Teaching series from Revelation

God's Eternal Kingdom

Revelation 21-22

Teaching t09184

Introduction

“What matters in life is the journey, not the destination.” How untrue! This is (at best) a concession to dogmatic agnosticism (“Since we cannot know where we're ultimately headed, just try to focus on now”) or (at worst) deliberate self-deception (“I don't want to think about my future annihilation, so I'll just focus on this life”). According to the Bible, we can know the destination. And therefore, while the journey is important, knowing the destination is more important because this is what provides direction for the journey, makes it meaningful, and fortifies you when the journey is difficult.

This is why the book of Revelation (and the Bible) would be woefully incomplete with this fourth vision, the vision of God's eternal kingdom . . . 

Misconceptions about “heaven” corrected

Before we look at John's vision of God's eternal kingdom, let's first correct some of the popular misconceptions about “heaven.”

“It will be disembodied.” This is Greek/Gnostic/New Age—“the body is the prison-house of the soul.” But the Bible says humans are essentially “embodied spirits.” Therefore, while avoiding the crass sensuality of animism and Islam, God's eternal kingdom will be physical and that we will be embodied with glorified bodies suited for it.

“It will be static and boring.” This is the “baby in diapers floating on a cloud and strumming a harp” view. But the Bible says that since humans were created to work creatively, eternity will involve the pleasure of creativity (e.g., music) and accomplishment (e.g., administrative responsibility).

“There will be no free will.” This view reasons that since free will involves the risk of rebellion, and since heaven will be guarantees everlasting harmonious submission to God, therefore everyone who makes it to heaven will receive “frontal lobotomies” in this sense. But the Bible says that since humans were created with free will, heaven will preserve and perfect this. Evidently, the historical record of God's love and wisdom, and of rebellion's folly and destructiveness will be so clear that people will freely and intelligently choose to worship and follow God.

“Everyone will be the same.” This perverts heaven into an Industrialized State nightmare in which all individual identity, creativity, and diversity are crushed beneath conformity to “the good.” But the Bible says that God delights in diversity (witness creation) and he created humans with rich diversity. Freed from the stain of sin and rewarded for our service in this life, true human diversity will be perfected in heaven.

These corrections tell us what heaven is not, and a little about what it will be—but they don't get at the heart of what it will be like. For that, we need Revelation 21 and 22 . . . 

What will it be like?

NOTE: Because his eternal kingdom is both similar to and very different from present existence, God must describe its similarity through metaphor/analogy and it difference through negation. But even this limited description is more than enough to delight, inspire and fortify.

Read 21:1. Here we learn two basic things about God's eternal kingdom.

It will be a “new heaven and a new earth” because “the first heaven and the first earth passed away.” Does this mean that God will destroy this universe and create ex nihilo a completely new universe (see 2 Peter 3:10-13; Hebrews 12:26-28)? Or does this mean that God completely cleanses this same universe from all stain of sin 1 (implied by 21:5 and continuity of resurrected bodies)? Regardless, it is a new order of reality that is perfectly suited for the eternal life of God's people.

In John's vision, this new heavens and earth has “no sea.” This is almost certainly figurative. Remember that in previous visions, the sea symbolized the nations of the world in perennial conflict with one another (Revelation 13:1; 17:15). In God's eternal kingdom, peace and serenity between its inhabitants will reign.

Now John describes his vision in greater detail. Notice the three symbols he uses that communicate the essence of life in God's eternal kingdom.

Read 21:2a. He sees a “holy city” (“new Jerusalem”). What's the main feature of cities? That they're filled with people who interact with each other in various ways. Of course, heaven will be different (“holy”) from today's cities because it won't be filled with traffic jams, air/noise pollution, crime, etc. But it will be filled with redeemed, glorified people who interact with each other. Conversely (although I'm sure there will solitude available), it won't be solitary (more like Bible's definition of hell!).

But the holy city is not just people who relate to one another. They also relate to God in joyous intimacy. This is why God describes the holy city “made ready as a bride for her husband” (read 21:2b). Both Old Testament and New Testament employ this metaphor of God as the husband and believers as his bride to emphasize God's desire to have a deep love union with his people.

In Israel, a marriage took place in three stages. First, the husband's parents entered into an agreement with the wife's parents and paid a dowry for her. Then began the betrothal (engagement), during which the bride made herself ready. Then came the wedding day, when the groom came to the bride's parents' home to take her as his wife and then in procession to the marriage feast—a days-long party to celebrate their union.

God dowry for us was the death of his Son, Jesus. During the time between Jesus' comings, all believers are betrothed to Jesus (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:2)—making ourselves ready through our spiritual growth and service in this life. Then comes the wedding, when Jesus returns to take us his wife in a profound and eternal union, and to celebrate that union with us. Far from losing our individuality through this union (as with pantheism), we will retain and flourish as individuals as we relate to God in perfect, ever-deepening love.

