Rev 21:1-8; Is 65-66; Col 1:19-20; Eph 3:10; 2 Pet 3:12-13; Heb 11:10, 16; 12:22: 13:14
The last two chapters of the book of Revelation bring us to the eschatological mystery, showing us, so far as we are able to see it, our great hope. They concern heaven and earth, the past giving way to an eternal present, everlasting water, a high mountain, holiness, brilliance, God’s care for each of us, and His establishment of us together. Old Testament prophets such as Ezekiel and Isaiah glimpsed this mystery, but not in the depth and breadth presented by St. John. For in this vision we hear the King of kings telling us, “Behold, I am making all things new,” and we are assured that His words are completely trustworthy. Because of the richness of this final vision, we will only tackle a few verses at a time. Here is Revelation 21:1-8:
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. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with humans. 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.”
And the One who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also He said, “Write this down, for these words are faithful and true.” And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the one who is thirsty I will give freely from the spring of the water of life. The one who conquers will have this inheritance, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their share will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death (Rev 21:1-8).
The first wonder that we behold is that not only earth, but also heaven, is to be made new. Elsewhere in the Scriptures we hear of new heavens and new earth, including two passages in Isaiah, and one in 2 Peter. The prophet, like St. John, is given a word directly from God, and relates God’s assurances twice. (Some may notice, in reading contemporary Bibles based on the Hebrew text, that the word used is “heavens,” in the plural. The Greek version of Isaiah, however, offers us the word in the singular, “heaven,” making the parallel with the book of Revelation more exact. We need not worry about this difference, however, since the Hebrew text also uses the plural for “heavens” in Genesis 1: it was convention to speak of such an exalted place in the plural. And indeed, there were stages, or compartments in the heavens, according to both Jewish and Christian tradition, and especially in the ancient mystical texts: heavens within heavens, so to speak. But together these heavens are “the throne” of God (Isaiah 66:1), while earth is God’s “footstool.” And the heavens, as well as earth, will be transformed. The Prophet Isaiah speaks of this new situation, in which both heaven and earth are renewed, with great joy:
For, behold, I create a new heaven (Hebrew: “new heavens”) and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem as a rejoicing, and her people a joy. And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and have joy in my people: and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying…They shall not labor in vain, nor bring forth for trouble; for they are the seed of the blessed of the LORD, and their offspring with them. And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent’s meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, says the LORD. (Isaiah 65:17-25)
Isaiah’s poetry is inviting, creating before our eyes a situation in which there is no violence or pain or disease, in which the labor of men, and the laboring of women is no longer cursed, in which there is no disunity at all between God’s creatures, and where there is complete concourse between God and His people—He hears them even before they pray! Then, at the end of his vision, Isaiah again lets us hear the assurance of God concerning our place in this new situation, a new world in which all people, regardless of race, are invited: “For as the new heaven (Hebrew: ‘heavens’) and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, saus the LORD, so shall your seed and your name remain. And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the LORD” (Isaiah 66:22-23).
The promise of new heaven (or heavens) and new earth is long-established, then, before John has his vision. There are other ancient books, not canonized in Scripture, that also look forward to this, as well. Our second epistle of Peter, with this tradition in mind, thus speaks with familiarity about the death and renewal of all things, to make an apt abode for God’s people with God Himself: “[We are] looking for and anticipating with keenness the coming of the day of God, in which the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat. Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:12-13). Note how Peter keeps the ancient Hebrew tradition of speaking about “heavens” in the plural. But the same eschatological event is in mind.
The reference from second Peter to the dissolution of the heavens and elements reminds us that in Revelation 20:11, we saw “heaven and earth flee away” from the presence of God. Nothing created can stand before His holiness. However, everything that we have heard about in the book of Revelation, as well as in the Scriptures in general, suggest that God does not intend to obliterate this world —let alone the heavens, where He dwells.
