Commentary on Revelation 21:1-6
The End of Revelation is fascinating and perplexing in that most people’s expectations about the message of Revelation are not what they have always been taught.
In Revelation 21, people do not go to heaven as most people have been taught but rather God comes down to earth to dwell with mortals — “the new Jerusalem descends from heaven,” and God makes a home among mortals (21:2-3). There is no prediction about the end times, no rapture and no punishment but God comes to be the home of humanity. This interpretation of Revelation 21 is very complex to the world of academic scholarship because most of we have heard about Revelation goes against our contemporary world of predicting the end of the world. While Jerusalem is the focus of Jewish identity, faith, and hope, in Revelation Jerusalem signifies “the election of a new people and the sealing of a new covenant.”1 Theologically, chapter 21 claims a new creation, one in which God Himself will have his hand upon and it will be a home like no other.
The poignancy of Revelation 21:5-6 is that the new creation is framed by God’s direct speech, “See, I am making all things new.” God’s new creation must replace this deadly, torn, raped, angry, sick, evil, revengeful, hurtful, and painful world. The church is called to make a choice. First, the church is called to be on the side of God and to be part of the new creation. Second, the church is called to make a choice to turn to God or to the world and the later will lead unbelieving Christians who are focused on entertaining people rather than offering new life. Dying to old life and living into the newness of God is the call and message of Revelation and the new creation emphasized in chapter 7 is strictly “theocentric.”2 John sees and experiences the new heaven and the new earth and summons all believers to see what God allows him to perceive. Like in the book of Genesis, readers are informed that God is the origin of all things and in Revelation, interpreters are given an envelope message, namely: God is the origin and the end of all things. It is this envelope that God’s people are called to always live into, to remember, to be shaped and informed both spiritually and theologically.
Paradoxically, it is probably hard to persuade Christians in North America and Europe to think about heaven because the worldview represented by these two worlds blinds people in the same way Babylon did during the time of John. On a different note, Christians from the Global South are born and raised in a worldview that orients them to an understanding of heaven, which in many African villages is referred to as “Village.” In African theology, a village is a place where all humanity will be gathered and it is not an ordinary world but a spiritual world where God resides with so called “Living — dead.” The Roman Catholic Church has renamed the “the living — dead,” as “saints.” The point I seek to make is that Revelation challenges all Christians not to settle into this contemporary global empire but to have a working understanding of a “new heaven and new earth.”
In another way, John struggles to find a language to express and describe a new created world order. Spiritually, John calls readers to see this world as one in which God will transform what we know today into something that is beyond human imagination. All we can do is to desire to be part of the new heaven and the new earth. Scholars of the New Testament are aware of the pagan oracles predicted by Greco-Roman gods about a future of bliss and this is not what John was shown but rather, he was privilege to view a future filled with life, hope, and peace. In this new heaven and new earth, all the pain of humanity such as crying, mourning, death, terrorism, HIV/AIDS, cancer, and human brokenness will be no more (Revelation 21:4). This new heaven and new earth is only a divine world and it is a vision in which the Dream of God is made manifest to those who are loved by God and the ones who have faith in him (Isaiah 65:17 -25).
Christians are not called to escape into this new world but rather to partner with God in ways that will allow the power of God and the Lamb be experienced in this world. That is the reason why God comes down into the world to dwell with his people and that coming down is basically the New Jerusalem that comes out of heaven. In other words, Revelation does not rely on the notion of eternal life and John does not deny it either but what he believes is that this New Jerusalem begins in the present moment and every human being must experience its joy and goodness in the present moment. Thus, the dream of God that is also shared by Isaiah 65:17-25 and also presented in Revelation 21 is not an eternal world but must be realized in human history. It is a world where zip codes do not divide people but that all God’s people have access to every area, including access to health care, education, transportation, housing, worship, and authentic life (Genesis 1-2).
The role of the church is clearly spelled out in this chapter because God’s plan for a new reality is not only done by God. Like in Genesis 12-22, God involved humanity in the person of Abraham and creation is still done in partnership with humanity. Thus, a new world order for authentic humanity will come about when human beings, particularly the church is involved in this new creation. In Genesis, humanity is the summit of God’s creation and therefore, God calls on believing humanity to be involved in making God’s dream come true in this world. When human beings refuse to partner with God, God will probably shed a tear and envisions a new plan to redeem and restore the cosmos.
Prayer: God, open our ears and eyes to the newness of your creation and make us active partners so that your dream will be realized here on earth. Amen.
1 Wilfrid J. Harrington, Sacra Pagina: Revelation (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1993), 209.
2 Bauckham, New Testament Theology, 164.