole new harvest; it is the key that unlocks the door to a whole new order. There are no humanistic resources that can transform the natural life into the spiritual life and triumph over death. I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. (1 Corinthians 15:56) Christian hope lies in understanding that we were meant to move from death-defining natural life to death-defying spiritual life. If the wonderful diversity of creation points to the power of God to create an entirely new mode of existence, then the message of salvation history declares that there is much more to life than the old Adam. The first Adam stands for sin and death; he represents the fallen human condition. The last Adam stands for salvation and life; he represents the “firstfruits” of the new creation.
A New Heaven
When Jesus entered the old order to fully embrace our humanity, he brought nothing with him – he emptied himself. He transcended his transcendence for the sake of our redemption. When he returns, he will bring a new Heaven and a new Earth. He will rule and reign over a whole new created order. John writes, I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of Heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. Anticipation is not based on our achievement. New, glorified, resurrected bodies in a new Heaven or a new Earth are entirely the work of God. The emphasis throughout the Revelation has been on faithfulness, not accomplishment. We are not building Christ’s kingdom on Earth. We are called to wait, pray, witness, and stay alert. By the grace of God it is our responsibility to be a faithful presence for Christ and his kingdom wherever he has placed us. We are to be vigilant and faithful.
The gospel is a countercultural movement that will remain a voice crying in the wilderness of an evil and broken culture. The church will not – nor should it expect to – be a controlling voice of culture. The church’s vision for human flourishing is always going to be different from the prevailing culture’s vision for success. The world will never fulfill our dreams for human flourishing. The faithful presence of Christians can hopefully make the world more livable, but the synergy of the beautiful and ugly sides of evil will only continue to intensify and fight against the church. To misread this is inevitability to be misled and eventually disillusioned. In the final analysis, the church is always offering the world something the culture as a whole rejects.
The Holy City and the Beautiful Bride
See, I will create new heavens and a new Earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and crying will be found in it no more. (Isaiah 65:17-19)
The convergence of these two images brings together everything that is important. The apparent contradictory metaphors are necessary to capture the fullness of the presence of God and what it means for God to dwell among his people. These two metaphors establish an inclusion that runs from the intensity of relational intimacy to the full extent of human flourishing in community. John’s vision of the New Jerusalem is deeply personal and fully relational. What comes down out of Heaven is not just a place, but a people. As the great prostitute was synonymous with the great city, so the Holy City is synonymous with the bride of Christ. Once again the relational impact of the Holy City dominates John’s description.
The presence of God and the absence of evil are the two controlling realities of this new order of existence. John identifies two kinds of people: those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and those who don’t. The former have finally found their place and the latter are categorically and eternally out of place. When John first sees the Holy City coming down out of Heaven he likens it to a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. But when he is invited to see the bride of the Lamb he sees the Holy City, Jerusalem, “coming down out of Heaven from God.” There is a perfect match between people and place. Faith will give way to sight. Heaven is not a mythical carrot on the end of a stick. Heaven is very real and visible and down-to-Earth. It is not a state of mind, but a place to live. Heaven and Earth are united, merged into one God-filled reality. Because of the Incarnate One, we are destined to experience the inauguration of God’s society. The followers of the Lamb are citizens in this new reality, not spectators. We are participants in a new social order. Heaven is the grace-filled invasion of the garden city of God. The hallmark of this city is not escapism, but engagement. Our Earthly sojourn is inspired by our citizenship in Heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Philippians 3:20-21)
The New Order
John hears a loud voice from the throne saying, I am making everything new! We will let the theologians debate whether the old order is regenerated and restored or whether it is entirely recreated from scratch. In any case, the old is gone and the new has come. This qualitatively new order is defined negatively by what is no longer present. There is no sea, no death, no mourning, no crying, and no pain. The new order is defined positively by the real presence of God. John announces that there will no longer be any sea. If you are an ocean lifeguard who loves surfing and can’t imagine living away from the beach, Heaven may not look like such a cool place. It is important to understand that John never intended for us to read our first impressions into these metaphors. The meaning of the sea has to be drawn from what John meant throughout his prophecy. What is missing in the new order is any hint of evil or the threat of tribulation. To develop the metaphor we might say that what is missing in the new order are drownings, storms, and shark attacks. What remains are beautiful ocean vistas, great swells, and a sea teeming with God’s creation. We can hardly even imagine what life will be like without pain and suffering, grief and mourning. Since our only experience has been life based on death, how can we begin to fathom life based on life? This great reversal is beyond our ability to grasp; but then, there is a great deal in our immediate natural world that seems beyond our comprehension. Life based on life instead of death is consistent with the new order of things.
Do we dare live our lives on the promise of the new order? The followers of the Lamb are either delusional from the start or truly perceptive of the most real world. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all others. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:19-20) Life’s true vantage point allows us to look beyond the brevity of life to eternity and inspires faithfulness, not fatalism. From everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him. (Psalm 103:17)
In response to the Sadducees, who were trying to put him on the spot, Jesus said that marriage is a temporary provision for life on this side of eternity. They had posed the most complicated relational scenario they could think of: A woman had been married in turn to seven brothers. Each time a brother died, the next brother in line married his widow according to Old Testament law. Their question was simple: Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife shall she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her? Jesus replied, You are in error, because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in Heaven. In other words, If you think you’re going to take your broken, sin-damaged relationship into Heaven, forget it!
The simplicity on the other side of our complex world will be characterized not by our mixed motives and hardness of heart, but by the truth and power of God. Eternity with God opens up a whole new realm of relational fulfillment that is only hinted at in the best of human friendships and loving marriages. On this side of eternity, at times, we can hardly imagine a love deeper and more fulfilling than that of our beloved. We feel like the couple in the Song of Songs who are passionately in love. Who could possibly imagine anything better than this? But the answer comes back: God can. Our expectations are too low. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” But it was to us that God revealed these things by his Spirit. (1 Corinthians 2:9-10)
We should not imagine Heaven as a place that is in any way less satisfying relationally than our friendships and marriages on this side of eternity. I am confident that we will one day laugh about such thoughts, wondering how we could have been so skeptical about Heaven’s fulfillment. What if in eternity all of our friendships are like the very best friendship we ever experienced – only better? What if Heaven is not so much minus marriage but all marriage? I expect that the intimacy, companionship, and fidelity that we desire in a good marriage is but a prototype of all relationships in Heaven. The very imagery God’s word uses to describe the day of Christ – the marriage supper of the Lamb – anticipates a day when all loves will be empowered by the wisdom, purity, and holiness of our beloved Lord. Followers of the Lamb anticipate that day with earnest expectation.