(By the way, we should recognize that some simply consider the word “heaven” or “heavens” in this and other passages to refer to the “sky,” an element of the temporal creation. We need to recognize that there is an overlap between the concept of the “sky” and the unseen heavens in the Scriptures, and the same word is used to refer to both. It may be that the fleeing away of heaven and earth in chapter 20 refers only to the physical realm. It seems unwise, however, to limit this vision in chapter 21 concerning a new heaven or heavens to the physical expanse that we see above us. After all, St. John has been invited to look through a door in “heaven” (in chapter 4), and has seen ineffable things not usually viewed by us, rather than mere denizens of the air —the birds, clouds, the bats, even the planets and constellations. No, he saw the heaven of heavens, including the Lamb, the 4 creatures around the throne, the elders, and the hosts of heaven. For John, then, it is unlikely that “heaven and earth” is simply a way of speaking about the physical order, but refers also to those unseen realms that impinge upon our temporal world).
It is these together, heaven and earth, St. John says, that are to be new. Most Christian commentators have thought that “new” has the connotation of “renewed,” rather than something made from scratch as with the original creation. Here, for example, is St. Andrew of Caesarea, who interprets Revelation by means of Romans 8: “This passage does not speak of the obliteration of creation but of its renewal into something better. For as the apostle says, ‘this creation will be freed from the bondage of corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God’” (Commentary on the Apocalypse 21). Just as our bodies will be raised, after death, so the entire created order (heaven and earth) will die, and then be transformed. There is both continuity and discontinuity —some things remain, while others are transformed, with some of this transformation already beginning in the Holy Spirit.. As St. Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 15, it is like a seed that is sown, and then it germinates and becomes a lively plant. Consider how Jesus, in His resurrection body, was the same Jesus, yet transformed—eyes had to be opened to recognize Him, but His disciples knew it was the LORD.
In these final two chapters of the Apocalypse, St. John explores for us those things that are continuous, and those that are discontinuous, in the new creation. Like Isaiah, he emphasizes that all this is painful and deadly will have no place in the new creation. This helps to explain the detail that there is “no more sea.” The sea is that place where deadly monsters lurk, where human beings conduct warlike campaigns, and dishonest business, where there is instability, the possibility of flooding and tidal waves. That kind of danger and flux is no longer present in the newly established world. Another possibility for there being “no sea” is to remember the so-called “bronze sea” of purification in the earthly Temple, and to realize that, along the sacrifices, there will be no need for that piece of religious furniture, since the purification is completely accomplished by Christ. Whatever the vision’s meaning, here it is clear that “no sea” is meant as a relief to God’s people, not as a suggestion that the exhilaration of swimming waves will be gone forever!
Similarly, the new creation is not an abode for evil human actions. As groups, or as types, these are banished from the new world: “the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and … liars.” Anything that can hurt or destroy, and any agent bent on such activity, has no share in the holy new creation. It is interesting that this statement is applied to groups, rather than to individuals—the emphasis is on what is not compatible with the shining Garden-City, rather than upon the exile of particular persons. It is meant as an assurance, complementing the promise that God will dry our eyes. There will be no enemies in our last home!
We understand a little, perhaps, of what a renewed earth might be like. But what can St. John mean regarding a “new heaven?” For ALL things are being made new, not just the terrestrial. We are in the same vein here as with Colossians 1: 19-20, which speaks about Christ reconciling all things, whether on heaven or on earth. Of course, much of heaven’s story is not, in the first place, for us—it concerns the natural denizens of that place, the angelic hosts. But we have already seen that the royal mother of chapter 12, who was crowned with twelve stars, has her place in heaven as well as on earth; and here we see that the Bride of the Lamb comes down, before John’s wondering eyes, from heaven! She, too, is a celestial mystery, and all the people of God are included within her. He sees her from afar, as the angel carries him to a high mountain, and understands that she is the crown of God’s handiwork. It is as though he were watching a royal coronation or procession prior to the making of a wedding covenant.
