God’s Blessing to the Church
In the “new heaven” and “new earth,” God will give the blessing of his presence to all those who have faithfully followed the Lamb despite the hardship this has entailed (Rev. 21:1–8; cf. Isa. 65:17; 66:22).
John’s description of this new universe recalls the accounts of creation and of life in the garden in Genesis 1–3, where God spoke directly with the first man and woman (Gen. 2:16–17; Gen. 3:9–19), walked among them (Gen. 3:8), and provided for their every need (Gen. 2:9, 16, 18–25; Gen. 3:21).1 The most important blessing of the church’s new existence will be its similar experience of the immediate, palpable presence of God. John communicates this reality by describing the new creation in a kaleidoscope of three images: a city, a bride, and God’s “dwelling,” the temple:
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. I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.
Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. (Rev. 21:1–3 CSB)
In this addition to the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, Frank Thielman traces the theme of the new creation through Scripture, from God’s promise in Genesis to redeem the world to the culmination of this promise in the book of Revelation.
First, John describes the life of God’s people in the new creation as life in a city. It is “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2 CSB). In stark contrast to the wicked city of Rome, which John has a little earlier compared to the great and evil city Babylon in Israel’s Scriptures (Rev. 17:5, 9; Rev. 18:2, 10, 21; cf. Isa. 13:19; Isa. 14:3–23; Isa. 21:9), this new city is holy. Like the biblical Jerusalem, moreover, it is the place of the temple, the symbol of God’s presence.2
A few sentences later, John describes this city as “having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal” (Rev. 21:11). This description recalls John’s much earlier account of God himself, seated on his heavenly throne and having “the appearance of jasper and carnelian,” surrounded by “a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald,” with a “sea of glass, like crystal” stretched out before him (Rev. 4:3, 6). It also recalls the Lord’s promise in Isaiah to make a “covenant of peace” with his people and to restore their fortunes so fully that he would lay the foundations of their society with “lapis lazuli” and would make “their battlements of jasper,” their “gates of crystal stones,” and their “enclosure of precious stones” (Isa. 54:11–12 NETS). This city, then, will be a place of God’s presence and therefore a place of both beauty and peace.
John also describes the city in a way that emphasizes the number twelve. Its high wall has twelve gates, with twelve angels stationed at each gate and the names of the twelve tribes of Israel inscribed on the gates. The city has four sides with three gates each, and each side is oriented to a point of the compass. It has twelve foundations, and on them are inscribed “the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:12–14). The number twelve symbolizes God’s people through all history, and the four cardinal directions (Rev. 21:13) perhaps hint that the new creation will reach across the world and include people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9; cf. Rev. 7:9; Rev. 21:24; Rev. 22:2).
All this imagery combines to communicate that the new creation will be a place in which God himself lives with his people in a beautiful, multiethnic, and peaceful environment. This environment is reminiscent of the garden in Eden, but it is also an urban environment, perhaps because the number of God’s people assembled down through history is so great.
Second, John describes the experience of God’s people in the new creation as a bride dressed for her wedding day (Rev. 21:2, 9; cf. Rev. 19:7). At first, it may seem odd and abrupt to jump from the image of a city to the image of a bride to describe God’s presence with his people. Cities, however, were often pictured as women in the cultural context in which John lived.3 The goddess Roma, the personification of Rome, for example, could appear in artwork of the period as an elegantly dressed woman with her right arm curled around a spear and a sword on her left hip, seated next to the Emperor Augustus, and surrounded by symbols of an idyllic world of peace and plenty.4John knew that a message like this was nothing but propaganda. Rome had established its dominance in the world through violence, oppression, and injustice, and it continued to use these means to maintain a life of luxury for the few powerful and wealthy people in its empire. John’s feisty counterimage proposes that “Roma” is actually “the great prostitute” (17:1), who uses her power to serve her own, selfish interests.5
He then contrasts her with the beautiful and pure people of God as the bride of the Lamb. The contrast becomes clear in the almost identical way that John introduces his picture of the two city-women. Rome and the new Jerusalem both come into the narrative through “one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls,” and that angel introduces each city-woman in similar but contrasting terms. “Come,” he says to John in Revelation 17:1, “I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute,” and then in Revelation 21:9, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb” (cf. Rev. 19:7).6John envisions a future in which God’s people constitute a new and beautiful “bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2), and her husband is Jesus himself.