The third symbol ties together the first two symbols. After showing John the “holy city” and describing it as a “bride,” he now describes it as the “tabernacle” (read 21:3). The tabernacle (later the Temple) was a symbol of God's desire to indwell all of his people and for all of them to experience his presence together.

Since Jesus came and died for our sins (which made it impossible for God to indwell us), believers are God's tabernacle/temple because he indwells us with his Spirit. But when Jesus returns, we will experience and enjoy God's presence together so profoundly that our deepest experiences of closeness with God and others in this life (CORPORATE PRAYER) will pale in comparison as “down-payments.”

The essence of heaven, therefore, is perfect community between God and his people. Ultimate reality is not time plus matter plus chance, oneness with the impersonal All. Ultimate reality is the God of the Bible—and this God is personal. In fact, the God of the Bible is a community of perfect love relationships (explain TRINITY). This God has created us in his image, which means above all else that we can experience profound, relational, loving union with him and other persons. This is why Jesus says that eternal life is personally knowing God (John 17:3). Heaven will be the answer to Jesus' prayer in John 17:21-24 (read).

Most of the rest of this vision (21:9-22:5) simply elaborates on this truth.

This is why when the angel says he will show John the “bride” (21:9), what John actually sees is the “holy city” (21:10).

This is why the “holy city” is described as having 12 gates with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel (21:12) and 12 foundation stones with the names of the 12 apostles (21:14). God's eternal kingdom will be filled with believers from both Old Testament Israel and New Testament Church.

This is why the “holy city” is in the shape of a mammoth cube (21:16b). What's the point? “The cube is symbolic: there is only one cube in the Old Testament, and that is the Most Holy Place of the temple, where only the (high) priest could enter once a year, bearing blood for his own sins and for the sins of the people. Now the entire city is the Most Holy Place: in the consummation all of God's people are perennially in the unshielded splendor of his glorious presence.”2 This is there is no need for a temple (read 21:22).

This is why John sees what he sees at the center of the city (read 22:1-2a). The “water of life” is a reference to John 7:37-39 (read)—being personally indwelt by God's Spirit. The “tree of life” is a reference to Gen. 2,3—the joy of humans living together in loving union with God instead of rebelling and living alienated from him and one another.

This is why 22:4 is the distillation of this whole vision (read). Even this is symbolic, because God doesn't have a face, and we won't get tattoos. But together we will know God fully and we will be fully known by him (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Because heaven will be the above, it will by definition cancel out all of the effects of sin and alienation from God. This is why there will no longer be any sadness or death (21:4), any danger from enemies (21:25b,27), any “night” (22:5—probably symbolic of spiritual deception), or any curse (22:3a—psychological, sociological, ecological damage). Praise God!

Concluding reminders

As you reflect on this book and (specifically) this vision of God's eternal kingdom, John wants you to remember three things:

You can bank on the fact that this will really happen. Read 22:6-7. These words are utterly reliable, because the same God who inspired his prophets to accurately predict many events (KEY FIRST COMING DETAILS; REGATHERING OF ISRAEL; etc.) has also inspired John to write these words.

All this is yours for the asking. Misread 22:17 (“ . . . take the water of life by earning it with your good works”). No, Jesus says “ . . . without cost!” God so wants you to take part in it that he has paid the great cost of your ticket (through Jesus' death) so that he can offer it to you without cost! The only condition is that you “wash your robes” (read 22:14) in Jesus' blood—that you personally receive God's forgiveness through Jesus' death for your sins. How could God make it any clearer than these words that he wants you there, that no sin of yours can disqualify you, that it won't cost you anything because he paid for it all? Have you done this? If not, why not do it right now?

The only alternative permanent banishment from God's kingdom (read 21:8). There is no second chance, no annihilation, etc.—only heaven or hell. Why would you choose this when you can have the alternative?

Footnotes

1 “In flaming metaphor, Peter foreshadows the method by which this tremendous metamorphosis and renovation will take place (quotes 2 Peter 3:10-13) . . . Those heavens have been the sphere where Satan has carried on his activities. Because he pollutes everything he touches, they must be cleansed by fire. Because this earth has also been the theater in which the drama of redemption has been enacted, it will, phoenix-like, rise from its ashes by the power of God to a new and unimaginable glory . . . The picture is of a universe transformed, perfected, purged of everything that is evil and exalts itself against God. It is ‘new,' not in the sense of being a new creation, but of being new in character—a worthy milieu for the residence of God and his redeemed people. It is new because of the presence of a new community of people, utterly loyal to God and to the Lamb.” J. Oswald Sanders, Heaven: Better By Far (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 1993), pp. 133-134.

2 D. A. Carson, For the Love of God (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1998), reading for December 30.

Copyright 2002 Gary DeLashmutt