One of the wonders, then, about our salvation is that it is interconnected with heaven, and not simply restricted to earth. Jesus told us that there are places there reserved for us; Hebrews says that there is a city with foundations, a heavenly country, a lasting city to come, a place where all the shining hosts of heaven dwell, and that it is for us (Heb 11:10; 11:16; 12:22: 13:14). It may be the first home of the angels, but it is our home as well, and it is where the Bride has been prepared, when all the while we thought God’s people were only experiencing persecution. The veil needs to be removed for us to see how it is that our experiences on earth are being used by God Himself to prepare us for our lasting joy. The fleeing Queen in chapter 12 emerges as the bright Bride of the Lamb in chapter 21.
In some ways, then, heaven itself has been changed. The key to this is remembering that the incarnate, suffering, crucified, and raised Jesus entered triumphantly into heaven, taking the human body with Him. Great was the wonder of the angels as they opened wide those ancient doors! Heaven has made room for glorified humanity —first for our pioneer, Christ; then for His Mother, our exalted Lady; and finally, for us. The God-Man has changed heaven for ever, linking it inextricably with the created earth. Man is only “for a little while” lower than the angels, but will, in Christ, find the place that God always intended. All things are made new, then, not simply our poor, afflicted earth. Heaven shows itself to be even more generous than it knew it could be, and the concourse between heaven and earth will becomes complete, when God entirely dwells among us, giving us, without restriction, His heavenly water. The time is coming when communication between angels and humans will not be rare, but common, for at that time all of us will be centered upon the One who made us, and who has remade the world so that it is in complete harmony. As St. Maximos puts it,
He made man equal in honour to the angels, not only because ‘by His blood on the Cross He gave peace to the things in the heavens and to the things on the earth’ (Col. 1:20). By abrogating the adversarial powers that fill the space between heaven and earth, He appointed the dispensing of divine gifts to a single festal assembly of both earthly and heavenly powers, with the human race and the higher powers rejoicing and having one and the same will, and in one voice praising the divine glory. What’s more, after the fulfillment of the divine economy for our sake, by ascending with the body He had received, He united heaven and earth through Himself and conjoined things noetic to things sensate. And He showed the one created nature bound together in itself from one end to the other by virtue and knowledge of the First Cause. (St. Maximos’ “Short Explanation of the Prayer, Our Father,” translated by George S. Gabriel, June, 2010).
Even now, we have something to teach the hosts of heaven, for it was as a human being that Christ became incarnate. As St. Paul rejoices, it is the glory of the Church that we can make known “the many-colored” wisdom of God to the powers and principalities—to angels (Eph 3:10) . Christ, after all, became human, not an angel, and has retained that humanity in his glorified body . Heaven, too, has been made new, and will be completely transformed when we are all glorified together with Christ.
Yet it is not just a corporate hope. Whereas the vision has shown us the exclusion of various types, or groups, it speaks of hope to each one of us personally:
He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the one who is thirsty I will give freely from the spring of the water of life. The one who conquers will have this inheritance, and I will be his God and he will be my son.
The great Creator of all, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, promises living water to each one of us who thirsts. He will satisfy each of our deepest needs and desires. And not only that. He also promises each one of us the inheritance of the son, the one who by right shares in his father’s possessions. Each one of us will be not only a happy subject of the King, but the dearest son of the Father, following the unique Son of God. This is not a exclusionary symbol just because it is masculine. Keep in mind that men are also asked to envision themselves as the Bride. Now women must make the imaginative leap to see themselves as a son, the one who inherits in the family, the one who is anointed like the original Son of God. Each of us as a son, and all of us together as the shining Bride of the Lamb, have been mysteriously prepared for this very thing. God tells us, it is as good as done! Already it is being effected in each of us, and in all of us together. And after this, we will see even more clearly what glories He plans for us, when we read further in the conclusion to John’s great Revelation.