Commentary on Revelation 21:1-6a
In the book of Revelation, “seeing” plays a fundamental role.
This peculiar book in the New Testament (but not in Second Temple Judaism literature, where apocalyptic writings — writings concerned with special revelations and using heavily metaphorical language to convey them — are quite common) focuses on what its writer sees and what it means for him to see in this way. It is then presented to the reader through symbols and analogies.
In chapter 21, the reader encounters one example of the technique of “seeing” something in a vision. Because of this specific outlook of Revelation where the seer is privy to a series of information and images that he is able to transmit to his readers, we should not try to interpret the imagery used in the text too directly, or try to make it match a chronological development too closely. Rather, we need to see in the imagery that the author uses a way for the author of Revelation to rhetorically transmit his message, to highlight its confidential character (it is for initiates only) and to focus on its urgency.
The Symbols in Revelation 21:1-6a
The beginning of chapter 21 describes a utopic reality, characterized by several elements, often found in apocalyptic literature. The first creation is destroyed and replaced by a new earth and a new sky. Here the seer testifies to the regenerative action of God, a theme often witnessed not only in apocalyptic literature (Enoch 45:4-5; 71:1; 91:16; 4 Esdras 7:75) but also in the New Testament (Matthew 19:28; Mark 13:24.31; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Colossians 3:10; 2 Peter 3:13). The mention of the absence of the sea in this new creation is meaningful. In the ancient accounts of the creation of the world, the sea represents the most formidable element of creation, associated with the primitive abyss that is opposed to the Creator.1
Its absence in the new creation indicates that the Christ believers have truly entered a new reality, with no common measure with the world as it used to be. It matters little whether one can actually concretely envision such a world. What the initial vision draws out is a world where God’s work reveals itself in a new creation, where what meets the eye hides a deeper reality, organized and ruled by God.2 For the author of Revelation, as Pierre Prigent indicates, metaphorical and symbolic language is the only means to reveal the reality of this new creation that human words and logic can neither understand nor express.
The symbol of the new Jerusalem functions in that way as well. The seer here reworks the symbol of the celestial Jerusalem found in Isaiah 60 for example, which becomes more common after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (4 Esdras 7:26 and 2 Baruch 4:2 for example) and is also present in New Testament writings (Galatians 4:26f; Philippians 3:20; Hebrews 12:22). In Christian interpretations, and Revelation would fit that mold, the new Jerusalem becomes the early community of Christ-believers, and consequently is associated with the Christian Church. The identification with the Church as an institution can become problematic, especially when it is connected to triumphalist and imperialistic accents that see the Christian Church as succeeding where Israel failed.
As such, it is important to remember that the new Jerusalem represents an eschatological reality. It serves as a symbol for the Church in its restored, ideal, and glorious state. It is not a representation of the actual, historical Church. In its historical and actual embodiment, the Church can only strive to be the holy city described in Revelation 21:2. Thus, the historical Church as it is incarnated on earth encapsulates an ambiguous status, in which it is called both to be an eschatological territory in which a new existence is possible, while at the same time knowing that this new existence will only be fully realized at the end of times.3
Two temptations need to be avoided, as Prigent rightly mentions: the Church, in its earthly incarnation, cannot pretend to be the celestial Jerusalem. In Revelation 21:2, the seer specifies that this new Jerusalem comes down from heaven, from the side of God. On earth, the Church remains a human institution. At the same time, the Church should not excuse its mistakes and failings by claiming that it will be restored as an ideal, perfect institution in the end days. The ambiguous status of the Church on earth is not an excuse for what it is not; rather, it is a motivation for attempting to realize the vision of the seer every day on earth, with the consciousness of the possibility of failing constantly.
Seeing Beyond the Obvious
In this first section of the vision, the seer concludes by saying that God will be with human beings and that death and pain will disappear. In contrast to the beginning of the chapter, which used the past tense, the author of Revelation here reverts to the future, a small indication perhaps of the tension between realized and future eschatology.
It is quite clear from our daily life, and the news surrounding us, that we do not live in a world where creation has been restored, or where God dwells among human beings. Instead of endlessly contemplating when these things will come to pass — something which does not occupy a place in this section of Revelation — Revelation invites its readers to see beyond the obvious.
Perhaps it is only faith that can imagine the reality that the seer is describing in this section, but that does not mean that this reality does not in fact exist. The reader of Paul might here recognize the notion of hope, which Abraham embodies (see Romans 4:18), a hope that allows one to go beyond appearances and see, and thus perhaps also start to create, a reality that is truly unimaginable, in which there is no sea, no death and no tears, but a community bent on establishing a new way of living.
1 See for example Pierre Prigent, L’Apocalypse de Saint Jean (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 2000), 456.