In the “new heaven” and “new earth,” God will give the blessing of his presence to all those who have faithfully followed the Lamb despite the hardship this has entailed.
Unlike Paul in Ephesians, John does not quote from or even allude to the Genesis narrative of the first marriage (Gen. 2:18–25). From a theological perspective, however, it is a short step from what John does say to the conclusion that in the new creation Christ’s preparation of the church as a bride “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Eph. 5:27) finds its fulfillment. If that is so, then the profound mystery of marriage that Paul describes in Ephesians 5:31 with a quotation from Genesis 2:24 also finds its ultimate meaning in the presence of God with his people in the new heavens and the new earth.
Third, John describes the life of God’s people in God’s presence using the imagery of the tabernacle and temple, the structures that symbolized God’s presence with Israel. In the ancient Greek edition of Exodus, an edition John knew, the term for the tabernacle from Exodus 25 forward is precisely the same term that John uses for God’s future “dwelling” in the new creation:
Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. (Rev. 21:3 CSB)
The Hebrew word that lies beneath this term also appears in the climactic blessing God gives to those who keep his commandments in Leviticus 26:11–12:
I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God and you shall be my people.
John not only recalls this blessing in Leviticus, but he broadens it so that it applies beyond the “people” of Israel to “humanity” generally, made up of various “peoples.”
The prophet Ezekiel had already described the worldwide effect of Leviticus 26:11–12 when he recalled it in connection with “the covenant of peace” that God would eventually establish with Israel through a great shepherd-king like David:
David my servant shall be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore. (Ezek. 37:25–28)6
A few decades later, Zechariah looked forward to a day when God would “dwell” in the “midst” of his people and to a time when “many nations” would “join themselves to the Lord” (Zech. 2:11).
John probably alludes to all these prophecies, and behind them all stands the vision of a time before and shortly after God’s first creatures rebelled against him, when God spoke with them directly, walked in their midst, and made clothing for them (Gen. 2:15–17; 3:8–21). In the garden, God’s presence was so palpable that there was no need for a temple, or, to put it another way, the whole garden was a temple. In the same way, John imagines the new creation as a city that has no temple (Rev. 21:22) but is itself a temple. Its cubic shape imitates the cubic shape of the temple’s most holy place, the place most symbolic of God’s presence (Rev. 21:15–16; cf. 1 Kings 6:20), and the jasper, emerald, carnelian, and gold that beautifully adorn its features are reminiscent not only of the appearance of God in John’s vision (Rev. 4:2–3) but also of the garden in Eden, which was located in a place rich with precious minerals and metals (Gen. 2:11–12; Ezek. 28:13).7
As John concludes his vision of the heavenly temple-city in Revelation 22:1–5, references to the garden become more explicit. “The river of the water of life” (22:1) that flows from the throne of God and the Lamb is reminiscent of the river that “flowed out of Eden to water the garden” (Gen. 2:10). “The tree of life” that grows “on either side of the river” (Rev. 22:2) clearly recalls “the tree of life . . . in the midst of the garden” (Gen. 2:9). This tree, John says, will yield twelve kinds of fruit and will yield that fruit every month. Just as in the garden of Eden, God will supply all the needs of his people, and since the tree of life conferred immortality in the garden (Gen. 3:22), its presence here is a reminder that God will take care of his people forever. As John says in Revelation 21:4, God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (cf. Isa. 25:6–8).
The new creation, then, will be the home of the “great multitude that no one [can] number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9; cf. 5:9; 22:2), who have followed the Lamb through the ages since the time of Adam. Their fellowship with God will be fully restored, never to be broken again. “They will see his face” (Rev. 22:4) and will live forever within the world as God created it to be.
- Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, New Testament Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 140.
- Bauckham, Revelation, 126–32.
- See the mid-first-century Gemma Augustea in Vienna’s Kunsthistorische Museum. A photograph of this intricately carved cameo appears in Roger Ling, “Roman Art and Architecture,” in Jones and Sidwell, World of Rome, 307.
- Bauckham, Revelation, 126.
- Henry Barclay Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John, 3rd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1911), 283.
- G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 1046–47.
- Bauckham, Revelation, 133-34.
This article is adapted from The New Creation and the Storyline of Scripture by Frank Thielman.
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