Commentary on Revelation 21:1-6
On this Fifth Sunday of Easter, we continue to celebrate and to ponder the mystery of Jesus’ resurrection.
The gospel accounts are clear that this is the same Jesus whom the disciples knew and followed, and yet they also insist that there has been change: Jesus has been glorified, exalted, made alive beyond death’s power. Paul struggles with the same mystery in 1 Corinthians 15 in talking about our resurrection, insisting that these bodies will be raised, and yet transformed into “spiritual bodies,” as a seed is transformed into a green, growing plant. Resurrection promises both continuity and discontinuity: the same, but totally different.
Revelation 21:1-6 extends that same mysterious promise to all of creation. It is caught up into Jesus’ resurrection, into the victorious life of the slaughtered Lamb. There is, on the one hand, continuity here. Verse 5 says that everything will be made new, not that everything will be replaced by new and different things. God is faithful (verse 5b), and creation is not being abandoned, discarded, or allowed to go to hell.
Yet there is discontinuity, because “the former things” will be gone (verse 4). Which “former things”? Surely not everything in a strict sense: the Lamb’s victory over death, the faithful witness of God’s people, the mercy of the One on the throne have not disappeared. Rather, those evils which had occupied much of the earlier part of Revelation — the blasphemy of human arrogance, the rebellion against God, the empire’s violent oppression, the power of the beast and Babylon to deceive the nations, the faithless compromise of the churches, all that had brought woe and wrath upon the world — is all gone. And it is gone for good.
For those who enjoy a good day at the beach, the note in verse 1 that there is no more sea may not seem like good news. However, in the narrative of Revelation, the sea has been the source and the operational base for the evil forces lined up against God and God’s people. It is from the sea that the beast, the personification of empire’s deadly reach, had come. It was over the sea that Babylon had ruled as a tyrant. With the sea removed, there is no chance that the world will slip again into the nightmare of sin.
Salvation is envisioned in this text not as a return to Eden or a retreat back to nature, but as a city. The cities of Revelation had seemed like evil places, places of temptation and compromise, of persecution and suffering; cities were sometimes the throne of Satan (2:13). John had called the churches to come out of Babylon (18:4). Yet in the end, salvation is envisioned as the life of a teeming, inhabited city. Our own cities may be places of surprising joy, but they are often places of distressing poverty, violence, and evil. John’s vision reminds us that this is not God’s will for human life or human community, and that these things too, by God’s grace, will be ended and made new. Salvation is brimming with relationships, and all that is good about human community will be redeemed.
The New Jerusalem descends from God. In John’s vision, the final hope is not that we go to heaven when we die. Salvation is not us going to God, but God coming to us. For John, salvation does not mean that the Jerusalem which was destroyed by Rome will be rebuilt, because salvation is not found in any place, whether geographic or heavenly. Salvation is found only in God. We often speak about salvation as “going to heaven,” but that is adequate only if we realize that “heaven” is a metaphor for dwelling in God.
John’s declaration in verse 3 draws on Ezekiel 37:27, which to exiled Israel, promised restoration and the presence of God. However, where Ezekiel promised Israel would be God’s singular “people,” John’s text talks about God’s “peoples.” Is John claiming that the church is gathered from every nation of the earth (5:9)? Or might we hear something even more startling, that those peoples of the earth who had been deceived by the beast and ruled by Babylon (13:7, 17:15) will, in the end, be reclaimed by God?
God will wipe away every tear (verse 4a). This is surely one of the most moving images in scripture. The connection to the former things passing away (verse 4b) is crucial here. The promise is not only that God will wipe away any tears that might happen to linger on our cheeks after that Last Day, but that God will reach back through time to wipe away all the pained tears ever shed.
God will not just comfort us and help us to forget the bad things, but God will redeem the whole sorry story of human history. This is part of the deep hope of apocalyptic texts: salvation cannot come for me, in its full sense, as long as the terrible effects of my sins continue to ripple through the world. Because of this, “individual salvation” is an oxymoron at best, and perhaps heresy at worst. The promise here is that the chain reaction of human sin will be ended, and all the tears will be wiped away. The tears that God must wipe away are not only the tears we shed, but also the tears we cause.
We do not create this new heaven and earth; the New Jerusalem comes down from God, and thus comes only as a gift. We can discern its outline already in the gospel of Jesus, crucified, and risen. Because God is with us already — in the proclamation of the Gospel, at the table of our Lord, and in the Spirit filling the church — we are witnesses to that coming new city, with our words and with our lives. We carry gracious hints of its coming when we live out costly love for one another (John 13), and when we practice startling welcome to those otherwise left outside (Acts 11).